Retail will look back on 2020 as a year that changed the trajectory of the industry. It was the year that shut down stores to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It also marks the period that logged a significant number of retail bankruptcies, furloughed hundreds of thousands of retail workers, and is on pace to record the most store closures in a single year.
This year also saw some critical moves as executives tried their best to intelligently and creatively respond to unprecedented circumstances. Many C-suite employees opted to temporarily suspend their salaries, or work on a reduced salary, in order to support their companies or in solidarity with their larger workforces.
“Leading up to the pandemic, retailers were already working to reinvent and reposition their business and operations,” Catherine Lepard, partner and leader of the Global Retail Practice at Heidrick & Struggles, said in an email. “The pandemic served to accelerate changes that were already underway — inclusive of people changes, restructuring and in some cases bankruptcy. We observed companies asking key leaders to postpone planned retirements in order to provide stability through uncertain times; additionally we observed many organizations pressing pause on some growth or non-core initiatives to ensure they had the necessary capitalization to survive an indefinite period of uncertainty.”
Many things executives faced during the pandemic were set in motion in the years leading up to the global health crisis.
In retail, “there’s always C-suite changes. Typically, it happens after the first of the year,” said Shelley E. Kohan, an adjunct instructor at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. “And it may not be much different, in terms of the pandemic, with the exception of this need to swiftly adapt to the changing consumer behavior. So the outcome of the pandemic and retail has really accelerated many factors,” she stated, citing a shift to digital operations, an emphasis on social justice and diversity, and significant consumer changes in shopping behavior.
It will also mean the development of basic C-suite skills which currently are comprised of financial acumen, technological knowledge and an understanding of the role of social media. “All those skill sets were key in the past,” explained Kohan. But, perhaps more importantly, coming out of the pandemic there will be an emphasis on “empathetic, purpose-driven and stakeholder leadership skills,” she said.
While the C-suite evolves and the pandemic’s impact will continue to have ripple effects on the ways retailers adapt their business strategies, here are 10 significant leadership changes that happened in a year that was in constant flux:
1. Jide Zeitlin, Tapestry
In July, Zeitlin suddenly resigned as the CEO of Tapestry “for personal reasons,” according to a company press release, and Joanne Crevoiserat was announced as interim CEO. That same day, The Wall Street Journal reported that Zeitlin’s resignation happened amidst an internal investigation and alleged that the CEO posed as a photographer and used an alias to lure a woman into a relationship.
Zeitlin responded with a post on LinkedIn, where he said that the allegations that he “drew too close” to the woman in question were true, but the relationship “began and concluded 13 years ago, it had nothing to do with my role at Tapestry, and I did not use power, wealth, or position to further that relationship.”
At the end of October, Tapestry said interim CEO Crevoiserat would take on the chief executive role officially.
2. Les Wexner, L Brands
One of retail’s legendary leaders, Les Wexner, announced his departure as CEO of L Brands early in the year. In February, the conglomerate’s Victoria’s Secret brand was expected to be acquired by private equity firm Sycamore Partners while Wexner was to remain on the company’s board.
Then things changed. The pandemic hit the United States in full force in the spring, and by early May the two companies announced a “mutual termination” of their deal.
It was a peculiar end to Wexner’s six decades of domination over specialty retail as its merchant prince, which included the acquisition and sale of mainstay mall apparel brands such as The Limited, Abercrombie & Fitch and Lane Bryant, among others.
Shortly before his exit, Wexner’s murky relationship with Jeffrey Epstein was detailed by media outlets including The New York Times and ABCNews, which said that Wexner refused to reveal the scope of Epstein’s alleged multimillion-dollar theft from the L Brands founder.
3. Steph Korey, Away
Steph Korey stepped down from her position as CEO of DTC luggage company Away not once, but twice within a one-year span. The first time was in December 2019, when the company announced that Lululemon Chief Operating Officer Stuart Haselden would take over the CEO position from co-founder Korey in January 2020. The change came immediately after an investigative report by The Verge detailed allegations by employees that the then-CEO perpetuated a “culture of intimidation and constant surveillance” and that Korey was “infamous for tearing into people on Slack.”
By the second week of January, Away delivered the surprising news that Korey was not, in fact, leaving the company. Instead, the DTC was bringing Korey back into the top leadership spot and making her and Haselden co-CEOs while co-founder Jen Rubio would be in charge of product design and new categories. Korey explained the changes as “the exact working arrangement Stuart, Jen, and I had envisioned when we announced he was joining,” according to a copy of an Away Slack message emailed to Retail Dive.
Then, in mid-October, Korey stepped down as co-CEO and Haselden was announced as the sole chief executive. Again, the company said that the C-suite switch was planned since “the beginning of this year.”
4. Rose Marcario, Patagonia
In June, Patagonia announced that its CEO and President, Rose Marcario, would be stepping down after 12 years with the retailer. The company said that her departure was in the works for a year. “Circumstances around the pandemic created a natural inflection point for reimagining our business and Rose and the Board felt it made sense for those who would be carrying that work forward to step in now and lead the process of reimagining the company,” a Patagonia spokesperson said at the time. Marcario previously held COO and CFO roles at the retailer.
Marcario — who was feted in 2015 as one of the White House’s Champions of Change by President Obama for her support of working families — led the retailer during a time of increased activism. The retailer aired its first TV ad in 2017 to defend public lands in the U.S. against the Trump administration and, later that year, shut down sales on its website and put up a banner on the homepage that read “The President Stole Your Land.” Marcario also launched Patagonia Action Works and the Time to Vote initiative.
In September, the outdoors retailer named Ryan Gellert its new CEO. Gellert has overseen Patagonia’s Europe, Middle East and Africa business since 2014.
5. Traci Inglis, RTW Retailwinds
Perhaps one of the most fleeting c-suite moves of the year happened at apparel company RTW Retailwinds. The retailer, was once known as New York & Co. before it rebranded in 2018, announced in March that the company’s President and Chief Marketing and Customer Officer, Traci Inglis, was to become its CEO. Inglis came to RTW in 2019, a few months before the company said it was going to close 30 stores and sublease some of its headquarter space in Manhattan.
Less than one month after being named CEO, Inglis resigned. Four members of the company’s board of directors also left at the same time.
By July, RTW filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and said it planned to close “a significant portion, if not all” of its brick-and-mortar locations.
6. Erik Nordstrom, Nordstrom
This year, Nordstrom went from two co-presidents to one CEO. In early March, the retailer said that Erik Nordstrom would be the company’s sole CEO, and former co-president and brother Pete Nordstrom would be named as its president and chief brand officer.
“These titles help clarify our respective roles, as we strive to maximize our impact both as individual leaders and as a team,” Erik Nordstrom said in a statement at the time.
The announcement was made prior to the pandemic’s full impact hitting the United States, and before the department store, like many other retailers, had to temporarily shut stores due to COVID-19.
Nordstrom, which was struggling to differentiate its range prior to the global crisis, took an additional hit due to overarching sluggish sales in the apparel category. By the summer, the retailer said it would permanently close 16 stores and reduce its workforce and told its landlords to expect only half of their rent until January 2021.
7. Amanda Rajkumar, Adidas
In early October, Adidas named Amanda Rajkumar as its new HR chief, following the tumultuous exit of Karen Parkin, who stepped down from the sports retailer in June. That month, employees within the company asked the board to investigate Parkin due to questions regarding racial issues in the workplace. The Wall Street Journal reported that, at an all-employee meeting last year, Parkin reportedly said racism was “noise” and that she didn’t believe the company had a problem with racism.
At the time of her resignation, Parkin stated “it has become clear to me that to unify the organization it would be better for me to retire and pave the way for change.”
Rajikumar will step into the role as HR head at the start of 2021. She has over two decades of experience in the field, previously holding positions at BNP Paribas and JPMorgan.
8. Jan Singer, J. Crew
In January, retail veteran Jan Singer was announced as the CEO of the J. Crew brand and tasked with leading “all aspects of the J. Crew and J. Crew Factory brands and businesses.” Singer came to the specialty retailer from L Brands, where she worked as the CEO of Victoria’s Secret Lingerie for two years. Singer previously served in various other C-suite roles, including as CEO of Spanx and as a Nike executive.
About a month after Singer went to work for J. Crew, the company announced that it was delaying the proposed IPO of its Madewell brand, which had been expected to go forward on March 2.
9. Jamie Iannone, eBay
In a surprise move, Jamie Iannone was announced as eBay’s CEO in April. Iannone had been appointed Walmart’s e-commerce chief operating officer only weeks earlier, and quickly vacated the spot for the top position at eBay.
He worked with the big-box retailer since 2014, arriving from Barnes & Noble, and ultimately served as CEO of SamsClub.com and executive vice president of membership and technology before being announced as COO of Walmart’s e-commerce business.
EBay’s executive suite had been in turmoil since the fall of 2019, when the company unexpectedly announced the exit of then-President and CEO Devin Wenig. By 2020, federal prosecutors charged former eBay employees with cyberstalking a couple who ran an online newsletter that was at times critical of the company, something Wenig reportedly had expressed frustration with.
10. Paula Price, Macy’s
Macy’s CFO, Paula Price, announced her intended departure from the retailer in April. Her exit was only two years after joining the company from Harvard Business School and shortly after the company featured her as a prominent player in its “Polaris” turnaround strategy at the start of the year. That plan featured a supply chain overhaul, new intentions for its brick-and-mortar fleet, e-commerce and loyalty upgrades, and an enhanced merchandising strategy.
COVID-19 thwarted those plans, though. Instead of embarking on a new journey, the department store went into survival mode when it was forced to temporarily close store locations in the spring. Macy’s ended up reporting a first quarter loss of nearly $4 billion even after it reopened most of its stores. But, foot traffic took a punch as consumers remained hesitant to return to malls.