Jet crew's etiquette manual embarrasses Abercrombie & Fitch CEO

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries' management skills are under scrutiny, with discovery of 40-page etiquette manual for private-jet staff

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2012, 3:59am

The male actors and models who worked on Abercrombie & Fitch's Gulfstream jet had crystal-clear rules for serving CEO Michael Jeffries, right down to the sort of underpants to wear.

Clean-shaven males had to wear a uniform of Abercrombie polo shirts, jeans, boxer briefs, flip-flops and a spritz of the retailer's cologne, according to an "Aircraft Standards" manual, disclosed in an age-discrimination lawsuit brought by a former pilot.

Among the 40-plus pages of detailed instructions: black gloves had to be used when handling silverware and white gloves to lay the table, the Phil Collins song Take Me Home had to be played when passengers entered the cabin on return flights and Jeffries' dogs had different seating arrangements based on which ones were travelling.

The embarrassingly detailed document came to light this week at a time when Jeffries' management style is being questioned. Abercrombie's shares have halved in value this past year, and activist investor Ralph Whitworth is pressing for changes at the top, a person familiar with the matter said.

While Jeffries' penchant for detail helped turn Abercrombie into a global brand, the 68-year-old CEO is struggling to reverse sales as shoppers grow weary of the brand's sense of fashion and risqué marketing.

At least one private-equity firm considered the idea of a takeover before walking away over concerns about Jeffries's leadership, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The lawsuit containing the flight manual was filed in 2010 in federal court in Philadelphia by corporate-jet pilot Michael Stephen Bustin, who is now 55 and claims he was fired and replaced by a younger man. Excerpts from depositions and documents filed in court since then highlight the extent of Jeffries' grip on Abercrombie, both personally and through a self-funded family office that's run by his live-in partner, Matthew Smith. Jeffries' focus on a youthful, physically fit, all-American look helped put Abercrombie on the map. But models and actors aren't just limited to advertisements and flagship stores: they surround Jeffries and Smith on the plane and in the home they share in Columbus, Ohio, court documents and former executives said.

Abercrombie pays the salary and travel expenses of four cabin attendants provided by Cosmopolitan Management, an acting and modelling agency, and doesn't directly employ pilots, according to an August 2009 aircraft management agreement with Jet Aviation Business Jets.

Cosmopolitan is a New York company that hires out actors and models "with just the right look and personality" for events and as personal assistants, its website says. Cosmopolitan also provides house staff for Jeffries, Smith said in a June 18 deposition.

The manual includes directions for serving Smith during flights, such as notes on his tea service: Assam tea in the morning and Darjeeling after 2pm. It also includes a primer on how to address the boss and his entourage in flight: "When [someone makes] a request, respond by saying 'No Problem'."

Abercrombie has fought other discrimination lawsuits and paid almost US$50 million to settle three related class-action discrimination lawsuits in 2004.

"We have ... no tolerance for discrimination," Jeffries said in a November 2004 statement. "We decided to settle this suit because we felt that a long, drawn-out dispute would have been harmful to the company."