Breakfast with the Boss: Karen Murray, President of Sportswear at VF Corporation

Upon entering the VF Sportswear showroom to hear from the wonderful Karen Murray, the scholars’ Monday-morning blues quickly vanished as they took in Nautica’s refined, sophisticated palette. At this week’s first “Breakfast with the Boss,” we had the pleasure of speaking with Karen, who in addition to her role as President of Sportswear at VF Corporation overseeing the Nautica and Kipling brands, serves on the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund Board of Governors. We were also fortunate to meet Andrew Fletcher, Director of Strategy and Business Development for VF Sportswear. Both Karen and Andrew shared their stories and gave us an insider’s look at VF’s product, core values and current strategic plan. Here is just a small portion of what we learned! 

About VF Corporation
VF Corporation, a global leader in branded lifestyle apparel and footwear with more than 30 brands.  The company’s five largest brands are The North Face, Vans, Wrangler, Timberland, and Lee.  Other brands include 7 For All Mankind, Bulwark, Eagle Creek, Eastpak, Ella Moss, JanSport, Kipling, Lucy, Majestic, Napapijri, Nautica, Red Kap, Reef, Riders, Splendid, and SmartWool. 

Nautica was purchased by VF Corporation in 2003. Karen shared a little bit with us about Nautica’s current brand journey.  Over the past two years, the Nautica team, in partnership with VF Corporation, conducted a global consumer segmentation study to identify a bulls eye target consumer.  

The Boss’ Journey: Steps to Success
Karen graduated from the University of Maryland as a Criminal Justice major, originally thinking she would go on to become a lawyer. Upon realizing law school was not the future she envisioned for herself, she came to New York and decided to try out the “glamorous” field of fashion. As Karen explained, those first few months were “anything but glamorous.” She began at Gant, a men’s shirts company, answering phones, managing the office and cleaning up showrooms. Despite the fact that women purchase the majority of men’s apparel, Karen was surprised to be the only woman in the company’s office. Three years later, realizing that women made over half of the menswear purchases, the president of a big retailer called on her to put together an assortment of shirts. Through this experience, Karen learned that she had a knack for sales and was quickly promoted to various sales positions that lead to the VP of Sales. She stayed at Gant for ten years before moving on to Liz Claiborne, where she truly began to understand “how to make money and how women could work in business but still have a family.” She stayed for ten years, rising to the title of Group President of the Men’s division, before moving on to VF Corporation. As Karen shared with us, “I’ve learned more in my seven years at VF with the Nautica and Kipling Brands than I’ve learned in my thirty years prior in the industry, partly thanks to the principles and practices that VF employs.” Today, Karen serves as President of VF’s Sportswear Coalition. 

Known as one of the first women in the menswear industry, Karen emphasized that, despite the odds, achieving success in a male-dominated industry proved possible. At the beginning of her journey, she found it difficult being promoted to sales, as she was told that a woman “would never understand what men want to wear.” One of the most crucial pieces of advice that Karen offered our scholars, particularly the women in the group, is that “you can still have a family and a career and do whatever it is that you feel passionate about.” She explained, “People say a woman can’t ‘have it all,’ but you really can.” With hard work and determination, Karen proved herself as a leading executive in the menswear industry and inspired our scholars to pursue their passions regardless of obstacles they feel stand in their way. 

 There are many different avenues for each and every one of you, and the most important thing is to find something you love,” Karen shared. “There’s not a day that I’ve woken up and didn’t look forward to going to work.”

There are many different avenues for each and every one of you, and the most important thing is to find something you love,” Karen shared. “There’s not a day that I’ve woken up and didn’t look forward to going to work.”

Words of Wisdom

  • Focus on the Consumer and Innovation. You may make choices about product design and merchandising, and you can lose some customers. You have to make decisions about which new elements you want to introduce to invigorate the brand, but also acknowledge what needs to change or evolve. Keep your eyes always on the target consumer and constantly innovate and evolve your brand. 
  • Build relationships. Karen shared that, “to this day, the relationships I built with buyers and department store managers in early stages of my career have helped me grow and build my career to where it is today.  I took every one of those opportunities and built strong partnerships.” 
  • There is no one “right” path. You don’t have to start in sales, design, or merchandising to be President—there are many different paths to the same place. “Be proud of the industry you chose, think about where you want to go and have passion for what you do, and you’ll get there.” 

Q&A
Q: Madeline Hanley (Indiana University)- “How did you alter your product (Kipling) and position it internationally (specifically, in Asia)?”
 
“When things catch on in Asia, they take on a life of their own. It’s a younger customer there, but the younger customer really loved the bright colors, the printed nylon, the furry monkey (people started collecting them!) and girls started wearing the backpacks…once it caught on, it became like a cult—everyone had to have one. The hard part was not getting it to catch on, but how we would bring it to other parts of the world that didn’t even know about it. It’s all the steps you take (advertising, marketing, blogging) to bring [the product] to a new marketplace that are really important in changing consumer awareness. But [Kipling] does have a long way to go as a brand until we can ask people about it and have them know exactly what it is. People are very aware of Nautica, but we still have work to do to get Kipling to that level, even if we are making huge progress.”
 
Q: Alicia Underhill (University of Virginia)- “From your experience, how easy do you think it is to move between departments within a large company?”
 
“A lot of companies say it’s easy to move between positions, and we as a company try to practice that. I think the best thing to do when you go into a new company is to be up front and say, ‘I’m not sure this is where I’m going to be long term.’ You can go in and say ‘I’ll give everything I’ve got to merchandising right now, but I have a little bit of an interest in marketing.’ If you’re honest about that, and you show them that you can think towards the future, it will not only help you out in your career but it will signal curiosity. Some companies do what’s called a “round-robin” and let you switch from department to department so that you can learn sourcing, marketing, sales, P&L, and much more. It all depends on the company you choose, and I recommend discussing that upfront.”

Top Takeaways
Some of our scholars shared with us what they found most meaningful or memorable about Karen’s presentation. Take a look!
 
Bryn Gorberg (Marist College)- “You don’t have to start in the industry to end up in it.”
 
Meghan Wallace (Oklahoma State University)- “Prior to now I didn’t realize just how many brands VF Corp. owns besides Nautica. I enjoyed learning about the scope of the company.”
 
Emma Gage (Marist College)- “I really liked hearing the progression of her journey from being the only woman working in menswear at the beginning of her career. A lot of people don’t recognize that a woman can be in charge of a company and still ‘have it all.’ If you put in the work and time management, you really can have it all, and Karen showed that today.”

 

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Rachel Feller