Hall of Fame: Debbie Ferree

When Debbie Ferrée walked into the DSW offices for the first time in October 1997, the mega retailer was a very different place than it is today.

At the time, the private firm was owned by Jay Schottenstein and Steve Nacht, and stocked mainly off-season, closeout merchandise sold at a heavy discount. But Ferrée, who came with decades of experience, had a vision for a new way of operating.

“That new model was selling current, in-season merchandise from great brands at an everyday value to the consumer, so the customer didn’t have to experience the 30 percent off this day, 20 percent off this day [scenario], which was the model at department stores,” recalled the executive, 60, who is now vice chairman and chief merchandising officer.

The endeavor was risky, but Ferrée said the DSW team rallied behind it. “The only reason it ever flourished was because it was embraced by a culture and a chairman that believed in change and innovation,” she said, noting that the company, despite its rapidly growing size, continues to strive to be nimble. “That’s part of the secret sauce here at DSW, that we move and we’re changing and getting better every day.”

And Ferrée certainly knows a lot about change.

Born in Jacksonville, Fla., she grew up in a military family and moved around the East Coast frequently during her youth. As a teenager, she ended up back in Florida, where she got her first taste of the retail business while working three jobs: at a department store, a Hallmark shop and a specialty foods chain. “Working at the department store, I never really got to take home [my paycheck] because I spent it in the store, and I spent it buying shoes,” Ferrée said with a laugh.

Despite her burgeoning love of fashion, Ferrée enrolled in the University of Florida’s education department with plans to become a math professor, but within the first year, she had an epiphany. “I decided that business really interested me,” she said. “I loved every class I took in the business department — marketing, finance and accounting — so I changed my major.”

After graduating from the university’s Warrington College of Business, Ferrée was recruited by Federated Department Stores to its Burdines division in Florida, where then-Burdines President Howard Socol helped guide her progress. “He’s the one who made the decision to move me into footwear at Burdines,” she recalled. “I’m grateful to him for that today, because footwear’s my passion. It always has been. And he never even knew that.”

From there, Ferrée’s path took several twists and turns, including roles at May Department Stores, The Harris Co. and Ross Dress for Less.

It was at May she met Tsering Namgyal, now president of Chinese Laundry. “Working with Debbie is energizing. She has an optimistic outlook and amazing laser-like precision in getting to the crux of the matter. She is action-oriented,” Namgyal said.

For Ferrée, each career step brought with it important knowledge and skills. “I’ve been fortunate to have worked in many channels of distribution because all of them have been critical to being able to shape and mold me for what my role would be here at DSW,” she said. “You look back on your career and you wonder why you take different steps. Some of them you plan; none of them I planned.”

For the past 16 years, Ferrée has used all her skills to help shepherd DSW’s transformation, especially its 2005 IPO, which she considers a highlight of her tenure. The stock was initially priced at $19 a share, but closed at $24.10 on its first day of trading. It since has risen to $47.22 as of press time, on the back of strong sales and earnings. The company’s footprint has grown significantly as well. In the third quarter alone, it debuted 16 new stores across the country, bringing its total door count to 393.

Schottenstein, chairman of the retail firm, noted, “Debbie is a visionary in the footwear industry. She is a great partner and was instrumental in establishing DSW as the primary destination in the country for better women’s and men’s shoes.”

And top vendor partners agree.

Rick Paterno, president and CEO of Highline United, met Ferrée in the early 1990s when she was a buyer for a small Washington, D.C., department store and he was an account executive for Easy Spirit. “I’ve had the opportunity to know her and watch her career and see what she was able to do with DSW,” Paterno said. “I watched how she thoughtfully cultivated relationships with brands and built trust among the industry. Her sincerity and authenticity have contributed to her success.”

For her part, Ferrée remains humble, emphasizing that the firm’s accomplishments have been a communal effort. “Even if you have a great idea, a great vision, you didn’t do it on your own,” she said. “It takes a team of people who are tightly knit and connected, respectful of each other and who really think of each other as a family to get the work done.”

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