- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. The Black Dog company, whose silhouetted symbol has been the mascot of Martha's Vineyard for three decades, is suddenly the black sheep of this island resort.
Over the past year, since the founder's son took control, the $13 million restaurant and T-shirt conglomerate has suffered a serious drop in sales and an even steeper decline in its local reputation.
The forced exit of the longtime manager, the layoffs of half the year-round work force and the three-month winter closure of the flagship tavern were enough to rattle the island's fragile seasonal economy.
But it was the new management's decision to save money by having the well-known Black Dog T-shirt a quintessentially island product made and marketed by off-island companies that ignited a local mutiny.
"It's a whole different Black Dog now," said Barry Rosenthal, a local businessman. "Over the years, they have been an exemplary neighbor and citizen. That's why everyone's so disturbed by what's happened."
Hatched as a humble harborside chowder house in 1971, the Black Dog grew into an international entrepreneurial success based on the popularity of its simple Labrador icon and its close association with the Massachusetts resort.
Changes made by the owner's son, who returned from a life of piloting and competitive windsurfing to take over the family business, has Vineyard residents riled up.
"It's the talk of the town," said Mary Rentschler, whose design company was a victim of Black Dog's downsizing. "We feel a lot of injured souls walking around."
The shake-up also has led to a $1 million lawsuit filed by Joseph Hall, former manager of more than 21 years and shaken a community that had grown dependent on Black Dog.
"We've been hit hard," said Valerie Richards, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. "You can always expect winter to be harder, but we're carrying a little extra baggage this year."
Robert Douglas Jr., who became the chief executive officer in February 2001, attributes the uproar to the island's resistance to change and penchant for gossip.
"With a new CEO in place, it brings different philosophies, but it will only lead to a stronger company," said Mr. Douglas, oldest of founder Robert Douglas Sr.'s four sons. "Everyone has been given a chance, including vendors and employees."
The 30-year-old Mr. Douglas says the moves were necessary to control expenses now that the economy has soured and the Black Dog phenomenon might be slowing. Last summer, sales were $2 million below budget.
"It's lost a little bit of its zing," he said. "Anything that becomes very popular runs the risk of becoming too commercialized, of losing its uniqueness."
To fortify the company, Mr. Douglas hired a chief financial officer and enlisted the help of two of his brothers to oversee Black Dog's retail operations and one of its bakeries. Plans for the future include diversifying Black Dog products, marketing the company more energetically and returning greater emphasis to the restaurant side of the business.
"I want the customer to imagine kind of a brand-new company," Mr. Douglas said. "But it will remain an island company with island employees."
In 1971, Robert Douglas Sr. decided to name his small, new venture after his beloved Labrador-boxer, called simply Black Dog.
The first of the famed T-shirts emerged in the early 1980s as a uniform for waiters. A few were stashed below the bakery counter to sell to interested customers. Soon an incredibly successful product line was born.
The Black Dog evolved into an "empire known worldwide for its namesake T-shirt," said Andrew Rohm, assistant professor of marketing at Northeastern University.
Martha's Vineyard became a company town. In addition to the tavern, Black Dog opened several bakeries and retail outlets. At its height, the company directly employed 150 more than any other commercial business on the island and hired other Vineyard companies to design catalogs, manufacture the shirts and provide fresh fish to the restaurants.
The Black Dog logo quickly seeped into pop culture, even making an appearance on the list of gifts that President Clinton, a frequent summer visitor, gave to Monica Lewinsky.
The company has always had a close but complex relationship with its neighbors. But that began changing in February 2001, when Mr. Douglas took over for Mr. Hall.
Mr. Douglas blames Mr. Hall's departure on a difference in philosophy. Mr. Hall calls it a breach of contract and filed a suit in October, claiming he is entitled to more than $1 million in compensation.
"As a reward for his 22 years of devotion to the Douglas family and the Black Dog, Mr. Hall was presented with an ultimatum take a 45 percent pay cut and allow Mr. Douglas' son to eventually assume responsibility for the management of the business or be terminated," the lawsuit states.
Soon after Mr. Hall left, Mr. Douglas fired Kolodny & Rentschler, a local design firm that produced the company's catalogs and cookbook, placed its advertisements, and packaged its products.
"We were trying to grow something," said Carol Kolodny, who worked on Black Dog's first T-shirt. "Many people felt that way and that's part of the tragedy."
Last summer, the Black Dog, like many other island concerns, saw business fall amid the recession and the absence of the Clinton entourage, which drove sales for three summers.
Layoffs followed, as did the decisions to temporarily shut down the year-round tavern and fire the local company that made its T-shirts for 20 years.
"People were surprised because Black Dog had a reputation for buying locally and supporting island businesses," said Marianne Neill, owner of Marianne's Screenprinting, which grossed about $1.5 million each year printing Black Dog products.
Mr. Douglas is asking critics to withhold their judgment.
"Let me operate for a summertime and then it won't be a bunch of words," he said.


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