What role does learning play as you are building your career? Marcus Chung, VP of Manufacturing and Supply Chain at ThirdLove, has learned from each and every one of his experiences, and he has continuously applied that information to move toward roles that better tap into his passions and strengths. Part of his career journey has included roles and companies that weren’t always a perfect fit, but he needed the learning from those experiences to truly discover his ideal path. By closing some doors along the way, he has opened windows to a more fulfilling and rewarding career.
Meet the Guest
An apparel sourcing and supply chain leader, Marcus Chung has held roles focused on delivering value through strategic supply chain management. Currently VP of Manufacturing and Supply Chain for direct-to-consumer women's intimates brand ThirdLove, Marcus's team is responsible for sourcing, production, product quality, logistics and fulfillment. His experience includes leading global teams to deliver exceptional product quality, cost and delivery results. In addition, he has developed strategies and engaged with the broader apparel industry to drive sustainability and protect garment workers' rights in the supply chain.
Marcus earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors from Wesleyan University and an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. He served as a Trustee for Wesleyan University and served two terms on the board of directors for Net Impact, a non-profit organization whose mission is to mobilize a new generation to use their careers to drive transformational change in their workplaces and the world.
Marcus recently wrote an article on the impact robots, 3D technology and artificial intelligence are having on the apparel supply chain. You can read it here.
Beth Davies, host: Welcome to Career Curves, where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are today. I'm your host, Beth Davies.
If you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, it's unlikely that they're going to say sourcing or quality assurance or logistics. And it isn't because this work is in fascinating, challenging, and worthwhile, but rather because they don't even know that this work exists.
Our guest on this episode, Marcus Chung, has spent his career doing work in these areas. He's currently Vice President of manufacturing and supply chain for ThirdLove, one of the fastest growing brands in the U.S., reinventing the bra buying and wearing experience for women. He grew his career working in companies like Stitch Fix, Gap, Talbots, McKesson and Gartner.
So how did he discover and thrive in a field that few of us actually know about? Well, I am thrilled to have Marcus here to tell us all about it. So, welcome Marcus.
Marcus Chung, guest: Thanks so much for having me, Beth. I'm happy to be here.
Beth: I'd like to get started, Marcus, by understanding what you're doing today. We mentioned that you're the VP of manufacturing and supply chain.
What does that mean? What kind of work are you involved in?
Marcus: ThirdLove is a direct-to-consumer bra and underwear company and my role within the organization spans responsibility for the full end-to-end supply chain. And what I mean is that my team works on sourcing raw materials, making sure we have all of the component pieces that go into our product, working with the manufacturers to actually create the products. They work with our freight forwarders to ship the product from mostly Asia to the US. We're responsible for the fulfillment centers that take in the orders and then send the orders to our customers, and any returns or exchanges that come back as well.
So, that's the scope of my responsibility at ThirdLove.
Beth: For you, how does all of this work play to your strengths? What attracts you to it?
Marcus: One of the things that I've always thought about in supply chain, and I look for when I interview, is do people like to solve problems? Because nothing ever goes smoothly. So, you're always running into maybe a quality issue, like a batch of fabric is not the color that you wanted. There might be a delay at a port that you have to figure out in order to get your product to the store and your warehouse on time. A customer might not be delighted by the experience that she or he had because the order was wrong.
So, we're constantly solving problems. If you're the type of person who likes the new adventure, new problems to solve every day, then supply chain will keep you busy. If you're looking for something more straightforward, where you have your to-do list, then this would be a nightmare for that type of person.
Beth: It's such a great characterization. I think one of the other things that I've heard before, that's exciting about supply chain and this whole industry, is because you're working with suppliers around the world, there's also a direct link to everything that's happening in the world. Is that true for you? Does that add another exciting dimension?
Marcus: For me personally, I love that aspect of it. I love being a global citizen and understanding what's happening around the world.
And you're absolutely right. I can recall one example when there was this volcano that erupted in Iceland and you would think, "Oh, that's such a faraway event. Has nothing to do with my business. I have no stores there. I don't have factories there," but because of the amount of ash that it spewed, it grounded all of these flights for a few days over the region. And we actually couldn't get product into our stores. So, this random volcano in Iceland had a direct impact on my day-to-day work, and for better or for worse, it was an exciting moment for us to get through.
Beth: Totally triggered that problem solving that you were just talking about.
Beth: So tell me about your family. Are you the first person in your family to be doing this type of work or did you have exposure to it as a child?
Marcus: So it's sort of strange. I did not have direct exposure to this work as a child. My parents are both immigrants from Hong Kong and I was born in the U.S., and they're small business owners. What I didn't know growing up, and I only learned very recently, is that my grandfather actually worked in an apparel factory when he was in Hong Kong as a young man. And so, in some ways, when I think about that connection, maybe I was destined, especially in the world of apparel to be connected to this work, but there was no preparation for this type of work when I was growing up at all.
Beth: So, what do you think were some early influences on who you are today?
Marcus: I think there are probably three things that I would point to as being really core to how I think about what I do, whether it's career or how I can comport myself day-to-day. The first being that I am Chinese American, my parents did immigrate, and in many ways weren't able to prepare me for school or work in the US. I had to navigate a lot of that myself.
I remember when it was time to take the SAT and I came home and I said, "Okay, I need," it was like "$15-$20 for this test." And my parents were like, "Do you really need to take that test? That's a lot of money to be spending on a test." And so, I had to convince them almost to let me take the SAT.
And so, from an early age, because they weren't familiar with US customs and ways of working and how to navigate through school, I was pretty independent. And so I always felt I need to figure out my life. No one's going to show me the way. And so I let my own natural curiosity led me to different areas and to my career.
The second thing I would say is that I'm gay. Growing up gay in a Chinese household in the US, in the '70s and '80s, is something that wasn't as accepted as maybe it is today. And I think that it caused me to strive for excellence in a way, because in some ways I felt like I was deficient in one area, and I had to compensate by being a high achiever. And so I think that that really was for me personally, one of the attributes that has propelled me to try to achieve in everything I do and try to advance my career.
And then third, I grew up as a competitive swimmer. I swam from third or fourth grade through college and even beyond. I think the discipline of being an athlete and managing your time, being goal-oriented, being competitive, all has shaped who I am today and the way that I think about my career long-term or even smaller term projects.
So, all of those things I think are wrapped up in how my life has played out over the past 25 years.
Beth: As you were finishing high school and starting to think about college, did you have any kind of plan for yourself at that point?
Marcus: I don't think I had a plan beyond college. College was the goal growing up. It was expected even though my parents weren't that stereotypical Asian parent, where you have to go to this college, you have to be a doctor or a lawyer. College was going to happen. There was no other choice.
So I think when I got into college, I hadn't really thought about what happens in college and beyond. Even my decision on which school to go to - and I ended up going to Wesleyan University in Connecticut - was an unusual one. I think it was partially me trying to find my own identity, trying to find a school where I could continue to explore who I was, what I wanted to do and what was next.
I grew up in the Bay Area. I'd never been on the East Coast. I was really interested in having a very different experience than what I knew. And so I was seeking something that was going to be more transformative, but I didn't know what that meant.
So, I just went to the school that I think nobody in my family had certainly heard of, and probably the one that didn't make the most sense on paper as maybe a form of rebellion even within the confines of still being achievement oriented.
Beth: How did you even find Wesleyan from California?
Marcus: It's a little random, but actually one of my high school teachers had gone there, and so, we had a college fair and she had set up a booth. Years later I reached out to her on Facebook and let her know that she inspired me to make that choice.
Beth: And then what did you end up majoring in and how did you pick that major?
Marcus: I was a double major in English and also French literature, and I think that also speaks to my, at that point, not knowing what I wanted to do. Those aren't useful majors in many ways. One of the things that I think really called to me at Wesleyan was it is a small Liberal Arts school, and I knew that this was going to be four years of investing in critical learning skills and being able to think creatively. So to me, the major was almost less important than the experiences that I knew that I was going to have.
Beth: I think what you're saying is so important because it seems like there's a lot of pressure now on treating college like job training, as opposed to what you just said, which is how do you actually use it to develop critical thinking, curiosity, those types of things, and develop a broad skill set that you can then use elsewhere.
Marcus: I think that's true. I recently served as a trustee on the Wesleyan board, and so I had the chance to meet with a lot of students. I met so many students who were triple majors who had every summer lined up with different internships. They knew exactly what they were going to do.
And as I think back to my experience, I had no idea. I had no focus on what I wanted. And I think the pressures today are just different than when I was in college. I felt like college, and even after, was an extension of my ability to explore, to learn, to find out what I really loved, because I truly did not know then and, in many ways, I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up.
Beth: But in the meantime, I'm going to be super successful and do what I'm doing now.
You just mentioned internships. I'm curious whether you had any internships or even early jobs that started to shape your thinking about what you did want to, maybe not be when you grow up, but at least do when you grow up?
Marcus: I did have a few internships while I was in college. I think what they informed was what I didn't want to do. For example, being an English major, I focused one summer on publishing and I applied for internships in magazines and other companies that I thought made sense.
I ended up interning at a publishing company in Boston and I hated it. It was miserable going to the office every single day. Reading through manuscripts that I was not interested in. It was a textbook publishing company, so it was looking at, I think, eighth and ninth grade textbooks in all sorts of science areas and maybe just other random things. And I realized that I really did not like that environment.
So, it didn't help me decide what to do, but it let me say, "Okay, I'm not going in that field." And so, what the internship allowed for me was the opportunity to start to figure out what don't I like, and maybe what do I like about this experience? I liked being able to go to work, but I hated the solitary nature of sitting at a desk and reading all day.
So I knew that I wanted to do something more engaging, more interactive, but I didn't know what that was at the time.
Beth: Did you use that as the launching point for whatever your next thing was, like did you seek out something next that wouldn't be as solitary?
Marcus: I tucked that away in the back of my head. I don't think I deliberately said, "Okay, next I want something that is going to be more dynamic in these ways." Instead it was, "I've crossed this off my list. There are probably a hundred other things that I'm curious about or interested in. So I could do any of these other a hundred things and learn some things."
It wasn't necessarily like I need to be in an environment where I'm surrounded by people, although I think I knew that intuitively.
Beth: What you're saying, though, is so important because what we learn that we don't enjoy is as important as figuring out what we do enjoy.
Marcus: I think that's, at least for me, has been an important theme of my career, and you'll see, later on, I took a detour from the apparel industry and worked for a company in the healthcare industry. And I learned from that experience many things, but one was, I really like apparel. I really like being at consumer-facing companies. I get energized when I run into people who say, "Oh, ThirdLove. Stitch Fix. Gap. I know that company," and we can have a conversation about it.
So, I think all throughout my career, more importantly for me was ruling out the things that we're not going to be engaging for me.
Beth: So as you were graduating from college, you went to a consulting company. Is that right? To Gartner?
Marcus: Yes. So it was a small consulting firm in Washington, DC. And again, it's this continuous theme of, "I don't know what I want to do next. I know this is going to give me exposure to different industries, different people. I can through this probably start to home in on that." And I didn't feel like I was done learning yet.
Maybe part of it was being from a Liberal Arts college and having majored in English and French literature. It's like, I don't know, but a business does. I don't know accounting. I don't know finance. I don't know operations. But this will help me learn and it's a safe way for me to do that because, in consulting, you have a very clear career path and you know, like the first year you're this level, then you advance here, and then.... It's sort of an extension of school in many respects because you know what's expected of you at each level.
So, for me, that framework helped because I could figure out like, "Okay, how can I be successful here?" And at the same time, not have to commit to a functional area that I didn't know anything about.
Beth: Do you remember how you found out about this opportunity with the consulting firm?
Marcus: Yeah, it was pretty standard. So many consulting and investment banking firms would recruit on campus and so, my senior year, I just was part of the recruiting process on campus. I probably could have taken time and should have taken time to do more introspection to figure out what I wanted to do, but I think 40% of the class went into these two fields, and so it was very easy for me to just follow the process. The process was laid out for me.
Beth: You know, it's interesting. When I think about consulting, I would have thought that to be a consultant, you had to have years of work experience because you're coming in to say, "I'm an expert. Let me give you some advice and consult." And yet here you were a fresh college grad going into a consulting firm. Did that create any feelings for you of an imposter syndrome, like, "What do you mean I'm a consultant? What skills could I possibly have to be a consultant?"
Marcus: Absolutely. I think that's one of the hardest things coming out of college and being in that environment where suddenly you are meeting with executives who have 30, 40 years of experience. Almost every day, I thought, "Who am I to be advising this person?" So you definitely have that imposter syndrome.
But I think what is really good about consulting is all of these firms do create training and development. They have frameworks for you to work with and so you're not going to fail in that environment. And that's part of the learning. So that's what's so attractive is that you learn these ways of thinking. You learn these frameworks. You learn how to put together solutions to problems. And so that's one of the things that's very attractive about it.
But you do feel that in the back of your head, or at least I did.
Beth: So how long did you end up staying with the consulting firm?
Marcus: I stayed there for four years and I actually really enjoyed the structure of it. I loved the clients that I worked with. And ironically, after my first year there, I focused in on retail and consumer goods. I worked with Gap. I worked with Disney, and Wrigley's, and really fun companies like that. So it was a four-year run.
Beth: And what made you finally then decide to leave since you were having these interesting experiences and growing, but then you still left. Why was that?
Marcus: Yeah, and I think it was time to move on. I knew that there was more formal learning that I wanted to do, so I decided it was time to pursue an MBA and that sort of another natural step in that process, and many of my peers were doing the same, so it's just sort of felt like it was time.
And at some point, I did want to work within a company, and I felt like that was a step for me to figure out a little bit more what functional area I would be successful in and how to get there.
Beth: Oh, so while you were with Gartner and you said you were working with apparel, were you already doing work in this manufacturing space or were you really learning more about apparel?
Marcus: Actually I was working more on organizational design and people strategies, and so it was very different from what I've ended up doing today.
Beth: Was it as part of your MBA that you got the exposure to manufacturing? How did that piece come in? I guess that's what I'm curious about. How did manufacturing enter in?
Marcus: So, of course, through business school, there were operations courses and that was very interesting, but it's also theoretical. I remember being in class and thinking about these problems, and thinking about throughput, and how all of this worked in a manufacturing or warehouse environment, but it wasn't real to me. I just didn't have the context to say, "This is how I would apply what I'm learning."
It was really organic through the work that I did after business school, at Gap and at Talbot's and the Children's Place where I picked up how does the supply chain work? What is the relationship between the brand and the vendor and the factory? And it was really organic. I was fortunately able to work for the Chief Supply Chain Officer at Talbots, who gave me a lot of exposure to all aspects of the supply chain.
Beth: So you were just talking about some of the great companies that you joined after getting your MBA. How did you navigate leaving the MBA and then going into the corporate sector?
Marcus: After business school, I went to Gap.
Beth: Was it from having had them as a client before?
Marcus: No, actually the way that I connected into Gap was your friend and partner, Dan Henkle, he came and spoke at one of my classes. And so I think I stalked him a little bit. I said, "Do you have any jobs available for me?" I remember meeting with him and there wasn't anything that was available on his team, but ultimately, I think I hounded him enough that he ended up hiring me into a part-time position, which then extended for several years and I just wouldn't leave.
Beth: This stalking that you were doing, I think is really interesting because people sometimes try to figure out how much of following up with somebody is too much and how much is okay. And I'm wondering if there's any advice that you would have for somebody, because obviously you did it successfully.
Marcus: That's a great question. I joke when I say stalking. I was not emailing every day or every week or even every month, but I would follow the business and I was really interested in what was happening at Gap at the time. And so, if there was something that I saw in the news that reminded me of something that Dan and I spoke about, I would shoot him an email and say, "Hey, I saw this and I'm wondering how you're handling it, or if you want help with this," and I think my approach has been more about, "Here are the skills and experiences that I bring to the table. Here's how I think I can help you. And I would love the opportunity to show you what I could do."
And so, it's making sure those touch points are clear as to why you're contacting somebody and being more about what you can do for them rather than, "Find me a job."
Beth: And you were connecting here to the introspection that you had in those earlier jobs and the learning that you had done, because your only way to be able to say, "Here's what I can do for you. Here's what I can bring to these problems you have," is if you've done the work you had done earlier of, "This is what I enjoy doing. This is what I'm learning." So, that's super powerful.
Marcus: Yeah, absolutely, just building upon what you've learned.
Beth: So you came into the Gap in a part-time capacity. How did you then spin that into full-time and other types of roles? Tell me about that journey.
Marcus: I actually joined as an MBA intern, even though I had finished my degree. I think my peers were wondering, "Why aren't you looking for a full-time job?" And I said, "Well, this is really where I want to be." The project that I was hired to do was squarely within corporate social responsibility, which was an emerging field at that time, and so I was interested in spending time in this space, trying to figure out how to have a sense of impact and purpose with my career. And that was really the heart of what I was seeking.
So, even though it was a part-time opportunity, even though it was billed as an internship, to me, it was the perfect way to learn from a larger, more established company and also to be working on projects that I was passionate about.
After the internship ended, the work doesn't end. So, I was fortunately free to stay on because I wasn't going back to school and I just sort of hung on. My contract was extended by a month at a time and, I think, maybe three or four months later, when there finally was open head count in the department, I was able to transition to full-time.
The stars don't always align where there's the open resources available. So I was lucky to be flexible with my time and to be able to be patient and really figure out when everything converged and made sense.
Beth: How did this this lead you to learn more about all these other areas of manufacturing that you're more deeply involved in now?
Marcus: I think one of the things that I really valued about working in corporate sustainability or social responsibility is that the department is a hub and you have to connect to other parts of the business. You have to understand what's happening in different functional areas in order to be effective at your job, which is largely a job of influencing business partners.
You're not often making the decisions. For example, when I worked on a project with the operations team at Gap, we were looking at whether or not it made sense to install solar panels at one of the distribution centers. I was not the one who's making that decision. I didn't have the capital expenditure budget to say, "Let's do this." What I did was pull the data and the information necessary to show what the ROI would be and to be able to create that story and demonstrate whether or not this was a good project.
And for me personally, whenever I'm working with a business partner or a function that I don't know about, I need to learn first. So it was being in that type of role, I learned about distribution centers. I learned about sourcing and supply chain because a lot of the work that we did focused on our vendor and factory partners overseas. I learned about sourcing raw materials because I was working on organic cotton with Banana Republic.
So, I was a sponge. I just soaked up as much as I could across the business.
Beth: How long did you end up staying at the Gap?
Marcus: I was there for about four years.
Beth: And when you left, and you sort of teased about this a little bit earlier, you actually did end up leaving apparel and I believe you went to McKesson, so healthcare. What caused you to make that move? Like here you are, you're learning so much, you're in a field that feels right. But yet you still made the jump to a different industry. Why did you do that?
Marcus: I would probably advise people to not make this decision or not be motivated by the things that I was motivated by at that time, but I do think this goes back to the environment in which I was raised, the way that I thought about what I wanted to be, and how ambitious I was personally. And for me, I didn't feel like I was getting the career updraft that I was looking for at Gap. I really valued the title of being a Director at the time.
Not every organization needs many Directors. So, I started looking elsewhere to see if I could find an opportunity to advance in my career outside of Gap. So, when at McKesson, the opportunity to join as a Director of Sustainability opened up, it seemed like a really great logical progression of my own career. And it felt at the time that I had to leave Gap in order to continue to advance, which may or may not have been true, but that's how I felt at the time.
Beth: Oftentimes, title is this marker of advancement. And so it's interesting listening to your story about the Gap: you had advancement in learning about all these different functional areas and getting that kind of breadth and exposure, but, for whatever reason, if title isn't advancing, sometimes we don't think we're advancing, especially when we have classmates who are saying, "Oh, well, I graduated at the same time as you, and now I'm a VP somewhere else." There ends up being that comparison.
Marcus: Exactly, that peer pressure, which I wish I could get away from sometimes.
Beth: It sounds like you don't feel great about the decision to go to McKesson, like it just wasn't the right fit for you. Is that a fair characterization?
Marcus: I think it's fair. Yes, in retrospect, absolutely was not the right fit.
Beth: And not saying anything good or bad about them, right? This is just about whether it was a fit for you.
What were the signs and signals for you that you had made a decision that wasn't the right one for you?
Marcus: That's a great question. I think there were several. Size of company matters to me. So McKesson's a huge organization, and I felt completely lost, and my learning curve was steep. And I couldn't figure out how to get a grasp on the different parts of the business. It was such a behemoth.
So, not only did I learn that I really value being at consumer-facing brands, I learned that that was too big of a company for me to feel like I could effectively make an impact. That was clear.
Corporate culture was really important. And I think I learned that through that transition. Gap had a really fantastic corporate culture. I think one of the catchphrases was "You be you," and I really identified with that individualistic, support of who I am and what I stand for, and my values.
McKesson was a much stricter company. Everybody wore suits. All the executives sat on the 45th floor. They all had secretaries outside of their offices. It was just a very more formal culture that I did not thrive in.
So, I learned, again, some of the things that I did not like. I didn't like the size. I didn't like the culture. I didn't like the industry, but it took that transition for me to realize, "Okay, I want to go back to apparel because I love apparel."
Beth: And so how did you manage the transition out of McKesson? How did you find that next opportunity?
Marcus: I was lucky that the job at Talbots was posted, so I didn't seek it. I didn't have any connections there. I really just applied through their website and went through the interview process, but I was very conscious that I was not in the right company at McKesson. And when I started thinking about what was next, I wanted to be at a consumer-facing brand, first of all, a smaller company, and then hopefully apparel, but I wasn't wed only to apparel.
Beth: Do you remember, was there anything that you said or did during this interview process? Because like you said, you didn't know anybody. You didn't have any connections. So, do you remember if there was anything that you said or did that positioned yourself as their lead candidate and got them to say, "Yes, Marcus, we want you."
Marcus: So this is funny because the person I ended up working for, he was a longtime Gapper. His name is Greg Poole, and he's told me I was not their lead candidate. They had made an offer to somebody else that fell through, I don't know why, but one thing that he found from our conversation was that I exhibited flexibility and openness to what was next.
Talbots at the time was going through a really challenging financial situation and so he was looking for someone who could come in and do the job that was required, but also flexible enough knowing that we're in tough times, things are changing every day, who knows what we need people to work on. I think that somehow my curiosity or inquisitiveness came through and he really thought that was valuable given the state of the company at the time.
Beth: Did you know when you were interviewing that the company was going through a tough time?
Marcus: I did, and that made it a really hard decision because I had to weigh how important it was for me to be in this role that on paper seemed really well-suited to my experiences, and something that I loved, and going back to apparel versus the risk of joining a company that was not strong financially. And ultimately made the decision because I wanted to learn more. I wanted to be in that environment. I missed being in apparel. I missed being in a consumer-facing brand, and that was more valuable to me, even if it was going to be a short-term stint, then taking that risk.
Beth: Yeah, so it would help you transition back to apparel and maybe it's going to turn out to be successful, but even if it's not, it will put you back in the industry that you wanted.
Marcus: And I think I really looked for the opportunity to learn more. That's been a common theme. I knew I had more to learn. And, in many ways, I feel like maybe I should have stayed at Gap, but there was just so much more that I wanted to learn about the industry.
Beth: Would you say you're still learning now?
Marcus: Absolutely. Yes.
Beth: It is definitely coming across as a strong theme, but I'm going to guess too, that it's a part of what has made you as successful as you are, this constant learning. The world is changing so much and so fast that it's such a success characteristic or trait or driver to be a learner.
So, I'm not surprised that you would say yes, you're still very much learning.
Marcus: Every day I learn something new.
Beth: So tell me about after Talbots. So you were at Talbots for about two years?
Marcus: Yes, it was about two and a half years. So, Talbots was really interesting. And this is something that I share with people early in their careers. Everybody's looking for that startup. Everybody wants the accelerated learning that comes from a high growth environment. I would argue that if you're in a company that's contracting, that's under financial duress, you're going to learn just as much, if not more.
So, I was there for about two and a half years. During that time, I survived four reductions in force. It was extremely challenging to be there, but the learning that I gained was tremendous. And fortunately, again, I had a boss who saw something within me, and he would place me in different parts of the supply chain organization and ask me, "Can you fill in for quality assurance for a little bit? I don't have a leader here, what can you do? I need somebody to help on regulatory compliance. Can you help to make sense of restricted substances? We need to negotiate a contract with our vendor, help me with that." And so, I feel really lucky in many respects that I was there at that time because I learned so much.
Beth: Yeah, I love what you're saying, because I have heard people say that one of the great things about going to a startup is the opportunity to wear many hats. And what you're talking about is it's not just in startups. Like you said, in an organization that's contracting, there's this opportunity to wear many hats.
Marcus: Yeah. And in some cases, it feels like the stakes are higher because you're almost fighting for your survival and you have to cut down to what's essential and you learn the fundamentals of the business.
I remember meeting with an executive and she sat me down and said, "Let me teach you about retail math. Let me teach you about pricing. Let me teach you about how promotions work, how this gets baked into our costing, how this impacts gross margin, how that impacts operating margin." And in that half hour to hour sitting with her, I learned so much.
And I don't know if I would have had that opportunity if I hadn't been thrust into a position where I had to come up to speed quickly, and our executives knew that, "I don't have a choice. I need to sit down and help this guy figure out what he's doing."
So, I was really lucky in that respect because you just strip down to the fundamentals of the business and you build that foundation.
Beth: You did though, ultimately leave Talbots and I believe he went to the Children's Place. What drove that transition?
Marcus: After two and a half years, being at a company that continued to have financial challenges was taxing and the company was ultimately taken private. It was a public company, but there was a hostile takeover. And so, I really just feared for my own future. I didn't know what would happen.
And then on the personal side, we had moved to Boston for the Talbots opportunity and we missed being in San Francisco. This is home for me. My family is here. My partner at the time was not happy in Boston. So, we made the personal decision to leave and I moved.
And I didn't go to the Children's Place immediately. I had several months where I was patching together consulting work. I took on Talbots as a client. So that relationship changed a little bit. I brought in consulting work from other companies where I had friends who needed help. And so I was working only for six or seven months trying to figure out what was next but sustaining myself through really interesting work that I patched together through my network.
Beth: Did you ever consider staying as a consultant?
Marcus: I did. So what happened with the Children's Place was I initially started working with them as a client. My boss from Talbots had moved and gone to the Children's Place and he contacted me and said, "Marcus, I have this role. I would love you to be our VP of strategy and operations for supply chain," which was to me, really what I wanted to do. That was the next evolution moving from corporate responsibility.
But, I said, "I am not moving to New Jersey. We've just moved back to San Francisco. So I'm happy to take you on as a client. I will do whatever you need. I will work with you full time, but I can't be a full-time employee in New Jersey," which was the requirement.
So, the first several months of my time working at the Children's Place, I was actually a consultant or an independent contractor, but I was working full time for them.
Beth: And then did you ultimately make the move to New Jersey?
Marcus: I did not. I was an anomaly there. I worked remotely from San Francisco. It was not really supported by the organization, but what happened was we were preparing for a board meeting. I was preparing my deck. I had a presentation to give and our CEO said, "Marcus, I cannot have an independent contractor come into this board meeting and present to the board. It only makes sense for employees to present."
And I said, "Oh, that's fine. Greg knows everything in this deck. He can do it for me." And she said, "That's not the point. We need to hire you full time. We're going to make this happen. We will allow you to work remotely, even though it's unusual, but we're just going to convert you to full-time."
So, I hadn't even been looking for that since I had been working full-time as a consultant, but they felt like it was important, and I do appreciate them for that.
Beth: Now, when you were at Children's Place, you actually did have the title of vice-president and you had shared before that title had been driving part of your decision to go to McKesson. How important was title for you at this point in your career?
Marcus: So it was, and I still was very motivated by title. I remember in the negotiation, I said, "I will join. Everything's fine. Just make me a VP." The comp was good. Everything about the contract, everything about the offer, just I want a VP title. And so, I remember saying that as a condition for my employment.
Beth: Yet when you left, you went into a role that was a Director again. That could look like you were taking a step back. And so this was now when you moved from the Children's Place to Stitch Fix. So tell me about that transition and how you made this move and what actually even made you comfortable with this idea of, I hesitate to say step back in title because that buys into this progression idea, but still step back in title?
Marcus: It was really important for me, and that was something I had to come to terms with, is how did other people perceive me in my career? Fortunately, I think by then I had matured a lot and the reason I left the Children's Place was entirely driven by the fact that I was working remote. I was traveling about 70% of my time. I would go to New Jersey every month, be overseas every month. So, I was not spending any time at home and I needed for my own health and the health of my relationship to be spending more time at home. So, my motivation was to look for companies that were based in the Bay Area.
Stitch Fix was a startup. It was growing in the apparel space. It had a very interesting business model. And the way I justified taking the step back in terms of title was well, "This company is growing so much. The velocity of growth will probably help me advance in my career again, but I'm going to learn so much," because it had no stores, it was building this very different business model. It had a very strong data science heritage that no other retailer that I knew of had built. So, I was just so intrigued by learning the different business model that it felt worth it to me to let go of the title. But it was not an easy decision for me and my ego.
Beth: I get that. I really do get that. It's hard to make that decision that defies what other people think.
So when you joined Stitch Fix and had these ideas of what it was going to teach you, did it meet those expectations?
Marcus: It did. It was such an interesting place to be. The company had not gone public yet, was much smaller than it is today. We occupied two floors of the building, so I got to know everybody. And it was such a different business model because whereas previously, every apparel company I had worked in was vertical where we only sold our own brand, Stitch Fix sold maybe 800 different brands.
And so, not only did I learn a new business model, not only did I get exposure to the data science team and different ways of working, I got exposure to all these other companies. Tiny, tiny companies that no one's heard of to very large players. Just to be able to engage with them and understand the different challenges that each face, and how we as a retailer would work with them, was really fascinating. It taught me a different part of the business that I hadn't expected.
And being at a smaller company, how do you source product where your quantity is 200 versus 200,000? It's a very different mentality. You have no leverage in negotiating.
So I learned a lot. It was really, really interesting.
Beth: Oh, and I would imagine too, you've come from places where when you say I worked for the Gap doors open, and now you're at a company and you say, "I work for Stitch Fix," and people are like, "What? And you went 200 units?" It doesn't open the doors.
Marcus: It actually did. So, my time at Stitch Fix coincided in the industry with what people were saying was the retail apocalypse. Large brands were shutting stores. People were thinking, "Oh, the old way of doing business is not working anymore. What's next?"
So, it was actually quite the opposite and vendors would come to me. I was getting so many vendor requests saying, "Hey, we want to do business with you. We hear Stitch Fix is growing. We want to be associated with the next phase of the industry," but then when it came down to doing business together, a lot of vendors said, "Oh, we cannot work with you. Those minimums are way too small. We won't make any money. So sorry."
The way I saw my role when I was trying to find vendors and trying to figure out where we're going to place these orders was selling, and selling them on the vision of Stitch Fix and what we could become. And the vision sold itself because everybody was feeling if they were working for Gap or Ann Taylor like, "Oh, my orders are shrinking, but who's going to grow?"
Beth: So what ultimately took you from Stitch Fix to ThirdLove?
Marcus: Well, partially the opportunity to grow and build upon what I had learned. At Stitch Fix, I was in charge of sourcing for private label. And as I mentioned, they sell hundreds of brands. And so our private label product was just one of many options that the buyers had. I felt like we could have invested a lot more in the private label business to make a really beautiful product, but that wasn't the priority for the company.
For me, ThirdLove, there were a few things that really excited me about the business. One, it was still smaller than Stitch Fix and I was excited to be at a company on that trajectory, with that velocity.
Secondly, the product is so important. When you're thinking about bras and underwear, the product has to be perfect because it serves a function. It's not just a loose-fitting t-shirt that you can get the measurements wrong and it's still okay. So, I was really intrigued by, "How do you achieve precision in apparel manufacturing and design?"
And then third, and I think this was the most important, was it was the chance for me to expand my own responsibility to include fulfillment, shipping, parts of the supply chain that I had been aware of and touched, but never had responsibility to manage directly.
So again, learning that part of that business and being able to take what I had learned at all these other companies and really lead the sourcing and production side, but how do I continue to grow, and learn, and do something new?
Beth: So one of the things that you've mentioned before is that you're working with factories this type of work oftentimes requires a lot of travel. And now, here we are in a pandemic. How have you been adjusting your work for a pandemic?
Marcus: Yeah, that's obviously been really challenging, especially in a role where you're dealing with physical product. So, I can't go to factories. I can't go to mills. I can't look at fabric. We can't look at samples.
And also there's just so much in relationship building, especially at a younger company, that's important. So what we've tried to do is make sure that we have touch points with our business partners, whether that's a weekly call to talk about the status of production, or a monthly call to give them an update on our business, because especially being at a younger company, our partners are nervous that we might go out of business given the state of the pandemic. So, I need to give them assurances that even though our orders have shrunk a little bit, because the demand has dropped, we're still here. We're doing the work to be profitable. We're doing the work to sustain and grow in the future.
So putting in place those regular touch points has been important, as has been finding creative ways to work with product. I get packages at my house that contain fabric. I look through them. I send the box over to a colleague. I might drop it off at someone's house and they look at it next. And so, we've just gotten really creative with our resources to be able to make things work.
I'm really proud of the team for the creative thinking and just resilience during this period.
Beth: Another question I have for you: what is it about apparel manufacturing that is continuing to hold your interest after all the time that you've spent in this business?
Marcus: I think that one of the things that I've loved about apparel manufacturing is how global it is. There are certain countries that I've visited, like Cambodia, like Bangladesh, where 80-90% of the GDP is based on apparel exports to the US and Europe. And the chance that I get to engage in so many different cultures has been really rewarding throughout my career.
But I also just love the creative aspect of it. We are designing and developing products that make people feel confident, that's beautiful, that really trades in the touch and feel of luxurious fabrics. And all of that really gets me excited personally. I love to be surrounded by beautiful product.
And so, I really am glad that I've fallen into this space.
Beth: I love it. I love it.
All right, so my four final questions for you, my lightning round questions. What would you say is the smartest career move you made whether intentionally or accidentally?
Marcus: I think going back to apparel and working at Talbots. I don't think I realized how much learning would come from a company that was contracting at the time. But I think part of that is wrapped up in finding a boss or a mentor who could see potential in me and be able to help me grow my own experiences and my career.
Beth: If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?
Marcus: Can I answer two things?
Beth: Of course, you can.
Marcus: They're related. So one would be, I wish I had stayed at Gap longer. Gap is such an incredible company to learn from and there was so much more that I could have learned in different functional areas. Someone once told me that why I was effective in a role at a smaller company is because having worked at Gap and at larger companies, I know what good looks like. So, having more examples of what good looks like in my toolkit would be helpful.
But the second answer to that same question is I wish I had just accepted that I loved the apparel industry and after college just gone into it immediately. I wish I knew that Gap's Retail Management Program existed, and I wish I had applied to that.
There's a part of me that didn't feel like fashion and apparel was serious enough for me and that I had to do something that was more serious. And so, I wish I had not listened to that part of my brain and followed my passion earlier on.
Beth: If you could go back in time to the younger Marcus and give him one piece of career advice, what would you tell your younger self?
Marcus: Absolutely don't focus on titles so much. Make sure that you're in a place where you're learning, where you're growing, where you are engaged with your work. Don't chase the title for the sake of the title, which I definitely did.
Beth: And how do you define success?
Marcus: That is a loaded question. And I think especially now, in a pandemic, success can be defined in so many ways. Some days success means getting up and making it through the day without sobbing, and then there are other more traditional markers of success, like getting a project done or being able to advance in your career.
The way that I think about it now, with all of those different relative ways, is I really try to make sure that my team is set up to be able to accomplish their goals. And so, I love when I see the light bulb turn on for a teammate. I love when it clicks for them as to a problem that they've been working on and finally figure out the solution. It's those moments for me, where I feel most successful.
Beth: Marcus, thank you for being our guest and sharing your story. It has been fascinating as well as just a pleasure to get to know you. So, thank you.
Marcus: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure, Beth.
Beth: A quick epilogue… Marcus recently wrote an article on the impact robots, 3D technology and artificial intelligence are having on the apparel supply chain. You can find a link on our website, careercurves.com.
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