BOSTON — On the first official day of his retirement, Hal Pennington doesn’t quite know what to do with himself.
“I feel a little bit like I’m just on vacation,” said the former Genesco Inc. chairman and CEO, who spoke with Footwear News on April 1 by phone from his home in Nashville, Tenn. “That will change. I’m excited about [retirement and] what the next adventures are.”
While admitting that he is emotional about leaving the company where he spent nearly half a century, Pennington said one of the adventures he looks forward to most is traveling with his wife Peggy — with whom he just celebrated 50 years of marriage — as well as refining his golf game. Recently back from a trip to Central America, the couple plans to travel to Europe later this spring.
But Pennington, 72, will still have a hand in the business world, too, given that he is on the boards of two Nashville nonprofits — the National Symphony and Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art — and on the board of Pinnacle Financial Partners. (He also will remain a consultant to Genesco’s current chairman, president and CEO, Robert Dennis, through next March.)
Pennington, who first joined Genesco in 1961 following the completion of a Navy air reserve program, emphasized that, for him, business was just as much about making money as it was about fostering relationships within the footwear industry and at his own company.
“I would hope that I’ve left [a legacy of] understanding just how important it is to operate a company with strong ethical principles and very deep integrity,” Pennington remarked.
Working in many of Genesco’s divisions prior to achieving executive-level status helped Pennington learn to appreciate the importance of professional interactions among coworkers. “I feel very strongly about all parts of the company having the opportunity to engage with the different teams and divisions,” he said. “They’re not autonomous.”
The exec, who holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Auburn University, began at Genesco as an industrial engineer in the firm’s footwear factories. His responsibilities involved “developing the work flow for the products and establishing the incentive rate for each of the jobs,” he explained. He did that for three years before moving to the company’s headquarters in Nashville to work in the engineering department, of which he eventually became the head.
Later, he landed at Johnston & Murphy to be the brand’s VP of wholesale sales, and after that was in charge of Dockers. He eventually took over Genesco’s entire wholesale operation and became COO in 1999. He was appointed CEO of Genesco in 2002 and chairman two years later.
According to Pennington, it wasn’t a big master plan to remain at Genesco all those years.
“I just got busy and time passed. The opportunities I’ve had there have been so great for me and our family. It’s been full of excitement,” he said.
One of the career highlights for Pennington was the firm’s 2004 acquisition of Hat World, which he said came after careful consideration on Genesco’s part. The now roughly 900-store chain has been a successful addition to the company. And the acquisition also brought Dennis, the former chairman and CEO of Hat World, to Genesco.
Pennington, who was inducted into the FN Hall of Fame in 2004, said the people in the footwear industry also helped define his time at Genesco and are one of the things he’ll miss the most. “There’s a genuineness within the industry,” he said, adding, “The [shoe] industry has to continue to understand it’s about the customer. It’s about creating excitement for that customer and doing that in a speedy fashion, but by bringing new product to market and not becoming lackadaisical about serving that customer.”
Peter Hanig of Hanig’s Footwear in Chicago called Pennington “a phenomenal guy” who ran Genesco with integrity.
“I never felt I was the enemy, as you do in some vendor-retailer relationships. I felt like a friend. He wanted what was best for his company and what was good for me, too. He is one of the outstanding people in the business,” Hanig told FN.
Matt Rubel, chairman, president and CEO of Collective Brands Inc., echoed that sentiment.
“Over the past decade, I have known Hal as a competitor, a fellow board member and a citizen of our industry. In good times and in extreme situations, he has in every way shown himself to be steady, thoughtful, trustworthy and a contributor on every level. He has the mark of a true leader,” he said.