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Baker Retailing Center: Breeding Innovation and Leadership

By Arthur Zaczkiewicz,

The Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at Wharton. Courtesy image.

In the ’90s and early 2000s, graduate business students didn’t really consider retail to be a career. It was seen more as an occupation. But in 2002, the Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative, which later became the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center, set out to change that.

The curriculum was focused on the business of retailing and went deep into marketing, merchandising and other related business functions. What further differentiated the center was how it convened retail executives, researchers and academics with students. But the center is most renowned for breeding innovation and leadership. The center, which is located at Tangen Hall at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, also touts an advisory board and director’s council composed of the top executives in retail and fashion and are readily available for summits, ideation and programs with students — and it is all thanks to the vision of Jay Baker.

The current advisory board includes Jay Baker, who serves as the board’s chairman; Mohammed Alshaya, executive chairman of Alshaya Group; Laura Alber, chief executive officer of Williams-Sonoma Inc.; Tim Baxter, CEO of Express; Dorrit Bern, former chairman, CEO and president of Charming Shoppes; William P. Lauder, executive chairman and director of The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.; Tory Burch, founder of Tory Burch LLC; Steve Bratspies, CEO of Hanesbrands Inc.; Emanuel Chirico, chairman and former CEO of PVH Corp.; Silas Chou, president and CEO of Novel Enterprises; Oscar Feldenkreis, president and CEO of Perry Ellis International; Kevin Plank, executive chairman of Under Armour Inc., and Victoria Vandagriff, president of Delta Galil USA, among many others who are all notable.

The research produced by the center spans a broad range of subjects that goes down deep into topics from consumer behavior and e-commerce platforms to executive leadership and sustainability. The university’s coursework links retail theory to practice for both undergraduate and graduate students. There are several courses across the curriculum in which faculty teach retail practice and case studies of prominent retail brands. For undergraduate students only, there is an opportunity to complete a secondary concentration in retailing.

When the Baker initiative first launched, the retail industry was undergoing a significant transformation. E-commerce was still in its early stages, with many retailers running their web businesses out of a catalogue division. After the dot-com bust, M&A activity in the retail sector started to pick up, and the center found itself attractive to people who were in private equity or banking and were looking for a change in direction.

Amanda Baldwin, CEO of SuperGoop who held various positions at L Catterton, Dior Beauty at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Clinique, Apax Partners and Goldman, Sachs & Co., is a Wharton graduate who serves on the Baker Retailing Center’s director’s council. She said the Baker initiative was attractive because she had been working in private equity and focused on consumer/retail investments.

“I really wanted an opportunity to pivot into actually seeing what it was like to operate a business,” Baldwin said. “That was my dream for why I went back to business school, and it was why I chose Wharton. When I chose this industry, it was a little bit different, it was not quite as popular as it is now for MBAs. I have a perspective, both first and foremost as a former student, about how critical that program was setting me up with just learning the language and the lingo.”

Baldwin, who graduated from Wharton in 2006, said what stands out about the center is “meeting the right people and being put in these rooms that I never imagined I’d be put in. It was very, very formative for me in those couple of years I was at business school. It’s been very impactful for me on the other side. It’s probably my most important connection back to Wharton.”

“As I’ve evolved in my career, I’ve been able to now sit on the director’s council [at the Baker Retailing Center],” Baldwin noted. “I’ve also now been able to contribute from the other side. I just hired my chief of staff, somebody who I met at a Baker event.”

Baldwin and other alumni described their experience at Wharton and the center as “one of a kind” and a place for innovation and collaboration.

Brendan Hoffman, CEO and president of Wolverine Worldwide, serves on the advisory board of the Baker Retailing Center and previously served as president and CEO of The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., Vince, Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus Direct. Hoffman went to Penn as an undergraduate in the late ’80s, and said at the time he didn’t know retail was a viable career. He’s a self-described “Penn lifer” who studied history and economics.

“There was nothing that told me this was a career until retailers and department stores started coming on campus and talking about their training programs,” he said, adding that he ended up in the May Company training program. “[Later] I decided to go back to get my MBA; in part, because I didn’t know if this was a real career. But at that point I had started to realize that this was something I enjoyed. So, I went back and I got my MBA at Wharton in the mid-1990s.”
Tom Robertson, William Lauder and Jay Baker.

In 2002, when the Baker initiative was about to launch, it was through his boss at Neiman Marcus, Burt Tansky, that Hoffman ended up at the first meeting, “not as a board member but as just a valued guest…and to see what Jay was trying to do to give credibility to retail and fashion as a career, for me, was just tremendously exciting.”

“It was a ‘who’s who’ of retail and fashion that he was able to gather because of who he was and how much affection people had for him just further validated this,” Hoffman explained. “And then, within a few years, I was added to the board, and I’ve been part of it ever since. And now, fast forward 20 years, and you see people that were early on in 2004 and 2005 who are now seasoned executives in the industry.”

Hoffman said Baker’s impact in the industry “is immeasurable because so many of these people that are now part of this industry go through the Baker Center, they wouldn’t have thought of retail as a career. They would’ve been taking their talent somewhere else and done great things, but not in our industry.”

Hoffman reiterated the importance of the Baker Retailing Center as a place where researchers and industry leaders convene with students. While getting her degree, Baldwin said she attended sessions, and “there was every big retail CEO in the industry attending. I would just pinch myself at the idea that I was sitting there with them,” she said. “Certainly I was not on the board, so I wasn’t in the entire meeting, but they would invite students to come to lunch in Huntsman Hall and hear a presentation.”

Hoffman and Baldwin said the center was renowned early on for fostering innovative thinking and collaboration that was action-oriented. The center remains pragmatic in its work today, thanks to Baker’s vision. Jeff Raider, cofounder and co-CEO of Harry’s, graduated from Wharton in 2010, and said the center “brings together an amazing group of leaders and thinkers across the retail spectrum and academia and facilitates the sharing of ideas and learnings, inspires collaboration and promotes progress.”

Tom Robertson, former dean and the Joshua J. Harris professor of marketing, and academic director of the Baker Retailing Center, credits Baker for the center’s success. “Jay has been the founder of the center and its most active proponent,” Robertson said. “He has been our connection to retail industry leaders and a magnet to attract these leaders to our conferences. He has been a source of wisdom and insight to help project the future of retailing. He has endorsed emerging trends while simultaneously championing the profitable evolution of traditional retail. Jay also has been a strong force behind our teaching: He loves being in contact with our students and they, in turn, admire his enthusiasm for all things retail.”

Daniella Vitale, CEO of Salvatore Ferragamo, North America, who also serves on the advisory board of the center, said Baker has been “an enthusiastic and dedicated partner to the industry. He puts together great programs, and summits and is present at every single one. He put together a world-class board that reflects the evolution of our industry.”

Steven Silverstein, CEO and president of Spencer Spirit Holdings, described Baker as a visionary. “Through his commitment and enthusiasm, he has inspired a curriculum based in the retail industry that is rare in the graduate business school world,” Silverstein said. “This has expanded the boundaries and definitions of career opportunities from the most entrepreneurial to world-class retailers, e-tailers and manufacturers.”

Daniel McCarthy, assistant professor of marketing at the Goizueta Business School of Emory University, praised the Baker Retailing Center and said it was “repeatedly an invaluable source of support for me throughout my Ph.D., both through much-needed funding and through the opportunity to present my research to their members. I had received support for four different research projects I had been working on, including research assistant funding for one project that ended up forming the core of my dissertation around customer-based corporate valuation. I couldn’t be grateful enough.”

Neil Blumenthal, cofounder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, is a Wharton graduate who serves on the center’s director’s council. Blumenthal cited the center’s success in its ability to convene students, thought leaders, academics and practitioners. But Blumenthal said, “It takes trust and credibility and expertise, of which there’s no better institution than Wharton. And what I mean by that is to get leaders in the industry to come together, they must agree that it’s a good use of time, and Wharton has that credibility.”

Blumenthal added that to get industry leaders and executives, “for example, to speak freely they need to have trust in the convenor that not only that what’s being shared will be used for good purposes and that there’ll be good outcomes from it.”

Blumenthal said the center’s advisers and councils hold dinners in New York and San Francisco, “and it includes a bunch of innovators within retail. So it might be us from Warby Parker, somebody from Allbirds, but also folks that might be pioneering spirits on demand or someone outside of retail and apparel.

“And we’re always trying to learn from each other,” Blumenthal said. “We might bring in somebody from Shopify to talk on, ‘what are we seeing within pure e-commerce?’ And there are always some Wharton professors in the room and they’re sharing some of their cutting-edge research, but they’re also hearing ideas from us on what they should be researching. And that’s how you also marry practice with research.”

Blumenthal summed up the role of the center and its influence on the industry by noting that retail “can be a forgotten industry almost because it hides in plain sight. It’s the only industry that touches our lives every single day, multiple times a day. The Baker Retailing Center is one of the few world-renowned research institutes dedicated to the profession of retail. So I think that in itself is special and innovative. And a few of the things that the Baker Retailing Center does really well is bringing together practitioners, bring together world-leading researchers and executives from different company stages and sizes to different approaches of retail.”

“And the magic always happens when you have multiple perspectives together in a room,” he added. “And that is what makes Baker Retailing Center so special is its convening power and marrying practice and research.”

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