Whether you’re working for a high-end clothing retailer or a non-profit cheap clothing store, building client relationships is one of the essential ingredients for success as a brand. Listen as Ron Thurston joins Steve Sims on the show to share his rich experience in this regard. Wearing two very different hats, Ron is currently the Vice President of Store for INTERMIX, a division of GAP, Inc. and serves on the Board of Directors of Goodwill NY/NJ. His life’s work is an interesting example of a life dictated by how much balance he can create. He is currently working on a book that aims to share retail stories that will inspire retailers to love what they do even more.
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Ron Thurston: Serves As Board Of Directors For Goodwill NY/NJ
We’re going to be speaking with Ron Thurston. This man is the Head of INTERMIX. It’s a company that is on your high streets, deals with all the luxury items and is owned by Gap, which I didn’t know about. This guy talks about community culture and balance. He talks about his book, but balance is the central theme that goes through this. It was quite interesting to know how much of his life has been dictated about how much balance he can create. I enjoyed speaking with the guy who’s got a great attitude towards how he lives his life in Manhattan, which is one of the craziest places in the world. Enjoy the episode with Ron Thurston.
Ron, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Steve. I’m happy to be here.
There’s going to be people that are going to be finding out about you. You’re the Vice President of INTERMIX, is that correct?
I wasn’t aware of this but this is a division of Gap.
In 2013, Gap Inc. purchased it from the original founders’ brothers who started it in 1993.
Before that, you were with Bonobos and Tory Burch. You’ve been in the high-end retail for how many years?
I don’t want to age myself for a long time to business. I love everything about it.
We’re going to go into that but before we do, what’s the makeup of luxury retail because let’s be serious. With the virus going, it’s a dangerous world to be in. Let’s go back to when you were like a dot. What was your background? How were you raised?You have to play an important role in your client’s life or eCommerce takes that relationship away from you. Click To Tweet
You have to play an important role in your client’s life or eCommerce takes that relationship away from you.
I grew up in Northern California up in Tahoe, which was a lovely place to grow up. More specifically, my grandfather had a construction company that built first custom homes, but then ultimately ended up building a lot of Safeway stores on the West Coast. He built a large construction company. For me, I didn’t have an interest in construction but I’m interested in leadership. To watch him as a very young man, 13, 14, 15, I started to travel with him and understand what leading large teams look like. He would approach a construction site and he would know the men’s names. He would know things about their family. He would ask questions and he would learn about the people on his team. More importantly, the people that were three levels down from the leaders of his team. I learned a lot from my grandfather about leadership. When I decided I wanted to work in fashion, not construction, he was still my mentor for many years and leadership like, “How are you leading, Ron? What are you saying? How are you engaging the teams?” It helps me early on.
I don’t know how much you know about me but some of the people that follow me do. I came from a construction world of a big thick Irish construction family. I didn’t get the support you did when I walked out of the construction firms. I’m envious. I got slated for turning my back on the family business, as my mom would say. What was it in you that you were in the construction firm when you went on my viewpoint is over here in fashion? What made you think of that?
It was a love that I had. I knew I wanted to be in the industry. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was something in me that said, “I love leadership. I love fashion. Where are my voice and my place going to end up?” I was ready to go to school at seventeen to learn the industry. I ended up studying both Retail Management and Fashion Design. I got degrees in both because I didn’t understand where I wanted to sit, but I knew I wanted to know everything I could. Not fancy degrees. I have two Associate Degrees. For many people, it’s not the education they would expect as you grow your career. One of the many things I love about retail is that it’s a self-taught industry. You don’t go to school to learn how to be a great retail leader. You learn it on the job and nothing changes the experience that you have and you have to do the work to learn the craft.
What was your first luxury outlet that you jumped into?
I would say Apple. Apple for many is luxury. It’s the highest price point in its industry. After ten years at The Gap, several years in some other more contemporary price points, I learned the craft of luxury selling and culture at Apple. What that looks like and how that feels. Growing business at large scale leading large teams at scale was something I learned at Apple.
Did you have more of a fondness for fabrics over tech? Is that why you went into so many clothing lines?
I would say yes. I’m a fashion guy at heart, but I’m a student of leadership. You continue to look for those opportunities and those brands that do this well. To this day, Apple is that brand. What I missed in selling apparel I gained in and learning about company culture and what great training can look like.
I would imagine because you seem to be such a fanatical of it and such a fan of what they gave you. You’ve tried to create that in any area that you got into.
I have. Retail of the past may have been an industry where you would say, “I’m going to join an organization that has great training.” If you’re not learning it in college, you learn it with certain companies who invest in you. In the ‘80s, it may have been Gap which is the choice I made or the limiter or some of these or Macy’s, these big organizations that had great leadership training programs. That doesn’t exist now at the same scale. You have to choose those brands that are going to give it to you. I do pride myself on investing in people and training where I can even at a smaller scale. INTERMIX is a much smaller component of The Gap family of brands. To invest in ongoing training and development is an important part.
Focusing on the INTERMIX, it’s a luxury brand. You have a lot of different brands inside that store. It’s not Gap who wears their own shirts. It’s different designers.
It was built on the idea of the mix of brands. From high to low designer to contemporary to entry. It is the mix of brands for a woman’s closet. The idea of coming in and having a styling experience where you can choose from $58 t-shirts to a $5,000 designer piece and how that all mixes together is what INTERMIX was founded on and continues to be a very relevant concept.
The world of retail and of the high street is scary nowadays. What are you guys changing over the last couple of years as we get more into an online community?
I would say my philosophy on this is the relationship that you have with the client has to be intimate and it has to be important to her. You have to play an important role in her life or eComm takes that relationship away from you. If she knows your style and you make smart recommendations, she trusts what you have to say. She continues to build on top of that relationship, continues to ask you questions, continues to come into the store. The relationship with the team and the store is equal or greater than and more important than the relationship with the brand and the company. You have to build smart and strong relationships with the client.
I’ve always been about communication. Some people look at me and go, “You’re good at communicating.” That’s a lie. Many people are getting so bad at it that even I look good. You’ve gone there talking nothing about the product but everything about the relationship. You talk about the community, the culture and you were very passionate about that. You’re focusing quite simply that if you want to stay in business, build a relationship.
I would say, at my level, I lead an organization of a fleet of stores. My relationship with every single person that works in our stores is as important as their relationship with the client. It’s the company’s relationship, it’s my relationship, it’s theirs with the client and it’s theirs with the product. It’s all very human, connected, conversational and emotional. I don’t strip away the hard part or the ugly part. Let’s go deep into that. Let’s invest in training, in you. Let’s spend time together, talk about what you’re challenged with and translate all of that to the client. Through all of that, that continues to bring her back. I’m convinced that the minute you become just another store with more things that she can find somewhere else, and I say she because I’m in a woman’s business, but if she can find all the exact same things you have in your own four walls anywhere else and has no relationship with you, then you don’t serve a purpose anymore. You’ve got to find your niche. You’ve got to find your way in. You’ve got to find a way into her heart.
Do you think that’s going to change?
It’s going to become more important. It’s not going to change. The bigger eComm gets, and it will, her desire to have that close conversation is very important. We, as humans, want that connection. We want to come in and someone tells us that we look great. We want to come in and someone tells us how to wear something. The website cannot do that for you.
I’ve got a few people that I go to and you’re right, you want that honesty like someone says, “That’s not your color.” You’re preaching to the choir here. I’m loving everything you’re saying there. Do you have a cultural training program within INTERMIX to get your passion and your thought on building relationships across to the associates?
I do, but I would say it’s hiring first. I look for people who may or may not have a book of business. You would say years ago, if you’re going to work in luxury, you need to come with a client book. I sold $1 million at Louis Vuitton. I can sell $1 million for you. That’s a very old school way to think about this. If you and I can sit, spend half an hour together and learn a lot about each other, you are a natural-born salesperson. You can walk into a store, my brand or anywhere else, and sell $1 million here without a book because it’s your personality, confidence and ability to dig in and ask great questions. I don’t have to train that, I hire to do it. If I hire hundreds of people who do that well, that’s a winning success.Whether it's in an entertainment complex, a restaurant, or a retail store, nothing replaces human interaction. Click To Tweet
How important is it for that person to be sitting in front of you to be holding a degree nowadays?
In my business, it’s not important at all. During the interview process, I often ask, “Why did you study that? Why are you here?” There may be a marketing degree, psychology degree or some of that, but it doesn’t make you good at this business. I look for all the things I described. I’m always curious about how someone ends up here. I don’t look for the degree. I look for the core, your integrity and your personal ability to bring yourself to work.
What if they didn’t have a degree on their resume? Would it even get past? Would it even get to you?
It doesn’t matter to me. I like the conversation, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
We’re in a world where multiple disruptions are going. One of them is in retail. I’m terrible for this but I would go and see something and then the first thing I would do is I would look online to see where I can get it cheaper. Until they change the law, you could order it from another state and save you tax. That’s all changed, which is great for the local community. At the same time, I always was concerned how people thought about communication and degrees. We’ve seen a lot of people at Google and Apple quite openly going, “We don’t require a degree anymore to work for our company.”
It’s not that it isn’t important, it’s the path that you choose and you can be incredibly successful at whatever it is that you want to do. There are industries that require it, but my industry is not one that does. In the beginning, the teacher is the work that you do. Hopefully, you have great managers and you have a company that you work for that you love. If all of that happens and you do great work, you’re going to be successful.
I haven’t looked, but is it possible to purchase clothing through INTERMIX online? Do you have an online presence?
We do. It’s IntermixOnline.com.
Is that the heavier volume than the stores?
It’s the opposite. The stores are significantly bigger than our website. The website is growing exponentially every year because that is the industry trend. We are still a brand that is very service, people, trend, style, and all that mix happens in person. Over the years, we’re not opening new locations. This is not the time in the world to do that, but the website does continue to grow at a much faster pace. The scale of the business areas on the store side.
I’m wondering if that’s going to grow because of the taxation. For anyone reading and those that are not in the US, each state in America hold its own tax code. New York and California, those two are around over 10%. You’ll get a price for something and then on top of that, it’ll be 10%. I don’t know when the law changed, but you used to be able to phone up someone in Vegas, get it free of charge, shipped over to you, save 10%, and quite often be able to negotiate a bad deal as well. Now that they’ve changed the law and you are taxed on the state that you’ve received the goods, it makes no difference to me other than convenience ordering it or going into a store. I did notice myself popping down to a store for something that I would have normally ordered online. I’m quite enjoying the experience. I’m wondering if there’s a comeback to that thing, especially at your price point.
I keep going back to the fact that we, as humans, love interacting with each other. When it’s done well whether it’s in an entertainment complex, a great restaurant or retail store, we love that interaction with each other. Nothing replaces that. In the fashion world, we all want another opinion. We all want to know how to do and wear different things. That doesn’t happen anywhere except in the store and that’s not going to change.
You mentioned the price point $58 t-shirt to $5,000 piece of designer. The bottom line of it is even if you’re spending $58 on a t-shirt, you want to make sure that it works and it fits and I can see that. Your average client’s sale, what is your price per person do you think?
It’s about $600.
Let’s be blunt, someone’s spending $600 and they don’t come once because we’ve already discussed the relationship, the culture and coming back. We’ve got people that have repeatedly come to you and spending an average of $600 per person. Quite bluntly, you can say that you’re a luxury outlet because of that turnover. It changes over the years. There’s always this problem that when you start working in luxury, an allegiance comes around. If you go back to the ‘80s, and I did a show on where my mom was terrified to go into Gucci because of the precautiousness. You will get looked down on and you were like, “Why are you here?” You have to buy something expensive to get my approval even though you earned more than the people working there. There was that kind of snobbery. You’re at the top of your field in a well-known luxury brand and you decided to be on the board of directors of a completely different industry. Tell the good people what’s on the board of directors over there?
I’m on the board of directors of Goodwill for New York and New Jersey. I was very intentional in choosing that because you reach a point in your life when you say, “I have gained this much experience, how can I use it for good? How can I impact others?” I firmly believe that you can’t live in one world of luxury because it’s not real. For me, spending time in a Goodwill store where everything is $7 in the morning and spend the afternoon in my own stores with a very different client in some cases and in some cases, not because the world of sustainability, reselling and reusing is bigger than ever. The same client that could be in INTERMIX in the morning could be on Goodwill in the afternoon and finding those pieces to mix and match. That’s what is happening in the industry and how I wanted to be able to say I want to add value to Goodwill, whether it’s fundraising or my own skills and advice and be able to run a luxury organization. Both are incredibly relevant for me.
How long have you been with Goodwill?
I joined June of 2019 and it’s an honor to do so. What’s important that many people don’t know is that the purpose of the stores is to generate dollars to help people get to work where the majority of people with disabilities have a very difficult time gaining employment. About 60% of people in New York, New Jersey between the age of 21 and 65 are unemployed. It’s very difficult to get work. Goodwill has programs, placement services, temp agencies, and there are dozens of places within New York and New Jersey where people can help remove those barriers to employment. For me, it’s balancing. It’s easy to hire at INTERMIX and to be able to then help people who don’t have such an easy time finding a job that creates personal balance.
It’s in a world that is crazy, hectic, challenging, vibrant vicious, and every other word I could think of, you’ve decided rather than focus on one job, focus on two. I wonder if you were asked to select one, money not being the objective, which one you’d choose?
I’d like to say I could add value in both. It’s how you choose to spend your time. I’ve had a very interesting year and I’ve made choices that have helped me create more balance and this is one of them. That time spent in that term of self-care. Self-care for me is that mental balance between both sides of your world whether it’s work and life that within work, there has to be balanced. Luxury can’t be set aside. I work in luxury and I only work with clients who can afford anything. That is not an emotionally stable place for me personally.There’s wisdom that comes with age, and you have to share it. Click To Tweet
I’m liking the fact that we got to talk to each other. We met each other on LinkedIn. We’ve had a few conversations and I asked you to come on the show, and you were for it. Although we’ve spoken about luxury and we’ve mentioned luxury a few times in this, the main focus of the conversation has been on culture community and quite loudly balance. You’re balancing your day between INTERMIX and Goodwill. You’re in New York, is that correct?
It is a crazy place to be in any case. It’s constantly moving 200 miles an hour. I know you’ve got a website. What’s the URL for the website?
It is OurRetailStories.com. I’m writing a book that is about our retail stories. It is about the idea that retail is one of the biggest employers in the country. On average employees one out of every ten people in this country. Retail still is an industry. The idea is not always looked upon as a great choice in a career. I heard it very early on of like, “When are you going to stop working in the mall? When are you going to not have to work on Black Friday? Why can’t you come home for Christmas?” I work in retail and I love it but there often is that place where you would say, “I don’t love this. This is hard work and this is not paying back.” I want to be able to create a resource for everyone to say. “I love what I do. I feel confident about what I do. Here’s some great leadership advice from Ron. That will be out next year.” I’m collecting stories on OurRetailStories.com, but I will share many of them in the book.
They can subscribe to your newsletter. When the book comes out, they’ll know about it first off. I like your attitude. I don’t want to be rude and I’m gladly I’m very far away from you so you can’t punch me. The charitable part of your life, commitment, and the book, do you think this is an age thing? Do you think it has been triggered by hitting a certain point age-wise in your lives has made you go, “I need to do this now?” Do you think age has been the determining factor?
If you don’t recognize the facts in your own life that you have value to add to a bigger audience than whether it’s age, it certainly is a little bit of that for me, but more importantly, you can impact thousands of people instead of hundreds of people or dozens. It’s making choices that say, “I have value I can add to a bigger audience.” There’s wisdom that comes with age but you have to share it. You have to talk about it and you have to be confident that that wisdom is necessary in a time where people are looking for confidence in their life.
I’m looking forward to reading the book. If you’re in the retail industry, you can go and give your stories to this young man and they’ll make it in the book if it’s interesting. If not, it won’t. Where can they send their stories?
You can get on that. You can submit what you get up to and all your good, bad and ugly stories and they’ll make it into the book. Ron, you’ve got an interesting persona about you. My first thought of this interview would be, “What’s the state of retail? What’s the state of luxury?” We covered that but we quickly developed into community culture and balance. I appreciate it. Is there anything else that you feel we should tell the audience before we end up?
I’d say support your local retailers, both small and large, and we’d love to see you in stores. It doesn’t matter where you live, no matter what you do. During the holiday season, this is my favorite time of year. The minute Halloween was over, I was out in stores and I was saying Happy Holidays. For all of us that work in this business, this is the favorite time of year. Come and see any of us that work in this country and retail. We would love to see you and say, “Happy Holidays.” Get into Goodwill, make your donations. We don’t need anything other than donations that will help us raise money to help those that need a little bit of help getting a job. Nothing feels better in life than having a job.
Ron, you’ve been a thrill to chat with. I hope it’s not going to be our last time. Look after yourself. Thanks for being here.
Thank you, Steve. I appreciate it.
All the best.
That’s it for another episode. I hope you enjoyed it. Share it and tell people about it. Jump on Apple Podcasts and put up a review. Spread the wealth. I look forward to sharing with you again. Until next time, be safe.
- Ron Thurston – LinkedIn
- Apple Podcasts – The Art of Making Things Happen