Mike George on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Leaving Qurate
Not everybody knows that Mike George, chief executive officer of the Qurate Retail Group, is an inveterate writer, on and off the job.
“I love to write stories. Early on, one of the traditions I started at QVC was every week I wrote a note to the team. I called them ‘Open Mikes.’ I would tell them the things I’d seen in the past week I was proud of.”
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For several years, Open Mikes were a weekly ritual — he’s penned over 300 — with stories about vendors, trade shows, products, customers, team members and their accomplishments, as well as personal and professional anecdotes. One was about sitting at Joan Rivers’ bedside at Mount Sinai Hospital, during her final hours, trying to convey to her all she meant to QVC, where for many years she generated strong sales with her jewelry collection.
Formerly a consultant at McKinsey & Co. and later an executive at Dell, George was an outsider when he joined QVC, which is part of the Qurate Retail Group, as president and CEO in October 2005. His role expanded in 2018 when Qurate Retail was formed when the company added HSN and Cornerstone Brands to the portfolio.
“What struck me from Day One at QVC was I saw people doing extraordinary work to serve the customer, in the studio, in the distribution center, with merchants trying to find the next great hip product. I wrote stories about it.
“In those days we were still a young company. A lot was done with limited tools and resources, but I saw the energy the team had. That they were loving what they did, wanting to support each other, wanting to support the customer. It’s a very customer-focused, team member-focused culture. It’s in the air. It’s a culture of story-telling, passing on traditions, inventing new ways to work.”
It’s that work environment that the 60-year-old Mike George will miss now that he is retiring. Thursday was his last day at Qurate.
“It’s definitely a bittersweet moment for me. I’ve put my heart and soul into this place for 16 years,” said George. “Having lots of conversations over Microsoft Teams to say goodbye to folks I’ve worked with, it’s been very meaningful to do that, at least remotely. I’m thinking about all these wonderful people I’ve had the privilege to work with for so many years. I’m certainly excited for the next chapter with my family. I’m also very excited about our new leader, David Rawlinson 2nd, who steps in as CEO.”
There’s been a transition period since last July, when Rawlinson, a technology and media executive who was CEO of NielsenIQ and earlier president of Grainger Global Online, was named president, CEO-elect and George’s successor.
“We were fortunate to spend a lot of time together,” George said. “What I love about David is that he is just a sponge for learning about the business model, the culture, the history, the legacy. We had wonderful sessions about each of those elements.”
The transition has been “less about advice and more about trying to paint a picture about what this company is about and what makes it special. He gets it. He understands that a lot of the magic of the business is in the culture and the people.”
George continues as an adviser through the end of the year. “I see that as kind of a background role. David will be fully effective as CEO, and I will be there to support him on anything he may need.”
He also notes that the business is in a good position. Qurate generated $13.5 billion in revenues in 2019, $14.2 billion in 2020 and continues to show momentum and gains this year.
“I’m proud of how we have evolved this business into a real multiplatform, digitally driven, experiential retailer well-positioned for these times,” said George. “I’m proud of the culture we built to support that.”
“We always tried to be an early adopter of new technologies and new platforms. You could see where the world was going. Obviously no one anticipated this horrendous pandemic, but with that virtual life with so much time spent in the digital ecosystem, we knew we had to be meaningful on all the devices,” he continued. “Our motto has always been, ‘you’ve got to be meaningful and present on every platform, every device, every way a consumer could engage’ and that’s been a moving target, from social platforms to streaming platforms, to mobile platforms. As a result of all that investment over the years, we are well situated for the times we find ourselves in.”
Throughout the pandemic, Qurate has benefited by only having a handful of stores for its Ballard Designs and Frontgate brands. Qurate, a multiplatform retail and media company selling products on television, websites, through social media, print catalogues, mobile apps and livestreaming, also operates Zulily, Garnet Hill, Grandin Road, as well as QVC and HSN.
“It is true that the stay-at-home trends due to the pandemic caused lots of folks to take a first look at us,” George acknowledged. “Maybe they had an outdated perception of what we were about. But we did see record TV viewership, record digital engagement, and once folks checked us out, high numbers of them became customers — good customers. Trends that the pandemic accelerated toward online, streaming, more stay-at-home — those will be with us and we will benefit from those trends. In a world where brick-and-mortar was closed, we demonstrated how meaningful we could be for vendor partners to tell their story. We always had high interest from vendors because they recognized we could tell their story beautifully. But during the pandemic, that need to tell a story without the benefit of a brick-and-mortar footprint was heightened.”
A graduate of Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, George led the retail practice at McKinsey. “I knew of QVC but I didn’t do any direct work with them. The client I served the longest was May Department Stores,” which was later folded into Macy’s. “I had the honor to consult for David Farrell, an amazing leader who taught me to love retail, to see the big picture and also see the details. He was a mentor. And I loved Ken Kolker,” Farrell’s right-hand man and May’s top merchant, who passed away in 2013. “Ken was a warm, generous, fun person.”
“At Dell, ironically, one of my roles was to run the consumer business. Everything was direct sales to consumers, with one exception. We established a relationship with QVC. We sold Dell computers on QVC. I got to know QVC as a supplier.”
George’s leadership at QVC, and subsequently at its parent Qurate Retail Group, was marked by change and advancements, among them the merger of HSN into the business in 2017 and resulting consolidations; the 2015 acquisition of Zulily, an e-commerce brand selling clothing, footwear, toys and home products; expansion to markets around the world; growth in digital, and the evolution of the business into a multichannel platform well beyond its roots in TV home shopping.
An emphasis was placed on finding new and emerging brands; elevating assortments with a mix of designers, influencers, entrepreneurial brands and prestige brands, and becoming a more socially conscious company supporting COVID-19 relief and focusing on community, diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We tried to invest in new ways to bring entertaining content, great product, great personality and have interesting stories to tell,” said George.
Asked about the challenges ahead for Qurate, George said his successor “takes on a company that is well-positioned, with plenty of room for growth. I really feel we are in the first inning of this game. We are in early days in our streaming platform. We are in early days of figuring out how to engage in social media and really making social a true commerce experience. There is so much in front of us that we just started tapping into.”
With extending the international presence, “I think we will wait to see. We are in the world’s largest markets. David and I feel we can continue to intensify our presence in markets we’re currently in. It’s to be determined where the future markets for growth are. It’s one of the things he wants to look at. I wouldn’t want to speculate where. It’s too early. It’s more about winning in the markets we are in and expanding the digital ecosystem presence in the markets we are in, than the next market. But you’ve got to be always open to that.”
Asked if there’s any openness to opening stores, George replied, “Some of our business units have a good brick-and-mortar presence. We are continuing to expand our brick-and-mortar footprint at Ballard Designs and Frontgate. It’s probably not a big focus for QVC and HSN. I don’t want to speak for David. He will set his own agenda. The bigger focus is winning across the digital landscape.”
George pointed out that Ballard Designs stores are as much design centers as places to buy home products. For Qurate’s specialty businesses, “blending a store footprint, quality services and an online presence will be a path to growth.”
He said his biggest challenge was evolving the business to the rapidly changing world. “We didn’t know exactly what that would look like but we knew we had to invest in the technology, the experiences, the content, to take it forward. That was job one.”
He described the company as an early adopter of the internet, with the launch of iQVC in 1996, and social media with YouTube in 2006. He also said that Qurate is a leader in mobile commerce.
“Now it’s about leading in streaming…One thing not as well understood about the company is that we have always been early adopters of new technology. We were on Roku in 2013, even our streaming presence is now eight or nine years old. You never know which platform is going to be successful with the consumer. We just knew if we were there, we could innovate our way through it and figure out what would be relevant for her.”
There’s a lingering, rather narrow, perception of QVC and HSN as TV home shopping, rather than being multiplatform retail, storytelling and entertainment. “Everybody has their own perceptions of what QVC is, what HSN is. For us, it’s about let’s not get hung up on all that. Let’s focus on elevating the product assortment, elevating the experience, being present on all these platforms and earning every customer one by one. It’s less about changing the perception and more about earning every customer, one experience at a time.”
George does have a special perception of Qurate that came to him when he made a surprise visit to QVC in Tokyo after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, killing 18,000. “I walked the hallways and the distribution center to see how everybody was doing after this devastating moment, and I stood in the studio while we went back on air. There was that sense among our team and viewers that the world is moving forward. Not to overstate our role, but there was that sense of us being a refuge of comfort and familiarity, in a really sad moment.”
Similarly, in the early days of the pandemic, “We knew if we could stay on air, we could be a source of refuge for our customers. That feeling of finding a way to keep people safe, innovate, and stay on air was so rewarding, and to see the response from customers, was all the better. We didn’t know if customers would buy anything, but we knew we should be there. I was so in awe of our team and how they navigated a way to work and was committed to serving the customer. We could keep a skeletal crew in our studio safe, as well as our key members in our distribution centers safe. They were needed to be on site. It became so much more than a job.”
Regarding life post-Qurate, George said, “I definitely see it in three components.” He said the first is staying engaged in the industry by continuing to serve on the Ralph Lauren board, possibly joining other boards, being a mentor to people in the industry, and staying connected to the National Retail Federation, where he’s been serving in a two-year role as chairman which ends January 2022.
“One of the things Ralph says in every discussion is, it’s not about being the biggest or the fastest. It’s about being relevant in a meaningful, inspiring, aspirational way and to do that you’ve got to stay true to your roots. Part of the roots of Ralph Lauren are these amazing store experiences like Madison Avenue which really connect with the lifestyle, and bringing that lifestyle to life on all these digital platforms as well. They understood it’s not either or. It’s both. You have to have these rich physical experiences or in our case, it’s with virtual shopping. You have to be able to tell the story, and then all these digital platforms are a way to extend the story. A company like Ralph, striking that balance of staying true to their roots and innovating for the future is what makes it an amazing brand.”
The second component involves spending more time on community and nonprofit organizations, in particular the National Constitution Center, a museum in Philadelphia charted by Congress to advance understanding of the Constitution that also serves as a non-partisan platform for civics education and debating the issues of the day.
The third component involves writing, biking, hiking and most importantly, spending more time with his family.
In the days leading to his retirement, George, rather sentimentally, started taking another look at his Open Mikes.
“I’ve had a blast re-reading these great stories about wonderful team members. It’s so easy as a leader to get disconnected and lose sight of what makes our companies great, which is amazing people doing heroic things, that you are not always aware of. I always viewed my job as, more about trying to help shape the framework in which people could operate, the broad direction, but all the amazing innovations of the company, I am not responsible for any of those. Those were all team members with great ideas. My role is being a listener, and trying to push through roadblocks, and help people reach their aspirations as long as they are aligned with our principals and values.
“I always loved finding those stories about team members and sharing them.”
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