Leading with Style

Gordon Cooke '67 is a listener, a risk taker, and the creator or a business culture inspired by literature

By Sandra Sarr

Gordon Cooke makes it his business to find out what women want—well, what they want to wear at least.

When Cooke, CEO and president of women’s apparel retailer J. Jill, first began considering the top post at what was then four little-known catalogs distributed by DM Management, he had never heard of the company. In eight years he has transformed J. Jill into a premier national brand.

“We’re very pleased to be able to grow so quickly, in effect, from nothing,” says Cooke, sitting in his corner office of gleaming glass and wood at J. Jill’s Boston headquarters.

The secret, he says, isn’t just about selling clothes. “It’s about creating a culture and lifestyle that both our employees and our customers can relate to.”

A Listener Talks
The bear-sized CEO, clad in corduroys and a blue pullover that matches his eyes and sets off curly near-white hair, will catch a plane for New York in 90 minutes, but for now he focuses on something he does well: Talking about J. Jill.

When Cooke took over, the company’s annual sales totaled $15 million. Last year they reached $450 million. Since 2000 J. Jill has opened 150 stores nationwide (with plans to double that) and launched a Web site where their mostly 35-and-older customers can purchase the private-label clothing, shoes, and accessories known for their comfort and individual style.

While J. Jill the company is growing, its clothing is shrinking. Literally. “The clothes were—what would be a kind way to say it? They were oversized,” he says.

Cooke listens to women’s desires through focus groups, and telephone and e-mail interviews, trying to understand how they feel about his products. He discovers what different kinds of customers relate to, where they shop, and why.

“Some of the things they said we didn’t want to hear, but actually we needed to. The word frumpy came out, and we went, ‘O.K., so they think we’re frumpy.’ We held on probably a little too long to the oversized style of dressing,” he says. “We’ve added color, updated silhouettes and fabrications, and improved our fit and overall quality. We’re in the fashion business, so we need to move with the times,” Cooke says. “We can make clothing more attractive and still address the needs of the body as we all grow older. You can still look sexy.”

Oasis of Serenity
Something else Cooke knows from listening: Women don’t want to be hassled.

“Her time is limited. She wants her shopping experience to be efficient and of a less hectic nature. She wants to walk directly from her car into the store, pause to have lunch, and not in a food court. She wants a better experience,” he says, noting a trend toward so-called lifestyle centers.

He offers an antidote to the soulless big-box shopping experience.

“We wanted to create a store, an oasis of serenity,” he says. “I told my architect, ‘I don’t want my store to look like anybody else’s.’ We put in ambient lighting and vertical windows similar to French doors, and no mannequins. We used all natural materials, including stones, and built fountains to bring in the sound of running water. We added lots of comfortable chairs and magazines.

“We’d already achieved an oasis feeling in our catalog photography, showing an introspective-looking woman, for example, skipping stones across the lake—not that our typical customer actually does that—but she wants to be out on that lake,” Cooke says.

A recent catalog cover features a trim, beautiful woman with loose gray hair and very little makeup. She’s in an artist’s studio, paint-splattered hands, sporting a coral jeans jacket, robin’s egg blue camisole, and wrap skirt that could easily carry her through a meeting and dinner. A photography stylist discovered on location, she’s now in big demand as a model.

“We started to experiment with different older women. But we really have to search because model agencies don’t have as many,” Cooke says.

Culture of Inspiration
Marketing strategy, product mix, and vision build the company’s success, but Cooke says it’s his employees who give him the winning edge.

“People move their families across the country to work here, and they stay because we’ve created a culture of inspiration. We’ve grown not because I have all these wonderful ideas about where the company is going,” says the history major/philosophy minor who went on to earn an M.B.A. from the University of Oregon in international marketing.

“I wanted people to work in a very creative environment and not be fearful of getting stabbed in the back. I wondered if I could really change things or if companies had to be run the old way,” he says.

One measure that proves it can be done, according to Cooke, is that in eight years, he has not lost a single executive at the VP level who didn’t retire or mutually agree to part company. He says it’s not because of the salary, which is good, that they stay.

“We reward risk taking and don’t punish people for it. If they’re taking a severe risk, we tell them to partner with somebody. I tell them, ‘You don’t need to back away from it, but don’t endanger other people’s well being.’ So we set up that system.

“It allows me to be a very hands-off manager. In the corporate world where I’ve lived, I was always criticized for being hands-off. They said, ‘You don’t know what’s going on if you don’t know all the details.’ I said, ‘I know the details. If I didn’t I couldn’t be a strategist. I wouldn’t be doing what I think I’m being paid to do.’”

He believes his role as CEO is to “make sure that the ship is continuing in the right direction, that the crew is relatively happy and motivated.”

He says new recruits see an opportunity to make a significant contribution at a relatively early stage in the company’s growth.

“I think we all want to make a difference. We all want to move the needle. This company allows creative, aggressive individuals the opportunity to do that. When I interview people I almost never talk to them about their skill sets. Someone else already has done that or they wouldn’t be in my office. I interview them to see how they’re going to integrate into the company and whether I think they’re going to contribute to the culture. I want to hear what’s important to them in their life. Do they talk about family? Adventure? Books they’ve read? Things they’ve done? Travels they’ve made?”

Integral to J. Jill’s culture is giving regularly to organizations that improve the lives of women and children. Its Compassion Fund contributed $400,000 in 2003 to more than 16 charitable causes. Employees are given one paid workday per year to volunteer in their communities, and the company recently contributed $10,000 to the Red Cross for tsunami victims, inviting customers who visit the Web site to join them in making a gift.

The Buck Stops Here
These days the CEO of a publicly held company often comes under the scrutiny of the investment community.

“They like to look you in the eyes to see if what you’re saying is what they believe. In the post-Enron era, the way a public company is run has changed. There’s a lot of pressure. Basically, you’re considered a crook first, and you go from there. You have to really prove yourself. There’s more accountability, and that’s good, but it came about for the wrong reasons.”

Cooke says he spends a lot of time dealing with documentation, when in the past he spent that time running the business. He also faces the sometimes conflicting needs of building for the future while keeping the business profitable in the present. Investments in new technology and people can take months, even years, to show up in the bottom line.

“I think we’ve had a little bit of a roller coaster ride, as I was told by a couple of investors last summer,” Cooke says. “They’re saying, ‘You’re kind of like a bumper car,’ and I said, ‘I take great exception to that. If you’re talking about strategy, no we’re not. We made a decision in 1999 where this company is going, and we’re doing really well. We’re going there.’”

It’s not unusual, he says, for a young company to hit bumps from one season to the next, but as long as mistakes are outweighed by successes, the company does fine.

“I tell investors, ‘You’re wanting consistency, and we cannot currently give you that because we are a rapidly growing, aggressive company. At some point we’ll become a mature company, but that won’t be for a number of years.’”

Family Talk
Bookshelves lining one wall of Cooke’s airy office are filled with pictures of his family, including images of his wife of 29 years, Jennifer. At age 19 she left her hometown, central Washington’s Soap Lake (population 1,700) and headed to New York City to enroll at Tobe-Coburn Fashion School.

“She couldn’t have made much more of a leap than that!” says Cooke, a western Washington native who met his wife in New York. Jennifer Cooke still lives there.

“I haven’t been able to get her up here to Boston. Her attitude is: You leave New York, you die,” says Cooke, who does most of the commuting.

Other pictures show the Cookes’ two daughters: Lauren, 26, is assistant marketing director for J. Jill retail stores. Erica, 21, is a senior at Brown.

Inspirational Figures
Early in his career as executive VP of sales, promotion, and marketing for Blooming-dale’s and founder and CEO of Bloomingdale’s by Mail, his mentor was the legendary Marvin Traub, head of what was then the nation’s premier retailer.

“One of my greatest experiences was traveling abroad with Marvin. He believed that if you didn’t go to the best restaurants and art galleries, then you couldn’t possibly sell clothes to sophisticated people. You couldn’t even speak their language. So after the fashion shows we’d be off to Giverny to absorb the culture,” says Cooke, a Beta Theta Pi who studied in Vienna during his junior year.

Cooke worked with Traub for 15 years and stayed one more year after his mentor left. “I just said, ‘The fun’s gone. And I’m not going to stay,’” Cooke recalls.

Cooke says his greatest creative inspiration came from an employee, “a gentleman named John Jay.” As creative director at Bloomie’s, Jay showed Cooke both the value of hard work and of being open to ideas. They met after Jay saw an article on Cooke in MBA Magazine, where Jay then worked.

“John saw an article with a photo of me riding a camel in India and decided he wanted to meet me. He approached his co-worker, Jimmy Traub, son of Marvin, to request a meeting. Before I brought him in, he shot a whole series of creative concepts with typeset copy on them. The content was obscure and had nothing to do with advertising at Bloomingdale’s. It was purely a creative execution, and that impressed me beyond belief.”

Cooke remembers the day they did a presentation for the Wool Bureau to convince them to sponsor a television campaign.

“All of a sudden, John runs to my office and says, ‘I want everyone in the whole department to close their doors.’ Okay. So, of course, I’m peeking out, wondering what he was doing. He’d covered all 50 doors down the hallway in the black-and-white wool mark so they saw their logo 50 times before arriving at the presentation room. It was simple, and it was dramatic. People would complain, ‘John’s ads are late every day.’ But he believed if he had one more minute, he could make it better,” he says.

After Bloomingdale’s, Cooke presided over Time Warner Interactive Merchandising during a mid-’90s race between the telecom and cable industries to determine who’d install the line allowing consumers to shop from home. After a year and a half of working to launch, the telecoms decided they weren’t going to bother.

“We won the battle, but there was no business plan that made any sense to roll out. I took the experience as getting my Ph.D.,” Cooke says.

Idea Man
Some of Cooke’s best ideas come from books that seemingly have nothing to do with business. Not long ago, a stranger from Philadelphia contacted him wanting to discuss a business article Cooke wrote about books that have influenced his leadership style.

Cooke had avoided the obvious and instead listed Gods and Generals by Jeffrey Shaara, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, and Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy.

The stranger saw in Cooke’s choices a leader who goes beyond what’s expected, and he wanted to meet him, saying, “Gods and Generals has to do with Lee not listening to his lieutenants—I’ve read about you and know you pay attention to the people giving you advice. Golf in the Kingdom is about spiritual matters and competing without keeping score. Shackleton describes endurance under adverse conditions.”

Cooke usually never sees “cold callers,” but he was captivated by the man’s perceptions. They met and talked about how Cooke is running the business and what he’s reading lately. Now they have breakfast about every three months to share ideas.

“I don’t know if he’s ever bought a dollar’s worth of our stock, but our conversations are fascinating. He quotes poets and brings me books to read,” Cooke says.

A Life Well-Lived
“I love life, and I love working with people. And I want our employees to love their lives,” says Cooke.

To aspiring leaders of well-lived lives Cooke says: “Your credentials may open the door, but once inside, you have to know what to do with the opportunity. My liberal arts background allows me to think, to be creative. It taught me how to write concisely, speak to people with a point of view, and not waste time. That’s what education should be about. It’s not about memorizing facts or learning data. It should be about training the mind.”