Building a Brand by Balancing Creativity with Control

Glen Senk, '80, Distinguished Corporate Alumni Award

Urban Outfitters CEO Glen Senk tells Harry Davis, interim dean and Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management, how he developed his leadership style, what he thinks of economic indicators, and why MBAs should consider careers in retail.

Glen Senk, '80

Image by Matthew Gilson

For Glen Senk, ’80, part of what first drew him to a career in retail was the showmanship. For the former nationally ranked teenage equestrian, the fit was natural. With his MBA in hand, he joined Bloomingdale’s training program in 1981, rising to senior vice president and managing director of Bloomingdale’s by Mail seven years later.

In 1989, Senk moved to London to become chief executive of the international merchandise and marketing group for the retailer Habitat. Wanting to return to the United States, he joined Williams-Sonoma, Inc. in 1991 as senior vice president and general merchandise manager, most notably setting the strategy and groundwork for Pottery Barn’s rapid expansion and sales growth.

After working for these larger retailers, Senk decided to investigate starting his own business. As he was developing the plan and raising capital, he met Dick Hayne, founder of Urban Outfitters, and chemistry between the two was instant. Hayne asked Senk to head up the company’s Anthropologie brand, a single-store prototype, as president in 1994. Senk accepted the offer and turned it into what is now a billion-dollar-plus international retail operation with 146 stores, a catalog, and a website. “He was quick to put his stamp on the place,” said a story in Forbes. “Anthropologie would be run as a separate business, with its own creative group, budgets, market research, even headquarters.” By fiscal year 2007, sales were over $400 million.

Senk set up a strong base that allowed the division to continue to grow, and in May 2007, the firm promoted him to CEO, heading up the Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and Free People brands. In 2008, the firm launched Leifsdottir, a sophisticated wholesale brand of women’s apparel and accessories, and introduced its fourth retail concept, Terrain, an upscale garden center. Poised to open next, on Valentine’s Day 2011, is a bridal business.

Aside from a growing number of concepts, a rapidly growing international store base and internet business, and a fiercely loyal customer base, Urban Outfitters’ success is also evident at the bottom line. Despite the challenging economic environment, Urban Outfitters saw total company sales for the first quarter of 2010 increase 25 percent over first quarter 2009, including direct-to-consumer sales that soared 42 percent for the quarter.

His outstanding success in guiding Urban Outfitters has earned Senk the 2010 Distinguished Corporate Alumni Award.



Glen Senk talks with professor Harry Davis


Davis: You’ve been in a number of different leadership roles over your career. In what ways, if any, has your leadership style evolved?

Senk: I believe I’ve matured as a leader. I rely less on charisma and more on the mechanics behind genuine leadership, especially active listening - clear, supportive, and consistent communication - and managing the team as opposed to managing individuals. I’m an intuitive leader, but there’s definitely more process to what I do now than there was ten years ago.


Davis: Has your longtime passion for horses affected your perspectives and behaviors as CEO?

Senk: It’s taught me patience and it’s taught me to plan. It’s taught me showmanship, the value of investing in raw talent, and when to let go of things. It’s taught me the importance of consistency, stability, and partnership. And it’s taught me how to deal with disappointment. These experiences have absolutely affected my behavior as CEO, and they’ve also had a profound impact on the way I’ve done business in general.


Davis: The retail sector traditionally has not been top of mind for many MBA students. Why do you think this is? And do you think it could be changed?

Senk: I suspect that many MBAs don’t fully understand the opportunities in retail, and I’d guess that many of them are turned off by the idea of starting at the bottom. I’ll never forget my indoctrination at Bloomingdale’s: with MBA in hand, I was dispatched to the warehouse to remove price tickets off a batch of defective ceramics. Two weeks and many ceramics splinters later, I was questioning my career choice, especially when my peers were “living the glamorous life” in nice offices.


Davis: Would having more MBAs in the retail sector benefit both graduates and the industry?

Senk: Absolutely! My accomplishments over the years came from utilizing what I learned in business school - an ability to manage, and ultimately monetize, creativity. The most successful CEOs in the industry have true left-brain, right-brain balance - they combine creative vision with financial and operational rigor.


Davis: Looking back through your MBA years, what aspects of the Chicago MBA have stayed with you?

Senk: Probably the most important aspect is the concept of “risk reward” and return on investment. I learned to think about taking risks in a very pragmatic, measured
way. I also learned the value of doing as much as possible with as little as possible - the importance of strategically maximizing limited resources, be it money, time, or
human capital.

Another fundamental takeaway that I use on a daily basis is the ability to create discipline, process, and financial rigor around business decisions. I often say, “There’s nothing wrong with making a mistake.” In fact, I encourage people to make mistakes - if they’re not making mistakes, they’re playing it too safe, and safe never wins. What’s inexcusable, though, is making the same mistake repeatedly, so it’s critical to have discipline around process and measurement.

I also learned that it’s critical to understand what’s going on in the world, but the explanations are rarely black and white, and occasionally they even contradict each other. When I was studying economics, for example, the world-class professors I studied under would often present views or explanations that were diametrically opposed. I learned the value of curiosity - how important it is to read, listen, and continuously grow - but I also learned to remain steadfastly focused on that which I can control. This lesson has been particularly helpful during the last few years, when there’s been so much “noise” regarding the economy. I’ve worked hard to focus the organization on how to remain nimble and navigate within the environment, as opposed to being overly reliant on economic indicators.


Davis: What was missing in the Booth experience that you would recommend adding?

Senk: I don’t believe we had classes in leadership when  I attended the school from 1978 to 1980, but I imagine the curriculum has since changed. For a CEO, leadership is the single most important success factor, so I’d encourage Booth to make leadership coursework a requirement for
all MBA students.

I’d also encourage the school to teach students the value of creativity and how to recognize, nurture, and manage it. So much value in the world is driven by creativity, yet I suspect most MBA students don’t spend a lot of time developing their creative side.

Last Updated 11/19/10