How Rick Mina Turned WSS Into the Fastest Growing Athletic Specialty Retailer

Dressed in black jeans, a black shirt and matching shades, Rick Mina is weaving his car through traffic on the way to a store in Lynwood, Calif. It’s early afternoon and it’s L.A., so a crawl of some kind isn’t unusual.

“This is one thing I’ll never get used to,” quips Mina, who moved to Los Angeles, from New Jersey, four years ago to turn around retail chain WSS.

But Mina is clearly in his element.

Ever the retail executive, he points out things on the drive that his customers care about: locally owned retail establishments, signage in Spanish and marketing that connects with WSS’ consumer base.

“More than 80% of our customers are Latino, and a larger percentage of our employees are, too,” he said. “Our business is in a sweet spot. We’re catering to the fast-growing culture in America.”

At 62, Mina is invigorated by his latest endeavor — and its plan to buck industry trends. While many retailers are closing their doors, WSS is opening stores in urban neighborhoods and reaching consumers in unique ways.

When he joined WSS in December 2015 (at the urging of Bruce Fendell, a former Adidas and WSS executive who died two years later), the company had “a really strong concept but had made mistakes and had some challenges with capital,” he said.

Mina and company founder Eric Alon quickly got to work. For starters, they revamped the executive team and repaired relationships with long-standing vendors such as Nike, Adidas and Fila.

Rick Mina, WSS president
Rick Mina, who leads the 1,600 employees at WSS, visits stores every week.
CREDIT: Shaughn and John

To pull it off, Mina relied on both his corporate savvy and retail instincts — both of which were well honed over the years.

Growing up in Jersey City, N.J., Mina recalled that his family didn’t have much money. So when Fordham University offered a football scholarship, he readily accepted. After college, in 1979, he joined the ranks of Kinney Shoe Corp., a subsidiary of Woolworth (where Mina’s mother was a secretary on the executive floor and helped him nab an interview with chairman Edward Gibbons). He worked his way through the ranks and was promoted to regional buyer in Denver, then later moved to Asia for eight years to run its operations. Again, he found success and was named GM of Foot Locker Europe, which Woolworth had operated.

After helping to grow Foot Locker’s store count in cities like Paris, Berlin, Milan and Rome — a task he said is among his top achievements — the parent company in 1999 asked him to return to the U.S. to turn around one of its struggling acquisitions: Champs Sports.

He fixed that business and in 2003 was tapped to be president and CEO of Foot Locker North America. Mina immediately helped the retail chain repair its relationship-turned-feud with Nike and oversaw sizable growth with Reebok and Adidas.

But then the recession hit in 2008, and Mina was out of a job. “Things got a little tough in the business back then and it was time to move on,” he said.

With a noncompete clause and money in the bank, he had time to figure out his next move.

Mina built a house on the New Jersey shore (he travels back home from L.A. every two weeks), invested in businesses like Sneaker Villa, worked with private equity firms and even tried his hand at wholesale. But retail was his calling.

“I wasn’t thinking I was going to go back into full-time retail. But I love doing this,” the WSS president said. “It’s my business. I love working with the people and being in stores. And this was a great opportunity.”

The results show. Mina and his team have led the fast-growing athletic specialty chain, which works largely in urban neighborhoods, to 84 stores, with plans to have more than 100 by the end of next year. The 1,600-employee, California-based company has expanded more aggressively into Texas, Arizona and Nevada, and is on pace to hit $350 million in sales.

“This is probably pound-for-pound the best team I have ever had the opportunity to work with,” Mina said. “They are really talented. There’s a lot of experience in the room. There is always careful thought behind everything we do. It reminds me of the Champs business, which was a turn- around, and this was very similar. It took a lot of hard work to get to where we are today, and I’m having more fun than ever.”

FN: You’ve seen the retail evolution in all its forms. What’s the biggest change?
RM: “The internet has obviously had a profound effect on the industry, and it continues to grow at a breakneck pace. What’s funny is that I’ve heard the call for the demise of retail four times in my life — the discounters were coming in, the outlets were going to destroy retail, the internet and then brands going direct to consumer. The big issue with retail is that it is going to change. You have to be on top of it. The technology continues to get increasingly better and faster.”

FN: Is DTC a smart play for brands?
RM: “I always think that when you have a brand and open a store, your brand has to remain hot. It has to continue to be strong with the consumer because the minute it slows down, you’re stuck with 10-year leases that are basically an albatross around your neck.”

FN: Competition is mounting in retail. What is your No. 1 challenge?
RM: “Really knowing your customer. You have to do things to create a loyal customer. That’s one of the things that Eric and everyone here has worked hard on. We do events, about 375 of them a year. We give back to the community. We have a tremendous loyalty program. Our customers genuinely appreciate the fact that we care. We give out things in stores. We do toy giveaways, backpack giveaways. For our average customer, the family income is not high and they appreciate when we do things that are special for them. Keeping relevant with your consumer and embracing technology and not walking away from it or saying it doesn’t work is critical.”

FN: As you look ahead, where do you see opportunities for growth?
RM: “We are going to appropriately use our capital to build stores, free cash flow and not get into any capital problems. A lot of companies do that. We are going to aggressively merchandise our stores, work with our partners on big initiatives. We’ve got our systems to help us with e-commerce. We see that as a growth part of our business. And social media has become a tremendous part of a retailer’s world — we have a solid team, where we connect with consumers via social or events.”

FN: How big can the business get?
RM: “Our goal is to do a half-billion dollars in the next few years. That is what we are all focused on. Between growth in California — we still have more opportunity in this state — and the growth in Texas, we will get there. We also have three stores in Arizona and four in Las Vegas. That, along with what we’re doing in omnichannel and e-commerce, will drive us.”

FN: WSS is neither a mass retailer nor an athletic boutique. How have you carved out a unique space?
RM: “We are a hybrid. The thing that is different is that we can work very locally. We are in tune with the markets. Eric has been at this for 40 years. He knows every street in L.A. and most of the towns in California, as do a lot of our people. We are close to our consumers. It is very hard to do that when you are running a national business. A lot of companies can talk about it, about focusing on the Hispanic or African American consumer, but it is much harder to do when you have thousands of stores. It’s next to impossible. We do what we do best. We focus on that consumer. We get into the nitty gritty.”

FN: Trends come and go. What do you make of today’s product cycle?
RM: “The athletic market is hot right now — basketball is starting to come back very strong. And then there is the classics business, which gets stronger every year. I am selling the same shoes I sold 20 years ago: Air Force 1s, Jordan 1s, Reebok Classics.”

FN: How concerned are you about tariffs hurting your consumers?
RM: “We are starting to see some price increases, although many of the bigger companies we have talked to have moved some of their production out of China and into Vietnam and Indonesia. But I do think the tariff issue will get resolved. There is too much at stake for both countries. Everyone in our business is trying to mitigate it — factories are taking some of it, the brands are absorbing some of it and we’ ll absorb some of it.”

FN: What is your approach to leading through challenging times?
RM: “I spend a lot of time talking through issues and looking for new ideas and listening to what our team thinks. Still, retail is not a democracy; somebody has to lead. Eric and I will make decisions together. And then the big thing is execution. One important factor about our team is that we can count on each other to execute.”

FN: You’ve worked at giants like Foot Locker and now a mid-size company. Are there any comparisons between the two?
RM: “There are so many big differences. WSS is a private company. There is a lot less pressure. I liked working for a public company for many years. But toward the end, it was very hard. We were starting to hit the recession, which was the worst recession you could ever imagine, and the pressure to not succumb to it was so great. We all put a lot of pressure on ourselves. The differences between the two companies are very dramatic. We are a very close team here. And this is probably pound-for-pound the best team I have ever had the opportunity to work with.”

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