Breakfast with the Boss – Wayne Meichner, President and CEO, Polo Retail Group at Polo Ralph Lauren
Thurs Jun 28, 2012

Like Wes, who started out as an accountant, Wayne studied to become a veterinarian at Cornell before switching to business management marketing. Terry Lundgren (CEO of Macy’s) also started on a similar path to become a veterinarian – “maybe veterinarians make good CEOs,” he laughed.

His next step was the executive training program at Saks Fifth Avenue, a company he worked at for 23 years. “Now that I look back, I feel that it would have been good for my career to work and learn at other companies. But Saks really encouraged us to learn cross-discipline skills,” he said. “There aren’t too many training programs out there, but if you do get yourself into one, they are great places to build a foundation.”

At Saks, Wayne was a buyer for cosmetics, and also became general manager of the New York store. Like Colleen Kelly (President of Kahn Lucas), he cites his experience as a store manager as one of the most challenging of his career. “In buying, you’re in a small group, but as a store manager, you’re dealing with all kinds of people, including unionized workers, who see you as just another future executive passing through. Now, I look back very fondly on my experience as a store manager. It really taught me how to build a team,” he said.

Next, Wayne became an associate divisional, and then EVP of merchandising, responsible for 60% of the store’s buying. He cites Rose Marie Bravo, former President and Chief Merchant at Saks and current vice chairman at Burberry, as an important mentor and role model. “She was a great merchant, but most importantly, people just wanted to work for her. She would leave hand-written notes on our desks on our birthdays. She really took the time for her people, and she wasn’t shy about not being good at every single thing,” he said.

In a recent survey of 7,500 men and women by Brand Keys, Ralph Lauren topped the rankings for America’s favorite clothing brand. So how do they do it? “Ralph Lauren really doesn’t see himself as a fashion designer, because fashion comes and goes. What we do here is design a lifestyle, and that is what lasts,” he said. “We used to license, but we’re taking them all back. For us, it’s brand first, and profits second.”

Key Lessons and Takeaways
• Cross-discipline skills are important – seek out opportunities to build them.
• Good retail is left and right brain – learning about all the different areas takes longer, but it’s what you need in order to be in a leadership position.
• In the end, to succeed, it’s about charisma and leadership ability.
• Be curious, be a student – the fashion industry is 24/7, and it’s important to stay current on the latest news. Also ask questions about other parts of the business you are not as familiar with.
• Don’t be shy about seeking out mentors, formal or informal.
• Visit the Ralph Lauren “mansion” on Madison and 72nd, to get your taste of the world of Ralph Lauren!


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