Ex-Urban Outfitters CEO talks about his new private equity plans

April 9, 2014, 8:57 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Two months after stepping down as CEO of luxury jeweler David Yurman, Glen Senk is back with a new effort to invest in growing retail and consumer companies. It’s called Front Row Partners, and is backed by $350 million from private equity firm Berkshire Partners.

Senk is a longtime retail and consumer veteran. Prior to joining  David Yurman in early 2012, he had spent nearly two decades at Urban Outfitters (URBN) — the final five of which he served as CEO. He also held positions at such companies as Williams-Sonoma (WSM) and Bloomingdale’s, and has served on such boards as Melissa & Doug, Bare Escentuals, Cooking.com and Tory Burch. In 2010, we here at Fortune named him one of the year’s Top 50 Businesspeople.

So we spent some time on the phone with Senk to discuss his plans for Front Row. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:

Fortune:  You’ve been an operating guy for your whole career. Why make a move into professional investing?

Senk: I’m viewing this as more than just investing. I’m really viewing this as providing support, mentorship and guidance to a group of people who I hope will be focused on what’s next in the consumer space. When I think back at the work that I did, or at my outside board affiliations, the most exciting times of my career were when I got to work with highly-creative people who challenged the status quo. Like the group of people who built Anthropologie, or Leslie Blodgett at Bare Escentuals or Tory Burch at Tory Burch. My dream is to find the next group of these people. I’ve always loved teaching, and even given a few lectures, and in a way this is an extension of that.

Why not just join a private equity firm?

Rather than participate in an auction market, I hope to use my years in the industry and my relationships to change the model a bit. I’ve had the good luck and fortune to take a couple of businesses from virtually nothing and help turn them into large and impactful organizations. Plus I’ve also sat on the sidelines with people like Tory. When I speak with an entrepreneur who’s running a $25 million or $50 million revenue business, I can have a different conversation with them than a traditional private equity investor can.

What types of companies are you looking at, from a size perspective?

I think that, in a perfect world, we’d have a portfolio of maybe five businesses. Two small ones with revenue of between $25 and $50 million, two medium ones at $50 million to $200 million and one larger one of up to $700 million. But, of course the world’s not perfect so we’ll see. We’re okay with both control and non-control positions, but we are not looking to be a venture capital business.

Might you have interest in companies like Warby Parker, which don’t have physical storefronts nor sell via traditional retail channels?

Absolutely. At Bloomingdale’s I ran Bloomingdale’s By Mail because I was the only merchant in the organization who understood the database. I have an undergrad degree in computer science. At Urban Outfitters, we got into the digital space before most of our competitors. I don’t know where things stand now but, when I left, it was 22% or 23% of the business.

How did you originally connect with Berkshire Partners?

I first met then through Leslie Blodgett. We were on a Women’s Wear Daily panel together 10 or 15 years ago, and she introduced me to people at Berkshire, which was one of her two principal investors. And I eventually ended up joining the the board. Since that time I’ve gotten to know Berkshire better, and served on another one of their boards. They’re smart, curious people with tremendous integrity. I’ve always though to myself that it’s a group I’d love to work with, but never had any set plans. When I left Yurman, the time seemed right. 

We know each other very well and it’s very clear what they bring and what I bring. I know how to run a business and P&L, but don’t know how to do due diligence or structure a deal. Those are things Berkshire is going to be involved with, helping me. And they’ll lean on me in operational and industry areas where I have strentghs.

Is your goal for Front Row portfolio companies to work with one another?

I think that’s up to the organizations. There’s never a one-size-fits-all solution.

Is anyone else working full-time on Front Row?

Right this second it’s just me, but you can assume that with 30 some-odd years in the business I have a substantial network of people who would want to be part of Front Row. My vision is that this ultimately becomes a group of like-minded people.

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