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When Rick Ausick arrived at Famous Footwear in 2002, the chain was at a turning point. Its longtime leader and visionary, Brian Cook, had just retired, exposing the retailer to major management changes. The business also faced other challenges: Competition was catching up and the company’s relentless focus on price was beginning to tarnish its reputation.
But it was also a moment of opportunity, as brands were increasingly viewing Famous and its competitors in the thriving discount channel as a new frontier for growth.
“Brands were becoming more and more enthralled with the channel. There are only so many places for them to grow, [and] they saw an opportunity,” said Ausick, 60, who began his retail career in 1977 at Marshall Field before taking on top merchandising roles at Burdines, Eaton’s and Shopko. “It was an awakening for all of us [in the industry].”
As chief merchandising officer, Ausick worked alongside new president Joseph Wood to revamp Famous’ image and sharpen the chain’s focus. Stores were redesigned, service was stepped up and the emphasis shifted away from price to telling compelling product and brand stories. “All of that built credibility with the industry,” Ausick recalled. “We looked at ways we could achieve better merchandising, create a more impactful presentation and forge a stronger emotional connection with our customers. We also worked hard to make our brand partners feel comfortable and excited about being in our stores.”
The changes worked, and Ausick’s bosses quickly recognized his efforts. In 2006, he transitioned to wholesale, running parent firm Brown Shoe Co.’s former Bennett Division. Three years later, he returned to Famous as president when Wood retired. Under Ausick’s shrewd leadership, the 1,058-door chain capitalized on hot trends, such as toning; rolled out its first national marketing campaigns; moved into the digital space with mobile commerce; and expanded into Canada. Last year, the retailer rang up sales of more than $1.5 billion.
Diane Sullivan, Brown Shoe’s president and CEO, credits Ausick with giving Famous a distinct point of view in the crowded market and solidifying it as a family retail destination. “Five years ago, Famous Footwear didn’t have an identity. Today, it has a very strong point of view as a brand and experience [for] the whole family,” she said.
For Ausick, that focus on families is key to the chain’s success and longevity. “We have an opportunity to take customers from a young age and grow with them as they have their own children and grandchildren,” he said. “We’re constantly working on nurturing that relationship and finding ways to become a bigger part of our customers’ lives.”
Here, the Famous Footwear chief reflects on his long career and leading the firm to the top of the family footwear space.
What attracted you to retail?
RA: I actually went to business school to be a banker, but then I met a few bankers and decided I didn’t want to be one. An opportunity came to enter a training program Marshall Field had set up for young MBA grads. They were looking to build their middle management. I joined in 1977 and spent [time] working in various aspects of the business, including accounting, the distribution center, the buying office and store management. It was a great entrance into the retail world and a way to experience the different functions. After the [yearlong] program, I decided I wanted to be a merchant.
Was there a particularly valuable learning moment early in your career?
RA: One of my later roles at Burdines was VP of merchandise planning and allocation. This was a brand new area — Burdines was among the first to start this. The buyers weren’t thrilled about that transition, suddenly having someone tell them how many shoes to order and where they would go. But as companies got bigger and bigger, this function became increasingly important. So having that perspective early on was important.
When you joined Famous Footwear in 2002, it was largely a new management team. How did that feel?
RA: It was interesting and fun. We were all a similar age and in the same stage in life and in our careers. We came together well as a team. We were energized and on a mission to make the business better. Still, it was a lot of change for our people, so we focused on achieving some early successes to get the team to rally to our cause.
Where did the business stand at that point?
RA: Famous had hit a soft patch. It had been a leader in the whole “brand name shoes for less, open-sell environment,” but that success bred imitators. Up through the early 1990s, Famous had much of the business to itself, but by 2000 there were a significant number of competitors in our space [including Rack Room, DSW and Shoe Carnival]. This was a time when the big brands were looking for new places to grow their business, and our channel was one that was flourishing. They saw an opportunity.