Ep. 16 – Vans CEO Kevin Bailey shares insight from managing a global brand
Kevin Bailey, President of VF Action Sports and CEO of Vans (VF Corporation) spoke to a group of business students at the Irvine campus and it was recorded as a podcast for this episode of Brandman Speaks. Joining in the discussion is Joe Cockrell, vice chancellor of Communications for Brandman University. During the podcast, students asked questions about Bailey’s role as CEO of Vans, social media, global branding, current issues facing the company and its global mission, and challenges Bailey has faced on the road to becoming an executive.
Joe Cockrell: [00:00] Welcome to Brandman Speaks. I’m Joe Cockrell, vice chancellor of communications at Brandman University, and this episode is being recorded with a live audience of select students here at the Brandman campus in Irvine.
[00:12] It is my pleasure to have special guest Kevin Bailey. Mr. Bailey serves as president and CEO of Vans Americas, owned by the publicly traded VF Corp., which also has such brands as The North Face, Wrangler and Timberline. Back when VF bought Vans for $370 million in 2004, Vans was publicly traded as well. The company expects the 50-year-old brand to do $2.3 billion in sales this year, up from around $2 billion — a measly 2 billion — last year, making it the fastest growing part of the VF portfolio. So Kevin thank you so much for joining us today.
Kevin Bailey: [00:49] Thanks for having me.
Joe Cockrell: [00:50] I have questions here that some of the students have submitted. And let’s start with the basics. Can you describe a little bit about how you came into this career and your background?
Kevin Bailey: [01:03] Sure. It’s kind of a crazy story and I’ve had a very interesting ride, I guess. I’m from the East Coast originally. Grew up in northern New Jersey just outside of New York City. And I guess my first … I was a typical high school kid, right, going to school for honors math, honors science all that stuff, probably targeting pre-med at the time, not having any clue what I really wanted to do. But I started working in retail and if I’m honest about it I started in retail as a stock kid at the Gap because I thought I could meet girls.
[01:34] I’m just going to be honest about it.
[01:36] That was the plan as I school kid and I there were college girls who worked there and I thought that was cool. And the Gap then sold multiple brands. It wasn’t just a gap so they sell Levi’s and other stuff. But I started my ..really then that sort of got the bug in me for retail. And that’s really where I first got bit a little bit by having some good managers that oversaw me gave me a lot of different responsibilities and helped me learn some things that I didn’t know about. And then, as well, I found retail to be a real problem-solving environment. Every day you’re dealing with consumers, different issues. You’re dealing with inventory in and outs; you’re dealing with a variety of situations; and you’re learning how to sell, which I think is a big valuable skill. I also was an artist. I tried art school after graduating high school because I was confused and thought I was going to go to med school and pre-med and I changed my mind and went to art school. Final act of rebellion from my parents and then went off to University of Vermont. And through all of that though I stayed in retail and I always worked in retail and after school that’s … I got asked to take on an assistant manager job in a retail store — then it was an American Eagle Outfitters store that I worked in part time while in school. American Eagle then sold other things other than just American Eagle product too then. And I just sort of stepped into that life then and began the business career really by working in retail and grew up in retail.
[02:58] I was blessed and got to work with several founder-led companies in the time and sort of stepped into some good moments in time. I worked for Banana Republic again before they sold only Banana, the stuff that you see today sort of the euro-fashion stuff. Then it was sort of this out-of-Africa Jeep and safari kind of clothing company founded by a photo journalist and clothing designer. And I got to work with them directly. It was really interesting around a store in Midtown Manhattan doing a ton of volume for retailers back in the day. I worked for an educational toy store chain and eventually we closed that. It was a British-owned firm and I ended up working for Nike. I got asked to work for Nike out in Oregon and got to work with Phil Knight. Nike was 4 billion then. I was there from 4 billion to 10 and for anyone who follows them they just announced their target of getting from 35 to 50 and adding 15 billion. So being there when Nike was only four billion and actually Reebok at that time was bigger than Nike. It was a really interesting time in having to work with founders — really continued — and I went there to run their retail operations. So I opened all the Nike Towns around the world as well as grew their outlet business, and it was just really interesting time. I learned a lot about branding there. That was really where I learned probably the most about running a brand and the brand management piece.
[04:16] And it also is a matrix management system, culture, so it was very interesting time to learn about influence versus control and that’s a that’s a really valuable skill that I find valuable today. Still to this day in the way we run the business.
Joe Cockrell: [04:30] Tell me about more about that I’m curious about influence versus control. Tell me more about that.
Kevin Bailey: [04:36] Well, there’s a popular quote. Kenichi Ohmae, who worked for McKinsey and led their practice in Asia, the start-up, and sort of the three-C model, I believe is what it’s called. He said something about collaboration. He said that collaboration is about testing lines of communication, not lines of authority. And I think it’s a really valuable learning because it talks to you about how to work in a situation where you may have to work with people who don’t report directly to you but you need them to do something to support your efforts and your project that you might be leading. So in Nike, there’s many things that don’t operate directly. If you run the apparel division at Nike, the head of marketing in your organization actually reports to the head of Nike marketing, not to you. So that person can look at you when you want them to do something and say that’s great but I don’t work for you so I’m not going to do it. So there is that sort of standoff that can occur and having to learn how to gain influence and inspired them to action versus direct them to action is a really interesting piece. And you have to end up managing multiple relationships, out of marketing, out of finance, out of HR for Nike, not just for the individual units. And our parent company today, VF Corporation, is structured very similarly. My regional leadership people, who have a general manager over Europe, general manager over Asia, general manager over South America and a general manager over North America. The only one that reports directly to me is North America. So all of those other business units report directly through the parent company’s arms in those regions.
[06:00] And I have to influence those leaders to act on the best behalf of the brand. So it’s a lot about collaboration.
Joe Cockrell: [06:07] When you came back to Vans, what are some of the problems that you tackled? Because clearly it’s been successful — to grow from acquisition to $370 million in 2004 to $2.3 billion today.
Kevin Bailey: [06:20] Yeah, I think part of part of what intrigued me in coming back to Vans .. I was running retail when I left. I left to take on a broader role at Lucky Brand Jeans and was asked to come back as the president. And part of what always intrigued me about Vans, I still felt that it had never realized its potential, and I felt like the brand had a lot more potential that wasn’t being recognized and appreciated. And that’s what really intrigued me. The key part of that was understanding, while Vans comes from skateboarding, it was much bigger than skateboarding. That we didn’t want to ever lose our heritage and abandon what skateboarding meant to the brand because it was the authentic foundation. And I do think consumers want authentic brands at the end of the day in the world of fast fashion, but it had a much bigger runway and the brand needed to understand what the brand really stood for which was bigger than skateboarding. And its role in the lives of youth culture and the impression it left, the same way a pair of jeans might. You know you might have a pair Levi’s and you might say I’m always going to wear a pair Levi’s no matter how old I get. Well, the goal with Vans was to think the same way about it. What role does Vans play in life? It’s a Kodak moment is the way I look at it. Right? It’s I learned the first time I did a kick flip to fakey was in these Checkerboard Vans. The first time I learned to surf, I met this girl under the boardwalk and it’s the first girlfriend I ever had. The first time I crowd surfed at a concert, I lost my blue Vans Authentic. What are those Kodak moments that the brand played a role in your life? And recognizing that, and getting the team to recognize, that we didn’t have to abandon skateboarding to be bigger than skateboarding. Add to that then the global nature of the brand and ability to expand globally. And if the brands only about skateboarding, while skateboarding in the U.S. may only be 1 percent of the population skateboards — let’s just make a number up — well take that to China and is .00000001. China doesn’t like hazardous activities. It’s frowned upon and there’s the one child laws, only recently changed, but one child law meant, I don’t do anything dangerous it would be bad. It would be disrespectful to my parents. So skateboarding isn’t going to help Vans grow in China where we probably have the greatest ability to be big. Well, so is recognizing the brand also stood for music and art and creative expression and street culture. So thinking about all the different aspects of the brand enabled it to grow, and that probably was the path we undertook to start the growth curve for the company.
Joe Cockrell: [08:51] What are the challenges, and you can pick maybe one of the top challenges, of operating globally, in your experience?
Kevin Bailey: [09:01] Yeah, I think the biggest, one of the biggest challenges is really learning to learn the culture first. We shared in the beginning that how important it is to put your consumer at the center of the choices you make. And it requires some real stepping back and opening your eyes to different ways of operating to understand the way consumers think. And that’s a real challenge. So using examples of my time at Nike, we were opening Nike Towns around the world and as we were about to open one in Australia, I had to remind the Australian team, don’t just accept the things we tell you, help us understand your need. So for them it was really important that an Australian Rules Football room in their store, an area in their store. American football didn’t mean anything to them and they didn’t care. They didn’t want it. Canada, it was really important that they have a hockey area in their store. Those sort of thinkings are seem obvious but at times when you’re rolling out a company it’s really hard.
[09:55] One of the things I say about Vans being a global company, especially being it’s a youthful company, is that we don’t look to sell California around the world. So it’s not about taking our California origins and selling it elsewhere. We’re a youthful company, so to me the goal is young people today are connected really quickly through digital devices you know and that’s changing every year and getting more accelerated. So I look at Vans as if it’s going to be a global company we have to take the input from around the world, put into a big kettle, stir it all up and create a global brand that brings in input from around the world. Because, you know when I was young, you found out what was going on in another country via the news. Now, it’s found out in seconds via digital devices.
[10:37] So if we don’t make sure that what we sell around the world is a global product, then we’re just exporting Americana and that doesn’t work in the end run.
Joe Cockrell: [10:46] So here’s a question from one of the students. Recently a video went viral on the internet. You probably know it as ‘Damn Daniel.’ It landed Vans on the Ellen Degeneres Show. We’re curious about how that happened and Vans role in that video and the company approach to social media.
Kevin Bailey: [11:05] So Vans is very active on social media. We view social media as a key platform, right? Our young consumers are always active on social and to us it’s always a two-way conversation. So if a consumer posts on Facebook and tags something on Instagram, writes something on Twitter, we generally try to respond to all of them. So at least somewhere in there, engage. If they post a question, if they, you know, ask about something controversial. So Damn Daniel is funny because it was purely organic. We literally had nothing to do with it. And we did nothing. We sat back and watched it unfold while other brands jumped on it. So we got criticized a little bit through some of the media around marketing organizations like Ad Age and others for not jumping in and doing something about it. Clorox jumped in and did a whole Twitter campaign. Denny’s Restaurants jumped in and did a conversation between Daniel and his mom sitting at Denny’s saying ‘Damn Daniel, eat your pancakes.’ It’s it’s you know.
[12:03] So there were people that jumped on that opportunity. We chose to stand still and do nothing and let it happen organically and let it, you know, fizzle out organically, too, if that was the case. Until Ellen DeGeneres called the office and said, ‘hey I’m going to have these guys on,’ because she loves social media hype and now these guys on and ‘can I get shoes for the audience?’ and that’s how it actually first started. She wanted to give shoes away the audience. That morphed into she wanted the guys, the guy Daniel, to get a lifetime supply of Vans and, yeah, so it’s literally was very organic.
[12:40] It’s funny I was a youth culture conference recently and the marketers that were there actually said that there’s a conspiracy theory that we created the whole thing. We are nowhere near that smart.
[12:49] So and it’s very dangerous and I met with a group of two of the current sort of media stars of today. One is a YouTuber, Nash Greer. He has 32 million subscribers — he’s 18 years old — to his YouTube channel and another one is called Baby Ariel and she’s the number one person on Musically right now. She’s probably 15 or 16, and we talked about it at this conference that I was at and they both said you guys did exactly the right thing by doing nothing. Because if you jumped in, the social media buzz amongst the young consumer who’s super active, they would have crushed you for making fun of it or playing with it or hyping it. So by letting it just do its thing and be organic, they thought that was more appropriate.
Joe Cockrell: [13:35] Any other questions from the students?
Student: [13:37] Yeah. You’re discussing nostalgia, of the Kodak moment, and authenticity and I was wondering how you balance that brand authenticity and the image of nostalgia with your global expansion of the youth market when the newest, latest and greatest is what people are after a lot the time.
Kevin Bailey: [13:53] Yeah, now that’s a really good question because that whole idea around attraction of the new. Right? We all know the new iPhone comes out and we all throw away our iPhone that’s perfectly good because we have to have it. And that really is the way. That seems to be accelerating in this world.
[14:07] We just had our 50th anniversary on March 16 of this year and there was a lot of conversation over how much do we talk about being 50 years old. Because to a young consumers is that a turn off? Like do you really care you know, well wait a minute maybe this is Dad’s brand not my brand.
[14:24] So there’s a really tricky part in that. I think in our view it was reward are loyalists who’ve been with us a long period of time and point to progression in the future as part of that. And the real goal in there was to peel back the onion and really talk about what Vans really stood for rather than say, Vans is about a bunch of old skater dudes from you know Pacific Palisades that started the company. And I think what we try to do there is always stay connected to the influencers in what we call our four pillars of action, sports, art, music and street culture, and by staying active and participatory. And in some ways trying to expose the world to them that’s the way we try and stay relevant to the current moment. The simple example — the Vans Warped Tour. So that’s 21 years old now. The Warped Tour has given birth to Katy Perry, to Gwen Stefani to Green Day to Blink 182 to Eminem started on the Warped Tour. Ice-T started on the Warped Tour. So you run through people that start on the Warped Tour and became famous by being a band that was unsigned and by doing that, that’s our way to stay relevant to things that are new and coming in and in many ways help people, help the consumer understand that whatever they choose to express themselves, however they want to express their individuality and their personality through music, art, their sport or the way they dress, that’s OK with us and we’re going to celebrate it. and we’re going to celebrate it and to us that’s the way we stay connected to the now and we point back to that being the way the brand got started so the original skateboarders were trying to emulate their surf heroes on dry land because there weren’t great surfers. So they were trying to do their surf heroes moves on dry land on a playground. And showed up and did skate boarding very differently than anyone had in the day, which was sort of running slalom courses on cones. So they were express themselves creatively in our eyes and that was the getting back. When I came back to the brand getting to the foundation of what the brand stood for which was about creative expression and expressing who you are in your individuality and raising that up as has something to be to be valued.
[16:34] And that’s where the brand, to me, stands for and that’s why we can be timeless, is because we all go through what I’ve talked about publicly is that beautifully messy time of our lives. When we are trying to find ourselves, we stop defining ourselves by the group we hung out in high school and we start to define ourselves as individuals and there’s that journey we go through of saying well now we’ve got multiple groups of friends and it’s about the art I like and I take out my phone through instapost on Instagram. It’s about whether I skate, surf, snowboard.
[17:04] It’s about the music I listen to. It’s about just any sort of cultural activity I enjoy. Is it motorcycles? Is it a graffiti? What is it that I’m into? And now you define yourself as an individual and no matter what those things are, and how those evolve, that’s how we stay relevant to youth culture by saying we’re really about that creative expression not about skateboarding. Much the way Nike started as a running company and that’s their foundation. But they’re an athletic performance sports and fitness company. So recognizing there’s a bigger world over what that original nugget of founding the company was.
Student: [17:39] I have a follow up. Is that the conduit through which you communicate with foreign markets? Like that same ideology is how you translate the message?
Kevin Bailey: [17:46] Exactly. It’s about saying hey look we’re here to help you provide platforms for you to celebrate your own individuality and allow you to express yourself. So we put on workshops around the world. Through these venues we’ve created, called House of Vans, and often they’re pop-ups. We have two permanent ones: one in New York, one in London, but we did 10 pop-ups the week of March 16th. There was one workshop in Seoul Korea that was about literally making a turntable. Another one was about printmaking in South Africa. So we encourage them to learn from artists and allow them to start expressing themselves differently and for us, in a place like China, that was the place we started as helping them understand that they could express themselves in a culture that didn’t normally appreciate that and didn’t normally elevate that and respond to it. But they had this desire to be connected to Western culture and what was happening. So we started providing that and I think the pivotal moment in saying we’re on the right track in China was in social media, the social media that is allowed in China. We started getting called Big Brother Vans and we got nervous. It’s like, whoa is that “1984,” George Orwell, and instead what it was, was we were their big brother who advised them on what was cool. So we were helping curate what they wanted in their life and that was like OK we’re in the right place we’re doing the right thing.
[19:11] And that’s what allows us to just continue to morph wherever we are in the world. If we go back to were about creative expression, it doesn’t matter what it is. So if you’re Nike and you’re about authentic performance, it doesn’t matter if you’re a rugby player in Australia or you’re a hockey player in Canada. You’re about athletic performance. And that’s the big difference, that we’re about creative expression in whatever way people choose to do it, because we all go through that time of our lives more trying to figure it out.
Joe Cockrell: [19:36] Tell us about what the company culture is like and then what role do you see in that. Are you the steward of the culture? You know does the culture come first? Talk a little bit about that and your perspective as the leader.
Kevin Bailey: [19:50] Yeah so what I’d say about the culture of Vans is really there’s several sort of arms to it.
[19:57] The first one I’d call out is the skateboarding piece. So to us skateboarding is where we come from and it’s really important we never lose that. Brands have lost it. And I think our primary competitor started out as a sport brand and doesn’t do it anymore and it’s not as relevant to them and they’re just a lifestyle brand now in our eyes. So to us, we could either go that path and just be a lifestyle brand and sell multi-colored canvas sneakers that people choose to wear because it is cool and it’s fashion, or we can stay connected to skateboarding, and then that means it’s relevant to us and and it gives us a place of authenticity. So for us the first pillar of that sort of cultural element is action sports but to us it’s really skateboarding at the end of the day.
[20:39] We want to be, our shoes on the tongue say the number one, world the world’s number one skateboard shoe. We want to make sure we always are that. And that we support skateboarders. When we did our consumer study, we did a big consumer study $4 million, 12 countries to understand qualitative and quantitative qualitatively and quantitatively what this brand could be.
[20:58] It came back that of all of the action sports of the heart, music all the different pillars, skateboarding was the one that most influenced trend in culture. That skateboarders, despite their uniform of a pair of jeans, a dirty T-shirt and some sneakers and maybe a cap or a beanie, that they were the ones that were influencing what was cool. Surfers didn’t really do that because it just board short and surfboard. Certainly there’s a surfer fashion culture but they weren’t as connected through their choices in music right. So skaters love to blast music while they’re skating. So music played a role and that could be metal, it could be hip hop, it could be punk, it could be anything. T
[21:36] Their fashion tastes. I’ve been shocked when I go to a skate shop in places like Malaysia, and these guys know what’s going on all over the world with top fashion designers. They are very connected to trend. So skateboarding is really important. The next element I call out is family and Vans started as the Van Doren Rubber Company in Anaheim, California, back in ’66, and several of the family members still work for the brand. So Steve Van Doren who’s the most well-known is my V.P. of marketing and promotion or promotions and events. Steve is like Santa Claus, if you’ve ever met Steve, if you ever have a chance to, he is so contagious. He’s the hardest working man in the building. He’s 60 plus years old, wears a bright Hawaiian shirt every day. But his culture is about, ‘hey when I was when my dad started this company, you know, it was all hands on deck, and we all had to do whatever is necessary to sell shoes.’ So the culture in the company is very much that everyone has sleeves rolled up and they’re engaged and the hierarchical idea of, you know, I sit in a corner office and I’m not accessible is out the window. Donna, my assistant, knows that she sort of has to play traffic cop at my door because often there’s a line because no one is intimidated to come see me. And no one would would hesitate to say, ‘hey, you know we’re picking up trash outside come help.’ That’s who we are as a company. It’s a family company still to this day and I try to foster that through my communications.
[23:06] I call it Vans family when I send out an email and are saying, even to people who leave, is once a VanDoren always a VanDoren. So you can’t leave the company, go even go to the competitor and not still be part of the family.
[23:17] So family plays a really big role, and that’s why we have some of the skate legends from the early days of skateboarding still on our skate team despite the fact that we don’t pay them very much money, because they feel part of family. And Tony Alva talks about our company is a family. And he doesn’t say Vans is he doesn’t say that a company that pays me as an athlete he says our company he says our family.
[23:41] Steve Cavalera, Christian Hosoi. You’re on the list. They all talk about it that way. And those guys will do anything. Earthquake in Chile. They’ll get out, they’ll call us up and say hey we want to go do a benefit, let’s go. And they’ll come over, they’ll jump on a plane of their own accord ,we don’t pay them extra. So family’s really important. And then the last one is, which speaks to the who we are as a brand, a culture of creativity. So making sure that we continue to foster that so sometimes we’ll have art exhibits in the hallways of the office that employees have created will just put their art up just because that’s important. Right now the voting just opened on our high school art contest. We have a custom culture high school art contest to decorate our shoes. It is to raise awareness for underfunding of arts in America as well as encourage kids to take part in the arts. So those are what those are and definitely to your second question. When I came back to the brand, I viewed one of my most important roles as being a steward for the family brand. So I talk to Paul Van Doren, the founder of the company, every now and then. He’s 80 some odd years old. He’ll stop by the office and he will tell me, ‘Who changed this? Who screwed up on the shoe? Who dared change as part of it?’
[24:48] But yeah, my goal is to make sure that this stays a family, and no matter how big it gets, I don’t want ever to have a layoff when in the economy because to me that I’m letting down the family. How do I lay off family members? You can’t do that. So my role as a steward is to be really careful about that tension of growth, investment so that we never get to that point.
Joe Cockrell: [25:08] How many employees do you have?
Kevin Bailey: [25:11] Gosh. Around the world, if I count the retail stores, there’s north of 6,000 is the estimate and that expands and contracts with seasonality in the office. In Cyprus, there’s about 500.
Joe Cockrell: [25:22] What are some of the challenges with having a global staff?
Kevin Bailey: [25:29] It’s definitely challenging. It grows in complexity every year. We all know the litigations that exist around various topics that affect cultural issues in the workplace. But again I think if you place, we talk about placing the consumer at the center of who we are as a brand, well if place the employee at the center the same way, they’re like a consumer as an employee. If you place them at the center of all things, it’s really important. Paul Van Doren, the founder, said, this was never a shoe company. This was a people company that happened to make shoes. So if we keep placing that at the center of our choices, it’s really important. His other quote has been it’s been popular is it was never about waving the brand around like a flag. It was always about the people. So that’s why the people act like a family, all work together come together on things. There certainly are challenges in understanding, more than anything else, the laws around the world and making sure that we stay connected to the legal issues. That’s probably the most important thing. The benefit packages are different. You know, I just was in Argentina and the Argentine employee gets raises four times a year. They would shock the average person because those raises tend to average around 20 percent which is incredibly high. However, when you put that apply that against the inflation rate in the country, many of them actually make less money the year after the second year than they did the first year despite those big raises because the economy in Argentina is just so bad. Inflation is completely out of control in South America.
[26:58] We talk about Greece and Spain and all those places ,but Brazil right now is deteriorating at a really rapid pace economically. So the issues are no different than any other issue you face anywhere. But having a company with high ethics, having channels of communication so that people can raise their opinions freely without repercussion. We do regular engagement surveys every year, every other year with our parent company, and the in-between years we do here with the Orange County Register as part of a broader best places to work sort of you know employee engagement survey. From that we put together a cross-functional teams inside the building to address the biggest concerns that come up for employees in terms of how this could be a better workplace. So.
[27:47] I think it’s more about accessibility. It’s about ethics. It’s about hope and change of communication, and it’s about being honest and real so.
[27:58] I’ve never, as a person who grew up in retail, I’ve always had to deal with managing lots of employees, and I can’t say I can think of a problem at Vans that’s ever concerned me. If you just practice good human resource practices policies and practices it’s pretty easy.
Joe Cockrell: [28:14] Anybody else want to go work for fans right now? Other questions from the students? This is really more for your benefit. Yes
Student: [28:21] It’s pleasure to meet you up close. I was this teenager … with oh I don’t know how I was going to do it I remember that the open… What really interested me, was as teenager you worked in retail all the way to a top as a top executive, a CEO. Besides being insightful and having that experience through the years, what were your own personal and leadership attributes or traits that led to your success now?
Kevin Bailey: [28:51] Wow, that’s a loaded question. That’s that’s one that’s tough because it’s like I got to think about myself and I’m not one who likes to do that. So I lay on the couch here before I answer that question.
[29:04] So I think there’s a couple things that have influenced me more than anything else. There are a few simple ones, I’d call out and try and be brief on. The first was my dad. So my dad was an orphan, and he grew up without parents and literally from age 9 through age 18 grew up in an orphanage. He went from that to enlisting in the military, did his military service and then put himself through college on the G.I. Bill. Doing homework under a streetlight in New York City while working during the day. And then rose to being a pretty high-powered executive in a major textile firm that no longer is in existence in America. So the bad influence on me as a kid was one that I had no excuses, no excuses. If Dad can do that what excuse do I have? So when a class feels harder, or when, you know, I don’t feel good or whatever those things were and you know there’s probably a longer conversation there about what that’s done to screw me up too. Being overcompetitive in life. But I think the reality of what my dad did to me from a standpoint of determination, perseverance etc. So I think those those key competencies were really embedded in me then. The other one I’d call out, I’ll call out three. The other one I’d call out was one from an early boss I had. So when I was working in New York City for a major retailer, I had a boss who once during my performance review told me I needed to develop more bastard-like qualities.
[30:37] OK. I figure if you ever asked me what the best advice I ever got that was the one I was going to use and that would be a little bit bizarre but she told me to develop more bastard-like qualities it really took me aback. Because I didn’t appreciate her as a leader, I didn’t feel like she taught me very much and I really had to think about it. And I went back the next day and asked her if I could meet with her again and went to see her. I was running a very successful store in New York at the time and she oversaw the New York market.
[31:02] And I went to see her again and said, ‘Hey, so yesterday you told me I need to develop more bastard-like qualities.” And she looked at my performance review and said, ‘I agree that’s exactly what you need to focus on.’ And I said, ‘So you ask me to be more like you?’ And she said, ‘exactly.’ And I said, ‘well, I never want to be like you’ and I quit. And, married two little kids at home, went home had to tell my wife I quit my job without a job and it was not a fun time in my moment. But I think with that. But what that moment did for me was about what I didn’t want to be. And to me there was a better way to be a leader. And that was not it. So from that day on I really felt that was a pivotal moment in changing my career path. And it’s always been about the people issue which you just asked about. To me it’s always been about recognizing that you can be a compassionate leader and achieve a lot more. I’m called the Zen master at work at times, as a sort of a joke people talk about with me. But I always believe that it’s never about the person when you have a problem in the business it’s always about an underlying issue. And the example I used to my team recently was, you know, you could have a flower dying in your garden. If you blame the flower what purpose does that serve? Versus checking the leaves and checking the soil and looking for insects inside and decide does it get enough sun, get enough water?
[32:13] There’s always an underlying issue. It usually has nothing to do with a person because most people are inherently good and desire to do good in this world. So why would I tell someone to be more of a bastard? So I think recognizing that compassionate leadership is a key attribute that I think is really important to me, and I think, because of that I’m accessible, because of that I have no problem talking employees about their problems and also being honest with them and telling them I’ll be honest with you so long as you’re honest with me and so I think that’s a key attribute that I learned from that moment in time. And the third one was a mentor that I had that is still a mentor to this day when I ran an educational toy store chain that. Put me in my first really big job like overseeing the country for retail business and I was a store operations guy, I was overseeing all the store operations, and one day he called me and said he had fired head of marketing and ‘hey, you’re in charge of marketing.’ I was 27, 28 years old. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Why would you put me in charge of marketing? I don’t know what I’m doing. And he said, ‘you know what you’re a smart guy. And my office is two doors down. So come see me if you have a question. I’m sure you’ll figure this out.’ And it was learning to place trust in others, that I learned through that moment. And also learning to be there for them. So my belief and my philosophy is give people a lot of rope.
[33:26] So if I ask someone take on a role, I give you a lot of rope. And some people say,’Well you can let them hang themselves?’ Well, no because my job is to stop you before you hang yourself. My job is to let you get tangled up in your old fall down, be all tangled up on the ground, but be the first one there to pick you up, untangle you and say OK what happened and what did you learn from it. OK great, brush you off, go back and do it again. But, always to be there and be the net that keeps them from hanging themselves. So he’s been a great mentor to me in my life and that’s that’s one that I would say is another attribute for me. I recognize at times I have to put on the sport coat and act like this or the president or company versus, you know, I generally show up to work in a T-shirt a pair of jeans and pair of Vans or once in a while a shirt with actual buttons on it.
Joe Cockrell: [34:15] You dressed up for us.
Kevin Bailey: [34:16] I did, this is like grownup day.
[34:21] I am the world’s oldest teenager.
Joe Cockrell: [34:24] If looking back in your career I can, I can point to a really, really specific mistake that I learned from it and really pivoted my career in a different direction. You have any moments like that? Other than OK quitting a job, that’s that’s pretty good example there.
Kevin Bailey: [34:43] The mistake moment I’d call out was actually while I was at Nike. And my years at Nike, I had eight bosses, so it’s Nike’s famous for turning bosses. There’s a philosophy there, there’s actually a business, a business culture that, there’s a reason they do it, which is about constantly creating S curves in the business by creating competitiveness. But I say my biggest mistake there was during one of those moments. I fell victim to working for someone who was a lot like that person who I got a bad life experience from and what I found myself doing was slowly giving up the things that were important to me to focus more on work. I thought by working harder, working more, I would be able to satisfy her needs that I was doing the right thing. So the going to the gym in the morning before going into my desk turned into no just going to my desk. So when it would be get up at 5 in the morning to go to the gym so that I could be at my desk by 7, 7:30. No now that turned into 5 o’clock get up put on clothes and go to work and be at work for two and a half hours before anyone else got there to get more done.
[35:49] And coming home at night, and with my wife and kids there after their day, me having dinner and quick opening the laptop and sitting on the couch on a laptop while the kids are doing homework or they’re watching television or whatever and I’m sitting on the laptop. And a day happened when I realized the family gone to bed and I was still on the laptop and I don’t remember them going to bed.
[36:10] And that was a moment where it caused me to really think about my values and think about what was important to me and recognize that maybe I that wasn’t a place I want to work anymore if that’s what working there meant. If I wasn’t getting appreciated for the work I did do and the quality of my work and the quantity wasn’t going to solve it in that moment in time. And in deciding in that moment that I had to do what was right for me, irregardless of the ramifications of my job and my work environment so, if by working something that provided me balance that made me a better leader and maybe a better professional, meant that I could lose my job, so be it. I will go somewhere where I’m valued for what I do in the way I do it and and not focus on that. And I think it’s really important. There’s a lesson there that I think is critical, which is, you can’t count on anyone to manage your own career, you have to manage it yourself. And too often people throw themselves into companies and go OK so, do I get promoted now? I worked really hard and you’re taking care of me, right? I try really hard to take care of the people who work for us and make sure that we have career paths but at the end of the day, they have to take charge of their own personal development and their own career path. I can’t possibly keep track of 500 employees here or 6,000 employees around the world and make sure. I want to provide them the opportunities and the platforms and the moments in time that allow them to reach out and grab what’s next for them, but you do have to take charge your own career, and that was the mistake for me, was getting caught up in thinking that working harder was going to solve all that.
Joe Cockrell: [37:38] So I would like to wrap up. Final words of advice. We have some very bright students, who are studying global business, well it’s a global business class, I’m assuming a lot of your business majors. Is that kind of your major? What would be your words of wisdom for these very, very bright students who have chosen Brandman.
Kevin Bailey: [38:00] Gosh,how long do we have? There are a couple quick things I’d say about that. What was the other one I was just thinking I had three of in my head. The first one I’d say is about finding your why. So there’s a there’s a Simon Sinek TED talk.
[38:17] It’s these three concentric circles: the what, the how and the why. It’s a really valuable TED talk, if you haven’t seen it. Sinek is S I N E K.. And it’s the one I used when I came back to Vance to help the company realize we could be bigger than what we were at the time. And his part in that, is recognizing that there’s really an underlying bigger reason for things and he uses the example of Apple, you know we all hate the Uber example, but here well, I’ll use the Apple example. Apple versus any other PC. And he said PCs came out and everyone said you know this is a computer. It enables you to do the following things you can create documents. You can create financial tables. You can create presentations by my computer. And that was pretty much generic whether it be IBM, Dell or whoever. Apple came out and said, ‘We’re company that’s focused on making your life easier. We’re a creative company and so we have all these cool things you can do, and oh by the way, we make computers by our computer and it was had nothing to do with the computer. It had to nothing to do with, the computer didn’t come first. But what it does for you came first and Simon Sinek says it much more eloquently than I. But at Vans the thing was again, peeling back the onion, for Vans when you said, ‘What does Vans stand for?’ people said a skateboard company. And that’s what Vans is, it’s a 15-year-old male skateboard company and my thing was peel the onion back further.
[39:40] Keep going, keep going. What’s the why? Why did skateboards wear Vans? And that’s where this idea around creative expression came from. Why did the skateboarders choose in that time to change the way skateboarding was perceived? Why were we there at the birth of modern skateboarding? Well it was because of this thing about creative expression. Why did, why was the Vans Warped Tour this place where people just, you know, galvanized as youth? Why was it the longest running music festival in the world today? Well, because it galvanizes youth in a place that’s about just expressing yourself and recognizing that why. So getting to that why I think is really critical and I’d encourage you as future business leaders to find your why. Ao my why, since I’m sure that question follows, comes when I left Vans, went to Lucky Brand Jeans and the very first thing, I did do was a store manager conference. So all the store manager from all the stores are in a conference room, waiting to go into the big ballroom to get the big grand kickoff from the CEO, and I was the executive vice president the time and they knew I was in charge of all the stores. So I was like you better start talking to people and learn your network. But I walked cocktail table to cocktail table where there were managers gathered catching up.
[40:51] Hi, I am Kevin, I’m the new boss in. Nice to meet you, where you from, where you from, where you from, what stores, and you know OK you can ask me anything because I probably won’t remember you because I’ve only just met you and but you know ask me anything and I’ll always be honest. And you know trivial questions came up and one manager I wish I could remember who it was, I don’t unfortunately, said I have a question. She said, ‘Why do you do what you do?’ And I was kind of, stood there for a minute, I was like, ‘Wow it’s a really good question I don’t, never been asked that question before.’ And the answer to me came actually pretty quickly and I looked at her and said, ‘Because somewhere in this room of 150 people tonight is me. Somewhere in this room is me once upon a time wanting to be more, thinking I could do more, thinking I could contribute more. Wondering would anyone see me? Would anyone know I was here etc.? And my job is to find you in that room. See that little spark in you and pour can of gasoline on you and allow you to burst into this big fiery thing that you can possibly be.’ So for me, my why has always been about that. My why has been about mentoring others, helping others learn what they’re capable of, what the possibilities are and that there are limitless possibilities. Reference my dad and what he got to from being an orphan and where I’ve come from being a stock kid at the Gap.
[42:06] So that person always exists out there and finding them and helping them because they can get lost. And from that. So that would be my advice to the business leaders is find your why. But then do something with it. And and I’m a big believer in pay it forward. So I would really encourage you to. Don’t let today even. If you want to value me showing up today and talking to you, then go do it yourself some day in your life. Go do something that is meaningful that you can influence others with. Take that moment, wherever it is, and do something with it because that’s how things change. And you know at the end of the day we all we all are going to be a bunch of a pile of ash and deciding what you really stood for and what mark you really left is the most important thing and to me that mark is, you know, people that learn from you and chose to follow your path or chose to say, you know, what that was interesting, but I’m going to choose a different path. He zig, I zagged and doesn’t matter which one they choose but help them see opportunities.
Joe Cockrell: [43:09] Great advice. Thank you very much for joining us. Thank you. Thank you. I’d like to thank the class for letting us come in and record Brandman peaks. I would like you thank Dr. Deb Ferber from the faculty and the faculty for this course, John Bachofer, and my sound engineer, Gustav Deutsch. Brandman Speaks is produced by university communications. You can learn more at nimbler.brandmannews.sachiel.xyz.
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