Mark Friedman is the President of E-Commerce at Steve Madden. In this interview, he goes into the career moves he has made in order to become an e-commerce executive for some of the most iconic fashion brands in the world.
How did you get to where you are today in your career?
I started my career in finance, as an auditor with Touche Ross. While there, I audited Popular Club Plan, which was the parent company for what eventually became the J. Crew catalog. The person that was brought in by Popular Club to develop a direct to consumer catalog business eventually went off and started his own catalog. Tweeds was born in 1986 with $6 million in venture capital funding.
They recruited me to be a general finance person but I did much more than that. I was the 4th employee and we needed to develop everything from scratch. Over the first 2 years, I helped to establish our general ledger, our employee benefits program, and even the plan of how to get our products from Asia to the US.
In year 3, they asked me to move from finance to catalog marketing. It was going to be a big change but I felt like the risk was worth it. I had just gotten engaged and I didn’t have children yet so it seemed like a good gamble. The company quickly went from $0-$50M before we eventually sold it to Hanover Direct in 1993. I spent a few years post acquisition, still working at Tweeds. Over the years I had gone from entry-level marketing to the VP of Marketing.
In 1996, I started working at The Company Store, which was part of the Hanover Direct umbrella. Hanover had purchased both Tweeds and The Company Store at about the same time. Our product was outstanding, the creative was great and based on my experiences at Hanover Direct; we were able to leverage their massive customer database to help drive our sales. During my stay, we went from $40 million to $100 million in annual sales.
I was then recruited to work for Brooks Brothers in 2000 as the GM of the direct to consumer catalog and online business. After 6 months, I was promoted to CMO where I had my first opportunity to work with a store operation. Because the company was structured in siloes, I helped to build a customer database that we used to show each of the channels that it was all in our best interests to work together on behalf of the customers. The unified database helped us show that our best customers were buying across our channels and that the catalog business was driving a lot of sales into stores.
When Brooks Brothers was acquired, I left and went to Redcats (It was Brylane at that time, a $1.5 billion multi-title catalog and online business). As the CMO, I had direct responsibility of the web business which was doing $150M per year in sales. We had separate organizations for online and catalog. The goal at Redcats was to drive digital sales and reduce catalog costs. It was clear that the catalog was driving the traffic to the online business, but we still needed to find a way to better optimize our marketing spend. During my stay at Redcats, the online business grew from $150 to $450 million dollars.
After Redcats, I was recruited to work for Warnaco. I ended up working with the same CEO I worked with at Brooks Brothers. Warnaco had the license for Calvin Klein Underwear (CKU), Calvin Klein Jeans (CKJ) and Speedo and they owned a number of other legacy brands. I was responsible for the digital business of CKU, CKJ and Speedo. Warnaco was predominantly a wholesale company but the goal was to sell direct to consumer and use the web sites to help extend the brand to consumers.
I spent 15 months consulting for myself after leaving Warnaco during a restructuring. This was a great opportunity to meet a lot of different clients and see how others were conducting their online business. I learned that this business is some science, but it’s also about the “art”, and either way, you must stay focused on the basic blocking and tackling. The devil is in the details and if you overlook the simple things, you will not likely be successful.
What is your role at Steve Madden? What are some of the initiatives you have worked on?
My role as the President of E-Commerce is to make sure we execute on a strong omni-channel initiative. The digital business for the Madden brand is a great balance between commerce and brand. It is a company-wide initiative to make the website the branding vehicle. We are currently launching a loyalty program. In order to get ready for the loyalty program, we launched a mobile app. It has been a long project and I’m really excited to see it rolled out.
While I’ve been at Steve Madden, we changed the way we drive traffic to the site. In 2011, we relied heavily on affiliate marketing and did little in paid search. Now, we are less reliant on affiliates and more reliant on search; text and product listing ads. We were an early adopter of user-generated content and we’ve done a lot in social on Instagram and Facebook. Email marketing is also a significant driver of our web business. I highly recommend pushing your vendors for the features that will transform your business because it is a win/win situation. You get the features you need for your business and your vendor gains valuable insights that will help them build a better product that more companies will buy.
What is the company culture like at Steve Madden?
We have a company culture at Steve Madden that is very entrepreneurial. We are a big company but we still have the ability to move quickly with new programs and new ideas. Steve is still very active in all aspects of the business.
How large is Steve Madden today?
We are now a $1.5B company with over 130 stores in the US and Canada. 80% of our business is done at wholesale; the balance is made up of our own stores and the online business.
What does it take to be successful in ecommerce?
I think you need to be a good listener and be able to work collaboratively in order to be successful. You must be patient, do your time, and pay your dues. Soft skills are very important. You must learn how to get people to do what they don’t want to do. Learn by watching.
What are some of the most valuable things you have learned during your career?
You can be successful making lateral career moves. I was able to move from finance to catalog and then catalog to digital. You can also lose your job and come back even stronger.