Managing child’s play

Gary White takes the playground indoors and Gymboree's profits upward

Gary White wants to have the biggest and best sandbox on the playground. As the president and CEO of the Gymboree Corp., he refuses to be pushed around by the bigger kids.

The 47-year-old retail executive oversees the operations of more than 550 outlets and 6,600 employees across four countries. To date, his efforts have placed Gymboree, a company specializing in play programs and retail children’s clothing, ahead of top competitor Discovery Zone, which emerged from bankruptcy in 1997, and only second to the Gap in sales.

Like a new kid on the block, White wasn’t afraid to get in on the game early. Since his appointment in 1997, he has spearheaded a 30% growth and expansion initiative that will give Gymboree a greater share of the $727 billion general retail market. Part of the strategy included expanding the brand-which is already represented in all 50 states and Canada-across the Atlantic. White commissioned 25 outlets to be launched in England and Ireland, along with accompanying distribution centers. That move helped White grow 1997 revenues for the Burlingame, California-based company to $373 million, up 23.2% from $303 million the previous year.

This success meant more than changing the company on the outside, Gymboree had to change internally as well by placing a greater emphasis on product and service innovation. To increase exposure and expand its customer base, the company developed “Gymboree On the Go,” a mobile play center program. Designed for companies with on-site daycare facilities, the program allowed employers to set up play classes complete with equipment and trained personnel. On the retail side, Gymboree expanded its line of clothing for newborns and revamped its boys’ apparel and products sections.

That aside, White has also shown his commitment to diversity by building a strong culturally and racially diverse executive management team.

Shaping corporate culture is also part of White’s plan and he encourages all employees to get involved in youth organizations. “Celebrating childhood is Gymboree’s core value,” says White, who serves on the boards of the March of Dimes and K.I.D.S. (Kids in Distressed Situations). “These extra efforts help us to understand children and what appeals to them.” Driving that point home, White has instituted two optional half-hour “snack time” breaks on Wednesdays and “recess” on Thursdays at Gymboree headquarters. “They help us not take our work too seriously and keep in touch with the childlike sides we need to do our jobs well,” says White who has a yo-yo collection numbering 200.

The Cleveland native got his start in retail at the tender age of 14. “I started as an afterschool hand and worked my way up to store manager when I was in college,” says White, who attended Cuyahoga College for three years before taking a management position at Uncle Bill’s, a local discount department store. In 1976, he became a store manager at Target Stores, where he rose through the ranks to regional vice president in 1990. Two years later, he went to Mervyn’s Stores where he soon became executive vice president

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