Straight Laces to Success

Jeff Fink discusses why Shoe Carnival is the best retailer to fulfill any employee’s career and life goals

According to Jeff Fink, a retail store should strive to be a home to its employees, a space where they passionately dive into their work and bring products to life. In turn, the workplace should help them accomplish their own goals.

“I’m not building; I’m serving,” the senior vice president of real estate says. That emphasis on service remains his number-one priority as he oversees Shoe Carnival’s real estate portfolio.

In a conversation with American Builders Quarterly, Fink shared his passion for Shoe Carnival, the personal and professional conduct of his working relationships, and the process of transforming an empty store into a home.

What about Shoe Carnival inspires you?

I’ve been a retailer since I was 16, but I’ve never been a “builder.” I’m more interested in what a store can do beyond the bottom line. At Shoe Carnival, we offer people a chance to come in to win and work hard—clean and honest. A lot people don’t, but if you can do that, you can rise to the height of this company, regardless if you finished your French literature degree. Retail careers grow by battlefield promotion, so we provide a platform for those people to build quality lives.

When people leave the job they have to join us, I know they have built up some professional equity, but Shoe Carnival will be a better platform. You will fulfill your goals in life for yourself, family, and kids. This is good for you, and it’s good for us because you’re good at what you do. The store is the stage where that success occurs.

What’s next after getting hired? How can employees become fulfilled at Shoe Carnival?

When people start working with me, I have to take them through a brain-rewashing exercise. I ask, “Are you here to work for the good of the company?” They always respond with, “Of course,” but I say, “No you’re not. You’re here to work for the good of you. You joined here because you want to accomplish things in life, and Shoe Carnival can be that vehicle.” When they understand that I’m here to serve them, that’s treating them as an adult. There are plenty of businesses that only treat people as work units, but not here.

When I first started [with Shoe Carnival], I was traveling with our CEO, CFO, and head merchant, and we ran into an employee washing the front windows of a store with Windex and paper towel. It was the general manager—who is a 15-plus-year veteran and running a $6 million business—and he still cleaned his store with his own hands. I almost had tears in my eyes. He owns that business. He’s not assigning this task to the low man on the totem pole. He’s thinking, “My people are engaged; how do I best serve them?” He’s serving and, most importantly, leading by example of how everyone takes care of all the small details. Retail is detail. It was tremendous to see.

There is quote from Lawrence Summers that has always stuck with me, which is, “In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car.” He’s absolutely right. You don’t have the same level of care for things you don’t own, but when you do, you cherish and protect it. Unless you can make people owners of their job, they’re not going to care.

How do you inspire your employees to carry out this philosophy at their own store?

You always hear that the customer is always right, but my team takes it to the next level. We use all of our accumulated knowledge and experience to guarantee the customer is right. They’re coming to us because we are experts. If they ask for something that’s wrong for them, we’re not going to let them be right. We’ll go the extra distance and learn about their needs and what drives them.

The other part revolves around the golden rule: Do unto others as you do unto yourself. I am pretty sure most people don’t want to be treated how I treat myself. I’m a non-drinking, non-smoking vegetarian, but when I throw a party, I’m going to make sure every guest gets what they want: liquor at the bar, meat on the table, and cigars on the patio. The focus is their desires, not mine.

What’s better than that is the platinum rule: Do unto others as they would like to be done unto. Take the time to learn who you are serving so you can assist them better. I’m not building the store for me; I’m doing it for them. It’s more than a game of ego and numbers.

It’s great that you put such heavy concentration on your employees and make sure they’re getting the most out of life.

When the real estate side of things is done, all that is there is a lifeless building. After construction, it’s a lifeless building in great condition. After the merchants are done, it’s a lifeless building filled with inventory. Then the doors open, people come in, and it becomes infused with life. Yes, we’re in the business of selling shoes. But we’re also hiring great teams and supporting their goals and ambitions so they can help people in the market they serve and get fantastic branded footwear at a tremendous value.

IF THE SHOE FITS

When Jeff Fink joined Shoe Carnival’s real estate department, he helped the company break out of its shell and become flexible to different-sized environments.

In the past, almost all stores were greater than 10,000 square feet. Today, store sizes can range from 4,000 to 10,000 square feet, which gives them the opportunity to enter “rural farming communities to dense urban markets,” Fink says.

In 2016, Shoe Carnival approached about $1 billion in revenue, surpassing the previous year’s earnings of $984 million thanks to its 416 active stores. The company planned to open about 20 new stores in 2016 and plans to grow more this year.