With leadership experiences at Walmart, Meijer, Academy Sports + Outdoors, and now as CEO of PetSmart, J.K. Symancyk knows the ins and outs of retail. He never mapped out a plan to end up in the retail industry, but as he continued to say “yes” to each new opportunity, he climbed the ladder. In this episode of the Be EPIC Podcast, J.K. and Matt talk about the importance of teaching and learning from others throughout your career, and what separates great retailers from the rest of the pack.
0:00:05.6 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today. I have with me today, JK Symancyk, CEO of PetSmart. JK graduated from the University of Arkansas back in 1994, and he went to work for Walmart and Sam's Club and quickly rose through the ranks and became a divisional merchandise manager, a DMM, as they call it at Walmart, and then he went to Meyer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he was in Grand Rapids for nine years. He finished his time at Meyer as the president of Meyer, and then he became the CEO and president of Academy Sports and Outdoors, and now he's been in Phoenix, Arizona at PetSmart for about three years as CEO. Thank you so much for joining me today, JK.
0:01:22.5 JK Symancyk: I'm glad to be here. Thanks for the invitation, Matt.
0:01:24.5 Matt Waller: Of course, we're proud to have you as an alum of the university, and of course you're on my advisory board, which I appreciate, but your career really is impressive, and of course, working for Walmart, you have experience working for the largest company on Earth, it's publicly traded, but you also have experience working for a firm that's owned by private equity and so forth, so you've got a broad range of experiences. In terms of industry, your experience is primarily been in retail, so you must really enjoy retail.
0:02:07.0 JK Symancyk: Yeah, I do. There was not a master plan that took me down that path, but certainly as I got exposure to it, what started for me as a job before I went to law school or thought about doing something different, I really kinda stumbled into something that I felt like fit me and that I had passion for and more than 20 years later, I'm still doing it. For sure.
0:02:31.2 Matt Waller: Well, you know retail is very fast-paced, as you know, especially starting at Walmart and Sam's Club, you really experienced some fast-paced retail, but you've been in different kinds of retail environments, I mean, Academy Sports and PetSmart are very different than Walmart and Sam's Club, for example, and Meyer for that matter. So you've seen a wide variety of opportunities now, I know since you've been at PetSmart, PetSmart has done really well, and I wanna get back to that later. But one question I have, I know you didn't plan this out, but as you got into it, you clearly gave it your all.
0:03:17.5 JK Symancyk: It's definitely an indirect path I took into business, I graduated the University with a theater degree and in the end, my plan was to move from a liberal arts undergraduate degree and then move on into law school, or even to get my MBA, and that was sort of the master plan in the beginning, but I was fortunate enough to join Walmart at a period of time where there was really two waves of growth going on, there was still the build out of discount retail and Super Centers, and I remember the days of fighting the reputation of a big business coming to town and putting smaller businesses out of business and that myth or reality, that was still very much part of the growth curve as was international, and that was brand new territory, and I think I was given a lot of opportunities early on in international, because I'd done a little bit of time studying abroad. I think, candidly, at that point it was maybe hard to find people who've been outside of Benton County, let alone outside of the US, and so that hunger to learn and a willingness to say, "Yes," coupled with probably more growth than there was talent to fuel it really gave me, some exposure and some opportunity early on that in the end, I might have ultimately earned, but I can't say that I necessarily deserved it, I think it was just part of being in a fast-growing business where there was necessity, and if there are people who are capable, they're given that opportunity.
0:04:58.8 JK Symancyk: And once I realized that that path was there, I was really able to be a little bit more intentional about my plans and start to think about, "How do I really grow my career and find the areas of the business that I was passionate about?"
0:05:14.2 Matt Waller: When you graduated back in '94, did you go right to Walmart?
0:05:20.0 JK Symancyk: I did actually, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. And after having done a summer abroad through the university, I was in a spot where I was kind of weighing options, and my mom and my stepfather both worked for Walmart in the merchant organization, and so I was familiar with the company and I had actually had the good fortune to meet a few executives and this was the beautiful part about Bentonville, at that point in time, it's probably a love-hate when you think about the size of the town, I mean, makes it maybe hard to escape work every once in a while, but it also means that that proximity exposed you to people and you had relationships and a couple of those folks were kind enough to take a chance and talk to me because they were building up the international division and offered me the opportunity to go into the management training program, which was one of the only programs like it at the time. And so I did and went to live temporarily in Joplin, Missouri to really learn the Sam's Club side of the business, because at that point really Sam's was the largest international vehicle that Walmart had, and if you think about that format, it looks much more like cash and carry format that you saw in other countries around the globe, and so it was...
0:06:37.0 JK Symancyk: The Super Center was much foreign at that point in time, so that's really how I started and what kind of put me on the path of going to work for the company.
0:06:45.8 Matt Waller: So where did you study abroad? I'm curious.
0:06:48.9 JK Symancyk: It was London, theater. It's a natural spot.
0:06:51.2 Matt Waller: Good choice. That's terrific. So you eventually became DMM of fresh foods at Sam's Club, and then you went to Meyer as a VP over fresh foods. Fresh Foods are a challenging category.
0:07:11.6 JK Symancyk: That was not something that I was passionate about. I'm passionate about food and when I first started working, I was what they called a merchandise coordinator. So my job was to work with the buying offices in country in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Hong Kong, at the time, to help identify whatever food we exported to those countries. And so I kind of slotted into the food business as a result of that. When I did an expat assignment in Mexico City, was really where I became part of the fresh food business. We had made the decision to open up fresh meat departments and fresh produce departments in the Sam's Clubs in Mexico, and the expertise, to the degree that we had it, was all US based, there was actually a language barrier. Because I could better understand those folks and my Spanish was good enough to be able to help transition and teach that, I was one of a handful of US expats that was there, helping build out a produce distribution system, helping to set up these departments and I was learning on a Tuesday what I might be trying to teach somebody on a Wednesday. Not at all qualified, but it was such a fast education. And ironically enough, when I came back from the US, I had built up enough experience that I moved into the fresh meat area of Sam's Club.
0:08:43.7 JK Symancyk: The ironic thing was I had learned all of my cuts of beef in Spanish. So I had to translate back from Spanish to English to figure out what I was doing once I got back to the States. It was definitely something I kind of backed into. But look, I love the math of it. I love being able to really, on the product side of things, anticipate and outsmart commodity pricing indexes and what I learned about negotiation and how to establish points of leverage. And then, I think one of the big business lessons for me is the tighter you draw the lines, the more that actually creates this impetus for creativity. There's only so many cuts of beef. There's only so many... There's not a new part of animal... At one point in time, you might have said there's not many new fruits and vegetables, although labs are creating more and more, tell that to a PLUOT. There's more and more varieties coming around all the time, but that's an offshoot of having a world that was pretty tightly bound to a small set of SKUs, and that required a lot of foresight in terms of how to negotiate costing and then really how to position yourself relative to the rest of the world. And you learn quick if you were doing it right or if you weren't very good at it. So I loved it.
0:10:08.3 Matt Waller: I do think that teaching things is one of the best ways to learn them. When you were in Mexico teaching things you just learned, it went deeper into your long-term memory.
0:10:21.6 JK Symancyk: It's funny, I tell people, if I think about all of the experiences that I had at Walmart, that one probably, I carry with me in my role today more than anything. Because look, I was teaching what was effectively the Walmart model of business to people who actually knew more about fresh food and had more experience than I did, right, and in some cases, they had more years doing it than I had years on the planet at that point in my life. And so that balancing act of trying to be an authority and set the boundaries on what was in play or not, when I knew there were people who were much deeper into the knowledge of the space and how to respect their experience and to balance that with, "No, no, no, but this is the way that we need to do it and here are the reasons why," to teach, but also to be vulnerable enough to learn from them because I'm dealing not only with a subject area that I don't maybe have as much experience in as they do but also a culture that's different. It's probably one of the best training grounds for now being in a position where, ultimately, I end up having to make a lot of decisions where I have to lean on the expertise of people who are much deeper in the subject than I am and know how to exercise judgment when I may not have the time to go as deep as I would love to go on some of the subjects that I have to weigh in on.
0:11:51.3 Matt Waller: JK, what might be some decisions you've made or some positions you've taken that really have helped you form the path you've taken in your career?
0:12:04.1 JK Symancyk: There's not a simple answer as it relates to a single event. What I would tell you the common thread is... When people came to me with opportunities, particularly if they were people I respected, saw as talented, had invested time in me, then generally, even if I wasn't comfortable, I said, "Yes." Those are the common denominators and then I can also tell you that in every situation, I can point back to small moments and you just never know when you have the opportunity to be with somebody. Where they're gonna be incredibly impactful on you or vice versa, they're gonna see a glimpse of you that shows them the potential that you have in a way that you can't script. I think I shared with you once when we were together recently, when we went through the management training program at Walmart, they were gonna slot us into operational and merchandising roles, and there were only a couple of merchandising roles and a lot more operations training spot. And generally I think people wanted the merchandising roles because there was in their mind, attraction to this headquarters job as opposed to going to a store in particularly a smaller town or some place like that, and right or wrong that was...
0:13:30.9 JK Symancyk: People were sort of jockeying for that. One of the final sort of assessments was we went into a Sam's Club shortly before opening, and we were asked to zone the store and get it ready for the doors to open, and then you had like 10-15 minutes to do it. And if you've been in a Sam's, you can see these aisles and imagine the pallets that have been shopped and the front is sort of sold down, everybody jumps into their aisle, they're each... Everybody's given an aisle, everybody jumps into their aisle and they start stacking these pallets and I walked to the back of the store and grabbed a pallet jack and came in and went down the aisle, jacked up each pallet, pulled it out, span it around, and then put it back in place so that the back side was facing out to the front, and it took me five minutes or so to go down the aisle and do that quickly, and then I had told another person, giving them the idea, I went over to the aisle next to me and helped the other person just 'cause these are my colleagues, and I've grown to know all of them.
0:14:31.3 JK Symancyk: When it was all said and done, the gentleman who was assessing us comes and says, 'Okay, I want you to be a merchant, 'cause anybody who is thinking that way and thinking about how to make it easier, is somebody that I want upstream from me, helping make my job easier,' and I wasn't intentional about it, I had no idea, I just... It was a different way of looking at things and I had paid attention, but there's little examples like that where you make an impression or people get to know you, and I think you particularly [0:15:05.8] [inaudible] feel and we reflect along them, as you learn a little bit about also how to look for that in other people, and it really does help drive and shape your judgment over time.
0:15:16.6 Matt Waller: What a great story. I love that. So now you are at PetSmart and you are the CEO of PetSmart, the largest specialty pet retailer of Service and Solutions in the country, maybe in the world, I don't know. And again, it's a very different format than where you started, I know since you've been there, the company has just done tremendous, so would you talk a little bit about sort of your experience in moving to this extremely different kind of a format?
0:15:56.6 JK Symancyk: The format is different, I would say. For me, the job or the short list of the things that matter are actually the same, it really is about delivering a customer experience that meets customers needs better than anybody else, and I think being really clear on why people choose to shop you, and what it is that you bring to the table that others can't is part of what separates good retailers from the rest, right? I mean, why are you there? Why is someone gonna make the choice to log on to your site or pull into your parking lot, or in this case, the way that people feel about their pets is the way that they feel about other members of their family, and the responsibility that we have is something that attracted me to the opportunity, it's a hard one to replicate, it's hard to fake a culture that really does love pets and believe that pets make us better people, and we're committed to doing anything and everything you can to enhance the bond between pets and pet parents and make their lives better in every interaction that we have. And you mentioned the performance of the company, look, I think our longevity is tied to that, I cannot in any way claim responsibility or authorship as it relates to that culture. What I hope I've been able to do is really bring that back into focus and really help our people deliver on that promise.
0:17:34.2 Matt Waller: So JK, you've had lots of leadership positions obviously, what are some key takeaways? You know, when you talk to leaders, you see that everyone has a unique style...
0:17:47.5 JK Symancyk: Right.
0:17:48.8 Matt Waller: Towards leadership, people have certain leadership techniques they use that wouldn't work for other people, but the longer you live and the more you try to lead, the more you pick up these, and you find certain things that work for you and certain things don't. What are some things that have worked well for you?
0:18:05.4 JK Symancyk: For starters, I think one of the hardest things to do, being a young leader was really challenging, it was also one of the best developmental opportunities that I had because there was an awful lot of that I think sort of Jack Welch mentality around what good leadership looks like. In one camp, you were taught those kind of principles and another, you were taught kind of servant leadership, Sam Walton, certainly is, you think about Walmart as a young leader, look, there's no way in the world I could have gone the Jack Welch route. It didn't matter whether I believed in it or not, I didn't have the equity built up, I was still learning so much that I had to really develop a style that was able to still exercise authority without having to be an expert in everything. Now, look, from a leadership standpoint, I really talk to our team about four things, there's four axes of leadership that I feel like people are really measured on, and if you're a good leader, you make a difference, and you bring impact there. The first one is talent. It really is about identifying and developing talent and then really putting it in position or supporting it in a way to let it have the maximum impact, and sometimes that's coaching, sometimes it's getting out of the way and really clearing the path so that people can do what they're there to do.
0:19:39.6 JK Symancyk: The second one is focus in a world where there's way more priorities than there are resources to accomplish those priorities, really narrowing in to say, these are the two or three that matter most, and making sure that we put the full weight of the organization behind them and is something that is critically important. The next one may be harder sometimes, but it's the higher you go in an organization, the less it is correct or incorrect answer, right and wrong really gets measured on a whole different set of intangible and sometimes murky set of variables, and so judgment is really the other one that I think is important, and it's I think judgment is one of those things that you can certainly hone and develop over time, but it's gotta go on the list. And then the fourth one, probably the hardest for people to get, but it's the thing that you look for first in leaders and that's influence. I think one of the things I learned really well at Walmart was this idea that you can be accountable for something without having direct responsibility over it, that if you see something where you can make an impact and you can help shape the outcome of it, it really is incumbent upon you to find a way to influence that and to make it better, that ability to influence is one of the healthiest things I think, you can develop amongst your leadership across a company.
0:21:06.9 Matt Waller: Well JK, thanks for taking time to visit with me. This has just been terrific. I really appreciate it.
0:21:12.4 JK Symancyk: Yeah, likewise. Glad to do it. I appreciate all the work that you and your team are doing, I tell people all the time, my degree gets more valuable each and every day, so I really appreciate all the work, and I say that as an alum, but also a parent of a student and soon to be student. So thanks for everything.
0:21:35.1 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The BeEpic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us, wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpic podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now be epic.