Commentary

Michelle Gass Will Lead Kohl's After Kevin Mansell Steps Down

Chief merchant and chief customer officer Michelle Gass, a chemical engineer by undergraduate training who developed her marketing chops during a 17-year stint at Starbuck’s before joining Kohl’s in 2013, will succeed Kevin Mansell as CEO next May, the retailer announced yesterday.

Sona Chawla, who joined Kohl’s as COO in 2015 after seven years at Walgreens, where her roles included president of e-commerce and president of digital and chief marketing officer, will become president at the same time. She will maintain her responsibilities for the company’s omnichannel operations.

Mansell, a 35-year Kohl’s employee who has been on the board for 19 years and has served as CEO for 10, is retiring and resigning from the board. He “led the company to bolster its digital presence, reduce floor space to preserve profits and increase the number of exclusive brands to differentiate Kohl's,” points out Nathan Bomey for USA Today.

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“While Kohl's has not been immune to online disruption under Mansell's tenure, the company has held up better than rivals J.C. Penney and Sears, which have each resorted to closing stores amid considerable turmoil,” Bomey adds.

Gass, who also worked in marketing for Procter and Gamble from 1990 to 1996 and earned an MBA from the University of Washington, according to her Bloomberg bio, was “coveted for her marketing prowess at [Starbucks], where she was key to creating its loyalty program and industry-leading mobile app among other projects in her 17 years there,” writes Phil Wahba for Fortune

“At Kohl's, Gass landed big coups like adding Apple and Under Armour products to its stores, as well as the Amazon.com partnerships [see below]. Gass has appeared on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list in the past and in 2016 appeared in the ‘on our radar’ section highlighting women to watch,” Wahba continues.

“Soon after joining Kohl’s … Gass gave employees a pep talk at the retailer’s headquarters in Menomonee Falls, Wis.,” report Suzanne Kapner and Joann S. Lublin for the Wall Street Journal

“Kohl’s sales had begun to falter after several years of postrecession growth, and the department-store chain, like its competitors, was grappling with how to adapt to the shift to online shopping.

“Ms. Gass told the gathering that Kohl’s needed to think differently and shouldn’t be afraid to try new ideas, a departure for the company, recalled an employee in attendance.”

There has been evidence of that lately and Mansell made a point of highlighting Gass’ role in making innovation happen in a statement yesterday. 

“Michelle has been an instrumental leader in shaping the future at Kohl’s — one where we continue to put the customer first, focus on innovation, speed and agility and remain dedicated to the long-term financial health of the business,” he said before detailing efforts such as “driving the creation of our long-term strategic framework, the Greatness Agenda.”

Kohl’s announced last week that it would accept Amazon returns at 82 stores in Chicago and Los Angeles. Earlier in the month, it said it would sell devices such as the Echo and Fire at ten 1,000-square-foot Amazon-branded stores-within-stores, Reuters reports.

“This is a unique way to draw foot traffic into stores and to expand reach to new customers …,” writes Morningstar analyst Bridget Weishaar, but another veteran retail analyst is not impressed by the moves to embrace the bricks-and-mortar killer.

“Kohl’s calls these initiatives innovative action. It is, in my opinion, a survival effort at a time when Amazon’s sales increased 25% in the latest quarter, while Kohl’s struggles to maintain last year’s sales levels,” writesForbes contributor Walter Loeb. “One shudders at the lack of imagination and defeatist attitude. Amazon will gain recognition while Kohl’s core business loses space and momentum.”

Kohl’s “remains committed to brick-and-mortar, but is re-configuring its fleet of some 1,150 stores to effectively downsize its retail footprint,” writes Rick Romell for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The ascension of the 49-year-old Gass — her name rhymes with ‘sauce’ — is also a differentiator for Kohl’s. While most department store customers are women, relatively few women occupy the top spot at large U.S. retail companies. The latest list of Fortune 500 firms shows just four retailers with female CEOs, and only one of those companies, Ross Stores, sells clothing — the heart of the department store business,” Romell continues.

“Gass earned kudos as a marketer who ‘always gave very clear direction,’” Craig Weatherup, a longtime Starbucks director, tells the WSJ’s Kapner and Lublin

Which is another thing the retail industry needs.

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