Shift toward “Pre-tail.” This is the idea that shoppers can visit a store, engage in experiential elements, see how items look, then order them online.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing J. Michael Prince, President & CEO of USPA Global Licensing Inc. (USPAGL), the official licensor and broadcaster for the United States Polo Association, recognized as the second oldest governing body in United States sports.
In this role, Michael provides executive leadership overseeing the iconic sport-inspired U.S. Polo Assn. brand, which has a $1.7 billion global footprint and is represented across 180 countries worldwide. He also oversees the Company’s 1,100 global retail stores, digital commerce, global partnerships, as well as operational and financial management. Recently ranked the 5th largest global sports licensor and 38th overall in License Global magazine’s 2019 list of “Top 150 Global Licensors”, U.S. Polo Assn. now takes its place alongside such iconic sports brands as Major League Baseball, National Football League and National Basketball Association.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Mycareer started in financial services with PriceWaterhouse and has evolved over the years into senior leadership roles with global sports and lifestyle brands such as Nike, Converse, Cole Haan, Guess? and now at U.S. Polo Assn. While I’ve had a lot of interesting things happen to me along the way, I’d say the biggest turning point, or most interesting aspect of my career would be that unique transition from finance to fashion.
Equally as notable, as a new CFO at Converse/Nike Affiliates, I was part of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis & Recession and had the daunting task of leading a large organization through that defining time for our organization. I learned a variety of leadership and communication skills throughout the crisis — how to maintain calm under fire, how to refocus and redirect on critical issues and how to best communicate both internally and externally during challenging times. While others failed, Converse grew even stronger and eventually became one of the most recognized global sport-inspired brands in the world. In fact, this time-period made me more prepared for the unprecedented situation we are all going through now with the coronavirus pandemic, arguably an unprecedented time for business leaders around the world.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
What a great question! One of my funniest mistakes happened during my transition from the financial services industry to fashion. I was a young executive at Converse where I would wear my business casual attire of oxford shirts, khaki pants and dress shoes. I was comfortable in my daily uniform and it had always been my go-to wardrobe for many years before changing industries. In one of my very first meetings with Mark Parker, Nike CEO, he gave me a smile and a laugh and told me to “lose the uniform” ─ to embrace my connection to the brand by wearing our own Chuck Taylor sneakers, denim and even a t-shirt, if I felt like it. It was his way of saying “loosen-up and enjoy this amazing ride.” That exchange was eye-opening for me and from that point on made me think about brands and the consumer connection differently. It also inspired me to be truly passionate about the brands I work with, and to better understand the impact brands have on consumers.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
Wow, it’s more like “what aren’t we working on” right now? There’s so much going on that excites me, despite these challenging times. First, U.S. Polo Assn. just rolled out our Fall 2020 Collection and Campaign that builds on our inspiring “Live Authentically” tag line. It puts out some positive messages like “Live Boldly,” “Live Courageously,” and “Live Proudly” that can only help to make people feel good with such difficult times. Even with covid restrictions, we were still able to pull-off an iconic photo shoot in the open space amid beautiful polo fields and historic gardens, right here in Florida.
We have also been working diligently on a comprehensive sustainability program that will, to some extent, change the way we do business and how we go to market. For example, there’s a focus on sustainable denim, which is something we have been working on for several years. This is an area we want to start talking about because we have taken great initiative around sustainability but haven’t been as vocal about it as others. That’s changing.
Finally, we also just launched our College Partnership Program to support collegiate polo teams by giving them branded face covers, performance jerseys, game whites, gear bags, along with a financial donation. We have continued to support these amazing college polo teams and student athletes even as activities have been limited from the pandemic. We are thrilled to have been able to add two new schools, Morehouse College and University of Kentucky.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I believe work-life balance is critical to being healthy, having a happy life and not getting burned out. I think this was reinforced to me this year when we were all home under quarantine, and I got to spend more time with my family. I realized that having a better balance is critical to not only being happy each day, but also the long-term.
Also, it is important to give back where you can. Giving back not only makes you feel good, it’s the right thing to do and there’s something to learn from every experience. I am proud to say that social responsibility is at the core of our business and its one of the aspects of our business that keeps me going during tough times. I love that U.S. Polo Assn. is a brand that is rooted in giving back, not only to the sport through the United States Polo Association which supports current players and games, injured players, collegiate programs, global women’s initiatives and equine welfare, but through so many other charities and initiatives around the world.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I absolutely agree with that statement. First, I would say that I came from a hardworking family in Oklahoma and that’s where I learned my work ethic. Beyond my family roots, my mentors range from back in school to where I am today at USPAGL. I am fortunate to have been exposed to great mentors over the years from my favorite college professor, Charles Fletcher, who inspired me every day, to the gentleman who gave me my first shot out of college at Pricewaterhouse, Rick McCune. When it comes to the fashion industry, Jack Boys, who was CEO at Converse, and Don Blair, the CFO for Nike, both took a bet on me as a young CFO by putting me in financial control of one of Nike’s most profitable businesses. Jeanne Jackson, for Nike and Kay Leibowitz, for Guess? taught me about retail and merchandising at the ground level. Maurice Marciano, Guess? founder, taught me the nuances of how to be a better negotiator. Mardy Cason, Vice Chairman at Cole Haan, helped me keep things simple and use common sense. USPAGL’s Chairman, David Cummings, has been a good partner for me on my transition to CEO, and Stewart Armstrong, Chairman of the United States Polo Association (USPA), has been great to work with on the sport side.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Where I am today, both in my career and in my life, not only allows me to give back in many ways but also makes me want to give back more.
As I mentioned prior, it’s one of my goals to continue our global philanthropic support of polo and its many causes through U.S. Polo Assn. This support ranges from the King Power Royal Charity Day in the UK, Polo Africa/African Youth Polo Teams, Queens Cup Pink Polo in Thailand, Manipur Statehood Day in India and the Susan G. Komen Women’s Polo and the Collegiate Partnership Program (CPP). We have also supported our global community throughout the pandemic by donating face covers to everyday citizens, first responders and charities around the world.
Personally, I am fortunate that I have been able to serve on the board of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business over the past several years and to give back to a place that changed my life and has been so good to me. I have also sponsored several student scholarships at Duke and through the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
Yes, U.S. Polo Assn. was on pace to have another record year in 2020 on all fronts until the pandemic took hold. Unfortunately, starting in late March over 90 percent of our global brick and mortar business was shut down. While most of our storefronts have since re-opened, we saw a dramatic increase in online buying that has remained steady.
- Focus on E-Commerce. We had already committed to a roll out plan for e-commerce, but the pandemic brought an even greater sense of urgency to deploy multiple e-commerce sites globally. We have doubled the online sales from the year prior and ecommerce has been instrumental as we plan for the future. The current environment has exponentially increased the importance of digital and so we continue to focus on, and accelerate our efforts.
- Support Omnichannel. We have learned that great brands are accessible through many channels of distribution (web, social, in-store), delivered to consumers how, when and where they want it, with each channel supporting the other. Retailers must go to where the customer is — in other words, “anywhere commerce.”
- Drive Technology & Innovation. In early January 2020, we launched our first “high-goal” energy store and will subsequently open several more in key markets around the world in 2021 as we gain visibility into the pandemic and consumer patterns. Technology-driven, high-engagement components within each store include a selfie wall and full-length interactive mirror for trying out new styles. Product customization as well as virtual-reality stations bring polo’s fast and furious atmosphere to life.
- Enhance the Customer Experience. Whether it is seeing the sport of polo for the first time, posting a social media snap, or purchasing one of our bright-colored polo shirts, our goal is to revolutionize the retail consumer experience through U.S. Polo Assn. and its authentic connection to the sport of polo. The smaller, 1,000 sqft footprint of the “high-goal” energy store layout enables consumers and U.S. Polo Assn. team members to engage in a more intimate way.
- Shift toward “Pre-tail.” This is the idea that shoppers can visit a store, engage in experiential elements, see how items look, then order them online.
In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?
I believe we all must acknowledge the importance of omnichannel, but I’m confident that brick & mortar will continue to exist. Consumers still want to look and touch product, socially shop with friends and family and be part of an in-person, emotional experience. For us, we know our customers love walking in and seeing the wall of colorful polo shirts, images of polo players in our product and their polo pony companions, as well as interacting with our team who can assist them in engaging with the brand. I believe this years’ disruption has pushed the industry to be smarter and more innovative, and to focus even more on what matters most for the consumer.
Further, U.S. Polo Assn. is not just a brand, it’s a lifestyle and an experience. When customers purchase U.S. Polo Assn. product, they have the opportunity to own a piece of the sport of polo.
The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
Being able to pivot and be flexible are both critical pathways to success in today’s environment. We know that smaller footprints, enhanced consumer experience, customer service, innovation, technology and an omnichannel strategy are what’s needed to stay competitive. Retailers need to also find their competitive advantage ─ what makes them unique to the consumer ─ and give every customer a reason to spend their hard-earned dollars with them.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
As a nearly $2 bllion brand spanning 180 countries, we continue to focus on our multi-year plan of global growth, digital excellence and brand elevation while also delivering short-term results during the middle of a global pandemic. As the consumer continues to evolve and more business moves to online shopping, I would recommend brands be thoughtful about who they partner with for the future. We are constantly evaluating this dynamic as we look at how quickly the marketplace has been disrupted and evolved in just a matter of months. I also believe that having a healthy retail store portfolio that complements your online business is critical for brands. Ultimately, we are social creatures, and consumers will always desire some type of personalized and emotional experience as they engage with brands. The key is to find that right balance in a quickly changing environment.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Thank you for such a thoughtful question. First, I believe we at U.S. Polo Assn. have led by action through many of the philanthropic causes we support around the world. Second, instead of starting a new movement, I want to continue focusing on and supporting some existing and critically important movements where we can all do better. As a brand and sport, it is important that U.S. Polo Assn. and the USPA continue to push on inclusion and diversity both on and off the polo fields. Also, improving our efforts on sustainability to leave the earth in a better place for future generations is important. These are causes that we discuss as a USPAGL team and continually ask ourselves “how can we do better.” Then, we take action.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can see our daily Instagram posts @uspoloassn and find our ecommerce sites and retail store locator, as well as all of our press releases and media coverage at www.uspoloassnglobal.com. Personally, I am very active on LinkedIn @J.MichaelPrince and share a lot of what we are doing as an organization on the networking site. And finally, I am frequently asked to offer my perspective on retail through The Retail Summit and in Retail & Leisure International Magazine.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!