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Millard “Mickey” Drexler on Taking Risks and Adapting to Change

J.Crew Group CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler plays a big role in fashion’s mythology. Walking store floors and talking with customers, he has accomplished enormous amounts of growth at the grass-roots level with some of the biggest American sportswear companies.

Drexler’s simultaneous success and accessibility brought hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs, fashion designers, and business leaders to see him speak at the CCNY President’s Leadership Lecture on Feb. 24 in New York City. In an open forum, fielding student questions, Drexler talked about the lessons he’s learned on his pathway to success.

On overcoming obstacles:
Drexler described growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s with a father who was never happy with his own accomplishments. Drexler said of his father, “He worked hard, he was never really successful in his own mind. And it kind of wore off on me.” This environment of discontent created a certain drive in him, he said, “I always had this voice in my head saying, you gotta do better than you’re doing.”

On creating change:
He learned right away to see “where the puck was always going” and to adapt to change. He highlights the dangers of working at a company where bosses don’t want to take risks, for fear of getting fired. “If you go work for a company where the senior management or the owners’ values and culture is to do it the way it was done, then you don’t have a prayer. I hate to say it.”

On being an inventor:
It’s the same formula at every brand, Drexler said, “You have a vision, you think out of the box, you think creatively, you think about what role and what place can I play.” As soon as he arrived at Gap, he had a list of 20 new ideas to implement. He emphasized that you can’t be an inventor doing just anything, you have to follow your passions, “You kind of end up doing what you love, and I’ve been very fortunate to do what I love.”

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On reimagining brands:
When asked about being famous for “turnarounds,” he said, “I don’t call it a turnaround — I fall in love.” A turnaround implies someone leaving as soon as he or she makes a profit, Drexler said, and the great leaders are not short-term. “You don’t do your job in three, four, five years as a CEO, it takes forever and ever because it’s never over and if you have an obligation to the people that work there, to your shareholders, and your customers, you could always do better.”

On knowing his customers:
Rather than doing market research, Drexler stops into a store three or four times a week to have a quick conversation with the staff and customers. These off-the-cuff responses, together with online comments and emails, are enough for him to make changes. “If you sit in an ivory tower, you’ll learn what ivory tower people learn, which is not a lot.”