It’s hard to imagine Ralph Lauren not at the helm of his fashion empire, though one day the corporation will have to determine a successor.
This story first appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“That’s a very complicated question,” said Mitchell Kosh, Ralph Lauren Corp.’s senior vice president of global human resources, responding to the question of who might succeed the 72-year-old Lauren, which came up during his conversation at the summit with Harold D. Reiter, chairman and chief executive officer of Herbert Mines Associates, an executive search firm.
Kosh and Reiter discussed talent, what it’s like to work at Ralph Lauren Corp., and Lauren’s human resources formula. Regarding who is most likely to succeed Lauren, chairman and ceo of the 45-year-old Ralph Lauren Corp., Kosh gave no clue. There’s long been speculation about Roger Farah, Lauren’s highly regarded president credited with keeping the designer company on a steady, profitable global growth track. Perhaps further down the road, David Lauren, senior vice president of advertising, marketing, and corporate communications and Ralph’s son, could rise to the top.
Kosh did suggest that Ralph Lauren Corp. is prepared for a smooth succession, based on the depth and strength of the management team. “We have enormous talent in the company, on the creative and operating side,” he said. “We have generations of very talented people ready to lead and grow and make their own impact. We have had a senior team in place for a very long time. Rarely do you hear about Ralph Lauren people wanting to leave. It’s an incredible company. It would be hard to know why you would want to leave Ralph if you love this industry.”
However, low turnover doesn’t negate the need to continually nurture talent. “We are working vigorously to make sure the next layer and the layer below are identified, and that we are giving [executives] very targeted development opportunities so that they are really ready when the time comes” to take on more senior roles, said Kosh.
Around the time Kosh joined Lauren 12 years ago, the company was just setting out to be become “world-class retailers.…We wanted to buy back product category and geographic territories we felt we could run better, more authentically, and more commercially viable.
“We wanted to build a supply chain and product pipeline that was world-class and wanted to put in place a global management team that was second to none,” Kosh continued.
“Twelve years ago, we needed to go outside the company a lot more than we really wanted, to enable us to do the kind of things we wanted to do, like global expansion. That is no longer the case. We have a lot of fabulous people at the senior level,” and at rungs below. “We have individual development programs operating around the world. We’ve been at this game in the past six, seven years. The training programs we build bring everybody together in this great mosaic called Ralph Lauren so they really understand how it is working. We had to make very serious global efforts to put in place programs to really move our people internally to get them ready for more complex, multidimensional assignments.
“We needed to have very seasoned h.r. people who really understood the business, who are close to the engine room, who can think strategically but can operate like plumbers. There is nobody in our company who is lost in a think tank universe. Everybody has their hands in the business and is running side by side with business leaders to make it come true.
“The real secret sauce is how can you create an environment where there is a full-blown creative expression that at its peak is operating in a highly disciplined and rigorous environment. It’s easy to talk about but very difficult to do. This is why most creative companies don’t generally grow very large and don’t go public. It’s not a linear, one-step-follows-the-next process. It’s gets a little messy and a little complicated.”
At Ralph Lauren, “it’s the integration of commerce and creativity that makes it work,” Kosh said. “It’s a 12-step program, something you have to work at all the time.”
Inside the corporation, “we use a term called ‘bilingual,’” Kosh said. “There are people in key positions whose job it is to bridge the world of art and creativity [with that of] commerce and operations. Unless those people are great at the integration game, it makes the journey that much more difficult.”