Pier 1 CEO doesn’t shy away from ‘Imports’ tag

02/26/2014 1:36 PM

02/26/2014 1:38 PM

Pier 1 Imports CEO Alex W. Smith said Wednesday that the push to “buy American” and rejuvenate the nation’s manufacturing sector doesn’t give him qualms about running a firm based on foreign-made goods.

“There is room for all sorts of businesses,” the British-born Smith told a breakfast gathering organized by the Neeley School of Business at TCU. Speaking of his company’s name, he said, “I am proud it says ‘Imports.’ ”

Smith disclosed that when he joined Fort Worth-based Pier 1 seven years ago, there was a proposal to drop the word. He said the idea “drove me crazy.”

“That’s what it says on the door,” the CEO recalled saying at the time, cutting off discussion.

Appearing relaxed with unruly white hair and no tie in a pinstriped suit, Smith, 61, fielded questions on topics ranging from leadership style to his own background.

As a biological sciences graduate from the University of East Anglia, Smith said, he was clueless about career choices upon graduation. Although his major didn’t prepare him for a life in retail, he had enjoyed working in stores during vacations and thought he’d give it a try, he said in response to a question from Neeley’s dean, O. Homer Erekson.

Much of what he learned about the retail trade came from Jim Duffson, who was more than a manager in Scotland for Dutch-owned C&A department stores, Smith said. Duffson turned “slap-hazard” young college grads into effective retailers.

Smith was a management trainee but didn’t act the part at first, or at least didn’t commute from home the proper way.

“Executives,” the store manager declared to him, “do not arrive at work on bicycle.”

And Smith never did again.

He also counts Bernard Cammarata, chairman of TJX Corp., owner of T.J. Maxx stores, as another major influence even though he “was a tough boss.” Running what are T.K. Maxx stores in Britain, Smith said, was an important learning experience.

Smith divides the past seven years as CEO at Pier 1 into three periods: the turnaround stretch, the recession and the current phase. He’s hoping for rapid growth helped by online sales, which he had ended early on and then resurrected in 2012.

When he took over, he recalled, “experts” told the company that its customers hadn’t changed. If that were the case, Smith said, “they’d all be over 80.”

But the demographics haven’t changed. “We are a broad church,” he said of income levels of Pier 1 shoppers. “They tend to skew to higher incomes … but not the highest incomes.

“You don’t want to be too niche, or it becomes too hard to make a business,” he said.

Asked how Pier 1 comes up with new products, Smith demurred, saying he couldn’t reveal the company’s “secret sauce.” But he went on to say that some suppliers offer ideas, while Pier 1’s staff develops designs and concepts for others.

Smith declined to directly analyze why big-box stores like Best Buy and department stores like J.C. Penney are struggling.

But in response to a question, he said that Pier 1’s stores have a much smaller footprint, about 9,500 square feet, and that leases on about 10 percent of them come up every year, allowing the company to nimbly move to thriving shopping centers from locations that had seen their best days.

That said, the future is different for every retailer, Smith said.

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