Former Urban Outfitters CEO Glen Senk on What It Takes to Make It in Retail

After a short CEO stint at David Yurman and a longer one at Urban Outfitters, Glen Senk is on the hunt for innovation in retail.
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Dhani Mau
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After a short CEO stint at David Yurman and a longer one at Urban Outfitters, Glen Senk is on the hunt for innovation in retail.
Glen Senk. Photo: Brian Killian/Getty

Glen Senk. Photo: Brian Killian/Getty

Longtime retail exec Glen Senk has been jumping around a bit in recent years. In 2012, he resigned from Urban Outfitters, where he'd been CEO since 2007 (and an employee since 1994 -- he helped launch Anthropologie). He then joined David Yurman as CEO only to leave two years later. But instead of heading up another company, Senk's next project will involve investing in several.

On Monday, he announced the formation of his own investment firm Front Row Partners LLC. To launch, he's partnered with Boston-based investment firm Berkshire Partners, who committed $350 million to Senk's future investments, which will be in retail and consumer businesses.

As someone who presumably knows what it takes to make it in retail these days, we jumped at the opportunity to pick his brain on just that, and why he chose to invest in growing businesses instead of heading up an established one.

Why did you decide to do this as opposed to heading up another company? And why did you feel it would be a good fit for you?

I've always thought of myself as an entrepreneur, even though I've worked for other companies. The most exciting and rewarding times in my career have been when I've worked with highly creative people who have challenged the status quo: When I worked with a small group to build Anthroplogie from single store prototype to billion-dollar brand; being involved in Tory Burch early on by serving on the board... I love teaching, I love working with people. I feel so passionately that we are in a time of tremendous change right now that I wanted to take everything I know and work to be a part of what's next and this seemed like the best way to do that.

What kinds of businesses are you looking to invest in? What size?

In a perfect world, there would be a group of companies we're involved with -- four or five businesses, two small, two medium, two large, where small would be $50-55 million, medium would be $50-100 million, large is $100-750 million. But, the world's not perfect so we'll be very opportunistic, and deal with that as it comes. Characteristics they will have in common are things I can get passionate about: highly creative, original, distinctive and customer-centric. I believe that it's hard to go wrong when you really take care of the customers. I think when people are true to who they are and come from a very authentic place, they tend do do well. People who are creative, forward-thinking.

What kind of role will you have in the companies you get involved with? Or will it vary?

It'll vary. I will say that providing capital is part of our mission but really a larger part is giving back, teaching and helping these creative leaders to fulfill their vision.

Are you more interested in focusing on e-commerce or brick and mortar?

If you're in the direct-to-consumer business, I don't think you can have a business today without having an e-commerce element. I'm agnostic as to whether business is wholly e-tail or some blend. There is a lot of indication that the wholly grail is some combination.

What does a retail business need to succeed right now?

I think the people who are doing well are providing customers with new and exciting things. There's this change going on. Structural change. I don't think its a fashion change. I don't think its a question of getting the crop top right. It's much bigger than that. When you look at how technology has impacted the world, it's about being transparent, understanding personalization, how to talk to a consumer. It's gone from a seller's industry to a buyer's one. Websites like Amazon have commoditized everything with a style number and there are $6 billion fast fashion businesses that didn't exist. There are people experiencing great business right now [despite all that]. Businesses can blame economy or blame fashion or they can focus.

Are there any specific companies you admire?

In terms of the big guys, Apple is the holy grail. What Steve Jobs did at Apple... He's the gold standard for someone with a disruptive vision and clarity of vision. Talk about someone with a sense of branding. Warby Parker has been amazing -- not just because of the way they were innovative with distribution, but their branding: They have a beautiful aesthetic, and were smart to get into retail when they did. I met with folks from Honest Company this morning -- they're a really impressive group of people. Amazing story.