This piece was first published on May 1, 2020.
While it is part of every CEO’s job description to lead through crisis, few are faced with multiple crises of global proportions during their tenures.
As such, it is valuable to learn from our predecessors, those who have been confronted with similar situations in the past. Sharen Jester Turney is one such individual, having taken over as president and CEO of Victoria’s Secret in 2006, ahead of the global financial crisis of 2008, with a brand that was already in challenging condition. Under her leadership, Victoria’s Secret emerged as a winner from the crisis, posting more than 60 percent in cumulative revenue increase through 2016 over 2008 revenues; this followed double-digit revenue drops, particularly in 2009 when the business reached its low-point.
She shared her views on the current crisis with Oliver Wyman Retail & Consumer Goods Partner Jens von Wedel.
Jens: Sharen, when you compare the current global crisis with the financial crisis from 2008, how do you feel about what is going on in the market?
Sharen: Obviously, no crisis is exactly like another. While the current crisis reminds me somewhat of 2008, the uncertainty of the COVID-19 virus lends a very different perspective. 2008 was essentially financial in nature and ultimately self-correcting. COVID-19, on the other hand, is a fight against an unforeseen foe, one which we know very little about. It has touched hundreds of thousands of lives, scaring them with an underlying trauma and confusion that has no predictable conclusion. It is impossible to predict the behavior and repercussions for the consumer going forward. Nonetheless, there are similar patterns. I remember vividly the days following the Lehman Brothers collapse when we experienced sudden and lasting double-digit sales drops across the globe. Back then, it felt as if the whole world were falling apart. Only in retrospect did the 2008 calamity seem somewhat predictable. I expect something similar will happen when we reflect back on the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
Jens: Victoria’s Secret managed to recover quickly from the crisis, while for some companies 2008 marked the beginning of a multi-year crisis. What was your recipe for success?
Sharen: I have had the opportunity to reflect on those times with many accomplished leaders in our industry. While the crisis was a huge hit in the short-term, it also presented an opportunity to reconsider and re-position our business strategically in a completely new way, which we otherwise wouldn’t have been forced to consider. I had to make tough decisions on the number of personnel and the scope and breadth of the organization. We had to rethink our best utilization of cash in terms of investing for a new future approach versus the tried and true method which had worked until then. This new paradigm required us to be more future focused and nimble in recognizing new visions and approaches to our business. It obviously helped to have strong support and facilitation from our parent LBrands.
While the crisis was a huge hit in the short-term, it also presented an opportunity to reconsider and re-position our business strategically in a completely new way, which we otherwise wouldn’t have been forced to consider
Jens: What kind of opportunities would that be?
Sharen: It provided the opportunity to step back and assess our entire organizational footprint and business model. We critically reviewed everything with fresh eyes, including: inventory management, product development to consumer delivery time frame, customer relationships, talent, and organizational excess. We realized we were like the person that added an excess pound or two each year, with no real recognition until one day we were extremely overweight. This often happens with successful businesses. Like most retailers, we had too much inventory. We had to develop new approaches for the supply, we reviewed every aspect from partners to suppliers to people. How do you make the best decision to win-win? This took creative thinking, often outside the box. The goal was to not only survive the crisis but emerge stronger, leaner, and better! I have always believed in hiring the best and brightest talent in the market. The crisis allowed us to source and upgrade leadership positions from talent previously not available. This provided new ideas. We identified significant growth opportunities in the store footprint and increases in like-for-like sales in-store and online. Some retailers use changes in the market as an excuse for failings, but the best retailers recognize opportunity in forced transformations.
Jens: If you look at some of your competitors and peers during that time, what did you observe?
Sharen: Some peers did just as well as we did. I observed some of the big players in the US recover quickly, even expand into new markets, such as China, or developing new store formats. Then there were the companies which merely managed at sight. They lived for the day. I remember a blood bath in US and European retail when many companies tried to clear their stock no matter what the price. Further, lack of leadership and foresight led to talent drain for some formerly strong players in the market. It took those companies many years to build their brand, teams and business, but it took only a few quarters to destroy most of it. By the end of 2009, many businesses were set up to fail in the years after.
Jens: What would you have done differently in 2008, looking back today? And what would you recommend today’s leaders?
Sharen: I always tell people that the financial tsunami was the worst of times, but it also led to the best of times. It taught us to always prepare for a worst-case scenario to the extent possible. To be agile, frugal, and fast. I think it took us too long to prepare ourselves for worst case. We always wanted to believe the modest projections not the worst. Just get to the worst. If I were leading today, I would grab the smartest people around me and a clean sheet of paper to think about how to best win in present conditions. That time and money will be well invested. My prediction is that business as we know it and how we operate today will never be the same.
Jens: That is a great closing remark and helpful advice for everyone out there. Thank you for your openness and your time, Sharen.