"She needed a friend." So says James Rhee, CEO of Ashley Stewart, referring to the brand's dire situation just a few years back. Ashley Stewart was going to liquidate. It was three weeks from being over. He says, matter of factly, that that friend -himself--might not come in the form one might expect. The results have been one of the fashion industry's more impressive turnaround stories of the last few years.
Here's some of Rhee's secret sauce for success:
Be a Teacher
Before Rhee got into private equity, he was a high school teacher. He's used to teaching, and he knows that reinforcement of a message works. "I repeat these messages over and over again." By all accounts, Ashley Stewart is a real teaching culture. "I talk about value systems, and everyone gets the 'James speech,'" Rhee shares; he's also known for making his staff watch videos. He talks a good deal about how everyone who works at Ashley Stewart as being a fiduciary to "this woman," referring to the personification of the brand's customers.
Set Your Team Up for Success
Rhee gives his speech because he wants everyone to know what he or she is walking into. "There need to be no misconceptions about what you're joining. We're fast-moving. We're value-based business and mission-based. But it's a meritocracy. Are you up for that?"
He tries to see if the brand's values resonate with new Ashley Stewart employees, "because if it doesn't, you won't be successful here." Rhee is known for teaching his team everything they need to know, and believes companies need to invest significantly in their staff. Leadership and finance are two areas in particular Rhee emphasizes, "but you've got to perform."
Identify with your Customer
"I don't think about that at all," he says, referring to the challenges of being perceived as an outsider. "I think it's because I'm not that woman that people know that I care and that this is an authentic cause for me. Everyone is this woman."
Rhee embraces the underdog nature of his brand and is passionate about Ashley Stewart's place in the fabric of the US. "This is arguably the only fashion brand invented for plus-sized African American woman. As a citizen of this country, I think that's very important." While Ashley Stewart hasn't forgotten where it came from, thanks to digital marketing and ecommerce, other ethnicities and geographic regions are discovering the brand.
"And the fashion's great," Rhee says enthusiastically about Ashley Stewart's clothing. "This is unadulterated, honest, sexy fashion."
Never Stop Learning
"I'm the least qualified person to run this business," says Rhee. He may be joking, but he says this with a straight face. His rationale? He had never worked on a plus-sized business before; he didn't know that world whatsoever. As a result, he started listening. He professes to have learnt a good deal and considers himself to be a better, more well-rounded person as a result. "I'm the first person to say 'I don't know what the heck I'm doing,'" he says. "If I have a dumb question, I might ask people to explain something to me. I make myself look foolish all the time."
Know Your Values
"If you ask anyone at corporate and most people at the stores what our value system is, they will say kindness," Rhee says. What's more impressive is that independent conversations with his staff echo his words.
"All that matters is what's here and here," he says, pointing towards the heart and brain. "We're a meritocracy."
Get Your Team Involved
Now, Ashley Stewart has saved quite a few jobs, and the business thriving. Organic sales growth has surpassed 25%, with the company's profitable ecommerce business growing at 80% and accounting for nearly one-third of the firm's business. What's even more rewarding to Rhee is that from corporate leadership to the store level, employees are engaged. Two or three years ago, retail employees wouldn't have come to an event like the one where I met Rhee--where he presented a $100,000 donation to the American Cancer Society on behalf of Ashley Stewart. A few years ago, store employees likely wouldn't have been invited in the first place.
Rhee still doesn't have an office, nor does he have set hours apart from being first-in, last-out. Over 75 percent of US offices now have open floor plans, according to research by experience-design firm Kahler Slater. However, it's not just about open floor plans; it's about setting a public example that Rhee walks the walk and talks the talk. He expects hard work from his team, and expects no less from himself.
He tells his people to use their judgment. "You're a grown-up. I trust you." The store people just weren't treated well. But after two years, they've seen. Forget about the financials; that's just the cherry on top.
It appears as if Ashley Stewart has a bright future with Rhee at the helm. The branded needed a friend and, with some savvy moves with respect to both sales and corporate culture, it looks like it just might be a lasting friendship.