Chuck Rubin’s Winning Culture at Ulta

The veteran retailer has championed a meritocracy that rewards effort and passion.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 02/08/2013

Chuck Rubin frequently eases into a conversation with good-natured teasing and a laugh. It’s a signature of his leadership style: Disarm with a joke and then push for extraordinary results. As president and chief executive officer of Ulta Beauty, Rubin is determined to bring the retailer’s democratic view of beauty, which seamlessly mixes prestige, mass and salon products under one roof, to more markets. His aim is to more than double Ulta’s current door count of 550 units to 1,200. His can-do operating style and the retailer’s stellar performance have won him accolades from beauty brands and Wall Street analysts alike. Ulta’s third-quarter income gained 42.5 percent to $38.2 million, with sales rising 22.4 percent to $505.6 million. Comparable store sales increased 8.4 percent for the quarter ended Oct. 27. In Rubin’s view, retail is not a 9-to-5 job. It’s a lifestyle— one that this hard-charging, veteran executive makes seem like a whole lot of fun.

This story first appeared in the February 8, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Are leaders born or made?
They are made. It would be a disturbing outcome if we had to believe they are born. Leaders are made through hard work; observation; a willingness to learn, fail, be accountable, speak up and challenge the status quo, and the ability to ask for feedback—as long as all that is done respectably and directly, that’s how leadership manifests itself. Over time, you learn how to do those things and you grow more comfortable doing them. You can do them in a way that can sometimes be uncomfortable in an organization that may not be used to that, but over time they become more used to it.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that I am approachable, challenging, direct and thought-provoking. My own style is very real. There is not a lot of pomp and circumstance. Earlier today I was in a meeting where we talked about something and I didn’t think that we had yet put forth our best effort, so I gave the group some things to think about and I left. The group will chew at that a bit and come up with something better. When I was younger, I used to think I needed to know all the answers. I was afraid to acknowledge when I didn’t know something, or when I made a mistake. Now I realize that I don’t need to know all the answers, I only need to ask the right questions. And then provide encouragement. Sometimes that encouragement is kind of a push from behind and sometimes it’s an outreached hand. But it is always done with a little bit of good humor and a laugh so that people don’t feel diminished in their own ability to make a decision.

You’ve said that companies should be run as a meritocracy. Is the hierarchical model outdated?
A hierarchy is needed. It’s like a bone structure— without your skeleton you would fall apart. But that’s an org chart. The secret sauce is how that comes to life, and how you can work across that organizational structure and pull people into discussions regardless of title or reporting structure. At Ulta, we reach across lines and deep into the organization, top down and bottom up, and have some really good collaborative, direct conversations about what we can do better and congratulate ourselves on what we do well already. People who continue to get invited into those discussions have demonstrated that they have the intellectual capacity, the drive and the passion to contribute. That is meritocracy. That’s how people get a seat at the table, and that’s how they get acknowledged and rewarded. All of our corporate employees are centrally located. Popping into people’s offices to say “hello,” or talk about something going on is something I do regularly. I learn a tremendous amount about what’s going well and what we need to do better from the people who are working very close to the details every day.

What experiences were most formative in the development of your leadership style?
You learn from the good as well as the bad. I have worked for people who I thought were wonderful and others who were not. I’ve learned from people who I’ve worked for and from people I’ve observed. You can’t be good at retail if you don’t observe things that may be out of the scope of what you’re focused on. I spend a lot of time shopping retailers outside of the beauty industry to observe how something is displayed or how they staff the store. The same thing is true of leadership styles. I’ve worked for people who were micromanagers, or very creative, or not creative, and I’ve learned from all of them. You may not always enjoy it, but you can learn from everybody.

What’s your strategic vision for Ulta?
Our focus is to build on what we have done well thus far, which is to provide a place—whether physical or virtual—where a guest can come to try something new. She wants to come and enjoy herself. At the end of that experience, she leaves us feeling better about herself. Our company’s purpose statement is to “inspire beauty everywhere.” One of the nice things about this vision is that we can always get better at it.

How do you see the industry evolving, and what do we need to pay attention to in the year ahead?
There’s still a very healthy pipeline of newness, and that’s very important. The industry is changing from the vendor side, as more consolidation occurs. I hope that the consolidation doesn’t have a negative effect on the creativity or the independence of these previously stand-alone brands. We also need to be sensitive to the fact that we’ve come through a fourth quarter with lots of broader economic issues that have impacted retailers. There were a lot of events in the news, whether it was Hurricane Sandy, the terrible events in Connecticut or the fiscal cliff. The CNN effect of headlines had an impact on customers and how they thought about purchasing. In 2013, we may see that continue. We have to give guests a reason
to keep coming, and that is not solely a price issue. That’s our focus and ultimately, what the industry’s focus has to be as well.

Having returned to beauty after about a 25-year absence, what are the pros and cons of having an outsider’s distance?
It’s a wonderful perspective. As a retailer, you are trying to provide an experience for a guest and the more holistically you can think about that guest the better retailer you become. From my days in office products, I learned that the primary customer is a woman. It’s a far different shopping experience than Ulta but it’s the same target customer. She’s roughly the same age, has roughly the same income. But office products are a more functionally based purchase. Beauty is a more emotional, discretionary purchase.
As a retailer, you are constantly measuring results quantifiably.

With unrelenting competition, how do you keep your team motivated and avoid burnout?
It’s a constant issue. Retail is an all-consuming field. Retailers are notoriously hard-driving, energized people. At Ulta, we have the good fortune that our business has been and continues to be very good. We are winning market share and new guests. Our industry is enjoyable and we provide our guests something that’s enjoyable. The emotional component motivates people. We know our work does make the guest feel better about herself. That helps avoid the burnout.

How would you characterize young people who are just entering the corporate world? How do you fight against the culture of entitlement?
You’ve got to have a lot of stamina to make retail a career. Sometimes when you start out, it demands more of you than it gives back. In the beginning, it is not always the highest paying career; you have to work weekends and nights. What may be different now is some people have a lower willingness to make that initial commitment. When I first started, retail was not just what I did for my paycheck. It was my social life as well. I worked on Saturdays and then went out that night with all my friends who also worked in retail. Today, I don’t know that everybody wants to put that commitment in. Sometimes people want the reward faster than they have earned it. That’s not true of all people. Another big issue is
that training today is more difficult to find. When I started, department stores had wonderful training programs that helped to groom retailers. Now, it’s more reliant on self-learning or mentoring. It can be more difficult to develop not the analytical skills, but the more instinctual side of the business.

Do you believe in mentors?
I do. I have had the good fortune of working for some wonderful people. Kathy Staab [at Jordan Marsh] was a wonderful mentor to me. Her management style, how she approached her job and how she taught me to approach my job were exactly what I needed. One of my jobs was as a women’s apparel buyer. My first buy was for a women’s blazer. I went to see Kathy with all this work I had done to determine how many jackets I should buy. It was some enormous number. As I am reviewing this purchase with her, another buyer—an old, salty dog, veteran buyer comes in. Kathy holds up the blazer and asks, “How many of these would you buy?” His answer was a fraction of what I had suggested. It didn’t demean me, or embarrass me. It was a collaborative way of showing me that there were people in the company with lots of experience who could help me. I had spent all this time doing analysis but I left out talking to someone who had been a buyer for 25 years. She demonstrated how I should be making decisions.

You’re clearly a competitive person. How do you measure success for yourself and for others?

We are a public company so we put out our report card every quarter. Beyond that, we try to measure our business for the long term. We have to measure ourselves by how our best customers see us. Are we gaining new guests, are they happy, will they stay with us? What happens next quarter is important, and we don’t take it lightly. But what happens next quarter means far less for the long term.

What do you do to relax?
My job has its stresses and challenges, but it’s fun. We’re doing well, winning new guests, creating a place that’s enjoyable for a guest. How much better can it be than that? Outside of work, I have a great family. I have a wife, two kids and an array of animals: dogs, fish and a bearded dragon. My family reinforces that we work to live, not live to work.

Do you have a motto?
I have some sayings that I use a lot. One is, “What’s the worst thing that can happen,” which I ask of people who are unwilling to take a risk. The others are, “It is what it is,” and “Let’s deal with it.” I don’t consider those mottoes, but they reflect how I lead.

In Brief

Chuck Rubin assumed the top post at Ulta in September 2010, four months after joining the
company as president and chief operating officer. Rubin’s arrival at Ulta marked a return to beauty for the retail executive, who started his career some 25 years ago as a buyer for the Boston department store Jordan Marsh Co. Since then, he has held senior-level posts at various retailers, including Federated Department Stores, which is now Macy’s Inc., and Office Depot, where he last served as president of the North American retail division prior to departing for Ulta. Before his six years at Office Depot, Rubin was at Accenture, advising a range of retail clients, including e-commerce ventures. A Boston native, Rubin attended Brandeis University.

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