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Blog PostsKey Retail Talent Executives Evolution – What made them Great and How Can Retailers Benefit?

Key Retail Talent Executives Evolution – What made them Great and How Can Retailers Benefit?

By Gail E. Amsterdam, Founder, CEO, and Chief Talent Curator, Amsterdam Associates

As we prepare to transition into 2024, we thought it would be compelling to look through the past at some of the Retail Titans who shaped the industry and what were some of their most striking legacies.  History has always informed the present and the past, so why not look here at how retail can apply their insights to have a bang-up year ahead.

The retail icons who shaped the landscape over the past 40 years have coined sage messages to influence the success of today’s retailer.  A few of the great ones with their own special wisdom inform us how they really changed the industry. Although this list isn’t comprehensive, each leader provides a unique perspective into what the future could hold: 

Millard “Mickey” Drexler – Former CEO of The Gap and J. Crew, formerly Abraham & Strauss, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Ann Taylor – “What matters is hard work and intelligence.”

Mike Jeffries – Former CEO of A&F, formerly Abraham & Strauss, Federated, Macy’s, Bullock’s – “How does a store look? How does it feel? How does it smell? That’s what I’m obsessed with.”

Les Wexner – Founder and former CEO of The Limited – “As an entrepreneur, you work out solutions.”

Mindy Grossman  Partner, Consello Group- Former CEO – WW, formerly, HSN, NIKE, Ralph Lauren – “The model of getting the consumer to come to you is old, and the new model is how can you get to the consumer on their terms, in ways they want to engage in. How people are choosing to interface with content is very different. You’ve got to marry different platforms.”

Sam Walton – Founder and former CEO of Walmart – “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” 

Neil Blumenthal – Founder and CEO of Warby Parker, formerly McKinsey – “The key to an ideal workplace, in one hyphenated word, is this: self-awareness.”

Kevin Plank – Former founder and CEO of Under Armour, former founder of Body Armor –  “At some point in your life, you’ll find yourself in a similar position: Surrounded by people who are smarter, faster, who have more experience and more money – and you’ll just have to find a way. And you’ll have to do it with passion.”

Jeff Bezos – Amazon – “If you do build a great experience, customers tell each other about that. Word of mouth is very powerful.”

Ralph Lauren – Founder and former CEO of Polo/Ralph Lauren – “My philosophy has always been that I can sell chinos and T-shirts and $5,000 gowns – they just have to be the best of what they are.” 

Terry Lundgren – Former CEO of Macy’s/Federated, formerly Neiman Marcus – “I would like to be remembered as a business leader who helped a good company become a great company by instilling a culture of customer focus, continuous improvement and innovation, which has created thousands of jobs, developed outstanding talent and stimulated economic opportunity for Americans from coast to coast.”

Stanley Marcus – Neiman Marcus – “As goods become more standardized – and mass production has that effect, standardizing product – the distinguishing factor between one store and another is going to be how skillful stores are in satisfying customers and making it a pleasant experience instead of a hostile experience.”

Blake Nordstrom – Former President of Nordstrom – “We want all employees to feel as though it’s their name on the door and that they are empowered to do whatever it takes to serve the customer on their terms. Our open-door policy is connected to the idea that we all have a stake in this together. It’s up to each of us to play our role in delivering the best experience for the customer.”

Retail has had an incredible evolution during the tenure of these leaders.  With the demise of department stores whether Sear’s, Lord & Taylor’s, Gimbel’s, Barney’s, Wanamaker’s, Mervyn’s, Ames, Bonwit Teller’s, Best & Company, Ward’s, John Wannamaker’s, Service Merchandise, or Korvette’s to name but a few, the landscape in retail has dramatically shifted from department stores to specialty to online, to omni, to DTC to whatever it will be in the future, which is always being considered?

What we do know hasn’t changed though! The customer still desires merchandise from retailers that they love.  That’s how we know that retail is here to stay.  It’s for the retailer to determine the optimal way to offer that product to the consumer in today’s market, whatever the channel, to fashion it and provide it to them in a manner that enables them to access it quickly. That can’t be done in a vacuum though. The operational side of the business and the merchandise side needs to be married to the leadership side as conveyed by these top retail figures. Along with their keen leadership points, the following top ten C-Suite Leadership qualities profiles some of the key critical executive talents needed to ensure retailers success in today’s fast changing market:

1. Known for being decisive, but flexible.

2. High EQ; understands the retail culture and people capability on multiple levels.

3. Understands people and organizational structure, is viewed as a strong leader who partners with all levels in the business.

4. Develops Key Roadmaps and manages Financial and Strategic KPI’s, foresees trends for the Retailer.

5. Creates bench strength and pivots quickly.  Has well developed networks and resources.

6. Strong understanding of merchandising and product categories.

7. Advances with technology and data insight driven capabilities including using business intelligence tools including AI, EDW, and cloud advancements.

8. Levelheaded disposition with a sense of humor.

9. Continually delivers strong results, adjusting to market changes.

10. Strong communication and interpersonal skills, while always remaining approachable.

To knock it out of the park in 2024, retailers would be wise to strongly consider the words and top 10 C-Suite Leadership qualities of each of these talented retail figures. Together, this incorporates the best and the brightest pearls of wisdom to launch a successful Roadmap for retailers next year.  

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