Jenny Ming works with our North American deal team, using her creative and business talents to identify and invest in high-growth retail concepts. Jenny is currently President and CEO at Advent portfolio company Charlotte Russe.
“This space isn’t easy to get right – it was terrific to see Advent’s level of expertise. From my point of view, it’s just a great partnership.” Jenny Ming
As one of the most talented retail executives today, Jenny Ming has spent the last 30+ years working at, running and creating some of the country’s best apparel retail brands. She displayed outstanding retail instincts in her early roles before being recruited by former Gap CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler in 1985 as a buyer for Gap activewear division. Just three years later, she was promoted to Vice President after successfully forecasting what trends and designs would sell.
In 1994, she became part of the executive team that planned the Gap spinoff, Old Navy, and by 1999 she was President of the 850-store chain. Sales growth in her division outstripped that of her parent company and Jenny won industry respect for Old Navy’s ability to understand its customers, capitalize on trends and deliver a compelling retail experience. In 2004, she made her second appearance on Fortune magazine’s list of the “50 Most Powerful Women in American Business”.
How would you describe your business philosophy?
I have a passion for selling great product. For me business starts and ends with what your customer wants. You add value by creating desire in your customers and making sure you have an opportunity to fulfill that “want”. How you create the “want” is a mystery to many people – it’s genuinely puzzling. I learned how you can create that emotion, how you can tap into the psyche of the customer. In fact, it’s relatively easy to do at a high-end designer-level – if you have great designers, of course. But to do it for the mass market is a much harder proposition – and it’s what can set you apart from the competition in a saturated marketplace. Business is all about bringing together a team of great people capable of achieving great things.
How did you first become involved with Advent?
I left Old Navy and Gap after 20 years determined to take some time-off, to travel just for pleasure. Then David Mussafer at Advent called me to talk about sitting on the board of [former portfolio company] Lululemon Athletica. It’s a brand I have incredible respect for, so I was intrigued to discuss the opportunity. Although I wasn’t quite ready at that point – I treat joining a board as a serious, long-term commitment – every few months David would call to catch up with what I was doing.
Then during my travels, particularly in Asia, which was a real inspiration, I started to get creative again. Sometimes, when you’re in the midst of running a business, it’s hard to see what’s going on around you – you’re under a lot of pressure to deliver. When you step away, you can start to imagine more possibilities. I got excited about retail again. I was refreshed and I realized how much I loved the business.
I’d been getting calls from many companies, but David suggested that I become an Operating Partner, to work with some of the portfolio companies or to look at something we could buy together. I was intrigued about the role: being an OP offered me the opportunity to be stimulated and challenged without the 100% commitment of running a business. Even though I met with several private equity groups, Advent, David and the Retail Team, stood out. They “got” the business of retail and truly listened to my ideas.
Describe your role as an Advent Operating Partner
I set up a small office in San Francisco and hired an old colleague to work with me on a huge list of potential targets that Advent had put together. I made most of the introductory calls myself. It was my opportunity to get out there and explore the market. Because many of the targets had read or heard about me, they were intrigued – so I got to know a lot of companies that way. It was more of an exchange of ideas than a typical acquirer’s approach.
I was also able to look at clothing brands a bit differently than a private equity investor might. I don’t think Advent would have considered buying Charlotte Russe until I looked at it and explained what I thought the opportunity was. Then they recognized that there might be something there. By working with Advent, it really was the best of both worlds – I could leverage my extensive background and contacts, and be supported by a world class team.
With which Advent investments are you involved? In what role?
I’m now President and CEO of Charlotte Russe, which was bought by Advent in October 2009. It was at the top of my wishlist. Why? First, it was trending well – focused on ‘fast fashion’, good value products, a brand with young adults and some good retail space. Those customers are fickle – they tend to have little loyalty. If you can get the proposition right, they’ll come right into your store immediately. It wasn’t broken, but it was in need of new strategies, new people and new ideas. It basically was the “C-” student in its competitive set.
Second, I wanted a company that was small enough to be able to grow and big enough to leverage scale. This was a brand that people sort of knew – but perhaps not as well as they might. In other words, it had huge potential. It’s my job to ensure that potential is realized and we deliver top business results.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Doing the deal itself required a huge amount of patience. Just because you have the money, that doesn’t mean you can just walk in and buy a business! As experienced business leaders, Operating Partners tend to be action-oriented, so sometimes having to wait around for things to happen is just not normal. The process took longer and involved much more back and forth than I expected--but for private equity, the deal actually went pretty quickly.
But while the process took some time, I enjoyed learning about it as we went along – areas like due diligence and valuations, for example. During the deal, I would go along and sit in on meetings so I could learn about the business of buying a company. It gave me a chance to do a lot of planning and strategizing, so I could hit the ground running in the first 100 days.
I had so many creative people ready to come on board in the first month that the transition was much easier.
What have you enjoyed most as an Advent Operating Partner?
When I came back into the business after a break, it was almost like I never left – even though I was working with a totally new company. My instincts kicked back in quickly and it has been a lot of fun. Retailing is fluid and your decisions have impact immediately. You can apply your intuition and see the results quickly. I get a lot of energy from that.
Being in a private company, you can move faster, too – there are few bureaucratic layers. That was one of the attractions of working with Advent. The key thing when we started was to make sure we were delivering as much profitability as possible, running the business for the bottom line not the top line. We could be more proactive and that’s refreshing.
I was also impressed with Advent during the deal. Their due diligence was outstanding – broad and in-depth. My contribution was focused at the creative end, identifying new avenues for brands, marketing and products. For example, I spent the majority of my time evaluating the brand positioning, product strategy, marketing vehicles and supply chain. What could be our competitive advantage? What customers should we focus on? How can we attract new customers? How should we source product? What factories? These types of core business strategies are where a deep retail understanding and experience complements the financial strategies. Those less tangible areas are often the tough part for financial buyers – but they’re important in retail and that’s where I enjoy adding value.
What advice would you offer someone thinking about becoming an Advent Operating Partner?
When I sign up for something, I need to feel comfortable with my partners. I trust my intuition about people because they are what makes a company. Know who you’re going to be working with and how comfortable you are with them. You have to invest time and there’s no short-cut. Talk to people who have worked with them.
Then you need to understand what role you want to play. Every Operating Partner is different, both in terms of what they bring to the table and their involvement in the business. Be clear about what you want to do – but be open-minded, too.
What does it take to be an effective Advent Operating Partner?
As an OP, you’re on the board of directors, but you’re often not the person who’s doing everything – you’re advising them and guiding them. You do have to be careful about your role. I’m a real doer by instinct. I have to be conscious about that. I can be strategic; I can be a supporter offering advice, expertise and experience – but I had to learn that. It depends on who you are – and what industry you’re in.
Obviously I wouldn’t do this unless it was fun. And it’s challenging, too. The key is to work with great people who share a passion and a vision for the opportunity and where you can all build on each other’s enthusiasm for the project.
Why do you choose to work with Advent?
I love the support we get from everyone at Advent. Key people are just a phone call away and they’re always ready to help out – it’s the best “corporate” support I’ve had during my career! That’s not to say I didn’t get great support at Gap – but Advent offers as much or as little advice as you want, and their input and expertise are welcome.
I tend to communicate with Advent quite a bit, because I enjoy the opportunity to maintain a continuous dialogue. It’s not like some organizations where you’re waiting for a board meeting to update. And my team is also free to interact with them – it’s great that we have such a strong relationship with Advent.
Advent’s experience in the retail sector was a big plus, too. This space isn’t easy to get right – it was terrific to see they had that level of expertise. From my point of view, it’s just a great partnership.