Planting the Seed
Executive Chairman of the Board
Tractor Supply Co.
Jim Wright grew up in retail, logging some four decades with Kmart, Western Auto Supply Co. and Tire Kingdom before becoming chairman and CEO of Tractor Supply Company (TSC), the nation’s largest retail farm and ranch store chain.
In late September, he announced plans to hand over the top job to Greg Sandfort and step into the role of executive chairman of the board.
Wright, who joined TSC in October 2000, was a key architect in building the company into a leading specialty retailer, helping to lift revenues from $759 million in 2000 to $4.2 billion in 2011, and growing the store base from 305 units to more than 1,135.
STORES Editor Susan Reda recently spoke with Wright.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in retail?
When I started in this business ... the role of the CEO was to dispense wisdom and advise those younger executives climbing the corporate ladder. Senior executives could ... [rely] on experience and remote memory. Today my job is to talk constantly with those who are younger than I am so I can learn from them and keep up with the frenetic pace of change.
Experience certainly comes into play as I ponder decisions and coach others, but there’s not a whole lot of value in remote memory anymore.
Did you have a mentor and, if so, what was the biggest lesson that you learned?
I grew up in retail at a time when management behaved differently. I had many mentors and all shaped my point of view, but unfortunately most of them did so by showing what not to do and how not to do it. ...
One of our senior VPs of store operations has a phrase he uses when he’s talking to his district managers. He asks, “Do you remember what it felt like then?” It’s aimed at helping them to recall what it’s like to be on the front lines.
The most powerful thing that retail leaders can do is to bring dignity, recognition and reward to those entry-level, front-line jobs. When I started in the late ’60s and early ’70s ... it was more of a “do so because I said so” style of leadership ... Today we’re keenly aware that the brand lives with those employees who are closest to the customer.
We reported through the second quarter and we’re delighted to have very strong financial earnings; we posted 6.7 percent comps through the first half along with improved margins, solid earnings and EPS growth. We’ve enjoyed 17 consecutive quarters of comp transaction count increases, 14 consecutive quarters of double-digit EPS growth and 11 consecutive quarters of comp sales gains.
TSC is a niche business. What’s the mix of product?
Our consumers have livestock and they have needs for farm equipment and fencing. Our product mix reflects that. About 40 percent of our product mix ... encompasses everything for the care, containment, training, feeding and vaccinations of animals, including dogs, cats and chickens — all the way up to horses.
About 23 percent of our business is in hardware, tools and truck accessories, and 21 percent is in seasonal, gift and toys. ... About 10 percent of our business is clothing and footwear, and the remaining 6 percent is what we define as agricultural.
Is TSC dabbling in some of the emerging trends in retail, namely mobile, e-commerce and social?
We are currently re-platforming our e-commerce site and are now about six months away from a relaunch. Our multi-channel effort revolves around the desire to reach the consumer how, when or where they want and we are approaching it from three key strategies — content, commerce and communities.
In terms of content we want to have all the information a consumer could possibly want about the selection, installation and use of a product. Then we want to go beyond that so that if we have a new horse owner, we make content available to teach them everything they could ever ask about that new horse. We believe that content will drive commerce… it will earn us the right to do business with the consumer and, hopefully, result in multiple opportunities for the consumer to transact business with us.
The third leg of our multi-channel strategy — community — is manifest in our new Facebook page, where we intend to enable and foster conversations between customers that might be 2,000 miles apart but both have a passion for draft horses, as an example.
Are you experimenting with mobile, and specifically mobile POS?
Mobile is becoming increasingly important and our customers have embraced the technology faster than we would have ever projected. Right now mobile communications and mobile content and commerce are on our list of strategic initiatives.
As a member of NRF’s board of directors, you’re immersed in policy issues affecting retail. Which issues resonate most with you and how do you hope to see them resolved?
I’m a big supporter of moving toward sales tax fairness. We need to level the playing field and I’m encouraged about the progress NRF has made recently. Also, I concur with NRF’s position about blocking the antitrust settlement over Visa and MasterCard swipe fees. It’s a duopoly; it’s really the only element in the broad scope of our business that we cannot negotiate and where we have no leverage.
Is there a maxim you’re well-known for, or a memorable adage?
We have a mission and values card that outlines the mission statement very clearly on one side and lists our 10 values on the other. We interview people and invite them on the team if we believe they possess these values and choose to live ... according to these values — and we say good-bye to people who do not.
Another is a phrase that I plagiarized from Andy Grove, Intel’s former chairman: “Fail often, early and cheaply.” I’ve tried to make that a mantra here. We empower merchants and marketers to take risks but don’t bet the farm.
Another favorite phrase of mine is “relentless dissatisfaction.” We practice relentless dissatisfaction — but that doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate success. We just try to keep raising the bar.
With just months until retirement, what’s on your bucket list?
Life seems to break down into two halves. The first half is about learning, achieving and acquiring for the family — but sometimes at the expense of the family or things you want to do in life. The second half is about giving back — sharing, teaching and coaching, so that would be the broad picture of what I’m going to do as I move forward.
I will spend probably an hour or more per day in rigorous physical activity — things like paddle boarding and kayaking. And finally, I have a home in Colorado where they have 14,000-ft. mountains. Three do not require tactical gear and I’m going to climb my first one next year.