Breakfast with the Boss: Kim Sprague, Group Senior Vice President of Direct Imports at Ross Stores, Inc.

Throughout the 2015 “Breakfast with the Boss” series we’ve seen everything from swimwear to sportswear, scarves to ties, jeans to jackets. One niche our program has yet to cover? This morning the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund scholars were taken beyond the realm of attire and into the designs, textures, patterns and prints of the home. We were generously welcomed back to Ross Stores, Inc., where we had the incredible opportunity to hear from Kim Sprague, Group Senior Vice President of Direct Imports of the Home Store at Ross Stores, Inc. In addition to helping to build Ross’ home department, leading a growing product development team and embarking on brand development and licensing, Kim makes sure to stay hands-on with product as a buyer-at-heart, even if that means travelling to factories around the world.  

About Ross Stores, Inc.
Since 1982, Ross Stores, Inc. has delivered fashionable trends to the everyday consumer at a discounted price. Operating under the store name Ross Dress for Less®, the company offers the same name brands carried in department and specialty stores at a lower price level, adhering to its “no frills, big thrills” approach to retail. In addition to men’s, women’s and children’s clothing and shoes, Ross manages its Home division, which consists of Bed & Bath, Kitchen & Dining, and Furniture & Décor categories. The Ross Home division quickly reached success and now comprises a significant percentage of the company’s total volume. 

The Boss' Journey: Steps to Success
“It was never my dream to end up in retail,” Kim explained. “Retail found me, and I’ve never looked back.” A charismatic and articulate leader, Kim originally went to conservatory to study piano with a minor in musical theater, hoping to someday be on Broadway. However, in the best interest of his future career, he soon decided to change courses dramatically, entering Lord & Taylor’s executive training program. As Kim explained to our scholars, “The training program I went through really solidified my base in terms of the retail process, and in some cases how I still approach the business today. I would encourage any of you to find the best educational programs you can prior to your retail career, learn from them and ask as many questions as you can.”
About fifteen years into his career at Lord & Taylor, Kim was recruited to Ross. The company elected him with the vision of building a Home business. Quickly, the concept of a Home Accents department caught on, and turned into an incredible success for Ross. Kim spent a number of years in merchandising and soon moved his way up the ranks—as the home store grew, he became Group Vice President, responsible for all of decorative home, a position he labels “his first love.” Kim loved the fast pace of the business. When the company felt it wasn’t keeping up to the best of its ability with the customers’ desire for new, fresh product, Kim led his team overseas to select and develop product in their own factories for better profitability. He launched a hybrid product development team, in which his own Product Directors and merchants partnered together to develop product, a collaborative model that Kim has found to be “the best way to approach the business.” Today, that product development team has grown exponentially. As GSVP, Kim oversees executives who maintain the import process, packaging and branding, and source / develop new product categories from all over the world.

Words of Wisdom

  • Look to the outside for help. “In my career,” Kim shared, “I’ve learned that when you don’t know how to do [something] yourself, go ask someone else. Some of the best advice that I’ve been given here, aside from my mentors, has been from using a consultant. Getting a pair of outside eyes to come and look at your business, tell you what’s wrong and how to best improve…it is incredibly valuable.” 
  • Keep an open mind. “Every day I’m learning something new,” Kim explained. “When we started to do product development for the company I didn’t think we’d need brands to support our growth, but I soon realized that they are actually quite essential. We hired a marketing company that came in and helped us design new brand marks, three of which are being launched this year.” 
  • Get your hands on product! “Originally, I just wanted to be a buyer. But the great thing about Ross is that even as an executive, I still get to [be around product]. I’ll spend days at factories all over the world with the team. After all, supporting the growth of our product is the main responsibility of the company and of my team…it’s the product that drives this business.” 
  • Communicate. The one rule Kim holds his family to when they go out to dinner? No phones. Getting everyone to talk and listen to each other is “an old, fine art that needs to be recreated.” The ability to go out into the market, “schmooze,” ask great questions and engage another person, whether it’s about business or personal matters, is key. 
  • Don’t be afraid to take a risk, whether in your career overall, in a buy you make, or in a decision you make. “But,” as Kim suggested, “temper that risk by having a partner to help you through it!” 

Q: Katie Class (University of Missouri)- “What do you believe set you apart when moving up the organizational ladder within your company?”
A: “A couple of things, and these are also the things that I look for when I interview for my own team. I will always rank number one… my passion for product. I’m an instinctive merchant, and I think great merchants can instinctually drive a significant amount of business. That instinct must be balanced with an ability to be analytical…there is a fine balance between being an incredible negotiator with a great fashion sense and intuition for what products to pick, and having fiscal responsibility. While being a great merchant and having fingers for product is instinctual, the statistics and mechanics of retail can be taught. Both of those things in combination with a real ability to communicate—up, down, sideways, and outside the organization—are what make a great candidate.”
Q: Madeline Hanley (Indiana University)- “How do you balance your own brands at Ross with other private label brands such as Greg Norman Collection?”
“The positioning has taken a lot of work. We always have to look at what customer we’re targeting, and then once a brand starts to develop, we ask ourselves what the outside ‘hero’ brand is that we’re modeling our brand after. We look at the brands that our consumers love and look to fill our own niches against these competing brands. To do so requires a lot of checking our own brands, making sure the products and values look right.”
Q: Emma Gage (Marist College)- “Given all of the factories Ross works with overseas, how do you deal with issues of compliance?”
“It’s definitely tough. Our internal legal team has been tremendously supportive to us in terms of dealing with social compliance, and we also have global agents in most regions overseas. But our internal team handles the legal compliance…we complete careful inspections before we will ever do business with a factory, and [regularly engage in] independent audit processes with existing facilities to ensure there are no critical failures. It’s all much more visible and important than it was years ago. First and foremost in inspection is always child labor.”
Q: Celina Enriquez (Academy of Art)- “Is there something you think Ross can still expand upon or explore as a different product category for the future?”
A: “In our vision for 2020, we’re looking at the pockets of business we haven’t explored yet, or the product categories we’re in but haven’t done justice to yet. We are also looking to continue expanding our sourcing abroad.”
Thank you to Kim for taking us into the world of home goods! We greatly appreciate your valuable time and advice.

Copyright © 2015 YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund, All rights reserved.

Rachel Feller