The footwear world is filled with tough competitors, and Rick Ausick is perhaps one of the most astute. In his nine years as president of Famous Footwear, the retail veteran has transformed the family footwear chain into a thriving operation for parent company Caleres.
For full-year 2017, Famous Footwear saw revenue gains, even while other chains faltered, scoring a 3 percent increase in total sales to $1.64 billion.
Ausick, who announced in January his plan to retire, credits much of that progress to the firm’s steady efforts to strengthen its brand identity and improve its understanding of the customer. The executive noted that Famous Footwear has spent years conducting consumer studies to hone its message, presentation and product lineup.
Others in the industry, though, heap praise on the executive himself, who they say has fostered innovative thinking among his team and prioritized strong partnerships with brands throughout the industry.
“Rick has developed great relationships with our vendor partners,” said Diane Sullivan, CEO, president and chairman of Caleres. “They want to do business with him because they know he is a person of integrity who understands that partnerships work when both parties win.”
Born in Tooele, Utah, in 1953, Ausick grew up in a large close-knit family of immigrants. “My mother is Italian, and my father is Croatian, so we had an interesting mix,” he said. “We lived in this neighborhood full of family. And the ethnicity always came through because they made their own pasta and their own tomato sauce — all those things that are not usual, but I thought it was, because that’s how I grew up.”
His first job came through his uncle, who owned a local tavern. “From the time I was 13 until I was 18, my job was to get up every morning and clean the tavern for the day’s business,” said Ausick. “My parents were Depression-era, so things like working hard and getting a good education were important to them. And it fell onto us children to follow through.”
Indeed, he has worked hard — very hard. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Utah, Ausick went on to pursue an MBA from the University of Chicago — all with the plan of entering the banking field. And then, as he recalls, he met some bankers: “I realized, I don’t know that I like these people or if I want to grow up to be that.”
Fatefully, the Marshall Field’s department store was recruiting MBA graduates for an executive training program. After six months of sampling the various corners of the business, he signed on as a buyer and spent several years rising through the ranks at the company before moving on to Miami-based Burdines in 1984.
From there came more companies and numerous moves crisscrossing the country: Eaton’s in Toronto, Shopko in Green Bay, Wis., Famous Footwear in nearby Madison, Wis., a brief stint in Boston with Caleres’ brand division and finally the corporate headquarters in St. Louis. (And in recent years, he’s commuted home each weekend to be with his family in Scottsdale, Ariz.)
Behind Ausick’s relentless trajectory is a dedication to the retail business and a zeal for problem-solving. Where others might wilt in the face of constant change and uncertainty, Ausick seems energized by it. Even in today’s rapidly changing retail environment, he remains deeply engaged in the challenges of the industry and continues to ask probing questions to discover solutions. “You’re always in some form of adjustment or change, and the best executives keep finding ways to make it better,” he said.
For the past several months, Ausick has been winding down his work at Famous Footwear. On July 6, he will officially hand over the reins to incoming president Molly Adams, a former executive with The Walt Disney Co. Here, the well-regarded veteran reflects on the moments that shaped him and what it takes to succeed in the world of retail.
When you were starting out at Marshall Field’s, what was it you liked about being a buyer?
“It satisfied my analytical ability. There’s a lot of that that goes into it. At that time, everything was very manual. But things like how to work sell-through or how to work margin reports — all those were interesting to me. Also, there was the creative side of it. Watching these people go through an assortment and try to understand: Why did you pick the pink one versus the orange one? I thought it was exciting, and it sparked something in me when I was with them.”
What early lessons did you learn?
“I saw how [the merchants] worked with their external partners, and there was this whole concept of understanding the balance. Everybody is in business and wants to do what’s right for their business, but how do you work toward a better outcome for everybody? It takes time and energy. You always want people to be on your side, so how do you help them do that, even when things aren’t good or there’s some issue? What’s the way to make that negotiation happen in the most positive way?”
When you were moving up the ranks, what was your career plan?
“There was never a grand plan. The plan was to do my job really well and see where that took me, and as opportunities came up, to decide what would be better in the next period of time. As I look back, there was something positive that I was doing in all those jobs. And I believe it helped that I wasn’t an expert in one thing. I was able to get women’s and men’s experience, and home-store and shoe experience. Sometimes people want to be an expert and they get so focused — which can be good — but it helped me to have a broader view of the world and a broader view of potential ways to solve issues.”
What were the highlights along the way?
“I spent some time running an allocations organization in the early 1990s at Burdines. Most merchants didn’t want to touch that at the time because it was so different than what we’d done. [They thought]: Someone’s telling me how much to buy and where to put it — what do they know? But the number of stores was so large that it was the only way it was going to work, to have the merchants selecting and then someone else deciding where to put the product. That probably served me better than any other job I had because it allowed me to see how that worked at a very formative stage. Obviously, the systems today are much more advanced, but the premise is still the same. And as we’ve worked toward developing the next thing, it’s made it easier for me to understand where that value can come from.”
Who have been your biggest mentors?
“I have had a lot of great bosses, [including] Howard Sokol, who was the CEO at Burdines when I was there. He had a big influence on me in terms of that idea of what a good merchant looked like and how to do that job. And I’ve worked for Diane Sullivan for about 12 years now, and it’s been great. We’re like-minded in a lot of ways, but we’re also different. The ability to understand how those differences can be put to use is part of what you look for from a mentor to help you understand how to do your job.”
What’s your favorite part about working in the shoe business?
“The category is very emotional. It’s a way for customers to make statements about themselves that they feel really good about. And even though it’s an accessory, it’s an important one. There are very few things out there like that. Then there’s the people side of it. This is a very unique industry. There are a lot of competitors who sell shoes. Everybody to a degree does think about themselves — you have to if you want to be successful — but then there are these moments, whether it’s through the Two Ten Footwear Foundation or FFANY Shoes on Sale, where the industry comes together. You don’t see that in a lot of other places. That juxtaposition of a competitive nature and this ability to dial it down for a moment to say, ‘Let’s go see if we can make the world better,’ is powerful and unique.”
What’s your least favorite part?
“The hardest part is the timelines we have in our business. Shoes are a rather complicated product to make, and we are just uncovering ways to make that easier. With the customer now able to see trends, they want the things they see immediately, but they also want them translated into their price points. Our ability to make that happen is challenged. Caleres has been working on how to do that better on the wholesale side. We’ve seen people on the athletic side doing all sorts of things to bring sourcing closer to the customer. [The question is]: How do you keep the integrity of the design as well as the speed of production? That’s the balance that we have to come to grips with.”
Over the years, what has had the biggest impact on the retail industry?
“I’ve gone through a couple of big shifts. The suburbanization of America and the development of the malls and strip centers was the first big wave that [I experienced]. And in the last decade, it’s been the advent of people shopping online and using e-commerce as a way to fulfill their needs. The difference is that the first shift took about 30 to 40 years to come to fruition, and this one has been rapidly happening — every day is something new. The speed with which it is taking over is the most amazing piece, and that tells you it’s not going to slow down. In a lot of ways, that’s what keeps us engaged. For someone like me, you kept wanting to come to the office because you were interested in figuring that out. You wanted to be someplace that was looking for those answers and where you could take action.”
Looking back at your career, is there anything you would have done differently?
“I have very few regrets. There are a lot of things we did wrong, but that’s part of the deal. That’s what people have to understand: It’s really hard to bat a 1,000. In my view, this is not a business of not making a mistake; it’s a business about learning from and changing your mistakes. If you can do that, you’ll find successes. If there’s anything I would question, it’s how we could have gotten things done faster. But those are the calls [you have to make]. You can’t put it in a machine and see what the answer is. You have to do it and live with it and make adjustments as time goes on.”
After July 6, what will you be doing?
“Initially, I’m going to try to not get on an airplane for a little while. I do spend a lot of time commuting back and forth. My wife, Barbara — we’ve been married 38 years in July — she’s been the rock that made all the moves in all the places we’ve lived, raising the kids when I wasn’t there. It’s been special to have her in my life, and now is the time to find time for each other and do some of the things that she wants to do. Also, my daughter just had a baby in December. This is our first grandchild, and we’re making sure we give her all the attention necessary to spoil her the best we can and then leave. That’s always fun. I think we’ll find there’s plenty to do.”