Breakfast with the Boss: Tom Kingsbury, Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President of Burlington Stores, Inc.

Wednesday morning quickly turned intriguing as the scholars engaged with the fast-paced world of off-price retail at Burlington. Today we had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Kingsbury, CEO and President of Burlington Stores, Inc. In addition to learning about the company and Tom’s exciting career, we were lucky enough to hear relevant advice from Donna Norton, the Burlington’s Talent Acquisition Manager and Head of College Recruitment. Here’s the inside scoop! 

About Burlington
Burlington is a leading national retail chain that offers current, high quality, designer merchandise at up to 65% off of department store prices. Beginning as “Burlington Coat Factory,” a single outlet store in Burlington, New Jersey in 1972, Burlington has grown tremendously, now operating over 544 stores in 44 states and Puerto Rico. Aside from selling the largest selection of coats in the nation, Burlington offers men’s and women’s suits, sportswear, family footwear, handbags, children’s clothing, baby furniture and accessories (under BabyDepot) and home décor. The fast-paced world of off-price retail with constant turnover fuels the company’s entrepreneurial spirit and consumer loyalty, as “the customer feels very confident that they can buy something new every time, and that it won’t be later marked down.”
In addition to clothing America with affordable fashions, Burlington aligns its mission with that of the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund, focusing substantial resources and effort on developing future industry talent. As Tom explained, “The most important thing for the foundation of our company is talent. People know that, when they come into our company, we’re going to work very hard at setting them up for success.” At one of the best training programs in the industry, new recruits complete a three-month onboarding program to gain understanding of the industry and Burlington’s model before launching their careers at the company. Additionally, Burlington runs a 10-week internship program for college students, a tremendous pipeline for new talent and leadership—many interns later go on to thrive at the company full-time. After all, as Donna noted, “Once you get the off-price bug, you can’t go back.”

The Boss' Journey: Steps to Success
Tom graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a business degree in marketing. Although he initially saw himself wanting to work for a marketing company, he interviewed with a number of department stores and found himself intrigued by retail. Since then, he’s never looked back. “It’s hard to believe that next year will be my 40th year in the business,” Tom shared. As a former Kohl’s and May Company (Filene’s / Kauffman’s) executive with over thirty years of experience in marketing, business development, e-commerce and information technology, Tom entered Burlington 7 years ago out of desire for fast-paced, hands-on merchandising and has lead his team to incredible success.
As Tom explained, “I love off-price because it’s very entrepreneurial, and it’s the fastest growing channel in retail. What makes it really special is the fact that you’re always in the moment, constantly chasing product.” Whereas department stores rely on fashion trending intelligence to buy everything in advance of the season, Burlington delivers to its customer by buying only one-third of its product before a given season begins, leaving the remaining two-thirds to be purchased and brought into stores after viewing data about the current season’s sales. While Tom’s many roles as Chairman, CEO, and President of Burlington certainly keep him busy, he also spends quality time in the market hunting new product alongside buyers, merchants and interns, and even travels from store to store, “where the magic really happens.” Between Thanksgiving and Christmas alone, Tom visited over 60 stores, because “with 545 stores, you must have a clear understanding of the stores’ needs before you embark on creating change.”

Words of Wisdom

  • Do your homework. Understand the culture and structure of the company you’re getting into. Every company is different, and it’s especially important to enter an interview with background information and relevant questions, making it clear that you have spent time in a company’s stores. “If someone puts that kind of work into the interview, that’s their work ethic, and we know when they enter our company they are going to work that hard at everything they do.” 
  • Set yourself up for success. Make sure you enter a company where you feel you can thrive and grow. 
  • Don’t move too quickly. Make sure a company is a place you will want to remain for at least 5 years. “As a CEO who hires a lot of people,” Tom explained, “seeing people who jump around a lot from company to company is a red flag. Remaining in one place shows commitment, and that you don’t give up easily.” 
  • Set five-year benchmarks. “I’ve always looked at my career in terms of 5-year increments.” Tom feels that it helps to set goals for yourself in terms of a new position you can reach within the next five years”—for example, moving from GMM to SVP. After five years, you can set your next goal.

Q: Dvorah Elster (University of Wisconsin-Madison)- “Given that you have worked for multiple companies, what are some different aspects to consider when looking for a job and assessing a company?”
A: “One of the things to really look at is the company’s growth. You really want to join a company that’s growing because the opportunity for personal and career growth is much greater in a company that is growing itself—you never want to feel restricted. You have to do some due diligence in terms of the health of the company overall. Additionally, when you visit a company, you can quickly ascertain how involved all layers of the organization are in terms of [recruiting new talent]. I think mentoring is incredibly important—try to enter a company where you know somebody will take you under their wing and help you grow. Part of the reason I go to stores and markets every week is because I get to interact with divisional buyers, merchandisers, [and many others] to get to know them, help them understand our company’s model, and to help develop them.”
Q: Donna Norton (Burlington Talent Acquisition Manager)- “Since you have come on board, how have you seen Burlington’s core customer change and evolve?”
A: “We’re attracting a different customer today than we were six years ago. One of the areas we’ve made progress with is the higher income consumer. We’ve seen our biggest growth in the company recently come from those customers that make over $75,000. We’ve recommitted to bringing in more brands, opening [new offices], cleaning our stores and making them easier to navigate, and developing better customer service. While we’re cultivating a new customer, I still think the [core customer demographic] we already have is very loyal…we never want to give up our core customer. We try to approach every change thoughtfully, patiently…reinventing the customer but at the appropriate pace.”

Q: Rachel Feller (YMA FSF Intern)- “Given that you focus so much on recruiting new talent, what do you look for in a candidate when you hire?”
A: “We look for people who have off-price experience, who have an entrepreneurial spirit and are comfortable without a lot of hierarchical structure. We look for those who get excited about doing something different every single day. Those who understand product to a certain degree, who are good with negotiating and developing vendor relations, but most importantly, we look for people who really want to learn our model. It’s such a fun model! We find that the most successful people are those who ask questions, make sure they are attentive and are eager to learn.”
Q: Anna LaPlaca (UCLA)- “What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your job?”
“Making sure we’re constantly teaching, training and developing people…it’s not necessarily a challenge, but it’s something that has to be front and forward at all times. I have to make sure [developing talent] is a high priority in everything that I do, and I keep focused on it. Another challenge is making sure that people don’t begin to take for granted our good performance—we’re one of the fastest growing retailers in America, but if we don’t stay focused on [improving], we’re not going to do as well.”
At the end of our breakfast, we were greeted by Timothy Chan, a former YMA FSF Scholar from F.I.T. who has found his home full-time at Burlington. It was wonderful to see one of our very own thriving in the company’s culture. A huge “Thank you” to Tom and Donna for providing an engaging, inspiring morning!

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

Rachel Feller