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WWD CEO Summit: Millard ‘Mickey’ Drexler

As ceo of J. Crew Group and, before that, Gap Inc., his much-dissected and heralded career has been guided by a deceptively simple retail philosophy.

Millard “Mickey” Drexler’s much-dissected and heralded career — as chief executive officer of J. Crew Group Inc. and, before that, Gap Inc. — has been guided by a deceptively simple retail philosophy that’s laser-focused on designing, making and selling good merchandise.

It’s an approach that’s easy to talk about, hard to do and not as common as one might assume.

“There are very few companies today that put the integrity of their product first and force themselves to be innovative and creative to exceed their customer expectations,” Drexler said. “It starts and ends with the product and the team that makes those products happen.

“Too many people overlook the importance of beautiful product and the fact that creativity drives growth in any business, not just fashion,” he said.

But Drexler’s exacting approach to merchandising and design — to making things beautiful — is just part of his success. As the ever-opinionated ceo ticked off what he’s learned during his career, the overriding message was really a reminder of something everyone was told before they even entered grade school: “I want to treat people the way I’ve been treated,” he said.

Drexler applies the golden rule to customers and employees alike, making time to look behind the résumé before hiring someone and personally answering complaints from customers.

It’s about “editing your life, prioritizing and respect and manners,” he said.

Although things like having respect and having manners might be universal, Drexler was careful to note that his was just one voice. “Most of what I say does not pertain to start-up businesses, and everything is arguable and debatable…they are my own opinion, this is not written anywhere as a rule,” he said. “In fact, I hate rules.”

That hatred is clear and, for Drexler at least, profitable.

Here’s some of what the ceo has picked up during his years in retail.

• On customer service: “Most people in service today just don’t care,” Drexler said. “We listen. A lot of it is good manners.”

While acknowledging his own obsessiveness, Drexler said if he pays attention to details as ceo, then everyone at the company will.

“For years in my old job, I was accused of micromanaging,” he said, referring to his time at the helm of Gap. And although textbooks preach more general management techniques and people warn against micromanaging, Drexler said customers “like micromanagers.”

• On discounting, luxury and fine fruit: “I hate discounting because it’s only a matter of price,” Drexler said, noting that cutting prices erodes a brand’s integrity. “You see the same product in two or four distribution outlets, always at multiple different prices. How long will it be before the consumer catches on? They are catching on so quickly today, it’s extraordinary.”

The ceo said the impact of designer goods has been diminished by off-pricers, such as Century 21, which carry a broad range of brands at low prices.

Drexler said he wasn’t sure what luxury was anymore and that a great peach, for instance, was a luxury experience.

“A good peach or a good tomato knows no bounds on emotion,” he said.

• On résumés, hiring and the backgrounds of great leaders: “The person is the résumé, not what’s on a piece of paper,” Drexler said. “I meet almost everyone in our company before they are hired. To me, résumés don’t matter much. Titles don’t matter, nor does the school you went to matter. In fact, GPA doesn’t matter.”

Instead, Drexler said emotional intelligence and a history of hard work are more important.

“We get a lot of waitresses, waiters, construction workers in the summer, we love that,” Drexler said. “The résumés today are all the same. Whoever gives advice on résumés in American colleges should be dismissed.”

The ceo pointed out that captains of industry take different paths to the top.

“Someone successful has a background that’s not predictable,” he said, noting there was “zero consistency in résumés in those who have created or built great companies.”

• On creativity or the art of finding a way to do something better: “It’s living, it’s breathing, it’s every single day of your life in an organization,” he said.

But Drexler noted employees are not always empowered to create a new approach and apply it. “Unless you’re in a position of making a change, unless you have a boss that allows you to do that, you can’t make the changes,” he said. “We have a choice of making things easy or making things good. We try to focus on making things good instead of making things easy.”

• On vendors: “There are a lot of vendors here today. I love vendors. I hate doing business with them because who are they to tell us how to do our business?”

• On the yardstick for great companies: “I’ve been at J. Crew for 10 years,” Drexler noted. “We’re just starting now; there’s so much more to do.”

Drexler said great companies need to be examined in at least five-year increments, and perhaps by the decade.

“Boards don’t allow management or the ceo to take a long view because they have short views,” Drexler said.

• On J. Crew’s international expansion: “We’re going very slow,” he said. “We’re in no hurry to get there. We don’t have expansion for expansion’s sake. I don’t think bigger is better. We’re going slow and small.”

On Made in the USA: “If everything were made in the USA, prices would probably triple immediately,” Drexler said. “I think where it’s appropriate, it’s fantastic. We do business with actually a lot of little businesses in the USA.

“[With] the cost factors involved, you’d sell a lot fewer units. People buy value; they know what things are worth. If I look at a Made in the USA item, and it’s $400 and it would really be $200, ask the customer what they’re going to spend. I think it’s good if the product has the integrity that warrants the price and the fact that it’s hand done and handmade or machine made in the USA.”

• On another public stock offering for J. Crew: “Eighty-five percent of our company is owned by two private equity firms, TPG and Leonard Green [& Partners],” he said. “I love being private, but going public is fine. I don’t think we’ll have much of a choice because they have to return value to shareholders.”

• On the best ideas and office culture: “Listen to your associates,” Drexler said. “The best ideas, the most important ideas, don’t come from the management brain.”

He said no leader can go it alone. They need to have the right team, and they can’t be walled away from them.

“When I came to J. Crew there was only one office in the building, and it was the ceo’s office, and I got very lonely in there,” Drexler said. The ceo moved to a more open setup and said offices without walls send a message.

• On the value of merchandise: “The real price of goods is always the selling price. The best price is to sell it for what it’s worth.”

• On adversity: Drexler said most obstacles are inspirational.

“Cyclical periods of adversity make organizations much stronger; it’s something about when you’re doing well, you’re getting a little comfortable, you’re walking around, you think, ‘It’s OK,’ and before long, it’s not OK,” he said.