A believer in winners

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Urban Outfitters CEO Glen T. Senk. "The company has had a longheld belief that I absolutely subscribe to in underpromising and overdelivering."

Urban Outfitters Inc. created the chief executive job last year just for him - a type-A straight-talker with an artist's eye, dead-on retail instincts, and the ambition to grow the $1.5 billion Philadelphia retail company into a $10 billion giant.

A chat with Glen T. Senk quickly reveals why. The 52-year-old retail hound is about as ferocious a competitor as they come - his aesthetic sensibility notwithstanding.

"We really do have extraordinary people in this company," he says, "and I believe that winners win consistently. They may not win every time, but at the end of the race, whoever came out first in high school typically comes out first in college; they come out first in their first job; they come out first in their second job."

Senk shared his thoughts earlier this year in a wide-ranging conversation and a follow-up interview (the questions below introduce his thoughts and aren't necessarily verbatim). He recently marked his one-year anniversary as CEO of the company that runs the Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People apparel stores - and, new just this year, Terrain, an upper-crust garden store.

Board chairman and company founder Richard Hayne created the CEO job in May 2007. Senk is poised to one day replace the self-made billionaire at the helm of the growing Philadelphia retail conglomerate.

Senk's retail start was at Bloomgindale's in New York. He also ran a merchandise and marketing operation in London and was a senior executive at Williams-Sonoma Inc., before being hired by Hayne to lead Urban's chain of Anthropologie stores in 1994.

"I've known him for ages. He's a brilliant merchant," said Stephanie Solomon, Bloomingdale's women's fashion executive. "He's also got his finger on talent. And I trust him. I trust his intelligence and his foresight."

Question: Why is Urban opening more stores when online shopping is growing more popular among its target shoppers?

Answer: It's not just about coming into our store to buy a blouse. It's really about connecting with other people. It's about going for inspiration, going to see what the store looks like, going to see what other kids are wearing or [to] listen to the music, to see how the place smells and feels.

. . . I think that as kids get more and more wired that there's something else that's happening. They're going to increasingly be looking for more personal forms of connection. Because we're not robots; we're people. What motivates us most is connecting to other people.

Q: What makes a Generation X shopper different from a baby boomer?

A: The major thing is the boomers are more patient shoppers. If you look at the way they furnish their homes they were very patient; they really cared about provenance, quality; they were very happy to decorate their home over time. The X'ers are growing up and living in planned communities, they're used to buying the new house - it's almost like Desperate Housewives: moving in and eveything's done. They care less about provenance and more about how it looks and just getting it done.

Q: What do they buy that's different?

A: The boomers buy more antiques. Western Europe is more aspirational to them. The X'ers - certainly, the world has become a smaller place. The X'ers think nothing of hopping on a plane and going to the Far East or going to South America, so they're more interested in those cultures. Europe maybe feels a little bit old to them.

Q: How has the CEO position changed the way things are done at Urban?

A: When people ask me what it's been like transitioning into this position, I tell them that I almost didn't even notice it because I've worked with Dick [Hayne] for 15 years. Dick has been someone who has shared with me from the day I got here.

. . . When the formal promotion was announced about a year ago it was a non-event because I had been doing some of the work. . . . I've been to every board meeting since I've been with the company. There's nothing that went on with the company that I didn't know about."

Q: Is Urban better run with a CEO?

A: I think Dick did a brilliant job running the organization. It's just different. We did over a billion-and-a-half dollars this year.

. . . Having said that, you need to run a . . . soon-to-be 2 billion-, 3 billion-, 4 billion-dollar business differently than you run a $50 million business or a $100 million business. You need to communicate differently, you need different processes, the business is more complex than it was five years ago.

Q: What about the virtual absence of a traditional marketing-advertising department?

A: The company has had a longheld belief that I absolutely subscribe to in underpromising and overdelivering.

. . . We've always felt that if we exceed people's expectations consistently and over the long term that our business will be much healthier than if we spend money, tell people how good we are - and then fall short of those expectations.

Q: What of the media firestorms that sometimes erupt from the company's edgy merchandise?

A: I am not going to tell the buyers at Urban Outfitters what they can and cannot buy. I'm just not going to. I believe in free speech. I believe that they know their customer better than I do. And if they think their customer wants gun ornaments - and the reality is they [gun ornaments, c. 2006] sold out almost instantly, they were right about that - then they should have the right to do that.

And I, in my own heart, if I had any belief, any modicum of belief that a gun ornament incited violence in people I would probably stop it. I don't believe that."

Q: Talk about the company's two recent record-breaking quarters after a one-year stint of disappointing returns.

A: I liken it to a phenomenal athlete. The best athletes don't strive for perfection. The best athletes react. I'm a competitive horseback rider. And my trainer's always telling me: 'Don't worry about being perfect. What's important is to constantly react.'

 


Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.