By Joann S. Lublin
Mike Smith wears enough hats at Stitch Fix Inc. that he
considers himself "a master of many trades." No wonder.
Earlier this year, the president and chief operating officer of
the online personal styling service became its interim chief
financial officer for the second time. Mr. Smith had steered Stitch
Fix twice while Chief Executive Katrina Lake took maternity leaves.
He also led its move into men's clothing and accessories.
"I have managed every part of the business," the 50-year-old
It is unclear whether his expertise as a corporate utility
player will propel him to a corner office -- and fulfill an
adolescent dream. He recognizes that the road to the top rarely
runs straight, however. "I am very happy with my current roles,"
Mr. Smith says. Personal advisers have urged him to develop his
Ms. Lake hired Mr. Smith from Walmart Inc. to be second in
command of Stitch Fix in 2012. Her startup then employed only five
Stitch Fix soon turned profitable and went public in 2017. Its
"try before you buy" personalized styling model generated revenue
of nearly $1.6 billion during the year ended in August 2019.
Customers pay a styling fee and can choose recurring box deliveries
or a one-time box order. Stitch Fix recently added a la carte
ordering for existing U.S. clients.
The pandemic initially hurt the company. A net loss of nearly
$34 million during the third fiscal quarter ended May 2 was driven
by weak sales and coronavirus-related expenses. In June, Stitch Fix
said it expected to return to growth during the fourth quarter;
those results get released Tuesday. With more Americans shopping
online, Mr. Smith predicts, "we're in a very good position to
accelerate the business."
He spent most of his childhood in suburban Annandale, Va.
Inspired by an accounting summer internship, Mr. Smith decided at
age 16 that he wanted to be a public company CEO. The high-school
student drafted a multidecade plan to reach the corner office.
His plan required solid consulting experience and a graduate
degree. He joined Andersen Consulting after completing a degree in
interdisciplinary studies from University of Virginia.
He left that management consulting firm in 1996 to obtain an
M.B.A. at the University of California at Berkeley. He next worked
for Morgan Stanley and two software startups. Walmart chose him for
a middle management role in its U.S. e-commerce business in
Flourishing in operations. Mr. Smith advanced into senior
management of that business and was named COO in 2010. Walmart
strongly hinted that he would lead the unit "at some point," he
says. A Walmart spokesman declined to comment.
He nevertheless left the retail giant for tiny Stitch Fix
because "I wanted to go build something from the ground up," Mr.
Smith explains. Trusted mentors supported his risky switch. "These
folks have lots of wisdom," he adds.
Here are four of Mr. Smith's most valued advisers:
Clinical professor of entrepreneurship at Northwestern
University's Kellogg School of Management
Mr. Smith met Mr. Cast, an executive at Walmart's U.S.
e-commerce unit, before accepting an offer to work for the
retailer. "He was very honest about the good, bad and tough parts
about the job."
Mr. Cast was equally frank about discouraging Mr. Smith's
pursuit of fast promotions. "Carter thought I was being impatient
and wasn't focused on the (learning) journey." Mr. Smith says he
tried harder to excel in his present position because such
competency "gives you confidence to do the next job really
Mr. Cast also recommended that his mentee broaden his skills
through lateral transfers into fresh areas. That is why, for
instance, the Stitch Fix COO agreed to become general manager of
men's gear in 2016.
CEO of Oportun Financial Corp.
Mr. Vazquez is another Walmart leader who guided Mr. Smith
without pulling his punches.
One such encounter occurred when Mr. Smith oversaw customer
service at his unit. Both men visited a Mississippi call center to
discipline a manager for treating staffers disrespectfully.
Afterward, Mr. Vazquez chided his protégé because he didn't sit in
a way that would have signaled his serious intent -- and persuaded
the errant manager to behave differently.
Mr. Smith initially thought the posture critique "was nitpicky,"
he says. But "I learned very quickly it is not silly." Body
language, attire and office setting count "when you are giving
tough feedback," he points out.
The advice from Mr. Vazquez, now the head of Oportun Financial
Corp., a community development financial institution, again rang
true when the pandemic broadly hit the U.S. this March. The stock
market and Stitch Fix's share price sank.
Mr. Smith conducted a live, companywide meeting via Zoom for the
first time following "a particularly difficult (and) very
unprecedented week, " he recalls. During the March 12 session, he
says he made sure he sat straight and maintained strong eye contact
with the video camera. He chose to wear his usual work garb of a
Stitch Fix button-down shirt and jeans because he thought the
outfit would convey normalcy.
The executive chose his words carefully, too; he reminded
colleagues of the company's resiliency.
CEO of Stitch Fix Inc.
Ms. Lake admires how Mr. Smith gives credit to his team. But the
CEO says she occasionally urges him to tout the "incredible impact
he has had" on Stitch Fix.
Mr. Smith adds that Ms. Lake previously suggested that he be
more assertive during Stitch Fix board meetings by taking a seat
alongside directors at the boardroom table. He accepted the
Heeding her counsel, Mr. Smith recalls that he recently alerted
Stitch Fix's board to how he and his team attracted more investors.
Yet taking credit remains a tough task for the executive, who says
he believes in valuing his employees more than himself. "You get
way more mileage and have people who will run through walls for
you," he observes. "We are all a work in progress, trying to get
better every day."
Chairman of EIS Group Inc. and a special adviser for Andreessen
Several years ago, a mutual acquaintance introduced Mr. Smith to
Ken Coleman, a Silicon Valley veteran. Mr. Smith ended their
initial networking session by asking his fellow Black executive how
he might return the favor.
"Be successful and hire, mentor and sponsor those people of
color that come behind you," Mr. Coleman proposed.
The suggestion bolstered Mr. Smith's commitment to recruit and
coach diverse staffers for Stitch Fix. He hired a Black marketing
manager to run its warehouses, for example. He helped the newcomer
adjust to his first operational role -- and remains his internal
Write to Joann S. Lublin at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 19, 2020 00:15 ET (04:15 GMT)
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