Hilton Barbour and I connected on Linked about a year ago (the power of Social Media wins again). We’ve gone back and forth talking about Digital and Cultural Transformation, sharing and commenting on blogs and articles dealing with that fascinating subject in this fascinating period of digital disruption.
Back in April 2017, Hilton asked if he could interview me and talk about some of the exciting things we were doing at Mark’s and L’equipeur to transform the business and culture to a digital state. He especially was interested how we were doing this at a previously very traditional retailer. So in June, we chatted at length.
Below is the interview in its entirety as it appeared on Hilton’s blog. And here is the post on Hilton’s blog.
Mark’s is a Canadian apparel retail giant that has been in operation since 1977. In 2002 the organization became part of Canada’s iconic Canadian Tire retail operation. Subsequently Canadian Tire has also acquired the Forzani Group, a sporting goods and apparel operation, and their popular brand Sport Chek. In 2012, Mark’s Work Wearhouse, as it was formerly known, went through a rebranding and became Mark’s. This rebrand signaled a strategic move to broaden their offering and to move into casual apparel, and not just industrial and work wear which is where the company had started. Mark’s has also been bolstering its Digital offering and eCommerce operation as well as their traditional bricks-and-mortar stores to drive growth.
I spoke with Johnny Russo, Associate Vice-President Ecommerce and Digital Marketing, to understand where the organization was headed and what role Digital Transformation was playing.
Hilton Barbour: Johnny, thanks for chatting to me today from Montreal. Before we talk about Mark’s, can you give me some personal background and explain your current role?
Johnny Russo: Absolutely. My path to Mark’s, known as L’Équipeur in Quebec, wasn’t exactly a straight line. I graduated from Concordia University in Montreal and with a passion for Journalism and Sports and I was keen to pursue a career in that field. After writing for the Montreal Canadiens website – but being a huge New Jersey Devils fan, go figure – for a period, I then moved to Ottawa. My first job in Ottawa was not in Journalism, but in Marketing. After 2 years I returned to Montreal and had a couple of roles in manufacturing organizations, and stumbled into Digital Marketing. It was really at Pattison Sign Group that I got bitten by the digital bug and started to develop a real interest in the impact digital was playing in businesses at the time.
After a few years in Manufacturing, I spent some time with two start up companies. And that’s where my love of Digital Marketing and my love for tech collided. But I also loved fashion.
That digital and fashion interest led me to a number of digital-centric roles in the wildly fun and challenging industry of Retail – first at Buffalo Jeans, then at former global powerhouse Mexx, and then at Bentley – where eCommerce was obviously growing at break-neck speed.
I was sold. Digital Marketing meets technology meets eCommerce in Retail. I had found my calling.
eCommerce has gone through extreme growth in the past decade and I’ve been lucky to have been in the center of that. Almost two years ago I got into a conversation with Mark’s about their digital ambitions and how I could contribute to that. In January 2015, I packed my bags and headed out to Calgary to join Mark’s. It has been a wild ride and I’m enjoying every minute of it.
HB: What’s your mandate at Mark’s? What are you being held accountable to deliver digitally for the organization?
JR: My role is two-fold. One part is the obvious requirements to deliver growth for Mark’s. That means driving profitable gains through our online store and making that channel as efficient and effective as possible, while driving traffic to stores, which still represent the large chunk of our overall sales. The second is a longer-term strategic focus which is laying the foundation for Digital. That may sound strange for a company with a well-established eCommerce offering but it’s about creating and monitoring our digital roadmap and putting in place mechanisms to adapt to a changing consumer environment with agility. Case in point, we look at our overall roadmap every 3 months and see what needs to be adapted, altered, or tossed to the side. That’s the speed with which the retail sector operates which can be quite stressful but very exciting at the same time.
HB: Like everyone else in the digital space, particularly those playing in retail, you must hear the phrase “Digital Transformation” all the time. Can you talk about Mark’s Digital Transformation and your role within it?
JR: Sure. Funny thing happened at Mark’s, and in my career for that matter. I was asked to speak at the ForeSee Summit in April 2017. Our Enterprise Account Manager at the time suggested I speak about the Partner Summit we held the year before, which she had never seen done (essentially, we got all the vendors and core agency partners in one room). However, when I started peeling back the onion a bit, and noticed all the things we had accomplished in the last year, it occurred to me – this was transformation…this was our Digital Transformation.
And then I started a list of all the things my team’s at Buffalo, Mexx, and Bentley had also accomplished. Yup. You guessed it. It was also a Digital Transformation. But you don’t go into your first meeting, or vendor call and say that word. It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of building and breaking to be sure.
And as a national retailer, it shouldn’t surprise you but we’re a very intricate operation here at Mark’s. We have colleagues in our Operations group that are responsible for our Stores and their success, our IT colleagues that can be dealing with everything from security protocols to enable online transactions but even things like our PIM (Product Information Management system) which sounds tiny but is absolutely crucial when we’re talking product performance and onsite merchandising. Then there’s the Marketing team which I sit in and is responsible for driving our traditional and online capabilities and performance. And that’s just internally – we have a diverse group of external partners too. So there are a number of moving parts that are involved and impacted when you’re talking Transformation.
When I joined Mark’s one of the first opportunities I noticed lay in the area of accountability.
With so many moving parts in the organization, being crystal clear on accountability – who did what and who owned what – struck me as a foundational element to get corrected. Reducing complexity and increasing clarity was critical.
We called a Digital Partners Summit in July 2016 to get our entire external partners and internal team aligned on accountability. That was a great springboard for not only gaining alignment and accountability, but also for achieving buy-in for our Roadmap.
HB: That’s a great way to build cohesion across all your partners. Are there other areas where you’re transforming?
JR: Like many organizations, getting an infusion of new and distinct talent is another obvious area. I joined a team of 9 in 2016 and almost immediately began an audit to see where we had gaps and where, importantly, I thought those skills should sit within our Mark’s team rather than inside one of our partners. Sometimes it makes absolute sense to have skills exist inside an agency but, in my opinion, certain critical skills need to be down the hall.
Ultimately that led to a request to secure 7 more team members. Not surprisingly, the initial reaction was No. I wasn’t going to let that stop me so spent time putting together an infinitely more data-driven business case – another digital benefit is all that data of course – and being able to show how our growth would be hampered if we couldn’t scale our digital skills significantly. I’m happy to report that, as of May 2017, we’ve actually doubled our digital team to 18 folks. That means we’ve ended up hiring 9 new colleagues, not just the 7 I’d originally asked for. That’s also testimony to the expectations that Mark’s has for digital and the business growth attached to digital. Mark’s is in Digital to win in a big way.
HB: Hiring new talent can be a quick way to bring new skills to the table but those new faces still have to exist and thrive within an existing organization and culture. Can you talk about those factors too?
JR: An important aspect I noticed immediately when I came over to Mark’s is that there is a real culture of winning. I would say that thread goes across our entire company. We really do want to win and that means building up an environment where winning is possible for each of us.
However, despite that aspiration, I did notice there was a comfort level in the status quo. I heard a lot about “it was always done this way” or “that’s not how we usually do it.” It took a few months to sink in – change is good, and often needed in the retail landscape of today. You don’t look back, you look forward.
I tell my team – to use a baseball metaphor – I’d rather they hit homeruns with a few errors, then 10 singles and no errors. And yes, that can mean taking a few calculated risks along the way, and that’s ok. As a leader, you should leave room for innovation – and innovation won’t always be had on the first try.
So that’s been an important aspect to address – we really want our employees to come in here and try new things and bring new ideas to the table.
To that end, another aspect of our Digital Transformation was education. I spoke to my boss and we realized that if we could raise the digital knowledge across the organization then we’d infuse a heightened level of confidence – and appreciation – for some of the ideas our digital team was trying to initiate.
We started with a full day Digital 101 company-wide. It was all the basics from Paid Search to SEO, Social Media and testing, to key analytics and metrics. We really wanted to ensure that everyone had exactly the same level of knowledge – and, critically, had the opportunity to discuss and debate why these elements were important for Mark’s. A few colleagues told us those sessions were incredibly intense (6 hours long) but we’ve now got a mandate to perform these 2 times per year – a training regimen where we expose our colleagues to new digital thinking, take them through successful cases and talk openly about what we’re doing, which is a big shift from what they were used to, which was traditional media.
No one expects a culture to change overnight, but I’ve found that Education and a common understanding of new thinking certainly helps get buy-in. That buy-in and the confidence I spoke of earlier means folks are more likely to be open to something new. We often forget, but people are usually resistant to change because of the unknown. That’s why we endeavored to make Digital known to everyone.
HB: That’s a great point. Is there a different type of person you’re trying to hire at Mark’s because of this transformation?
JR: Retail is a very unique environment. It moves at such a speed that it can be very intimidating and stressful for sure. Personally, I think above all else, you need to hire people who want to learn and have a positive attitude. Someone who can take that stress and still remain positive about the outcome. That being said, the stuff we look for is not a big surprise. We need people who genuinely have a continuous learning headspace. That’s critical for a sector that’s evolving at the pace that ours is. The other is being adaptive. Can the person roll with the punches and consider more than one way to tackle a problem?
Continuous learning, adaptiveness and that positive outlook – there’s the magic for us. Everything else I’m sure we can teach them (laughs)
HB: What advice do you give your peers embroiled in the same struggles within their organizations?
JR: I talked home runs earlier and those are great – but in my experience, nothing beats getting a slew of early and quick wins. Particularly within a large and multi-faceted organization. Digital can be such a large area to try tackle that you can spend time spreading yourself way too thin.
Nothing beats a few small wins to build trust and credibility when you’re starting. The other part is that quick wins also build team morale as well. You can’t underestimate the benefit of having your team feeling like they’re making an effort – and that effort is noticed and appreciated.
The other part you can’t underestimate is really understanding the culture you’re operating in. How do they evaluate success? How do they define teamwork? How do they expect you to operate internally? Even if you’re trying to get your organization to do new things, you have to start with an appreciation of the current state first. Just coming in and pushing new ideas with zero understanding of the organization’s existing culture is seldom a recipe for success in my experience.
To see Hilton’s other posts, please visit his blog.