From Millions to Billions (a career story)

10 Oct 2019. Angelo LaGrega with Bob Kaplan

I came out of nowhere.

I'm somewhat of a brash New Yorker, and I was working in the "good manners" South. I'm very instinctive, extraverted, and I tend to think out loud. Late in my career I ran into a retired executive and he asked me how things were going. I told him, "The corporation is giving me a hard time about hitting the numbers." He said, "Even when your numbers were good, they didn't like your style." I wasn't your typical buttoned-down executive by any means.

How high did I shoot career-wise? I had no height. I never thought of promotion. My goal was to do a good-enough job to keep from getting fired. That's part of my success and part my problem: I always thought I was going to be fired. Huge fear of failure. I'm not sure where that came from. Maybe my very choppy childhood.

I'm much too quick to see my weaknesses—but I believe it to the bone. To compensate, I worked my butt off. Probably to a fault.

I entered the company at the lowest possible entry level. And it was in a very small, out-of-the-way division. Off-brand and totally off the beaten path.

In that division I worked my way up to the highest level—as director of merchandising—reporting to the president. I had a lot of freedom, much more than in a big division where you'd get slotted. That was a huge luxury. So I was able to get myself involved in all aspects of the business. As the director of merchandising, I was formally responsible for developing all the products that went to market. Yet I also worked closely with sales—which involved actually going out and meeting with customers—and I also worked closely with advertising. So I got the chance to be an entrepreneur.

Eventually, I was offered a job at the same level in another division. But at just that moment, a senior guy came along and told me, "You can never go wrong with Wrangler Menswear." I opted for that even though I had to take a step down. It was amazing guidance. One, because in 18 months the other division was closed down and I would have been exited out of the company. But, two, Wrangler Menswear was the biggest division stocked with many very capable leaders, and for me it turned out to be the land of opportunity.

So I became a product manager there. The job was much narrower than what I'd been doing. It was only about delivering the product. It was definitely not running the whole brand. But I took a broad role anyway—like a packaged-goods brand manager. No one seemed to mind and in fact my strong work ethic and my broad approach were encouraged.

At that point the channels of distribution were changing—from local mom-and-pop stores to big national customers like Macy's, JC Penney, Walmart and Target that had hundreds of stores. This was huge because we realized that beyond being in the apparel business, we were in the retail floor-space-management business.

Like the rest of the industry, our company just focused on selling into retail stores. What the leadership team and I did was to change the viewpoint from only doing that to selling out of the store too. The packaged-goods industry was already doing that but nobody seemed to think it could be applied to apparel.

The VP of Sales started taking me along with him when he visited customers. He had seen that I had a way of coming up with products that created strong demand. Part of that was my product sense. We were selling functional clothes and it helped that I came from a blue-collar, lower middle-income family. My personal design sensibilities were aligned with these consumers. But we didn't just rely on intuition. We also did consumer research that gave us real insight.

So I was good at understanding who our target consumer was and what they wanted. That and my entrepreneurial style matched up well with the VP of Sales' skillset. He was a great leader and, by the way, another brash New Yorker.

He and I, with a team of people, put together a couple of wins that stabilized the volume. Our company had been struggling. After we did that, our careers went in tandem. We had an amazing 20-year run together. When he moved up, I moved up and the team moved up. Probably ten people all got promoted repeatedly in this business surge.

I believe the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts (that's from Aristotle; I looked it up). It was an unusual group of people who in many ways were different. So the magic of that. I give the individuals above me credit for doing that, choosing that mix of people together and making it work.

We did two other things that fueled the surge.

First, we realized we needed a way to track sales. We had to know, much better than we did, what was selling and what wasn't. How else could we satisfy a retailer that wanted to move 10% or 15% of product a week? A purple jean may sell but not enough to take up three feet of shelf space. So how much space to give it and how to display that merchandise and then how to insure you had the right inventory in the right stores. 

Well, there was already a tracking report that manufacturing used to decide how much product to make. We piggybacked on that. The problem was it was manual. Data was entered and reports were generated by hand.

So the other thing that fired the surge was IT, which enabled us to automate our tracking system. That was one of the division president's four strategic planks—being the best in our industry at computer systems. What distinguished me is I fully embraced his entire strategic platform, and then executed that at a very high level.

By the way, the division president was also process-driven, which I learned from him. I can be shoot-from-the-hip.

So the success was in the micro-ness of it. Because I attended to the detail so closely, we could make sure we as a company met, and exceeded, the customer's expectations.

As a result, we were the first ones in our industry to know every day what was sold in every store. That enabled us to be best in class at floor-space management. We were then able to grow sales and then grab market share—and hold onto it—because it was hard for anybody else to quickly emulate us.

The business went from not being successful in a small market to being highly successful in a huge market. We went from having a 5% share of a small channel to a 50% share of a huge channel. Revenue went from millions to billions.

It got to be such big numbers and there was no room for missing those numbers. I think you should be accountable for those numbers but hitting them every month, every quarter, every year is a tall order.

When you know you're not going to meet expectations, you may be working on something that could turn it around in another year, but in the meantime there's the pressure of having to go to Wall Street and explain. That's what is so grueling about it.

There's also another driving force. I don't know how to describe it. It's about taking care of people. They're depending on you to keep their jobs, make their bonuses, and create opportunities for promotion.

When you're swimming upstream, you know you can't get there by doing what you're doing. You know you need to do things differently. And there are no easy answers. That's the stressful part. The wisdom is in knowing what to change. And whatever you decide, there are a lot of people in the company second-guessing your decisions. That's no fun.

What I've found, around me and in other companies, is that often the changes that companies make only make the situation worse. As an example, one large retailer was experiencing flat sales so management brought in a whole new team that changed everything. The business promptly lost 10-15% a year for the next three years. At that point the company brought back several of the practices that the new team had gotten rid of.

In hindsight I wish I could have done better as a leader. I wasn't a natural leader by any means. The guy who mentored me was a natural leader. It rubbed off on me a little bit but not as much as I would have liked. As a senior manager, I had to become less of a doer and get more done through other people. I struggled with that. I stayed focused on short-term details, to a fault.

I had a group of people who loved my leadership—they welcomed it when I got deeply into the detail with them. Another group of people hated my leadership, and with them I would have done better to first ask what they were doing and say what I liked about that, before I gave them my two cents worth. So listen first and keep my habit of thinking out loud in check. In general, I could have been a much more effective leader if I took a more thought-out and conscious approach.

So I'd certainly do some things differently, but I'm very proud that our company became a leader in the industry and that I played a role in it.

Angelo is the retired Group President of VF Jeanswear Americas. He was responsible for Wrangler jeans and Lee jeans.