In Person: Q&A With Rick Ausick

When Rick Ausick arrived at Famous Footwear in 2002, the chain was at a turning point. Its longtime leader and visionary, Brian Cook, had just retired, exposing the retailer to major management changes. The business also faced other challenges: Competition was catching up and the company’s relentless focus on price was beginning to tarnish its reputation.

But it was also a moment of opportunity, as brands were increasingly viewing Famous and its competitors in the thriving discount channel as a new frontier for growth.

“Brands were becoming more and more enthralled with the channel. There are only so many places for them to grow, [and] they saw an opportunity,” said Ausick, 60, who began his retail career in 1977 at Marshall Field before taking on top merchandising roles at Burdines, Eaton’s and Shopko. “It was an awakening for all of us [in the industry].”

As chief merchandising officer, Ausick worked alongside new president Joseph Wood to revamp Famous’ image and sharpen the chain’s focus. Stores were redesigned, service was stepped up and the emphasis shifted away from price to telling compelling product and brand stories. “All of that built credibility with the industry,” Ausick recalled. “We looked at ways we could achieve better merchandising, create a more impactful presentation and forge a stronger emotional connection with our customers. We also worked hard to make our brand partners feel comfortable and excited about being in our stores.”

The changes worked, and Ausick’s bosses quickly recognized his efforts. In 2006, he transitioned to wholesale, running parent firm Brown Shoe Co.’s former Bennett Division. Three years later, he returned to Famous as president when Wood retired. Under Ausick’s shrewd leadership, the 1,058-door chain capitalized on hot trends, such as toning; rolled out its first national marketing campaigns; moved into the digital space with mobile commerce; and expanded into Canada. Last year, the retailer rang up sales of more than $1.5 billion.

Diane Sullivan, Brown Shoe’s president and CEO, credits Ausick with giving Famous a distinct point of view in the crowded market and solidifying it as a family retail destination. “Five years ago, Famous Footwear didn’t have an identity. Today, it has a very strong point of view as a brand and experience [for] the whole family,” she said.

For Ausick, that focus on families is key to the chain’s success and longevity. “We have an opportunity to take customers from a young age and grow with them as they have their own children and grandchildren,” he said. “We’re constantly working on nurturing that relationship and finding ways to become a bigger part of our customers’ lives.”

Here, the Famous Footwear chief reflects on his long career and leading the firm to the top of the family footwear space.

What attracted you to retail?
I actually went to business school to be a banker, but then I met a few bankers and decided I didn’t want to be one. An opportunity came to enter a training program Marshall Field had set up for young MBA grads. They were looking to build their middle management. I joined in 1977 and spent [time] working in various aspects of the business, including accounting, the distribution center, the buying office and store management. It was a great entrance into the retail world and a way to experience the different functions. After the [yearlong] program, I decided I wanted to be a merchant.

Was there a particularly valuable learning moment early in your career?
One of my later roles at Burdines was VP of merchandise planning and allocation. This was a brand new area — Burdines was among the first to start this. The buyers weren’t thrilled about that transition, suddenly having someone tell them how many shoes to order and where they would go. But as companies got bigger and bigger, this function became increasingly important. So having that perspective early on was important.

When you joined Famous Footwear in 2002, it was largely a new management team. How did that feel?
It was interesting and fun. We were all a similar age and in the same stage in life and in our careers. We came together well as a team. We were energized and on a mission to make the business better. Still, it was a lot of change for our people, so we focused on achieving some early successes to get the team to rally to our cause.

Where did the business stand at that point?
Famous had hit a soft patch. It had been a leader in the whole “brand name shoes for less, open-sell environment,” but that success bred imitators. Up through the early 1990s, Famous had much of the business to itself, but by 2000 there were a significant number of competitors in our space [including Rack Room, DSW and Shoe Carnival]. This was a time when the big brands were looking for new places to grow their business, and our channel was one that was flourishing. They saw an opportunity.

Even so, was it difficult for some brands to feel comfortable entering this channel?
Sure, there was definitely hesitation. Brands wanted to make sure their product was represented well. When I arrived, Famous didn’t have the best reputation in the marketplace. It was all about negotiating on price: how cheap we could buy a shoe, what deal we could get. Our team spent a good part of its first five years convincing people we intended to represent their brand in a very positive way. We took steps to show we meant it, changing the way our stores looked and focusing more on brands and telling a story rather than being all about price. We rebuilt that credibility. Still, there were always going to be brands that weren’t ready for that step.

What other issues needed to be addressed?
There had not been much discipline around the age of inventory. We were operating with the basic philosophy that a black shoe is a black shoe, and if we don’t sell it this year, we’ll try again next year. Our competition was much more current with inventory, offering the customer more trend-right product. We got rid of styles that weren’t selling and we kept our inventory fresh. We put that discipline in place. Also, our women’s business at the time was very underdeveloped, especially in non-athletic categories. In fact, our research indicated we were perceived [by consumers] in a very male sense. We set out to make our store environment and product assortment more appealing to women.

How did you end up transitioning into wholesale?
That opportunity was a real leap of faith for me, but Diane felt strongly it would be beneficial for me to have that experience and understand how that side of the business worked. And it was. I learned a tremendous amount about design and development, how shoes are made, production and delivery logistics. It helped me think about the business differently.

What are the advantages to being under the Brown Shoe umbrella?
There are many great synergies, but we try not to force them. Obviously, some of our key brand partners live on the floor below us, so there are opportunities to share and interact. But we try to approach that relationship as we would with any of our key partners. Our wholesale brands do give us the ability to see what is going on in many different retail channels. It’s more directional, rather than specific — boots aren’t selling or sandals are doing great. Those broader trends tend to pop up across all channels, so it helps us determine whether we’ve missed something or if it’s simply a category that’s not working anywhere.

What are Famous Footwear’s biggest strengths as a retailer?
We’re a branded business, so we have those great national brands. We also have a strong connection with families and busy moms. And then there is our convenience, whether it’s our brick-and-mortar locations, the ability to shop online or through our mobile apps.

Are there things that could be improved?
You’re never really done. We continue to work on our shopping experience, from the physical look of our stores to pushing our sales associates to adhere more to an engagement strategy. Instead of thinking of our [store environment] as open-sell, we like to think of it as assisted-sell. Help is there if you need it. If not, you are welcome to serve yourself. We’re constantly working on stepping that up.

Famous recently opened its first international store near Toronto. Is Canada a major growth area?
If this first store is any indication, there definitely is an opportunity. The store is doing very well. We’ve talked with the Canadian representatives for our brands, and they believe the concept is right for the marketplace. That gives us confidence to forge ahead. We already have several more locations on the radar that we will potentially open within the next 12 to 18 months. We have some successful stores along the [U.S. side of the] border, so it’s a matter of finding a balance and making sure we’re not splitting differences.

Are there plans for further international expansion?
We’ve explored some opportunities, but it’s too difficult. Because we are a branded business and not an integrated business, getting the assortment replicated in a store in the Middle East or Russia or Europe is complicated. We think about that, and when we do the math, we can’t seem to come up with a profitability model that makes everyone happy. Still, that doesn’t mean we won’t [expand into other countries] someday. We’ll continue to look at it.

What other opportunities exist for the chain?
The whole digital space shows tremendous promise. I see a lot of growth opportunity there. There also is potential in the future to get more aggressive about store openings. And then the other piece is new store concepts. There is nothing specific in the works right now, but we do look at trying new concepts, whether it’s an athletic or a kids’ concept.

Tell us about a few mentors in your career.
Howard Socol, who was chairman of Burdines [from 1984 to 1997], was an important mentor. I worked with Howard for a number of years, and he was a very savvy merchant and leader. Here [at Brown], Diane has been a great partner. She is a terrific talent and tremendously dynamic and energetic. She wants to jump right in, while I’m more, “Let’s think this through, let’s make sure this works.” So we are a good combination in that sense. We’re thoughtful about our actions, but we take action.

What do you love most about the footwear industry?
It’s full of great people. As competitive as it is — and there are way too many of us and not enough customers — by and large we go about our business in a professional way. People aren’t overly protective or aggressive at any cost. Also, what I love and what is a little unusual about our industry is that we come together in a major way for causes like Two Ten Footwear Foundation and FFANY Shoes on Sale. From a product perspective, footwear is extremely complicated to manufacture and deliver, but then it has this incredible emotional quality. It is always energizing to go into a store and see a kid put on a new pair of shoes and run around. The whole emotional side of our business is something you don’t have in a lot of other categories.


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