Jide Zeitlin controls some of the world’s most recognized luxury brands. As chairman and CEO of Tapestry Inc., Zeitlin helms the $5.9 billion luxury fashion holding company that designs, manufactures, and markets products from Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman.
Although Zeitlin was named its chief executive in September—one of seven African Americans who run an S&P 500 company—he has gained intimate knowledge of Tapestry over the past 13 years, serving as corporate director since 2006 and chairman of its board since 2014.
Zeitlin, a graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Business School, is more than prepared to meet the competitive and strategic challenges that face Tapestry—named Coach Inc. until 2017. He has 30-plus years of global finance and operational experience, displaying his prowess as a partner and global chief operating officer of investment banking at Goldman Sachs and his leadership in such positions as chairman of the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority, which manages the African nation’s wealth fund with assets derived from surplus income of its excess oil reserves. He has also been listed on the BE Registry of Corporate Directors.
BE gained the opportunity to connect with Zeitlin, 55, after the recent gathering of the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, the largest business commitment to advance workplace D&I by some 800 leaders of major corporations and organizations across sectors. In this exclusive Q&A with BE Chief Content Officer Derek T. Dingle, Zeitlin shares his strategic focus related to improving corporate performance, deployment of tech innovation, and the embrace of D&I as a key element of Tapestry’s corporate culture.
As chairman of Tapestry, you led the search for the new CEO. How did you wind up as the board’s choice?
We, as a board, were focused on making a very difficult decision regarding my predecessor and once we had reached a conclusion on that, we then had discussions around what we wanted in terms of leadership going forward. It was just in the course of that discussion that the board ultimately asked me whether I’d be willing to step into the role.
Designing A Multi-Brand Strategy at Tapestry
Coach is a very strong brand but Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman have had challenges. How are you planning to execute on Tapestry’s multi-brand strategy?
One of the things I’ve done in the two and a half months I’ve been chief executive has been to ask a lot of very hard, critical questions. We’re in the midst of a diagnostic process that is focused first on really looking at the brands, making sure we believe all three brands are as powerful in terms of their equities and their pillars as possible and looking to understand their connection with a broad base of consumers. So part of that process has led me to have real conviction that we have three brands that are very powerful. Even though Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman are going through transitions, their connection to a core consumer is as strong and clear as ever.
What are the next stages?
The second part then has been saying, “Let’s look at our business processes. Let’s look at literally what happens from the designer’s sketchpad to when a product goes out the door to a consumer, and let’s understand where there may be opportunities to become more agile, move more quickly, and do so more cost-efficiently.” [We’re focused on] how do we do things more accurately, with greater agility in a world where consumers often want a more personalized product, often want a product into market more quickly, and making sure that we’re in a position to deliver against that.
To that extent, we’re looking at results in streamlining costs where we’re able to have greater margin to reinvest back into brand-building, storytelling, growing the top line of our business. Then we also have more resources to return capital to our stockholders.
How do technology and data play a role in meeting your strategic objectives?
There are a lot of different aspects of it but if you think about how a customer purchases product today it’s across multiple channels. It’s across brick and mortar and digital. Even if a customer buys something in a store, we often find that they’ve done three-quarters of their research digitally. So the more you have technology that is seamless, the more it facilitates the ability to do research, connect with your brand with its core pillars. When you look at brand-building in the past, people viewed 30-second commercials. The data tells you today, you have a second and a half to make an impression on a consumer.
Given that short window, how do you make a connection with the consumer?
They have to have a sense of what your brand is, what your product stands for. So understanding how to meet your customer where she is and more often than not, today, that is on some sort of a digital platform, is critical from the actual sale but also well before that. From a brand-building perspective, you have to emotionally connect your brand with certain characteristics that the consumer cares about.
Does part of your growth strategy include adding brands through acquisition or creating spin-offs based on the data?
The commitment we’ve made right now to our investors is that we are not going to pursue additional brands until we have done a better job running our existing brands, particularly Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman. So [until] we are in a place where we believe that those businesses are much more achieving their potential, we’re really focusing on making the most of our existing brands.
How Diversity Drives Corporate Performance
Shifting to CEO Action, which elements of this initiative have been most instructive as you create a more inclusive corporate environment at Tapestry?
We have three core values that we talk about internally as an organization, and those are optimism, inclusivity, and innovation. So one of our three core values is inclusivity, and by the data, we have a relatively diverse workforce … 76% women. We have a board that is 40% women and 45% nonwhite. As you move up through our ranks, we also have a relatively diverse leadership group. Our executive committee, who are my direct reports, is also quite diverse, particularly by gender but also by ethnicity.
What about African American representation?
Without a doubt, I think we have room to improve with respect to African Americans. But the real challenge and the real opportunity is to take reasonably good data and turn it into real inclusivity. One of the lessons I learned a long time ago is that diversity by itself doesn’t mean a lot until you change the culture of your organization. Until every employee can come and really feel as though they can bring their true selves to their job, you’re not unlocking the potential of your workforce. A big part of what I care a lot about and have really focused on is what I call a kind of diversity 2.0. A generation ago, everyone was focused on how many African Americans do you have, how many women do you have, how many East Asians do you have, whatever it might be. Yet, 2.0 is inclusivity, and as an organization, we get the most from employees and that’s really where it is.
So you believe in giving employees a sense of belonging and an environment of authenticity?
Yes. Absolutely. 100%.
Does it help drive your brands?
It’s going to drive our brands 100%. For you to really be innovative, you have to have the best ideas around the table and that means inclusivity.
Expanding The CEO Pipeline
In our recent Power in the Boardroom report, we found that 37% of the S&P 500 still do not have African Americans represented on their board. What do you believe needs to be done within corporate America or through CEO Action to significantly increase black inclusion on these boards?
Ultimately, it’s a question about board and CEO leadership and understanding that this is as much a commercial issue as almost any other issue you deal with in the C-suite and the boardroom. As long as it is viewed as something that is a distinct and separate issue to focus on, you’re going to make a little progress, and you’re going to give up progress. But once people recognize that whether it’s because of the changing face of America and your ability to address as such your consumers’ real desires, whether it’s because you want to unlock the potential of your employee base or a whole host of other reasons, this is as much of a commercial issue as your IT platform or other aspects of being core to commercial effectiveness.
Your appointment has made you one of seven African American CEOs of S&P 500 companies today. From your vantage point, how can the pipeline of African American C-suite executives be expanded so that they gain serious consideration in the CEO succession process?
If you have a more diverse board, it’s a more natural conversation for the board to have—both in terms of engaging with executives about the pipeline coming up as well as when you make decisions amongst your handful of top candidates—being more receptive to candidates that may look, feel, be different than historical candidates have looked like. So it begins with the board. It begins with the existing CEO. Even if she or he is not necessarily diverse in a narrowly defined way, they have the ability to push the organization to have a more robust pipeline, to be much more open to different types of leadership styles. Then it’s for the organization at every level to be very clear about the kind of organization they want to work in and what they expect.
You mentioned that optimism is a core value of Tapestry. What are you most optimistic about?
I’m a perennial optimist, but I’m particularly optimistic in the context of a diverse America because I think that ultimately what businesses do is solve problems. To the extent that we begin as a country, even for the active, robust, yeasty discussions that we’re having in the political world and in the personal world, that is becoming even more diverse.
I think that our ability as corporations with American genes, so to speak, [is] to ultimately be very good at solving complex business problems, facing headwinds, whether broader economic headwinds or otherwise. So the more we can lean into this whole discussion around inclusivity, the stronger it makes us and the better we are as corporations with an American DNA in figuring out innovative solutions. So I’m hugely optimistic.