There are at least a half-dozen major apparel retailers looking for a chief executive officer and many more with empty seats across the c-suite.
At Abercrombie & Fitch Co., for example, industry veteran and board member Arthur Martinez is serving as ceo for the specialty retailer as it looks for a new leader. And at American Eagle Outfitters Inc., executive chairman Jay Schottenstein, who previously served as ceo of the company, has taken on the duties of ceo as it searches for a candidate.
Meanwhile, companies — with the urgings of their boards — are shuffling their top ranks and creating new positions as they implement e-commerce and omnichannel strategies. It seems that today’s leader has to not only be a merchant, but a tech-savvy number-cruncher, too.
Here, Les Berglass, chairman and ceo of executive search firm Berglass + Associates, offers insights into what’s behind this trend and where the c-suite is headed.
WWD: Why are there so many openings right now?
Les Berglass: The Internet has given the consumer an MBA in shopping. With this new “degree” in hand, the consumer demands a different ceo. To thrive in this new, complex and ultracompetitive retail environment, ceo’s need a new set of skills. You just have to change your filters to find them.
WWD: What are companies looking for in leadership today?
L.B.: Let’s look at some newly minted ceo’s. Roger Farah of Tory Burch, Marvin Ellison of J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Ron Boire of Barnes & Noble, and Mike Barnes of Francesca’s. You can’t use the classic descriptions of merchant or operator to describe these leaders. They’re general managers. They set strategy. They mentor. They listen, then ask questions. They provide their teams with the freedom and resources to be effective.
WWD: What does the c-suite look like today?
L.B.: First, let’s clear something up: The merchant isn’t dead. Product is why the consumer shops. What’s different then? Quite simply, they’re not the only house on the block anymore. The merchant has a lot of new neighbors, some in houses as big as theirs. There’s the head of marketing, frequently called the chief customer officer, responsible for the brand’s “voice”; a chief information officer who now sits at “the table”; a [chief financial officer], who has to think in years, not just quarters. And the chief operating officer, who more and more is becoming the consigliere to the ceo.
Where’s the head of digital? If they’re big thinkers, they’ll be a candidate for the chief customer officer’s slot.
One more thing — the c-suite is now all about collaboration…not department.
WWD: What will the c-suite look like in three to five years?
L.B.: We don’t know, and the key is to admit that. Is there an Uber-like event waiting around the corner? There is no way of absolutely knowing the next great innovation, let alone its impact on the c-suite. What we do know is that the consumer continues to get smarter, more agile and more demanding. As a result, marketing heads should focus on being nimble and effective leaders, as they may well become the next ceo “in waiting.”