In a dimly lit private dining room at the Redeye Grill in Manhattan, four board members of American Apparel and their lawyer plotted out their next 24 hours over steaks and red wine.
It was time; they had gathered there in conclusion, aiming to fire the company’s founder and chief executive, Dov Charney, whose flamboyant leadership under mounting legal and financial setbacks had finally snapped the close bond with his handpicked board.
But executing his dismissal would require a bit of staging, a bit of role-playing among the board members, who envisioned various situations that could unfold once they approached Mr. Charney with the intention of ousting him.
The small, intimate group — two board members were absent, along with Mr. Charney — braced for a bruising, explosive fight with the man who was about to lose the company he had devoted his life to since founding it in 1998. And there seems little doubt that strategies for dealing with the public fallout weighed on the board members’ minds. Allan Mayer, a board member, was a co-author of a book on public relations called “Spin: How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage.”
That Tuesday night, June 17, Mr. Mayer, who has become the board’s co-chairman since Mr. Charney’s firing, agreed to lead the showdown the following day at 4 Times Square.
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But despite all the dinnertime planning, the gang of five could hardly have anticipated that the next day’s scheduled board meeting would be so contentious that it would last more than nine hours.
To the outside world, and certainly to some investors, the board’s decision to remove Mr. Charney was overdue. He had been running a company steeped in lurid intrigue for years, promoting and fostering a hypersexual playground — for selling clothes and for what others claimed were illicit, sometimes illegal, pursuits.
“We were well aware when we did this that the first question most people would ask was, ‘What took you so long?’ ” Mr. Mayer said.
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Interviews with nearly a dozen current and former high-level company insiders depict a recent cascade of events that essentially forced the hand of a traditionally sympathetic board. Mr. Charney’s coarse behavior was well known, and apparently tolerated, as evidenced by how unscathed he remained despite a parade of harassment lawsuits that trailed him for years.
But the company’s financial situation had grown precarious: Interest rates on some loans had shot up to as high as 20 percent, last year the retailer posted a loss of $106 million, and the stock price had plummeted to a low of 47 cents a share this spring from $15 in 2007.
And Mr. Charney had become more vulnerable — in a scramble for cash to shore up the retailer’s finances, a stock dilution reduced his stake in the company to 27 percent from 45 percent.
John C. Coffee Jr., an expert on corporate governance at Columbia University, suggested that the board might have been patient with Mr. Charney until the company’s fortunes were sagging.
“The combination of being a virtual outlaw and losing money is not a combination which you can persist with for long,” Mr. Coffee said.
“I think your margin for error shrinks once you begin to lose money, and you have all your constituencies concerned about the future. It’s realpolitik.”
Others argued that a decade’s worth of lawsuits accusing Mr. Charney of sexual harassment and discrimination should have provided the board with enough ammunition, even though he and his lawyers have steadfastly maintained that the accusations were unfounded and that he was a deep-pocketed target for litigation.
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Arbitration hearings, unlike trials, are usually closed, and any filings are more likely to be sealed, often enabling defendants to avoid embarrassment and maintain their powerful positions.
“Employers like arbitration so much because it’s a black box — nothing gets out,” said Anne Golden, a New York lawyer who has represented many women in harassment and discrimination cases.
Mr. Charney and his lawyers were also vigorous in pushing for settlements, with the terms hardly ever being made public because of his insistence on nondisclosure.
For example, his lawyers offered $1.3 million to settle a claim for sexual harassment and wrongful termination brought by Mary Nelson, a former sales manager.
The settlement deal fell apart when Ms. Nelson and her lawyer rejected various provisions, including nondisclosure of the $1.3 million and permission for the company and Mr. Charney to publicize that an arbitrator had found them blameless.
A person familiar with the board’s deliberations said that a profusion of settlements — and the fact that many of the people who sued Mr. Charney had also waived their right to claims against the company — resulted in very little in the way of established legal fact.
That all changed this spring.
According to a person with knowledge of the board’s deliberations, in March, board members received an update on the company’s legal proceedings that contained an unusual tidbit: a ruling.
An arbitrator had found Mr. Charney guilty of defamation for failing to stop the publication of naked photographs of a former employee, Irene Morales, who had sued him for sexual harassment. But the arbitrator ruled against her on the original harassment claims, according to the person familiar with the proceedings. Ms. Morales was eventually awarded about $700,000.
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In May, new information emerged about another long-running lawsuit, brought by Michael Bumblis, a former American Apparel store manager in Malibu, Calif., who said that Mr. Charney called him a homophobic slur and assaulted him by choking him and rubbing dirt in his face because Mr. Charney was displeased by the store’s condition. Mr. Mayer has said the decision to fire Mr. Charney was based on his conduct, not the company’s performance, which has improved.
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But even though first-quarter earnings showed a narrowing of company losses, to $5.5 million, down from $46.5 million a year before, the retailer’s circle of support continued to shrink.
For years, Mr. Charney’s reputation made lenders skittish about working with his company, and some refused outright. Many observers and former insiders have questioned how the business could possibly generate enough cash to sustain its interest payments with the rates so high.
Yet another layer of anxiety inside the company stemmed from Mr. Charney’s management style. Current and former executives described him as relentlessly controlling and pointed to a power vacuum growing in the retailer’s upper ranks.
Analysts said the company had developed a reputation as a place where talented people did not want to work. And during the past year, Mr. Charney forced out important company executives, including the general counsel, Glenn A. Weinman. A company with about 10,000 employees was left with only one lawyer in the United States.
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People with knowledge of the company’s operations have said that even if the board had possessed sufficient evidence to fire Mr. Charney years ago, it did not have the appetite to remove the company’s driving creative force. Few if any board members had experience in retailing or major public companies, things that helped enable Mr. Charney to keep them at a distance and to keep board meetings infrequent.
Mr. Charney has said that he intends to fight to regain his position. Analysts say his options include linking up with investors to buy a large stake in the company that would supplement his 27 percent.
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