When former Zale Corp. CEO Theo Killion shared his leadership lessons of turning around Zales at a recent NACD TriCities Chapter program in Austin, Texas, it jogged some childhood retail memories for me.
Growing up in the 1960’s, my small hometown of Marshville, North Carolina, boasted a thriving town square of mom-and-pop stores. Because my family’s home was a hop, skip and a jump from these businesses, they became my playground. I was their frequent visitor, and with those visits came benefits. For example:
- Remember when white go-go boots were all the rage? Mr. Gaddy, who owned the shoe store, made sure my sister and I scored pairs from his first shipment.
- As a child, I received a personal call from Mr. Creech, the toy store owner, when his long-awaited skateboards arrived.
- One spring, I stood with other locals as the Chrysler dealer eagerly removed the drop cloths revealing that year’s beautiful new big-fended models. (The fact the dealership offered up lots of free doughnuts, coffee, and soft drinks didn’t hurt either.)
I was rapt throughout the program as Melissa Fruge interviewed Killion, a modern-day version of my favorite childhood shop-owners, but on a grander scale.
Zales was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2004. Something had to be done. The bold and unvarnished self-assessment undertaken by the company’s senior leadership uncovered the business’s truths. These revelations, combined with sheer perseverance not to fail, brought the national jeweler back from the edge.
Here are some of my top take-aways from Killion about what executives and boards should do to turn around a struggling business:
1. Stay humble. Killion prefaced his remarks by stating that they were his opinion, and that many of the tenets he spoke about originated from great thought leaders. A mark of a strong leader is his or her ability to acknowledge with humility the admired ideas of others.
2. Interim in any title keeps you focused. By the time Killion took the reigns, Zale Corp. had had six CEOs in 10 years. When Killion’s best friend was fired as CEO, the board needed a quick fill. Killion was named interim CEO—leaving him keenly aware that he was considered temporary. He entered the role ready to make the most of the time he had.
3. Follow the money. Zales had six short months before its cash ran out. The company was in desperate need of an equity infusion. From day one, Killion and his finance team were reaching out to possible providers.
4. Dig deep for insight. Over a three-month period, Killion and his two-member strategy team worked 12- and 14-hour days, including weekends, to put a decade of operational decisions under a microscope. They carefully ferreted out what worked, what didn’t work, and why. They then presented these findings to the board. Killion observed and reported that management’s bad decisions were made on the board’s watch. He wanted the board to feel the same deep discomfort that the executive leadership team was feeling.
5. Detail the new strategy. Zales’ new strategy document totaled 150 pages and spelled out in clear, concise details what the company would do going forward—and why. For example, severe cost cutting had reduced the customers’ experience of buying an engagement ring into a commodity. Consider, for instance, that the customer left the store with the ring—which often times is one of the most meaningful, expensive jewelry purchases a person will make—in a plastic bag.
The new strategy brought customer emotion and meaning back to a purchase at Zales. The purchase process was no longer treated as a transaction, and store training ensued to make it a well-crafted, loving, and memorable customer experience.
6. Flip the pyramid. Before Killion stepped in, the leadership philosophy of the company placed management at the top of the pyramid. The pyramid was inverted and a customer-focused culture was born. It looked like this:
- Top tier: customers of Zales’ 1,100 stores;
- Middle tier: 12,000 employees; and
- Bottom tier: corporate management.
7. Think like Jeff Bezos. Bezos has built Amazon.com to be customer-obsessed, keen on technology and analytics, and is always testing new concepts. Killion sees this as a road-map for any retailer succeeding today.
8. The nominating and governance committee is key to matching strategy to board composition. Killion pointed out that Zales needed board directors with skill sets that matched the company’s five-year plan. Retail expertise was a must, and the nominating and governance committee needed to ensure its goals matched those needs. This committee must ask itself what skill sets the business needs. In retail today, Killion advises, a board member with deep literacy in e-commerce is essential.
9. Apply lessons from Vanguard’s 2017 Open Letter. Killion admires Vanguard CEO F. William McNabb’s open letter to public company boards of directors. Vanguard has 20 million investors, and currently is the second largest fund manager in the world. McNabb is keenly aware of the responsibility boards play in the success of the companies that the fund invests in. Here are the highlights of McNabb’s message to directors that especially resounded with Killion:
- Sell quality things.
- Practice good governance.
- Pay close attention to the compensation program crafted for senior management.
- Understand the company’s risks, and especially the role of climate risks.
- Inclusion of women and other directors from diverse backgrounds on boards is important.
10. Brick-and-mortar retail is not dying. Instead, Killion believes retail is entering its golden age partly because of the many ways today’s retailer can reach a customer and make a sale.
The program is available to view via NACD Texas TriCities Chapter’s YouTube channel. It’s a meaty discussion and well worth your viewing time.
By the way, to this day I’m a recreational bargain shopper. Simply walking into a favorite store lifts my spirits, and I’m glad that Killion and the directors of companies are working to help the retail industry thrive in the twenty-first century marketplace.