Coach CEO emphasizes importance of learning at Friends of Finance event
BY LAURIE WINSLOW World Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
4/18/12 at 2:11 AM
Magic and logic work in tandem at Coach Inc. to help differentiate it from other luxury brands.
Although many recognize the American designer and maker of luxury lifestyle handbags and accessories, not everyone is familiar with the corporation's mindset that helps mold the brand.
On Tuesday, Jerry Stritzke, president and CEO, spoke about how the company's innate curiosity and emphasis on learning helps push it to new horizons and differentiate itself from the crowd. He spoke at the Friends of Finance luncheon on the University of Tulsa campus.
Stritzke, who received a bachelor's degree from Oklahoma State University and a law degree from the University in Oklahoma, has come a long way from growing up on a farm chasing cows.
He admitted to wearing a turquoise-green suit to his senior prom and being "not a fashion expert" when he joined the fashion industry. But he's learned a lot since then.
Consider this fashion tidbit he shared: It takes 12 minutes to make a pair of Levi's 501 jeans compared to 30 minutes for a top-of-the-line Victoria's Secret bra, but it can take three hours to make a handbag with 50 separate pieces.
"To do great leather handbags, you need someplace where cows have a nice, easy life," Stritzke said during the question-and-answer part of his presentation. He noted that Coach uses leather from Europe and the United States.
Stritzke, 51, has enjoyed an eclectic career, which along the way included working as an attorney in Tulsa.
From 1999 through August 2007, he held several senior executive positions at Limited Brands Inc., including serving as chief operating officer and co-leader of Victoria's Secret. He also has served as the CEO of MAST Industries.
Stritzke joined Coach in 2008 to help with its international business.
"I can tell you when you walk into a country with a sense of humility, you will learn a lot more about who those people are, what motivates them - their hopes, their dreams and what it means to be relevant and to have a relationship with them," he said.
At the time Stritzke joined the company, Coach had a distributorship in China that ran its business while Coach controlled many of the elements such as building the stores and providing the visual merchandising.
A few years ago, however, Coach decided to take the business in China back and run it, and now the company is looking at a $300 million business by the end of this year compared to $30 million when it was under the distributorship.
The company also has bought back its businesses in Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan.
Answering questions, Stritzke also spoke about the difference between the Asian and American customer as well as the international challenges that come with trying to stop counterfeit goods. He said there probably are 10 times as many counterfeits as there are real Coach products on the market.
"It is a real problem," he said. "We fight it every day. ... Every luxury provider in the world struggles with it."
The world has become a much smaller place, and Asian customers are attuned to fashion in the United States and Europe. Asian women buy a handbag to make a statement and may even spend two months' salary on the purchase.
In the United States, women customers also look for handbags that convey independence and uniqueness, and because of this demand for choice Coach introduces newer products more regularly in the United States than it does in Asia, he said.
He noted that within the past few weeks the Coach store in Utica Square has started carrying men's products.
"We run things hard. We have a voracious appetite for learning. And it may sound funny, but we make fast mistakes," Stritzke said. "If we were to wait and do a perfect planning every time we took a huge step or branched out or did something different, it would be a lot slower process. It may or may not be a better executed process. We'll go with speed, and we'll do it fast. We've accelerated every single deadline that we've had."
Learning is important to the company and a quality Stritzke looks for in potential job applicants. In trying to gauge an individual's passion for learning and curiosity, he asks applicants to share one thing they've learned in the past year.
"We believe that if you're not learning, you're done. And we think that is true whether it's for a corporation or whether it's for an individual," he said.
When the company took over its China business, Coach created a customer intelligence group and began to reach out and try to understand the industry - who was buying Coach bags and competitors' bags and what motivated them.
"Our business is moving. It's dynamic," Stritzke said. "We're pushing into space that we don't know the answer. It takes people who can learn and find their way. We're a very curious organization."
He noted that within five years, 50 percent of Coach's growth will come from international expansion.
"We can see it. We've begun to deliver on it. We have momentum ... and it's exciting for us."
Original Print Headline: Focus on learning key, exec says
Laurie Winslow 918-581-8466
Jerry Stritzke of Coach Inc. speaks Tuesday at the Friends of Finance Executive Speaker Series Luncheon at TU. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World