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Tory Burch in Honolulu, HI with Ron Thurston

Ron Thurston Headshot
Episode #: 099
Tory Burch in Honolulu, HI with Ron Thurston

Guest: Ron Thurston
Topics: Tory Burch, Intermix


Chris Ressa 0:01
This is retail retold the story of how that store ended up in your neighborhood. I’m your host, Chris ReSSA. And I invite you to join my conversation with some of the retail industry’s biggest influencers. This podcast is brought to you by DLC management.

Welcome to retail retold everyone. Today I’m joined by Ron Thurston. Ron is the VP of stores at intermix is the author of retail pride. He has been in the retail industry for over 30 years, always in the store operations world is a retail guru. I am excited for him to join us today. Welcome to the show, Ron.

Ron Thurston 0:43
Thanks, Chris. This’ll be fun. I feel like it’s gonna be a good conversation in store.

Ressa 0:47
I think so. So Ron, tell us a little bit more about who you are and what you do.

Thurston 0:53
Sure. So as you mentioned, and October 2020, I released my first book called retail pride, the guide to celebrating your accidental career. And I know we’ll talk more about that. But that that was also kind of the result of those 30 years that you referenced. That seems like a long time. And it feels like yesterday, because I’ve really, I’ve loved being in stores, working in stores, leading stores. Exploring the technology, this necessary in stores, the real estate side product side, you know, there’s retail is one of those industries that requires a really wide skill set, which is also why I find it so attractive, and so many other people do. But I’ve worked for and led really great brands today running intermix, which is part of gap. But around St. Laurent. For the Americas as a like, ultimate expression of luxury. I helped start bonobos and the the guide shop business model that they run with today. I ran Tory Burch on the West Coast. West apple. So I’ve definitely had some some great brands, some like premier American brands,

Ressa 2:05
you have worked at some premier American brands, no doubt. Well, you mentioned you have a book, we’re gonna get to that. Before we do. We’re gonna go to the part of the show called Clear the air. I got three questions for you. Are you ready?

Thurston 2:20
I’m ready. Question one.

Ressa 2:22
When is the last time you tried something for the first time.

Thurston 2:28
I will tell you the experience of publishing a book and all the subsequent work that has come with it has all they’ve all been first time experiences. So I’ve, you know, I’ve already spoken to NYU students graduating in their fashion management programs. I’m a mentoring a couple of students at Parsons, I’ve done several podcasts like yours. But on webinars, I’ve been a featured keynote, you know, all in the last six months. And that is that was new for me because I I’m the guy that’s been just in stores, leading stores doing my work every day. And so this has been an having the ability to speak about retail with a level of optimism that I have is been so much fun and very much new experiences.

Ressa 3:19
That’s great. Second question.

What is something most people agree with that you don’t?

Thurston 3:27
So I have maybe I have a controversial answer here. That’s not political. I started doing men’s work, meaning like, kind of emotional, deep dive group work with other men a couple of years ago, which in some ways spawned the book, because there was a lot of like, what are you gonna do with your life? Kind of? Some of my answer to that question is, I think a lot of people think that men have a really hard time articulating their emotions. And I think that might be true on the outside. But when you put a bunch of men together in a safe space, and everybody’s crying, like that’s actually really powerful. And I’m learning to interact, and I have a really fantastic men’s group that I work with. That is not that we cry all the time. That’s not what I’m saying. But, you know, I think that there’s a few do there’s some place where I think there’s perception of men and how we manage our emotions. And so the work with I work with Everyman and it’s been great, really great.

Ressa 4:36
That is a unique answer. These questions have been there newer This is I think, the fourth time I’ve asked this set of questions and the answers have been fascinating. Last one, what is one skill?

You don’t have that you wish you did?

Thurston 4:55
So I I never learned how to play musical instrument. I also know ever learned a second language. And both of those things I there are skills I wish I had. But I, so I’ve tackled this as I do many things in my life, ie writing a book and saying, I want to do that. Let’s figure out how to make it happen. So I actually bought a guitar, bought everything, started taking classes here in New York City, like went and did the whole thing, practice at home all the time, like learning how to play the guitar, and I realize how hard it actually is. And that it requires an immense amount of practice. So I will say the guitar is in a closet right now. But it’s a skill that I am going to learn that I don’t have that I really want to because I think, especially during my years at St. Laurent, like all the cool, like, musician guys always shopped at Taylor. And I was like, I want to be that guy. We like cool musician, guy. Yeah. But that’s not going to happen.

Ressa 5:52
Right now. Though, the one thing you mentioned, which was the second language is actually our last guest. That was his answer as well. And thinking about it, I think that is something a lot of people wish they could do, which is speak multiple languages. So yeah, I

Thurston 6:09
definitely do. All right,

Ressa 6:12
let’s get to your book. What is retail pride about?

Thurston 6:15
So retail pride, you know, and so the and the subtitle of the book is the guide to celebrating or accidental career. And those words were very intentionally chosen. So when I think about, you know, wanting to write a book about retail doesn’t that was really clear, it’s like it had to have retail. And the more that I worked on it, I’m like, this is about pride. This is about taking a conversation about loving what you do, and being proud of it. And being a little more confident about the industry you work in. So pride was a very intentional word. And as it can also be a controversial word, but it was important to me to use, and then the guide. So the book is very tactical, in some places of like, here’s, here are my thoughts on some things, and here’s how to put it to work. So it’s a guide, to celebrating your accidental career. So it is it’s celebrating a career that for many people, which is a common theme. Working in retail is accidental, that you may have studied something else done something else, work part time and fell in love. And some an accidental career in retail is pretty common. I hear it all the time. And to celebrate the fact that it’s accidental. And that’s the the message is, while this might be accidental, and I know that you love it, actually start changing your perception of it or your perspective, that and make it intentional. Because when you choose to make something as an intentional part of your life, you number one, take pride in it. But then you also put in more work. And so what’s often missing from people in their retail careers, are really great networking skills, community building, you know, kind of expanding their reach beyond the four walls of their store. So I wanted to say, here’s an industry that’s very accidental, that is highly influential, and in the economy of the world, employs millions and millions of people be really proud of all the skills you learned, and say that this is an intentional career that now I’m going to manage my career and to celebrate it at the same time. And it’s not, it’s something I didn’t do very well growing up or think about that this while I loved it. I wasn’t always proud to do it. I was always like, Oh, I work in retail, like I didn’t ever say, yeah, like I’m a district manager at the gap. And like, I love it. I didn’t do that.

Ressa 8:50
Is that because it’s like, there’s this insecurity about the perception of what others think of you working in retail?

Thurston 9:00
I do. I think that’s part of it. I think it’s also friends, family, college colleagues, all of this. It’s like waiting to get a real job. And that is not an uncommon response. And so I do think that there’s a little bit of the lack of confidence is because it’s not something you study so much in school and say if I work, if I went to this school, I got this degree, I’m going to be great at retail. Retail is very much learned on the job. And it’s about the brands you work for the leaders you have. And so if you if you say this is all a building my own kind of platform, as a retail leader, we tell people growing up, that they don’t always have the resources to say this is what I’m going to do and this is how I’m going to get there. We kind of figure it out on our own.

Ressa 9:51
Interesting. You’ve had some pretty big jobs you were you ran the Americas for St. Laurent, one of the most powerful luxury brands In the world, I think to most people, that’s a pretty cool job. That’s an exciting job. I don’t know if there’s, I can’t imagine anyone’s like Pooh poohing that out there. Right? Like, or anyone has any, you have some great jobs, I think, when did you make the transition from running like one store? And then even go into the district manager to getting some of these really big jobs you had?

Thurston 10:28
Yeah, it’s a great question, too. And I think you’re right, the St. Laurent job. No one would say well, not be proud of that. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was in Paris all the time. Like I have celebrity clients galore, I had so much fun. But, but my message is really more for all, everyone working in every mall in this country, every strip center, every CDs, like everyone that works in stores. This is really more more for them. But I remember really clearly, and like 1996, I believe, I was a store manager for the gap actually was a Gap Kids store, and Beverly Center in LA, which was the highest volume store. And I think, all over the Midwest at the time. And so I and I loved what I did. And I had built this really great team and I had a Surprise Store visit from the VP of stores. SVP of stores, I think, the week of Christmas, and I had done it overnight the night before re merchandise replan it was like December 22, replenish the floor with probably had markdowns. I was like we’re gonna finish the week strong. It’s right before Christmas, you know, I’m very like Ron style, we can do this. And like, went home, like, slept for a couple hours, came back to the store to work more and had a surprise visit. And like three days later, I was a district manager of like, oh, well, now I have 10 stores. Here’s a company car. And you know, and I had no idea how to do this job. So all of a sudden, now I’m leading 10 stores. And I had to just navigate like, Well, how do I take these skills I learned as a great store manager and translate it. And I’ve just continued to build on this idea of your own, be your best at all the core basics. But first and foremost, be great with people. And that even if you don’t know all the technical skills, of every operational aspect of your business, if you are exceptional with people, that as a multistore leadership role, you there’s a level of that people gravitate towards you in a way that’s that’s really unique and special. Versus the there there are multistore leaders that kind of lead by the checklist. I’m gonna visit today. And we’re gonna go through our store visit checklist. Sure, and I actually approach it of like, I’m going to visit today. And when I get to know you, I want to spend time with your team, I want to maybe talk to some customers like what’s really happening here. And because I might not be back for several months, in those examples of like running south America was only there a couple times a year, I had to learn how to run a business in Mexico. with out knowing the language like we talked about, do wish I knew Spanish then. And like how to how to run a luxury business in a foreign country. The only way I could do that was to listen and learn.

Ressa 13:27
Fascinating. Well, I want to throw a curveball and talk about something. So you know, being a leader for a lot of these brands, you have hired and fired numerous people. One of the things that I think about and people say that, what is the greatest risk to retail? And I often say it’s not ecommerce, the biggest risk to retail is how do we get the best, the brightest, the most talented to come to the retail industry. And maybe it’s the perception that you were talking about earlier. But I think about you know, the best and the brightest and everyone wants a cool tech job in a gig economy. And that’s everyone’s going to how do we bring some of those we have like, really interesting challenges, dynamic challenges ahead in retail, that we’re trying to solve these really dynamic problems. How do we get the best and the brightest to come into the retail industry?

Thurston 14:33
Yeah. I think about this often because it it will require like that continued funnel of talent and love of this industry and I think where why I had some early success is because those years you know kind of jumping in like gap or Limited Brands or some of these had like the best in the industry leading these brands. Best merchants best buying teams, store design, you know, well funded, you had all this infrastructure and but I’ve included a lot of training. And I, I am really grateful for the fact that I was mentored by these companies along the way of like, This guy seems to know what he’s doing. Let’s give him a stretch assignment, let’s give him more responsibility, let’s really guide him along. And while it’s always your careers, your own responsibility, companies that do that well and invest in their people upfront are those that are going to win. So if you think about joining an organization, and you’re new in your career, and no one’s doing that level of investment, that commitment to your to coaching and feedback, that it’s it, you will look for something else, because no one’s really guiding you along the way, because you’ve come to it as kind of a clean slate of like, will teach me everything, but you need great people around you and great leaders to do that. And so I, I did, I chose great companies that were that had important moments in their time to work for. But the the industry as a whole has to continue to invest in people. And that a lot of that is training hiring and culture in putting stores first is that the Tech Tech might be the the sexy part, but the stores are delivering the revenue. And to put that as the first most important part of your company and invest in in the payroll and the training necessary to make it happen. I do I do love hearing like I’m partnering with Parsons, and I’m doing some work around kind of students that are up and coming. And there’s a lot of excitement about the retail space right now.

Ressa 16:50
Well, if you’re a person who loves challenges and wants to solve big problems, retails a good place to go. And it’s a lot of innovations happening and forget about if you like all the traditional things, which I would call the community building, networking, being around people, all those things are as important today as they were 2030 years ago. And now we have these new things, these, you know, you can’t sit still, it’s no longer just racket hi and let it fly in there. It’s more dynamic than that.

Thurston 17:25
Right? Much, much more, because there’s so much more tech enabled in stores. So you do have to be great at all of the things we’ve always had to be good at. So visual merchandising and operations and an HR and all the the traditional retail components, they’re still there. But what’s layered on top now is Oh, and like all of my team all have company phones now. And they’re doing clienteling. And there’s probably chat coming in through the website on those phones. And there may be live shopping opportunities. And so there’s, there’s a whole other component that’s layered in now that you write you run, they run multimillion dollar businesses with a lot of often like self taught skills. And that when I say that, I am intentional because that’s you should be really proud of that. When someone sits down in front of me and they start to talk about their career. And they almost do it. Kind of that lack of confidence that we reference. And I said, let me just tell you what you do every day. Like you run a multimillion dollar business, random store and random Mall. Still, it’s at least a couple of million dollars. And you are you’re an expert in all of these skills, your competencies are really high. Like all of that translates to any industry you want to work in, but you’re really good at retail. And when someone just hears that for the first time, it almost makes them want to cry. Because they’re like, no one’s ever told me that before. That I’m a multimillion dollar business. I run a multimillion dollar business. I have sales associates. Today I have 25 plus salespeople that sell $2 million a year. You’re a multi million dollar business owner, you’re a $2 million sales associate. Like do you understand the impact that you have on on your customer on your team on this company? It’s gigantic. And they’re like, oh, no, you know, I just do what I love. I’m like, that’s great. But you should appreciate the fact that you are running a company by yourself in the generates millions of dollars a year. It’s huge.

Ressa 19:38
So true. And that’s gonna lead me into the next question. As you know, we have a bunch of real estate people that listen to this. We have retail people and ask the age old question, okay. The store performance, how much is it the location versus the people in the store?

Thurston 19:57
Knowing your audience I know what they’re gonna want to hear I’m going to say people pee pad. I’ll give you an like a couple of examples. I have a storm worth Avenue today that was attempt store in Palm Beach five years ago, that today is generating Madison Avenue revenue. Because and it’s a, it’s a very small square footage, probably 1000 Square Feet has two fitting rooms. It has temporary fixtures and it still actually did put in a new floor in 2019. And it’s and while the location is okay, the team is amazing. And it’s generating a we’ve got all the positive momentum of kind of Florida Business happening right now. But the the store itself is not that interesting. And I’ve and I’ve had and spent millions of dollars opening Sandler on stores and if but if the team wasn’t right, the store and it couldn’t be a great location without the right team, it doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter how good the location is.

Ressa 21:01
One of the old adages is if the store that I’ve heard before, if the store does great, the store management in the team is amazing. The store has bad all it’s a bad location.

Thurston 21:13
Yeah, I don’t I don’t I do not believe that at all. I think you can take a bad location, put incredible people in it, and it will deliver exceptional results.

Ressa 21:23
Boom, drop the mic moment. Okay. I want to take us to the next part of our show called the story. And you have a story about a store that you are part opening. What store where are we going?

Thurston 21:38
So I thought about this question a little bit. And I have opened more stores than I could even count. But I did have a funny story. So anyone that’s opened a store in Hawaii knows that it can be really complicated. Like that it takes everything takes longer, things move a little bit slower, like aloha spirit is alive and well in building a store in Hawaii, so I was opening a new Tory Burch flagship up right on kala kala Royal Hawaiian center, two storeys, three entrances, through like, at least two off sites manager’s office was also off site, highly complex business. And it was supposed to open on Black Friday. And so I was I had to hire about 100 people to work in a store that included a huge back of house team. Because all the inventory was actually off site really complicated. And I was there for about a month and it kept getting closer, and it kept getting closer to Black Friday, and we weren’t getting permits and the facade. So literally on Black Friday, I said, the facade of the buildings not even down yet. But the store is done, I can’t get permits to open, we’re going to open the store anyway. So the back of the facade, the barricade on the outside, we painted it, navy blue, Tory blue, put a big logo on the outside. But the fun part is whenever you open a store in Hawaii, you have to have the land blessed. So we also had to have this giant ceremony from all the like local tribesmen of the island with a lay ceremony and a whole thing going on. So here it is, it’s Black Friday, I had to have a blessing ceremony from the local, the local tribe, the the facade still on the outside, and there’s literally a line of people to come in that went all the way down caulipower For like two blocks just to get into the store. Like for that was, that was really fun. And I don’t think I slept much for that whole Thanksgiving weekend. But what I’m like what and opening that up, and we’d like crushed it in revenue. I can’t even remember how much we did. But like those moments in your retail career, it’s like, we’re just gonna make it happen. We’re just going to make it work.

Ressa 24:00
So that’s what I was going to get to like, what was the biggest takeaway from opening that store? I assume it’s, you got to dig down and make it work, but

Thurston 24:09
you just got to make it work. You just make it work. And then you you know, I think in those instances, it’s where your leadership skills kick in, and your ability to say, we’ve all worked really hard and we’re going to we’re going to do this together. I am here to help us, like get this done, and put it to work. And with that kind of outlet kind of attitude, people will follow you and they say no problem, Ron, like, we’re going to do this, whatever it takes, we’re going to make it happen. Like I have pictures of us, you know, at that ceremony in the team, the huge team, if you can tell they’re exhausted, but it’s like looking at all these customers with we’re about to have like the longest day ever. And but you do it alongside of them. And it wasn’t like oh Ron’s playing. It’s Thanksgiving, Ron’s going home. Going back to LA No, like, I needed to be there. And but those moments and you know that that particular GM, you know, became a multistore leader for me for all of all of California, little California and Hawaii later on. So like these, those people that do it with you, then they take that next step. Like that’s our responsibility to bring them along.

Ressa 25:24
Couldn’t agree more. You mentioned you didn’t have a permit. When you finally opened that day, do we? It was a permit in hand,

Thurston 25:30
we had a permit that would like allow us to do business, but like the, like the facade was all done in brass and special thing. And so the facade was not the facade didn’t have a permit, but we had a permit to open. Wow, yeah. It took like another month, I think, before the facade came down.

Ressa 25:50
So every day you got customers coming in, but they got scaffolding up. And they’re doing work.

Thurston 25:55
It was literally like a plywood door with a padlock on the outside. But people kept coming, and kept coming, you know, they didn’t care. You know, the brand was really hot in Hawaii and in Asia at the time.

Ressa 26:08
So tell me about this blessing the land, when did you know that this was going to have to happen?

Thurston 26:14
I known all along because I also opened a store in Alamo, Juana. But this one, like, was beyond it was like 10 different kind of original inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands, like for generations that bless the land, because it’s all those the Hawaiian Islands, our burial ground of all of these original inhabitants. So it’s, you have to really give it its due respect to call a cow was, you know, at the time was a booming, booming revenue generator for many luxury brands.

Ressa 26:51
One thing we didn’t touch on that I wanted to touch on is a great story. Thank you so much for sharing that. You’ve been in operations. And there’s a bunch of real estate people on that, listen to this. What has been your experience in in the real estate process? In most of the places you worked? How, how brought into the process? Were you on the real estate side? And what has been your experience from the upside on that?

Thurston 27:18
Yeah, I’ve always been highly involved in that. So different versions. i When when I joined bonobos seven years ago, and they had started to test the waters of what a guide shop would look like. But they knew that they had read once we figured out what the model was going to look like and, and really was just me originally kind of me and Andy, Don, and some people who were part of the found the founders of the company, in that we didn’t have any infrastructure in the office. So you know, I was designing the store fixture package, I was figuring out how to merchandise the store, I was hiring the team. I did all of their training, I taught them how to sell, but the but once we figured out the business model and started to build the infrastructure, then it’s like, now we need real estate. And so we did outsource it through brokers. But I was always involved in tours all over the country, picked in the best, we opened 20 stores in a year. And a blue, I would go from store to store. And every two weeks like ribbon cutting every two weeks because we were rapidly expanding. And but I will always involved. Because you’ve to think about who is the customer? Where are they? What do they need? Is this is this where that customer is going to be? How do we build the best possible business and, and, and the cost that it takes to do that. So always involved in I think it’s a really interesting side of our business. Really interesting component.

Ressa 29:01
I love the part about that. You’ve had excellent teams, when in subpar real estate. How do they do that?

Thurston 29:13
So excellent teams, excellent teams don’t let bad real estate stop them. I think that that may be another like quote for you. But I really believe this is true. I think a great team that is assembled of entrepreneurs with an entrepreneurial spirit and a drive to win. Don’t let weather traffic location, anything stop them. And there were really incredible stories of the last year in my own business of lack of traffic didn’t let them let let it stop them. So I’ll give you an example South Coast Plaza which is of course a premier real estate mall locked down But South Coast Plaza says we’ll let you sell in the parking lot, we’ll put up a tent. And we’ll build this like a luxury, selling, selling place, you just have to bring the inventory. And you can sell in the parking lot. And so we said, great, like, let’s do it. So the team took the best of the best of their inventory moved out to the, to the parking lot, and South Coast Plaza, called their clients texted it and did all of the work that they normally do and said, we’d love to see you, you can’t come in the mall. And they delivered results that were unbelievable. I mean, they did it because they have relationships with their clients and a team that wanted to win, nothing was gonna stop them. And I love that the story of like, the entrepreneurial spirit of like, how do we do mobile POS? How do we, what do we need to do to make sure we can still deliver business and most importantly, make our clients happy. And that happened in different ways for all lots of businesses all over the country in the last year. So it can definitely the right team can make a huge difference, even with the worst of circumstances.

Ressa 31:11
That is incredible. Congrats.

Thank you. All right. I’m gonna bring us to the last part of the show. Are you ready?

I’m ready. All right. Three questions. We call this retail wisdom. Question one, what extinct retailer Do you wish would come back from the dead?

Thurston 31:31
So I am going to say Tower Records. And I’ll say this because they started in Sacramento, in this 1960 In Sacramento, where it’s just I’m from Lake Tahoe, but my family’s in in Sacramento now. And so I always had a fondness for like for Tower Records, and I spent most of my life in LA. So that’s, that would be number one for me. I do miss, like going in and move to music stores.

Ressa 31:58
I totally get that. I totally get that question too. What’s the last item over $20 that you bought in store?

Thurston 32:08
So I have a bit of a sneaker addiction. And do I have a golden goose today, but the so I love the big like Nike flagships here in the city. To I am I’m in there often like buying sneakers. Um, so I did buy like a new limited edition like Nike training shoe recently that I love.

Ressa 32:32
I love that answer. Nike is one of my favorite brands, so I can connect that it’s great.

Thurston 32:38
I mean, I waited in line to get in. So

Ressa 32:41
unbelievable. I was that guy. Unbelievable. Last question. Yeah. If you and I were shopping at Target, and I lost you would I would I find you and

Thurston 32:55
so I don’t have kids, but I love the toy aisle. Because I do think sometimes there’s like, you can learn a lot about how we operate. And like what’s important when you look at the toy aisle, like the dolls and the toys and and what’s new and what’s interesting. And so I actually it kind of just enjoy being in there and seeing like, well, what are Kids Playing with right now? Like, what are they? What’s important to them, and it’s just kind of inspiring to be in there and target does a good job.

Ressa 33:30
They do a great job, I can tell you Paw Patrol is what’s going on in my house. I have a three year old and a two year old. If you know anything about Paw Patrol, I’ve got every Paw Patrol thing known to man. So Paw Patrol. I’ll check it out next time I’m in target. Oh, they got a lot of Paw Patrol stuff. Every character so it’s great. Yeah. Well, listen, Ron, this has been great. Thank you so much

Thurston 33:52
for coming on. Thanks, Chris. It was a lot of fun. Where can people

Ressa 33:56
find your book? Yes, if you go to retail

Thurston 33:59 So you’ll find the links to the book, there’s a link for if you want to buy all copies through the publisher, and then link to all my social LinkedIn is the best place to find me. And the fastest way to get the book is is Amazon or Walmart or Barnes and Noble. But it’s for those the those retail teams in your life. You know, think about the audience of real estate brokers in the people who have enjoyed it the most are all those store teams, like district managers that have bought it for all their stores. Like those are like that’s where the power really comes to life. They need to hear this message more than anyone because they do the work every day. They they’re on their feet all day. And, you know, to be able to say thank you and celebrate retail. for them. They they’re that target for me.

Ressa 34:54
Terrific. Thank Well, thank you so much, Ron. This is fantastic.

Thurston 34:59
Thanks Chris

Ressa 35:02
thank you for listening to retail retold. If you want to share a story about a retail real estate deal that you were a part of on our show. Please reach out to us at retail retold at DLC This show highlights the stories behind the deals from all perspectives. So it doesn’t matter if you are a retailer, broker, entrepreneur, architect or an attorney. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to retail retold so you don’t miss out on next Thursday’s episode

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