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How VF Went Outside, Added Billions to its Business

Change is hard, but doing nothing is harder.

When Soon Yu, global vice president of innovation at VF Corp., joined the multi-brand conglomerate in 2010, he was tasked with changing the minds and behaviors of 60,000 people across 30-plus brands in 16 offices around the world.

An overwhelming mission for anyone, but particularly so for someone who had watched five of his own businesses dissolve and 30 products fail in his lifetime.

“One of the reasons I was hired at VF, out of 30 candidates, was because I had the best resume for failure,” Yu joked during a talk titled “Motivating and Inspiring a Winning Innovation Culture” at Product Innovation Apparel in New York on Monday.

But he also wasn’t afraid to stand up and champion change, which is what VF—owner of The North Face, Timberland and Vans, to name a few—required in an organization of its size.

“Being so big, cultural changes are a challenge when trying to bring in the idea of accelerated innovation,” Yu explained. “Our supply chain was really strong and our finances were really strong, but that also made us more risk adverse.”

Another issue: merchants were oftentimes asked to predict what the future would look like three years out, which had helped to create an insular mindset.

Using an example of an elephant and a rider, taken from the Heath brothers’ book “How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” he said, “You need to make sure that the rider (the analytical side) understands how to go from Point A to Point B. The bigger challenge, though, is you’ve got to motivate the elephant (the emotional side). You might be able to convince the analytical side but if the emotional side isn’t there, forget it.”

To motivate his elephant (in this case, the top 200 leaders at VF who would in turn mobilize the rest of the company’s employees), Yu decided to give people a head start before they’d even started. After scripting the most critical moves (which led to a 120-slide presentation), he narrowed that down to a one-pager that highlighted the most critical next steps for the following two years.

“We took this one-pager and added a bunch of stuff people had already begun or already done. That gave people the motivation to finish the next two-thirds of the task,” he said.

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After “shrinking the change,” it was time to “go outside” for new ideas; to consumers, to competitors, to other industries.

“Knowing something isn’t enough to create change,” he said. “What we needed was immersive learning, to push people to do something they’re not comfortable doing.”

Doing that helped to remove fear, one of the walls–along with apathy and disbelief—standing in the way of innovation. To maintain that emotion, VF started to share success stories in a series dubbed “Bright Spots.”

The company also started an innovation fund in order to encourage its employees to think bigger and bolder. Since its inception in 2010, it has developed a $2 billion pipeline of new ideas and generated more than 125 projects across 20 brands totaling more than $500 million in the marketplace.

The exercises helped: VF has grown its annual revenue from $7 billion to more than $13 billion in the last six years. For apparel companies that want to recreate that result within their own organizations, Yu’s advice was simple: “Keep it simple. Focus on changing behaviors, not the outcomes; think about the behaviors that will lead to the outcomes. Talk to their hearts; win them on an emotional level.”