New REI chief drops suit and tie

  • Article by: AMY MARTINEZ , Seattle Times
  • Updated: January 15, 2014 - 9:05 PM

The outdoors retailer’s new chief executive, formerly with Coach, says his new job is “a dream come true.”

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« we do a lot of different things for work. but our love for the outdoors is a constant through our lives, and that’s been true for me. » Stritzke, on REI customers

Three months after taking the helm at REI, Jerry Stritzke looks every bit the part of the CEO of the Northwest’s popular outdoor-equipment retailer.

Stritzke, 53, walks the grounds of REI’s Kent, Wash., headquarters sporting jeans, flannel shirt and Patagonia vest instead of the suit and tie he wore as president and chief operating officer at posh New York-based handbag-maker Coach.

The Stillwater, Okla., native describes himself as an avid outdoorsman. He spends his summer vacations fly-fishing and mountain-climbing, skis and snowboards in the winter, and now bikes to work from his new home on Mercer Island.

While his appointment last fall to REI’s top post seemed something of a head-scratcher, Stritzke said the opportunity to combine his retail expertise with a passion for the outdoors “was really a dream come true.”

He gives the impression that selling tents and bikes is what he was meant to do all along.

“We do a lot of different things for work,” he said of REI’s core customers. “But our love for the outdoors is a constant through our lives, and that’s been true for me.”

Stritzke is the seventh CEO in REI’s 75-year history, replacing Sally Jewell, who joined the Obama administration as secretary of the interior last spring.

Jewell led REI through the Great Recession as CEO for eight years, nearly doubling its annual sales from $1 billion in 2005 to $1.9 billion in 2012.

Stritzke, a lawyer by training, brings a different background to REI. He was the No. 2 executive of publicly traded Coach for more than five years. Before then, he held top posts at Limited Brands in Columbus, Ohio, including a stint as COO of Victoria’s Secret.

REI, which was founded in 1938 as a member-owned co-op, has 132 stores in 33 states and more than 5 million active members. In Minnesota, REI has stores in Bloomington, Roseville and Maple Grove.

Stritzke sees competition mounting, and one of his responses is to mull more flagships like REI’s big downtown Seattle store.

REI Board Chairman John Hamlin said Stritzke was chosen for his long history in retail, strong leadership skills and “passion” for the outdoors.

Hamlin also rejected the notion that Stritzke is an odd cultural fit because he comes from fashion mainstay Coach.

“If you looked at Sally’s background, people would have said, ‘Wow, why did you get a banker to come in and run the co-op?’ The answer would have been, ‘We needed the financial stability,’ ” Hamlin said.

“We now strongly believe we need the retail expertise, and we’re seeing that value from him already,” Hamlin said.

Stritzke said he has been in listening mode since his Oct. 1 start date and will lay out his priorities in a few months.

One of his first moves was to launch a national search for a chief marketing officer, a new position. REI announced this month the new CMO will replace senior marketing vice president Angela Owen, who is leaving the company.

  • related content

  • Jerry Stritzke, who joined REI as CEO in October, doesn’t need a suit and tie for his work at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash.

  • REI by the numbers

    33: states where REI has stores

    132: total stores

    11,000: employees

    5.1 million: active members

    1938: year REI was founded as a co-op

    $1.93 billion: 2012 sales

    $104.6 million: patronage refunds in 2012

    Source: Seattle Times staff research

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