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During his more than 11 years at Foot Locker, Matt Serra didn’t just transform his own company, he revolutionized the entire athletic industry.
When the executive arrived at the retailer in September 1998, he knew he had to shake things up, and quickly. “We were in trouble, the industry was in trouble. We were experiencing a lot of the same difficulties we’re experiencing today,” Serra recalled. “The difference now is that we have a much stronger executive team and the company is in a much better financial position.”
In those challenging early days, Serra was able to tap into the experience he had gained as a department store executive. After getting his start in the Macy’s Training Program in 1966, Serra, a Long Island, N.Y., native, quickly rose through the ranks, holding top positions at major retailers such as Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as the now-defunct Gimbels and Stern’s chains.
Serra had been president and CEO of Stern’s for five years when he got the call about the Foot Locker job. His friend, Roger Farah, was leading the charge to turn the firm, which had a long history as F.W. Woolworth Co., into an athletic-focused business. Shortly before Serra came aboard, the company changed its name to Venator Group (inspired by the Latin word for “sportsman”) to reflect the new strategy.
But the company’s moves came during a difficult time for the athletic world, and Foot Locker — and the industry — needed a jolt.
Enter Serra. As the new president and CEO of Foot Locker Worldwide, the executive’s first order of business was to return the retailer to profitability.
“Matt had to make some very hard and long-overdue decisions,” said K-Swiss Inc. Chairman, President and CEO Steven Nichols. “The result was that Foot Locker remained a viable and industry leader.”
Foot Locker became a leaner, more powerful athletic force, and Serra climbed the corporate ladder. He became president and COO of the parent company in 2000, and added the CEO title in 2001, when Venator officially became Foot Locker Inc. Three years later, he was named chairman.
Serra charged ahead with renovating the vast majority of the Foot Locker fleet and standardizing stores all over the world. In the early 2000s, he also poured a lot of energy into repairing the Champs Sports business. “That took a lot,” Serra remembered. “It was very gratifying to see that business do a 360.”
After making some serious changes, the CEO embarked on an aggressive growth strategy. One of his most notable decisions came in 2004 — the year he received FN’s Person of the Year award — when the company bought competitor Footaction for $225 million, a move that significantly expanded Foot Locker’s dominance in the athletic specialty sector.