Dick’s Sporting Goods’ New CEO: Being a Female Leader Is a Huge Asset — Journal Report

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Lauren Hobart took the top job at Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. earlier this year, becoming one of a few dozen female CEOs to helm America’s largest companies and the third person to run the family-owned retailer since its start in 1948.

Last fiscal year, Dick’s comparable sales — those from stores and digital channels operating for at least 12 months — rose faster than ever in the company’s history, up 9.9% year-over-year, driven by demand for outdoor and fitness gear during the pandemic, the company said. Strong demand has continued this year, with comparable sales up 115% in the fiscal first quarter ended May 1 versus the year-earlier period when stores closed amid the pandemic, and 19.2% in the second quarter.

But as the pandemic continues, massive supply-chain snarls have made it hard for the retailer to stock all the fitness equipment, sports apparel and outdoor gear it needs to meet demand. The company has cautioned that Asia shipping concerns could restrain sales growth during the holiday shopping season and raise supply-chain costs.

Meanwhile the retailer is taking several steps to increase market share. This year it opened the first of several planned Dick’s House of Sport, a larger version of a Dick’s store with more interactive elements such as a rock-climbing wall. Today in Pittsburgh, Dick’s is opening its first Public Lands store, a chain that aims to appeal more squarely to outdoor enthusiasts. Ms. Hobart says Dick’s also is focused on expanding its base of female shoppers. “Women were coming into our stores and leaving with products for their family and not for themselves,” she says.

Ms. Hobart spoke to the Journal virtually in July. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

WSJ: How do you think about inhabiting the role of female CEO as part of your job?

MS. HOBART: I’m the first nonfamily CEO. Ed [Stack, the former CEO and current chairman], was Dick’s son, and he ran the company and took it from two stores to what it is today. It’s pretty amazing in this particular industry that this company and Ed specifically supported me in every aspect of my career. I feel like I’m a successor to Ed Stack, and I happen to be a woman, but I don’t think that’s the story.

WSJ: Were there times when being a woman was either a positive or a challenge? How did you navigate that?

MS. HOBART: At PepsiCo I worked under [former CEO] Indra Nooyi, who was a mentor in many ways. Between Indra and the very strong mom I have, it never occurred to me that women couldn’t be anything they wanted to be. I don’t want to minimize struggles that I know many, many women have in terms of being considered for opportunities and being taken as seriously as male counterparts. At Dick’s, the relationship I developed with Ed just was never dominated by the fact that I’m a woman. We bring very different things to the table when it comes to a partnership. He’s a merchant through and through, and he’s an entrepreneur, and I had a history in marketing and strategic planning. We just balanced each other out. I think the female-male dynamics, somewhat stereotypically, also balance each other out really well. I have felt like being a female leader is a huge asset.

WSJ: In what ways?

MS. HOBART: I feel that as a female, it was very natural to me to lead with a people-first approach, one that was about engaging teammates and engaging our customers. It has been a huge strength.

WSJ: Are there specific moments of your career that stand out to you as pivotal in retrospect?

MS. HOBART: When the board decided that I was going to be Ed’s successor, which was many years ago. It isn’t something that I ever was gunning for. I was a chief marketing officer, I was getting growth opportunities, I was starting to run e-commerce. I’ve heard that women often don’t see themselves as a CEO, for whatever reason.

WSJ: Yes, research shows that.

MS. HOBART: Since I’ve become CEO, I’ve spoken to several other women CEOs. Almost all of them have the same story I have, which is someone else saw it in them before they saw it in themselves. In this case, Ed and the board tapped me. When they came and said, “You’re the person,” immediately my thoughts were that I had to change my entire management style.

WSJ: Why?

MS. HOBART:I have been a person who is extremely open. I write letters. In my time as chief marketing officer, I wrote weekly emails to the marketing team, and I would tell them stories about my kids, or about my mom, or a fight I had, or this or that realization about the business. It was always very nonpresidential, in my opinion. I did say to Ed, “Now I’m going to have to change absolutely everything. I can’t be posting selfies in emails to the whole group and to the whole company.” He disagreed and said, “What got Lauren Hobart to be in this position is Lauren Hobart, and we don’t want Lauren Hobart to change.” And so, I haven’t held back at all.

WSJ: Research also shows that for many female CEOs, what got them into the job is a man. Do you think that’s a systemic problem for American corporations?

MS. HOBART: Men are 459 of the Fortune 500 CEOs. So we have to rely on men to tap women. But I think women can get more proactive and aspirational in terms of what their goals are. The other thing — and it’s happening — is that boards need to get much more proactive in terms of representation of senior leadership of all kinds.

WSJ: In recent months you’ve run a series of ads that focus on women as leaders, or female athletes. Why does that help sell more products?

MS. HOBART: Female athletes have often had to shop in the men’s section, and there’s always been a belief in the industry that women are just fine with that. Girls aren’t finding products that actually fit their body, fit their feet and represent them. We started to really advocate for that a few years ago, with the brand partners that we work with all the time. Then the marketing hit this year, and I have to say it was Ed’s idea because I would never have chosen to put myself in a commercial.

WSJ: You’re talking about the ad where you and other female Dick’s executives are highlighted as executives, not athletes?

MS. HOBART: Right. There are a lot of assumptions that people make about who’s running this company. We decided that maybe people would be interested to see that we’re really working on behalf of women because we are women. We got incredible reactions — shocking to me actually, just how much people were looking for that kind of inspiration.

WSJ: What kind of reaction?

MS. HOBART: Lots of men were reaching out saying how amazing it was to be watching some sporting event with their daughters, and show that. Normally, we show female athletes, or we show people in athletic moments in our marketing. This was a completely different type of campaign and showed women making decisions and empowering their teams to really advocate for women. I think it surprised people.

WSJ: The pandemic created a huge surge in demand for fitness and outdoor gear. How are you managing that demand today?

MS. HOBART: The one thing that’s been a challenge for everybody in the industry and beyond for the last year and a half has been supply chain. When home fitness was starting to surge, dumbbells were challenged and bikes were challenged, and every single category that was surging has had supply constraint. There are still a lot of issues with some of the soft-lines business, apparel, footwear. The ongoing challenge is just keeping the product in stock.

Ms. Nassauer is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. Email her at sarah.nassauer@wsj.com.

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