Roger Farah, W’75, Executive Vice Chairman of Ralph Lauren Corporation
Roger Farah has studied iconic retailers and led iconic retail companies. The last 13 years, Roger safeguarded the iconic brand, Ralph Lauren, and accelerated the growth of its sales, market share, employee base, and global footprint. In doing so, Roger has become an icon himself, respected in the industry for his insights, leadership and the ability to articulate complex issues into actionable plans.
What is the essence of retail that you find exciting?
What’s wonderful to me about retailing is that it’s constantly changing. Whatever your strategies or products are, you’re getting daily feedback. Every day, you’re getting a report card from the customer. Your ability to strategize, execute and then course-correct is never-endingly tested. As an executive, your day is very diverse: you’re talking about product … you’re talking about manufacturing, supply chain and marketing … you’re talking about technology or finance. Every day is different and rich with experience.
Did you choose retail right out of Wharton?
My father was a small manufacturer in New York City, and growing up, I had worked for him in different capacities during my summers. When I graduated from Wharton, I thought I might go back into the family business, but we talked about it, and he said, “You’ve got this great business education. Why don’t you get a couple of years of retail to
make you well-rounded?” When I started at the Saks Fifth Avenue training program, I found that I liked being in a bigger company, with the opportunity to advance, and I never went back to the family business. As I progressed pretty quickly through the ranks, I found the pace, the people and the diversity of the day that much more interesting.
Any thoughts on what you learned from your father?
My father was the classic story of an immigrant. He could not complete his education because he had to drop out of school to support his family. His parents both died when he was in the ninth grade. He had to, through sheer tenacity and ingenuity, build a business and build a life for his extended family. So I learned from my father hard work and family values — that kind of determination was an important key to my success. I never expected anyone to give me anything. I outworked, and committed myself to success. That came from watching him. I had a chance to go to Wharton, which he was so proud of — he never could. That work ethic, being a self-made man, is a very important part of what he imparted to me. What is the interdependency of retail within Ralph Lauren? Everything we do as a company is geared toward the consumer. The starting point is Ralph and his team designing products for the end consumer. Then it’s a question of, what’s the distribution channel? Is it e-commerce, is it brick-and-mortar, is it wholesale, or working with licensed partners? All of those are part of our distribution strategy. Then it is just a question of getting it in front of the consumers.
How did you know what to do to dramatically grow the revenues, control costs and increase the value of Ralph Lauren? What gave you the confidence to act boldly?
Post Wharton, I grew up in the retail business. I worked at Saks Fifth Avenue for many years, worked
at department stores for much of my career, and had a chance to run a global specialty business in Foot Locker. By the time I arrived at Ralph Lauren in 2000, certainly, I was very familiar and a big fan of the brand — the thing we had to do was figure out how to successfully run a designer brand in a public company, because most designer brands were not public companies.This was a challenge, but well within my experience, having worked in all these specialized areas, both domestically and internationally. When you looked at this great brand, it was not succeeding on Wall Street — the stock price was $11 to $12 at the time. What we had to do and what was the sequence and the timing were pretty clear to me. I think Ralph and I created a good partnership over the 13 years I ran the business for him. It wasn’t because I parachuted in from another industry with a lot of ideas that were not grounded in experience or reality. We built a terrific team and executed the heck out of it.
Where do Ralph Lauren stores exist today? Are you expanding?
Sixty-five percent of our sales are in the U.S. but we have distribution today in 82 countries, including Asia Pacific, Europe and South America. Our employee population has grown from 2,000 when I started, to 30,000 now. We see the customer as a global customer. Someone who lives in London can shop in Shanghai. Our Chinese customer can shop in France. It’s less about geography and more about the quality of your brand and the appetite for your product around the world. As we develop internationally, there has been a subtle shift in the merchandise to emphasize aspirational, lifestyle products. People want to be that customer in the ad, living the good life. They want iconic, great-looking products.
How important is it for the founding family to stay involved in a retail company?
It’s terrific if there is continuity with the founding family, assuming that the next generation, or third or fourth generation, stays active and current. There are plenty of examples like Estée Lauder. I know you interviewed Leonard Lauder — where his mother started the business, Leonard ran it for many years, and his son and nieces and nephews are in the business. There are plenty of examples like Dillard’s or Belk, where the next generation is running them very well. If, on the other hand, the next generation chooses to pursue other interests, then you need to bring in professional management to keep the company, public or private, going.
What is it like working with Ralph Lauren?
He’s a real genius in that his vision — the movie that is playing in his head of the customer — is so unique. It has been a privilege and an honor to partner with him and trying to extend it around the world, to build a corporation with talented people who buy into his dream, in a most unusual and passionate way. We have people today working all over the world, working so hard, with such personal commitments, because they believe in Ralph’s vision. I count myself as one of those.
How do you select and grow people?
As you probably have heard from others, it is all about the team. It’s all about identifying a strategy that you think is right, and then matching talented people and their skills with the strategy that you have embarked on. Different retail strategies have different talent needs, and the ability to grow, mentor, train and develop is the wellspring of all successful companies. Some of that is building the right culture for people to thrive, some of it is how you train and develop people. Time, energy and money are required to build a committed, loyal, hardworking group of people who buy into your strategy and then execute the hell out of it. If you peel back the covers of most successful companies, you will find that. Leaders have different ways of doing it. Some have personal charm, while others have dogged determination. At the end of the day, if you don’t have everyone buying in and pulling his or her own weight, then you’re not going to have a successful business.
What books do you read on retail or more broadly?
I’m a big reader. I have a pretty extensive library at home that covers most of the retail books. They start with books by and about the deans of the industry: Stanley Marcus, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field. I’ve read most of the books on Tiffany or Gucci, up until current designers. I also read about innovative retail leaders like Steve Jobs. I like reading historical biographies and understanding how people operate, like Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, those iconic people who have helped shape the world that we live in, are interesting to me. They faced challenges and difficult decisions and stuck to their guns — and for the most part, history has proven them right!
What are your thoughts about Wharton?
It’s an extraordinary school, and it’s what you make of it. It gives you a world-class education, and has everything available both in general and specialized terms. An undergrad and graduate education can open doors, but it is really what you put into it. It laid a foundation for me — how I think about business, how I analyze problems — that I find myself still going back to.