Zumiez Founder Tom Campion Shares Insight On Building A Sales Based Culture, Canadian Expansion, And Giving Back

Zumiez Founder Tom Campion

Zumiez Founder Tom Campion

Love it or hate it, Zumiez has built a position in the market that commands respect, and no one at the company has done as much as Co-founder and Chairman Tom Campion to write its playbook of success over its 32-year history.

Campion, 62, opened his first store, Above the Belt, in Washington in 1978, which developed into the 396-door, mall-based action sports retailer Zumiez. To say that Campion—who started working retail in a grocery store in 1965, and later in management for JC Penney—has seen it all in the retail game is a vast understatement, but while he's from the old school of valuing personal communications and relationship building over electronic communications, Zumiez has adapted and stayed ahead of the curve, improving store comps every year but one before the recession, and is back on track to make that happen again. Campion says Zumiez has achieved success by focusing on a sales-based culture, providing meaningful recognition and incentives such as its 100k sales event, and giving back to the sports and community to connect to something larger.

We caught up with Campion at the Seattle office of his Campion Foundation to learn more about the godfather of action sports retail's strategies for success.

What were the biggest lessons you learned from working in the grocery business and then with Penney's in the '70s?

I learned I loved retail, but didn't like the grocery business. I went to Penney's, loved retail, but didn't like the way they treated their people, but I learned a ton—what worked and what didn't. That was pre computer and pre cell phone. You had to negotiate and understand how to work and buy.

I ran different departments and [discovered] what really worked: you pushed down authority and responsibility to your lead staff in the departments. Rather than some charger coming out telling [staff], "This is what we're going to do," I [learned] to say, "What do you want to do? What's going to make it so we can have a comp store sales gain?" It worked really well and I took that philosophy on into Zumiez, starting with a couple employees, and me and my partner that started it. It isn't always easy, but we've grown and perfected it— the team has— over the 32 years we've been in existence.

What didn't you like about how Penney's treated their people?

I always have had a little problem with authority—authority that's not justified—"You do this because I'm the founder and I'm going to go out and play golf," or some bullshit like that. Doesn't that translate into problems throughout business or society? If you're going to have vision and you're going to lead, you got to lead by example not just by words.

How do you share your vision and strategy as the company grows and evolves?

You can't do one thing one year, and a new one the next. There has to be consistency over time so [employees] know what's coming. You have to believe it yourself and you have to be honorable about it. You've got to appreciate the fact that they're working to make the sale. They are the face to your customer all the time. What you tell them has to be consistent.

You said at a past TransWorld Snow Conference, "The more power I have given away, the better this company has become." What does that look like at the store level?

The manager runs his or her store and has, not total autonomy, but pretty good autonomy. They hire for their store. The goal is always to drive the ambition to grow. We're going to grow comp store sales, we're going to add new locations, and it's their responsibility to train staff to grow the machine.

It's interesting talking to your staff, at least at the 100k level [employees that sold over $100,000 in the year], they're all really strong brand evangelists and proud of what they do. How do you instill that in them?

It's the importance of saying thanks, of passing down responsibility and the complexity of what you're doing. A human being's a human being—they want more than to just stand there ringing things up. You don't want robots, you want people that can think and use their talent to build the sale and teach somebody about the products.

You've got to incentivize it so [employees] have the opportunity to grow. The first year I did the 100k in the late '80s, I took six kids out to dinner. It was a way to say thanks. Now, it gets emotional. A lot of these kids have been to five, six, seven of these. Imagine a kid that's 18 to 25, working in the middle of Idaho or Colorado and he's putting 200 grand in the till year-in and year-out. They'll say to me; "I use to work for X retailer. They never did anything for me. I never met the guy in charge and you're here saying 'thank you.' Wait until you see what I'm going to sell next year." Frigging JC Penney himself, or Sam Walton couldn't ask an employee to say more. In this competitive work environment to say I'm going to put it on the line, I'm going to work my butt off next year because I believe in what we're doing here. It's exactly what you want. It really works.

Culture costs money, and 100k costs a lot of money, but it's core to who we are. [CEO] Rick [Brooks] got it from the get-go. He was my CFO and embraces that it isn't just about the financial statement; it's about the long-term vision, about how we're going to grow. We announced to the market that we're heading into Canada next year at some level and we think we can do that in other countries. Certain values consistently applied over a long period of time—you get the playbook down and it just seems to work.

Seems like a great way to focus you’re incentives on your key performers.

Yeah, we really believe it. I'm 62, Zumiez is 32 years old and listen to the emotion in my voice. It really works and it makes it fun. When the right person stays with you and grows, understands, has the energy level, buys into it, believes in what we're doing, and you believe in each other, it is fun and you've got to have fun. It can't just be “Do this, blah, blah, blah.” With the right team reinforcing that, that's how you have comp store sales gains. In our first 29 to 30 years we had comp sales gains every year but one. One year we were down one point, then we got hit with this recession, and now we're back to having comp sale gains.
How do you guys go about finding the right people, training them, and combining their values with yours?

You want somebody that's in the lifestyle, surfs, skates, snowboards, listens to the music, [and] loves what we're doing. The customer, like all of us, especially teenagers, can smell bullshit. They know if it's authentic or not. Ultimately you can figure out what's real and what's fake, and we try and make it real and have kids work for us who understand what that is.

Maybe it's an eight, or nine, or an 11-year-old coming in with his parent. It might be his first skateboard, or shopping for back to school, and having an employee that can understand the dynamic between the parent and the kid but also looks at the kid and talks with them. You set that first level of trust, and the employee likes what they do, is into the sport, connects with the kid; what you get out of that is not just a sale, but a good chance that you're going to get a return customer and you're going to own them for that eight, ten years where they're into that lifestyle, through their teenage years and hopefully longer.

You can teach them [employees] certain techniques on selling, but oftentimes [people] have the god-given ability to sell something at regular price to another human being. That's a talent that's going to help you the rest of your life whether you're hucking a skateboard or selling complex medical equipment or being a professor at college. You've got to deal with other humans. The whole idea that we're just going to social network on the Web or whatever, you've got to be able to look someone in the eye and talk about where you skate, or the conditions up at Baker, or what kind of riding they do and relate.

Campion and a Zumiez employee at 100k in Keystone, Colorado

Campion and a Zumiez employee at 100k in Keystone, Colorado

How do you personally stay connected to employees, a lot of whom were born after Zumiez started?

I started this pre-computer and before any cell phones, and kids look at me like I'm George frigging Washington, but that's where you learn how to buy, learn how to sell, learn how to negotiate. You're doing counts with five stores. You have somebody all day long calling up to see how many shirts they have to do reorders.

I read the journals, go to all our events, am deeply involved with the planning of them, executing them, and thanking our employees. I network across the company all year long, have conversations, calling people just to thank them. I travel a lot. Not specifically for Zumiez, also for other stuff I'm involved with. I'll meet kids in stores at seven in the morning for anyone who wants to come. I just did a thing in Chicago, an event for the Alaska Wilderness League, and went to the store in Schaumburg—26 kids came out at seven in the morning until ten. It was packed in there—talking about product, what's good, what's not, what they're doing well. They want to hear what I'm thinking, I want to hear what they're thinking.

That's one of many ways a company gets information. It's a small way compared to the whole buying chain and the communication with stores there, but it keeps me connected. Then at the office, I'm still not as close as I used to be when I ran the buying team a while ago— over ten years ago now—but enough to understand looking at product reports; what's selling, what's not, and working with my president of all this Lynn Kilbourne, or my store director Ford Wright or Rick Brooks my CEO.

With your dedication to your staff, how do lawsuits such as the recent one over wages and lunch breaks affect you personally?

I can't comment. Everybody sells. When I go in a store, I sell. When our store director [Ford Wright] goes in a store and someone needs help, he sells. It's based around a culture of selling product to our customers. I think that's enough said.

You do a lot of philanthropic work through the Campion and Zumiez foundations. Why is this important to you personally and for the business?

The year I started Zumiez in '78, I started working in the environmental movement protecting old growth forests. I'm a big fan of public lands. We have 500-million acres in this country managed between the Forest Service, BLM, the Department of the Interior, etc., and it's definitely an iconic American ideal—this public land that we all can enjoy. There are sustainability issues around public lands and around the protection of viable populations of wildlife that utilize public land. I've been in that forever.

I made a choice to start working in Alaska back in the mid-'90s because it's a third of our public land. It's got everything: climate change [issues], huge landscapes, indigenous people, big oil driving the bus, and politicians who just want to develop. You and I own it. It's political will—is our will stronger than the person that just wants to drill baby drill?

It's the same thing that works at Zumiez—having the willpower and getting the right guy on the bus who loves what they do.

When did you launch your foundation and what have been some of your biggest successes?

In 2005 when [Zumiez] went public. I've always given money, and as Zumiez has grown I've been able to give more. The last couple years we've given away $5 million a year, all from my selling of Zumiez stock.

You always hear in the endemic market about giving back to the sports and this sounds like something deeply rooted in all the things you're interested in.

Zumiez has a foundation too that is a slightly different mission. Last year we gave away 50,000 jackets and about 30,000 wool blankets and cold weather gear. We gave it to I think 150 different agencies across the country including veteran's agencies and cultural centers. The kids who work for me love it. They work for more than just a paycheck and more than just the lifestyle; they're giving back.

We talk about that a lot. We also have a mission and a foundation to encourage philanthropic work among our employees. They pick what their passion is. We've had some kids do some interesting things. We had a kid in Minnesota start his own non profit to work with innercity kids who couldn't get skateboards, and helped them get gear. But the kid that gets that and works with different things, they're probably going to grow, and become a better employee. The whole idea is sharing and giving back. It's beneficial not only for them personally to grow, but as they grow they become a better employee and it's beneficial for Zumiez.

What's your take when you hear the hate and vitriol from kids and small shops around the country that Zumiez isn't core and doesn't add to the sports?

When we got into skate and then snow in the late '80s, there was a lot of that but we're still standing and growing, funding sponsorship events, doing our own Couch Tour with an amateur contest where we're pushing kids up to bigger events. I think we're pretty core. It's all the image of being in the mall versus a stand-alone store. I would ask what core is versus a pure retailer that's just driven by price and oftentimes dodging state sales tax where they're shipping it into another state?

I just talked to some elected officials about that where I'm employing kids in their state, trying to grow it, where the next guy, who's a pure E-tailer can ship something in the state and not pay sales tax. I'm not only employing people in their state but collecting taxes that pay for teachers, and educate the kids that come to work for me, or the firemen. That's something we need to correct and make it equitable for brick and mortar retailers across the country.

I will tell you, there's a pecking order to competition in the mall from PacSun to Tilly's to Industrial. We're in business to keep growing. We understand that to do that, it's great to have a competitor because it makes you sharper. I want that sale. I don't want to give it to them. That's good ol' American retail 101 about growing and dominating the competition.. You got to have kids that want that, that want the sale, and believe in what they're doing.

I've read that one of your business philosophies is to always reinvent yourself and your products to succeed. How are you doing that today to get Zumiez's trajectory back up where it was before the recession?

We're mixing up products, the vendors we carry, and the classifications. Some things are pretty core, like denim, t-shirts, screenables and stuff like that. We're a branded store. We're Americas branded independent retailer is what we say. That makes it somewhat easier. Price isn't necessarily the answer to that, however some things, in the last  couple years, are more incentively priced and some things with this economy you just have to be patient and let the market come back. What started in the second-half of '08 was the toughest I've ever seen it and I've been in retail since 1965. Sometimes it's just a matter of having patience and explaining that to the kid that's working for you rather than sitting there pounding on him or her because their store is comping down.