Needing a Fast Buck, Jan Stuart Starves to Save His Shaky Firm

updated 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Some businessmen woo potential investors with power breakfasts, three-martini lunches or dazzling dinners. Jan Stuart opted for a different approach. On the brink of financial collapse, the CEO and founder of the Jan Stuart Skin Care Company decided that a hunger strike was the quickest way to beef up the bottom line.

And so, on Oct. 24, the would-be Cesar Chavez of men's cosmetics donned his best dress-for-success duds, parked his $600-a-week rented Winnebago across the way from the New York Stock Exchange, and there began his crusade. Like a man used to the fast lane, Stuart, 34, glad-handed passers-by and described his plight, hoping that out there somewhere, anywhere, a gracious investor would toss in some of the $10 million to $15 million he estimates it would take to give his company a successful face-lift. "A lot of people think I'm crazy and selfish," says Stuart, methodically stroking his manicured beard. "But I have no choice. My business is my life. I don't know anything else. I believe in my products, and I believe in what I'm doing."

Three weeks into his fast, Stuart had dropped 18 lbs. from his 5'9", 187-lb. frame. He drinks some fruit juice and a gallon of water a day. Several off-duty nurses volunteered to monitor his condition, checking his blood pressure regularly. Active at first, the weakened Stuart has rarely ventured outside since the first two weeks. That hasn't deterred Donald Trump and hundreds of Wall Streeters from poking their heads into the Winnebago for a chat.

The fashionable faster is drawing mixed ratings on the Street. "I'll be damned, what happened to Jan Stuart?" asks a sympathetic Mark Stewart, a portfolio manager. "I did business with Jan a few years ago, and he was doing really well. I'm surprised to see this." Others are outraged. "Who does he think he is, the Mahatma Gandhi of financing?" one man demands. "I'd never give him money. He has reached new heights in corporate begging." As of Nov. 15, no angels had stepped forward.

How did Stuart manage to fall so squarely on his face? In 1986 his company was among the crème de la creme of the men's skin-care industry, bringing in $8 million with sales of such natural-ingredient products as shaving creams and moisturizers. During its heyday, 2,000 stores carried the Jan Stuart line. Then, in an attempt to take the company public, Stuart had some bad breaks: two failed financing deals and last fall's stock market crash.

Stuart tried to secure loans. "I went to the Small Business Administration and was asked, 'What kind of collateral do you have?' " he reports. "And I said, 'If I had collateral, I wouldn't be here.' " He also discussed his dilemma with venture capitalists. "They told me, 'Jan, I'm doing billion-dollar deals. Investing a couple million in you would make me look bad.' It's sad. It's all part of what I call corporate constipation."

Facing Chapter 11, Stuart ran a full-page New York Times ad in August detailing his plight. Although, according to Stuart, the ad brought in some 2,000 encouraging responses, it didn't generate any financing.

Stuart doesn't want to be bought out, and he would prefer not to file for bankruptcy. "Reorganization means I've given up," he says. "I won't do that. I want to pay back my debts. That's the way my parents raised me."

Stuart grew up in Brooklyn, where his father is a restaurateur and his mother an account controller. As a child he wanted to be an oceanographer, but that notion took a dive after he backpacked around Europe and became interested in the fashion industry. After earning a business degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1975, Stuart landed jobs in the garment district and in advertising. Then 25, he collaborated with a nutritionist friend to develop men's skin-care products. Using the Yellow Pages to find manufacturers, he peddled his products and, since he had no capital, was routinely turned down. He moved to a $31-a-week room in a Manhattan YMHA, kept plugging and supplemented his $2,000 in savings with $50,000 borrowed from friends. By 1982 Stuart had made enough money to upgrade to his own apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He recently moved to a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, where he lives by himself.

When Stuart will be back in New Jersey is uncertain. "If I can't get help, I don't know what I'll do. I guess I'll get sick and be rushed to the hospital. After that, I just don't know."

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