Ken Kocher is a very proud, very loyal fan of the Chicago Cubs. It doesn’t matter that the ball club hasn’t won the World Series in more than 100 years and hasn’t even been to the World Series since 1945. Kocher still loves the Cubs.
His office at Hat World Inc. is full of team memorabilia with a heavy emphasis, not surprisingly, on hats. But Kocher doesn’t impose his own fan loyalty on his employees. Instead, he encourages them to show their own colors and wear hats and shirts to work for whatever teams they root for.
While providing a chance to show some love for their favorite teams, it also serves to get employees more connected to the product he wants them to be out there selling to customers.
“You need to be cognizant that the people in your company believe in what you’re selling,” says Kocher, who took over as president of the 7,300-employee hat retailer, otherwise known as Lids, in 2005. “If you’re passionate about your product, which in our case is hats and sports because we sell sports as much as hats, you have a more passionate employee that understands what the customer wants.”
Kocher feels fortunate to lead a company so entrenched in the entertaining business of sports, but it’s not all fun and games at the $466 million company. Kocher’s organization doesn’t succeed because employees get to wear hats to work or because they aren’t allowed to wear ties. It thrives because they are excited about the product and energized to sell it to customers. And it works because employees take part in the process to set goals and then share in the reward when those goals are achieved.
“If you’re results-oriented, you can make any job fun,” Kocher says. “The key is to create competition. That will make your job fun no matter what you’re doing. Even if it’s competition with yourself to get more done today than yesterday or to sell more today than yesterday. Competition is a driving force with everybody. I don’t care who it is. You have to be competitive if you want to succeed.”
This approach helped Hat World navigate through the recession that began in late 2008 and devastated many in the retail business. While many retailers were closing stores, Hat World added 36 stores in 2010 and plans to add 26 more this year.
Here’s how Kocher takes employee passion and turns it into business success.
Engage your employees
You need to get your employees excited about the product or service that you’re selling. Give them opportunities to offer input about your product and how it’s being sold and how it might be presented in a better way to catch the eye of your potential customers.
“If you have management from the top down all the time, employees just don’t think you care,” Kocher says. “Let people be creative and come up with new ways to do things.”
Most of the hats sold through the Lids stores are already designed and licensed and come with vendors that deal with other companies. But Kocher works with his people to make decisions on what products to sell and how to market them.
“We have a very dialed-in sports culture and a fashion element to that, too,” Kocher says. “Our buyers know what the customer wants, because they are the customer.”
If you’re perfect and know everything there is to know about what you sell, it’s OK for you to make all the decisions. But since you’re probably not perfect, try letting others step up once in awhile.
“You have to be willing to let your leaders underneath you and your managers be leaders,” Kocher says. “Give them the direction they need to go, but stay out of their way. Everybody gets to a point in a different way. I may have an organized desk and think that’s the most successful way to do it. My counterpart may have a disorganized desk, and yet he’s still somehow organized. That’s the same way with leaders leading this company or leading people. Every individual is different in how they think. Let them figure out which way they want to go and how they want to do it.”
The only way your people are going to grow is if you give them opportunities to apply their talents and prove themselves. It shouldn’t be your job to make every decision in your business. Let your people experience the pride of making a decision that helps the company grow.
That way, you can stay focused on the big picture.
“My role is on the growth side,” Kocher says. “It’s to provide avenues of growth for our company, for our employees and for our shareholders that maximize profit. I’m kind of steering the ship in the direction I feel like we should go as a team to best make use of our skill set at as a company.”
In most cases, your employees are probably a lot closer to your customers than you are. When you enable them and empower them to think about how your product can be better, you give them a chance to grow.
“That’s what drives them and gets them going every day,” Kocher says. “If you can create that competition throughout the whole company, even if you’re a customer care rep and they can have some competition within themselves, they will be more successful.”
If you’ve delegated in the past and ended up with employees doing something that does not fit your company’s vision, the fault may rest with you. Did you take the time to explain your vision to employees? Did you make sure they clearly understood what you were looking for?
“You can’t just assume the job is going to get done exactly the way you want it done,” Kocher says. “If you’re not involved in the process as they are going through the project and teaching them what they should be looking for, you’re going to get a train wreck at the end.”
There may have been a time when you weren’t the CEO and you were excited when your boss came to you and wanted your opinion. You can’t lose sight of that youthful exuberance that exists inside your employees who want to help your company succeed.
“Don’t forget where you came from,” Kocher says. “That will always make you a better person and a better leader. I’m always about the future, but there are people who have helped me become very successful that I’ll never lose focus on. Everybody has those people. You just have to make sure you recognize and understand the importance of the past to your success.”
Kocher is not looking for a show of hands when he seeks out leaders to help keep his company moving forward and growing.
“If anybody tells me they have leadership potential, I don’t want them working for me,” Kocher says. “You have to see it. Leaders go to the top. You can see a leader. If you walk into a cafeteria at a sixth-grade school, if you pay attention, you’re going to figure out who the leaders are of that classroom pretty quickly.”
The challenge for you is to create situations where your people can demonstrate their leadership skills. Create situations where you can be out there observing employees in action and seeing who rises to the occasion.
“We’re moving one of our businesses called Lids Team Sports from Madison, Wis., to Indianapolis,” Kocher says. “It’s something that needed to be done to get the synergies out of both businesses. We went to our directors and employees and said, ‘Can you guys take on this project and make it happen?’ It’s basically a project that they took on above and beyond what they were already doing. During this process, we have about a half-dozen employees that have been living in Madison away from their families for about four to six months until this move officially happens to help with the process of moving. So it’s a pretty large move.”
It’s an important move for the company and an important opportunity to see what kind of leadership skills the employees who are seeing it through have.
“We have a long history of taking a store manager and working them through our system to where they play a major management role in our company,” Kocher says. “That’s a lot more inexpensive than going out and finding that person initially. You pass over a lot of people and you lose a lot of culture along the way. We try to teach our people.”
That teaching and gaining of experience is where it’s at when it comes to finding leaders. The Type A personality with the voice everyone can hear is not necessarily your best leader.
“I don’t think the leader is the person who always gets up in front of people to speak and is a good speaker,” Kocher says. “Good speakers don’t make good leaders. A lot of people get confused. They think, ‘Boy, that person can really handle themselves with a mic.’ That doesn’t mean they can be a good leader.”
You’re a leader. You know that it’s the person who gets things done, not necessarily the one with the million-dollar smile, that you want leading the charge in your business.
“It goes back to a leader in our culture is someone who is willing to get down and dirty with the group,” Kocher says. “You let people go out and be leaders and stay out of their way.”
You still ask questions and you still check in and make yourself available to that person for questions and feedback. But you let them do their job and see how they handle it.
“Be involved enough in the process that you can see that they’re going in the right direction,” Kocher says.
When the economy began to plummet in the fall of 2008, Kocher had concerns about what the effect might be on Hat World.
“People were cutting inventory, and everybody was really nervous about what was going to happen to the economy,” Kocher says. “No one knew how bad it was going to get.”
Fortunately for Kocher, sales rose from $378.9 million in fiscal 2008 to $405.5 million in fiscal 2009 and then even higher in 2010.
“I told everybody that we just need to focus on the little things,” Kocher says. “Small victories; that was kind of our thing. Let’s shoot for small victories and not try to hit home runs. Let’s just look at what we’re doing and make sure we don’t make any dumb moves and we’ll be fine.”
Kocher could have panicked. He could have called a town-hall meeting and sounded the alarm about the downfall of the retail industry. But that wouldn’t have been his style, and it wouldn’t have been consistent with a culture that is always looking for opportunities.
“We don’t knee-jerk,” Kocher says. “We don’t start saying, ‘Hey, everybody needs to work five hours more because we have to do this or we have to do that.’ We don’t have to do that. We treat people the same regardless.”
How to reach: Hat World Inc, (888) 564-4287 or www.lids.com.
Ken Kocher, president, Hat World Inc.
Born: Crosby, N.D.
Education: Bachelor’s of business degree in accounting, University of North Dakota
What was your first job?
I was a paperboy for the Devils Lake Journal. I did that for a couple years. That teaches you the importance of money at a young age. At that time, we had to collect money from all the customers.
I was a multisport athlete growing up, so I had to do it around practice and games. It taught me time management. I played football, baseball, basketball and track. In football, I was a linebacker and tight end. It was a small school and you had to play them all. Otherwise they wouldn’t have enough kids.
Favorite sports to play and to watch: My favorite sport to play growing up was football. My favorite sport now to play is golf. Baseball is my favorite sport to watch now.
Favorite hat: Any hat that has a Cubs emblem on it.
Dress code at Hat World: We don’t allow ties in this building. If our buyers are meeting with a vendor, they’ll wear khakis and a colored shirt that day. But no ties allowed. People pretty much know, if someone walks in with a tie, we’ll go, ‘Who is that?’
Is everyone at Hat World a Colts fan?
We have a fair amount of Colts fans, but it’s all over the board. It’s fun to do that because you’ll see [who employees root for] in their offices, and it’s really a conversation piece. Why do you have Oakland A’s or New York Mets? How did you become a Vikings fan? That’s our culture. I’d say there are probably more other teams in here than the Colts.