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Why the Man Who Brought You Teen Retailer Journeys Is Walking Away From It All

Jim Estepa, the longtime mastermind behind teen retailer Journeys, has made a career out of carefully building the company — by employee, store and product — into a multibillion-dollar chain.

The self-professed expert planner — “I don’t do anything by accident. It is all planned,” he said — last fall announced he would be stepping down from Journeys on Feb. 1. It’s little wonder, then, that he’d exit with one final stroke: handpicking his successor, Mario Gallione, who has worked alongside the CEO for 24 years and been with parent Genesco Inc. for 15 more.

Estepa, who’s been in the retail business for 48 years, said it felt like the right time to retire.

“I am 66 years old running a teen company, so it was probably the best time to pass it down,” he told FN weeks before his last day on the job in Nashville, Tenn. “It is in good hands, and it has a great future.”

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For the company’s part, though, it knew the day would come when the savvy leader would eventually need to step aside for a successor — and that it is better to pass the torch without any major disruption to employees or Wall Street.

That’s partly why he will serve as chairman emeritus until July 1 (making himself largely available to Gallione and Genesco chairman Bob Dennis). It’s also likely a reason the affable frontman has delayed retirement several times in recent years because there were “some storms on the horizon that I needed to stay on through.”

To be specific, Journeys faced tough times during fall 2016 — it had been overstocked on canvas styles when teens were gravitating toward retro and athletic styles — and into the first quarter of 2017, with comps declining 5 percent. What’s more, competition was intensifying online from the likes of Amazon and Walmart.

Faced with headwinds, Estepa and his management team put a plan in place that capitalized on fashion shifts in the market. That agility allowed the retailer to register strong back-to-school results and a healthy holiday season to end 2017.

“Business is continuing to be good now. The board of directors and Bob approved the decision to let Mario steer the leadership team and run the Journeys Group,” said Estepa. “That was always very important to me. I was going to stay on board until I knew that was going to happen and that Journeys was going to be safe. We needed to weather the storm of the fashion rotation, which we did, right on time and right on plan.”

One of the benefits of a long retail career, the executive said, is that you’ve experienced enough economic cycles to know how to navigate them.

And Estepa certainly has seen massive changes.

When he began his career in 1969 right after high school, working as a salesman at a Kinney Shoes store in Hayward, Calif., the retail landscape was densely populated by Thom McAn, Sibley’s Shoes and Father and Son Shoes.

As malls began to dominate the scene, Estepa moved to Nashville to work for the then-struggling Genesco. His goal: to launch a mall-focused concept that would attract younger consumers and was far different from most retail tenants. In 1986, he opened the first teen-themed Journeys at the Rivergate Mall in that city.

While expanding the retailer into a 1,200-door giant, with a Schuh operation in the U.K. and its Little Burgundy stores in Canada, Estepa has faced numerous other business threats: the rise of discounters, one-stop-shop big-box merchants and, of course, innovative online players.

“That is what is so exciting about retail — it is ever-changing,” he said. “You come to work every day with a new set of challenges. What’s the most fun about retail, whether you’re a store manager or a CEO, is that you have a chance to start fresh every Sunday morning as you finish one week and begin a new one. It’s a constant evolution. And when you do it with people you love, it’s even more rewarding.”

For his part, Estepa has had his share of defining moments: from rising to CEO level to having a Journeys store in every state in the U.S. to hitting the $1 billion mark. But he said his crowning achievement is being able to pass the business on to the very same people who helped build it from scratch.

Will it be hard to leave Journeys behind? Estepa said that once he steps away for good, it will be bittersweet.

“I love this brand. I started it in 1986,” Estepa said. “It’s been my baby from the beginning. We’ve fought off whatever we’ve had to. To some degree, I hate it that I’m going to be leaving it. But I’m never really going to leave it, in my own mind. I am going to be the biggest cheerleader and fan for Journeys forever. I’ll be available to my team for anything that they may need in the future. It is going to be hard to leave it, but I am getting more and more comfortable with it every day.”

Part of easing his mind, though, is a well-crafted retirement agenda. Much like the business plans he’s prepped over the years, Estepa has a bulleted, multipage outline of things he still wants to accomplish.

“I don’t want to retire to play golf — that’s the last thing I want to do,” he said.

Rather, he will take the first year off to “relax” by spending time with his wife of 46 years, Cindy, their two daughters and four grandchildren. (All of them live in close proximity.)

He said he wants to go for long nature walks on the 250-acre property they own, as well as help raise horses, cut hay and give riding lessons on their farm.

“My family has always asked me, ‘When is it going to be our turn?’” he said. “That time has come.”

While being a CEO has let him travel to nearly every major city in the world, Estepa plans to do even more globe-trotting with his wife. For that, too, there is a list: Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Tokyo, Vietnam, Antarctica and Cuba, to name a few.

“I love places that have a totally different culture,” he said. “When you go to India, you see something different. When you go to the Middle East, to Israel, you see and experience something different.”

On a related note, Estepa also wants to study many religions to figure out, “to some degree, why people can’t get along. Now I’ll have the time and resources to do that.”

There are a few places, though, where Estepa does not plan to show up, at least in the immediate future. For one, he said he’s already received several offers to sit on the boards of corporations and nonprofits. The executive said he is not entertaining any of those offers for at least a year.

The other place he won’t be: the mall.

“I’ve been going to the mall for 48 years,” he said. “I think it may be time for me to go to a Tractor Supply or Home Depot to help work on the farm.”

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