Kohl's CEO Michelle Gass looks back — and ahead

The ‘Visionary’ leader of Kohl’s is forging new partnerships and driving an ambitious plan for growth

It wasn’t a straight line that brought Michelle Gass to become CEO of Kohl’s. But it was, perhaps, a fitting one in an industry that continues to inspire the need to change and adapt.   

Gass, who has been named “The Visionary” by the National Retail Federation, sat down with CNBC retail reporter Courtney Reagan Sunday morning at NRF 2020 Vision: Retail's Big Show to chat about the trajectory of the company as well as her own career. As for the award, it’s an honor presented each year to a retail executive with a proven track record of spearheading change in the industry. 

Gass finished college with a chemical engineering degree; she worked for Procter & Gamble Company in new product development and then marketing. Her best training was around problem solving, she said, and she soon discovered that she had more interest in problem solving for the consumer than anything else. Close to 17 years at Starbucks in a variety of leadership roles followed; Gass came to Kohl’s in 2013 in the newly created position of chief customer officer and led the creation of the Kohl’s Greatness Agenda the following year. She became CEO in 2018, the first woman to hold the position.  

“You follow your passion, you stay true to your values and your core, but you allow those opportunities to unfold,” she said.

The same can be said for the company she heads. In recent years, Kohl’s has positioned itself as destination for active and wellness products for the family. It has revamped its loyalty program, introduced new brands, invested in digital, shifted focus to customer-centric omnichannel retail and created a risk-taking culture overall.

One such risk? Allowing customers to return Amazon items at Kohl’s locations.

“We’re in a time when you have to think differently. It can be daunting, but I look at it like, ‘Wow. The rules have changed. And what are the rules?’”

Michelle Gass, Kohl's

“There were a few people who thought we were a little crazy when this first was announced,” she said. “But we’re in a time when you have to think differently. That’s exciting. It can be daunting, but I look at it like, ‘Wow. The rules have changed. And what are the rules?’”

One of the things Kohl’s has done is focus on strategic partnerships, maintaining core authenticity while becoming increasingly relevant. The Amazon partnership aimed squarely at bringing more people into the store, and she said the two organizations have complementary strengths. It’s not just that Kohl’s has 1,200 stores, and that 80 percent of Americans live within 15 miles of a Kohl’s location. It’s also that the company’s friendly and service-minded culture made them just “really good” at making returns a pleasant experience.  

Not all of the talk looked back; Gass also teased more to come. 

The company recently announced an upcoming investor day, and rethinking the store experience is decidedly part of an unfolding new strategy. “We’re experimenting in some of our stores in using technology, how customers check out, the use of lockers, how the layout works, so it’s really inviting,” she said.

The beauty category also is on the agenda. It is small business for Kohl’s today, she said, but growing significantly with new focus and new brands. “We’ve got 11 pilot stores we’ve completely re-engineered and reimagined to create a new beauty experience for our customer,” she said. “We’re getting rave reviews, so you can expect to hear more.”

Overall, she said, “We’re very confident about where we’re going. Many of the things we’ve bet on are working.”

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