C-Suite Leaders Are Leaving Retail — For Weed

“I describe retail, even under the best of circumstances right now, as a grind,” said Doug Ehrenkranz, managing partner at the executive search firm Boyden. “I think to any C-level person that’s been doing it a while, it’s fatiguing.”

After 27 years at J.Crew and a nearly two-year sabbatical, longtime creative director Jenna Lyons announced in October that she would be making a triumphant return — not to retail, but to broadcasting, with a multichannel lifestyle deal with Turner Entertainment. In January, former New Balance president and CEO Rob DeMartini said he was stepping down after 12 years at the helm of the brand to join USA Cycling. Then just last month, Ohio-based cannabis company Green Growth Brands nabbed its latest hire, Jann Parish, Victoria’s Secret’s former chief marketing officer, who rounds out an executive team that includes alums of DSW, Abercrombie & Fitch, Belk and American Eagle Outfitters.

With all the upheaval retail is experiencing — from store closures and bankruptcies to the rapid expansion of e-commerce — the pace of change in the industry is more demanding than it’s ever been. So it’s perhaps not surprising that even some of its most successful executives are turning to new opportunities, whether in adjacent sectors like athletics or emerging fields like CBD.

With leaders at this level, said Ehrenkranz, “These are all folks that — money’s always important, but they’re at points in their career where they can really go where the growth is, and go where the fun is.”

There’s also the matter of what many retailers are looking for in their executive hires today, particularly as they build up their digital and omnichannel businesses, scale down physical store operations and adapt to consumer preferences for things like experiential and wellness offerings.

“Given that traditional retail is undergoing such significant changes in certain categories, in particular, I think there are plenty of executives that, as a practical matter . . . it’s a lot harder to get hired within the traditional fields since they don’t necessarily have what’s being sought after today,” said Steve Dennis, president and founder of SageBerry Consulting and a former retail executive.

That’s not to say their expertise isn’t valuable elsewhere, though: While Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, Gap and countless other chains are closing stores, the race to expand cannabis’ retail footprint is only just getting started.

Green Growth Brands, for instance, has struck deals with American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie and DSW to bring its CBD-infused body lotions and balms to stores (leveraging, no doubt, its C-suite connections). Massachusetts-based dispensary chain Curaleaf is likewise planning to grow beyond its current roster of 28 locations in 12 states, and the company has tapped Chris Melillo, a former Nike and DTLF/Villa executive, to lead the project as senior VP of retail operations.

“Real estate, store development, staffing, putting in sales systems — those are pretty core sorts of things that would be readily transferable,” said Dennis.

Climbing to the top of the career ladder in retail has always been a matter of hard work, ingenuity and perseverance. But as the industry adapts to digital disruption and seismic shifts in how we shop, experts say that there are a few qualities in particular that leaders will need in order to stick around.

“There’s just been such a shift in the way consumers buy, in the way consumers make decisions and the things that are influencing them, that I do think that a leader has to be much more adept at understanding all of those influences, which are far more complex than they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” said Paula Williamson-Reid, president of executive search consultancy Reid & Company. “I think it all comes down to a constant commitment to learning. . . . That’s what’s going to differentiate the leaders of tomorrow who are successful from those who are not, is you have to constantly be open to learning new ideas, new concepts, new ways of doing things.”

Sometimes, this may mean bringing in someone new, but for retailers that want their existing — and future — executives to stick around, they need to think about their long-term goals, said Kyle Rudy, senior vice president at the executive search firm Kirk Palmer Associates. “They should lean into the conversation on how happy [leaders] are at all levels. Because if you want senior-level leaders, you need to start at middle management. . . . And it amazes me how few companies are actually talking to their senior leaders to understand where they are in their career life cycle and where they want to be.”

Rudy also suggests companies help rising executives identify and develop their weak spots so they’re better prepared to take on bigger roles if and when the time comes. Nike, for instance, has a rotational program that allows leaders to get exposure to different areas of the business, he said. “[This can make] people feel that they are learning new things. And I think that keeping people in their area and in their lane, if they don’t want to be in that functional area, then just decreases the likelihood you’re going to retain them.”

Most important, though, is that retailers and executives alike continue to stay on their toes, since the turbulence isn’t over yet. “Right now, there’s no end in sight,” said Ehrenkranz. “No one knows how all this is going to settle out.”

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