This is the first in a series of firsthand views from industry leaders on the retail landscape, careers, personal insights, and the future of retail.
How did you get into the business?
Executives at VF Corporation, CEO Larry Pugh and COO Rob Gregory, decided to take a chance on an individual (me) with extensive experience in Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) but only limited experience in soft goods. During the years at Liz Claiborne, many observers took note of my CPG experience. Very few, however, credited the success we were able to enjoy to these foundational experiences at VF.
Who has been your greatest influence/mentor?
I have been fortunate enough to have had many active mentors and more than a few particularly positive relationships. These include my father, my high school English teacher (Brother DePaul CFX), my first commanding officer in the Navy (Captain Jack W. Bennett), and a P&G executive, Charlie Ferguson. I was also fortunate enough to have two experienced and highly respected lead directors during the early years at Liz Claiborne, Lee Abraham and Jim Gordon. I am in the debt to all these men.
What is your greatest source of inspiration, or where do you get your best ideas?
I have always been stimulated by the best practice approaches of great companies, generally outside the fashion and retail industries. These include General Electric and Procter & Gamble. Companies like these are true academies and innovation centers in the areas of strategy, management and consumer understanding. The opportunity to reflect on how these great companies build competitive advantage is always a source of inspiration.
What is your favorite place to shop? Why?
I particularly appreciate Whole Foods because of the way they celebrate the product. You also rarely have a bad customer experience in a Whole Foods store. I also admire Costco. Their price/value equation represents a real saving opportunity, especially for larger families.
Over the last five years what has been the biggest change in the industry?
The speed with which information flows. This creates both opportunities and challenges for CEOs and management teams today.
What do you think will change the most in the next five years?
Probably the speed with which information flows. The ability to turn this potential “risk” into an “opportunity” will be a central element for those companies which are especially successful during the next 10 years. I continue to believe that many large retail enterprises are not dedicating sufficient time and energy to optimize the management of their information flow. This goes well beyond passing out iPads to sales people and spending on social media. Too many companies use “legacy,” even manual approaches, in running their business. This is not a prescription for success.
What books are you reading?
Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, the story of deep wreck divers and their search for the identity of a German U-boat sunk in 1945 off the coast of New Jersey. I am also fascinated by anything written on the history of the US Navy in WWII.
What’s your favorite leisure activity?
Family time, of course.
What lessons have you learned from elsewhere in your life that you can apply to retail?
Frankly, just about every life lesson, from whatever source, may be applied to the business of retail. It has always amazed me that most retailers and fashion executives consider that their world and the challenges they face are somehow unique. Retail is a business like any other business. The challenge is to create a better product or service, determine why this product or service should be preferred by the target consumer, and then communicate this basis for preference in a compelling way. This requires thoughtful review and consistent execution; and it is not easy to do. But it is not rocket science either. Lessons learned in other settings, in other industries and at other times can be particularly relevant.
My view is that this industry has often suffered from a high degree of parochialism. Even leaders of successful companies need to challenge their assumptions – and change them up based on an evolving environment or the green shoots of new learning. Too many are prisoners of their own success.