Leading with passion: The values that saved Ashley Stewart

Retail Gets Real
is sponsored by
Listen and subscribe

Don’t miss an episode: Subscribe to Retail Gets Real via Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or Stitcher.

After undergoing two bankruptcies, Ashley Stewart was in trouble. The plus-size fashion retailer had served urban communities for more than 20 years but was on the brink of closing in 2013. James Rhee, a private equity investor with no prior retail or CEO experience, stepped in as CEO and brought the company back to life.

While attending NRF 2018: Retail’s Big Show, Rhee joined Retail Gets Real to discuss his value-based leadership style and how his passion helped saved the company. Shannon Schuyler, chief purpose officer at PwC, co-hosted this episode.

James Rhee (middle) with host Bill Thorne (left) and co-host Shannon Schuyler (right).

James Rhee (middle) with host Bill Thorne (left) and co-host Shannon Schuyler (right).

Inspired by passionate Ashley Stewart employees, Rhee didn’t want to see the company fold. “There was a force making it live,” he said, “and that was passion, that was friendship. Those are the things that really spoke to me as a human being more than as an investor.”

Passion alone wasn’t enough to keep Ashley Stewart afloat, though. Financially, the company was in trouble and that meant making foundational changes. Taking his role as a fiduciary to heart, Rhee went all in. “We had to get our own house in order. It’s kind of like going into a house and people like to paint the house and plant trees. That’s generally not my style of investing or my approach to human beings. We went into the basement and we got dirty, and we fixed the plumbing and the foundation.”

Proper management gave the business the opportunity to shine in a way that only it could. Rhee describes Ashley Stewart as more than a brand — it’s a culture and a movement; selling clothes is just the business side. What customers value most from the stores are friendship, self-esteem and respect.

Ashley Stewart is distinctive for its ability to bring people together. Through its Finding Ashley Stewart contest, concert series and vibrant social media presence, the brand continues to play a large role in the communities it serves.

Listen to this episode to learn how Ashley Stewart went from barely surviving to thriving. For more great leadership stories from Retail Gets Real, check out past episodes.

Nadee Bandaranayake is an assistant producer on NRF’s Retail Gets Real podcast. Meet all the co-hosts and learn more about the show.