A great privilege of my professional life is to have been a part of turning the wheels behind some of the most beloved decisions in retailing. Fate delivered me to Lands’ End and the Wisconsin farmlands in 1983 as the trainer and confidante of the Lands’ End phone reps who took orders and served customers.
Within a year of my arrival, founder Gary Comer invited me to report to him and the company’s executive committee. Gary described my job as nurturing the “conscience” of the company through the decisions we made as we grew. During this time, the catalog industry was in its infancy. We experienced 20 to 30 percent growth per year, and the company’s passionate stand was that long-term growth was dependent on retaining our strong emotional connection with customers.
Clearly the world and Lands’ End have changed since I was there. However, the lessons that built that business travel with me wherever I go:
- Our decisions revealed our values.
- Our actions that came from those decisions revealed who we were as people.
- Our decisions told our story. And that story pulled employees and customers toward us.
- Those uncommon decisions fueled our growth.
The decisions drove actions that made us so beloved that we assembled a “Correspondence Corps” of over 200 employee volunteers to answer all the “I love you, Lands’ End!” mail we received each month. Our “moment of greatness” was being able to make the decisions that allowed those uncommon actions to occur.
There are many decisions we made during that time that nudged Lands’ End along to becoming a beloved company.
Here is one decision that especially impacted all of us there because of the intent and motivation behind it, and because of the humility that accompanied its delivery. In 1989, after many prosperous years, founder Gary Comer decided to personally thank the people of Lands’ End for helping him build the business. When customers described Lands’ End and why they loved the company, their most frequent comment was “The people who take care of me at Lands’ End make me love you.”
So Gary decided to thank the people who made such an impact on customers that the company grew and prospered. He took $10 million out of his own pocket and built an employee health club that rivaled the best of any in the world. Constructed on the Lands’ End campus, it was a gift to our well-being. It was Gary’s tribute to our collective decisions that built the business.
For Gary, the intent behind his decision to build that health club was to give back to the southwestern Wisconsin people who had become the face and personality of Lands’ End. How they interacted with customers, how they cared—the decisions they made—set Lands’ End apart for customers and made it grow. As the company grew, Comer personally benefited and wanted to take good care of the employees who worked alongside him.
His motivation for paying for the health club was that he wanted to make the gesture personal—a gift from him and his family to the people of Lands’ End. That’s why Gary funded it out of his own pocket; it was not a corporate expense. Knowing and understanding what guided Comer’s actions—the intent and motivation behind them—is to understand what made them noble. It gave me faith that business leaders can gracefully blend commerce with their humanity.