In a May 2014 Supply Chain Matters commentary, Recruiting the New Era of Retail and Online Fulfillment Leaders, this Editor made the following statement:

“In this era of online retailing and Omni-commerce, there are two leadership competencies that will differentiate tomorrow’s executive leaders in retail.  They are a deep understanding of social-media fueled marketing and Internet focused retailing, and a deep awareness, understanding and appreciation of end-to-end supply chain inventory deployment and fulfillment capabilities.  From our lens, recruiting for retail C-level executives has been too focused on classic merchandising, finance or traditional brand marketing.”

Our commentary at that time reflected on business media reports indicating that major retailers such as JC Penny, Target and others were finding it difficult to recruit a qualified CEO. 

Now, more than seven months later, it is important to reflect on what is occurring, namely that some retail industry CEO selection teams now weigh operations leadership experience over that of pure merchandizing.

In late- July, Target, for the first-time in its history, brought in former PepsiCo executive Brian Cornell as its CEO.  Before accepting the Penny CEO role, Cornell had prior experience in leading PepsiCo’s Americas Food business unit and the Sam’s Club warehouse business for Wal-Mart stores.  Cornell is now in the process of re-evaluating all of Target’s operations and supporting processes.

Also in late July, Tesco recruited Dave Lewis, a 28 year executive veteran of Unilever as its new CEO after first-half profit trailed the grocer’s expectations. Lewis previously led the expansion of one of Unilever’s fastest-growing businesses, and was the first outsider CEO hired by the UK retailer. Lewis’s leadership experience included the chairmanship of U.K. and Ireland business and president of the Americas operating units at Unilever. When the Chairmen of Tesco was asked why that retailer sought with Lewis, he stated:

If you look at what Dave Lewis brings, David is absolutely the leader in brand management and brand identity, communication, customer development, customer management. Tesco is not short of retail skills.”

Last week, JC Penny finally selected its new CEO designate. In its reporting, The Wall Street Journal lead-in to the announcement noted that Penny elected to go with strength in nuts and bolts retailing rather than flashy merchandising. Former Home Depot and Target operations executive Marvin Ellison will ramp into the CEO position by August of 2015 after a several month transitional period as President. After the disastrous episode when former Apple retail executive Ron Johnson brought the retailer to near financial disaster with a $4 billion hit in revenues, Penny’s directors are opting for a longer ramp-in for its new CEO designee. Ellison will serve under the stewardship of Myron Ullman, who was brought back to save Penny in April of 2013.

Ellison’s accomplishments include 15 years at Target before joining Home Depot, where he held roles in global logistics and vice president of U.S. stores.  Ellison was reported to have helped to integrate Home Depot’s e-commerce operations with brick-and-mortar stores, namely implementing the buy online and pick-up in store initiative.

Regarding the JC Penny CEO selection, the WSJ provided the following commentary:

The appointment also reflects a broader shift in retail in which some big companies have favored detail-oriented operators over executives mainly lauded for brilliance in merchandising, as the industry faces giant new challenges in managing its supply chains and keeping customers from defecting to the web.”

Certainly, each retailer requires different leadership skills at a point in time, and operations experience may or may not be favored.  However, the evidence from above indicates that for those retailers who have especially struggled with the impacts and ramifications of today’s Omni-channel retail environment and permanent structural shifts in retailing are opting for proven operations leadership.

Sales and operations, supply chain and customer fulfillment professionals in retail industry environments should take note that this now building evidence of value in operations leadership will hopefully continue for selecting next generation retail leaders. 

Keep that in-mind as the next several weeks bring the usual doses of operational realities.

Bob Ferrari