By his own admission, Mickey Drexler has been at this for 50 years and has been running companies since he was 35 years of age. His accomplishments and his genius are undeniable, especially at Gap, Inc. and J. Crew, his last two stops. I had the pleasure and honor of working with him for almost 8 years in Gap’s heyday. I learned an incredible amount about being decisive, never taking things for granted and the importance of having a very clear and well articulated point of view from a merchandising standpoint, not to mention as an individual.
I am not sure whether he ever loved the ‘Merchant Prince’ label but there was once a golden era of retail where solo, larger-than-life personalities dominated the retail scene and competed for the the fashion consumer including: Les Wexner of The Limited (now L Brands), Michael Jefferies of Abercrombie & Fitch, Terry Lundgren, lately of Macy’s, Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus, Michael Gould of Bloomingdale’s, can all be described as Merchant Princes, with Mr. Wexner now the last man standing, albeit in an accessories (not an apparel) dominated business. This era in apparel has now officially closed with Mickey’s “retirement” from the CEO role.
Visionaries are a rare breed, but especially in such an ephemeral industry such as retail. These men and women can see around corners, anticipate consumer needs or just predict the future. Mickey had a taste level and an appreciation for color and style that transformed into exactly what the consumer wanted to buy at the exact right time. His philosophy was never incremental – he possessed a swash buckling ‘go big or go home’ mentality. If a merchant believed in something, then he believed, to be successful, they should have the conviction to invest in it in every way – quantities, styles, colors and, most importantly, in-store visuals. It was the only way he knew how to operate. When he did make mistakes (and they were few and far between), they tended to be larger than the average CEO, because of his “all-in” attitude and bravado.
I am convinced that what made him so successful over such sustained periods of time was the balance between this ‘go for broke’ Arnold Palmer-esque heroic stance and his paranoia that the business could turn at any moment. He always kept in mind how fickle the consumer was and never took any of them for granted. His one phrase that had the most impact on me in my retail career was, “Always think minus 5 comp.” When I was running Canada for him, we achieved 33 consecutive months of positive double digit comparable store sales increases and it always struck me that the only way I kept that streak alive was to think we were running -5 and by making certain decisions based on that mindset. I interpreted it as meaning one should never get fat and happy, never take a day off and never take any of the positive results for granted.
The retail industry will miss Mickey – an outspoken, confident, emotional CEO who liked to lead from the front and lived the credo ‘retail is detail’. No detail was too small for him to follow up on and no consumer comment was ever taken lightly. He would respond quickest to requests from consumers and store managers, who he felt were the key cogs in the retail network. If a company had the very best, most articulate, hippest and highest energy store managers, Mickey felt it would translate into the very best store environments with the very best staff creating a real positive vibe. He loved spending time in stores and sussing out which stores had that buzz and which didn’t.
My hope is that he still takes it upon himself to keep peering around the corner (even though he admitted he underestimated the power of the technological shift in the industry) to keep all the techno-phobes and algorithm worshipers honest by ensuring that the ‘art’ in retail is never ignored and that the ‘science’ of retail is kept in proper perspective and that a happy balance is always reached both for the consumer’s and the industry’s sake.