How Much Time Do I Have?

Every new catalog CEO is asking him/herself, “How much time do I have?”

I’ve had a very busy summer and did not have a chance to get caught up on my LinkedIn notifications for about 3 months. I don’t do Twitter – I just don’t get it. I use LinkedIn extensively as a source of new subscribers for this blog and leads for Datamann. I have close to 1,200 LinkedIn contacts, so I get to see a lot of activity within the industry.

I was shocked (shocked!) at what I saw when I sat down one morning last week to clean up 3 months of notifications (job changes, anniversaries, etc.). I could not get over the number of my contacts that have left the catalog industry this summer. And I mean “completely out” – many to non-profits, many to other service industries, some to teaching. It was very eye-opening.

Most of these contacts are mid-level jobs – managers and directors. I’m sure in some instances, their company was doing poorly, and they may have been let go before they found a new job. But many of them I know came from companies that were seemingly doing okay, and they simply opted to get out. I’m sure you can all draw your own conclusions from this revelation.

But since the start of the year, I have learned of a number of CEOs who have left their positions. Since most of these individuals contacted me to let me know they are seeking new opportunities, I’m guessing their departure from their CEO position may not have been voluntary.

Each of the CEOs I know of who have “moved on to explore new opportunities” in the past 8 months were “catalog people”. They knew how catalogs worked. They may not have fit into the culture where they were, or may have made some bad choices, but they at least understood the principles of cataloging. These were not instances of bringing in an industry outsider that said “Hey, just mail the people that are going to respond”.

Let’s face it – it’s tough being the CEO of a catalog company. The pay may be great, but your job security is shaky at best. You take a job with a new company because you want to utilize all your well-earned talents to show the world that you can do this, and you can do it better than the last guy – who did not even last two years.

And then you discover a few things.

  • You work for either an owner or a Board of Directors. They see how the market is taking off this year, at least since the election. They have grown impatient with the lack of growth of sales at your company – and they don’t care about the fact that retail is hurting or that catalogs are trending down. They care about what you have done to change THIS That seems pretty reasonable. That’s what CEOs are supposed to do. The buck stops with you, so you get moving.


  • But at times, you feel your hands are tied by unrealistic, and unnecessary expectations. You are under pressure to acquire new customers using social media. Not because it has been proven successful by other catalogs, but because the owner’s brother-in-law read an article in Entrepreneur magazine that said it could be done, and that is the expectation hung on you. This is sort of the equivalent of car manufactures being pressured to develop electric, self-driving cars. It doesn’t matter that no one else has successfully turned a mature catalog serving aging-bohemian baby boomers into a social media powerhouse overnight. But, as unrealistic as it may be, it is the expectation.


  • You discover that your merchandise team has no bench strength. There is zero new product development. The buyers look at other catalogs and retailers for inspiration. They consult “color charts” for what is going to be popular this year. You learn there is no innovation in your merchandise. Worse, you discover there are no new products under development in the pipeline. The buyers rely on “manufacturing reps” to show them what to sell. This is no different than finding out that your marketing department just waits for their co-op rep to tell them what to mail.


  • Speaking of marketing, they are always on the search for the next “Holy Grail” of optimization, response, conversion, remarketing, etc. They cite tiny incremental gains, but have no clue about how to truly grow the business.


  • You have no budget for making technological changes. Your legacy order processing system was installed during the Reagan Administration. Your web platform is impossible to link to other tools. You are trying to complete with Amazon’s one-click, and your website is still asking for source codes.


  • You discover that there is a “deep state” in just about every department. Not the nefarious “deep state” that is rumored to exist in government, but a group of employees who resist change. It’s not that they resist you – they like you – but they don’t want to give up the “catalog way” of business. Every discussion revolves around in-home dates and paginations. You are trying to get them to think beyond the catalog, to be a true ecommerce company, but it is tough for you too because you are at heart a “cataloger”.

“How much time do I have?” is the question that most CEOs are constantly asking themselves. First, it is “How much time do I have to turn the ship around?” Then, it becomes “How much time do I have before my time here runs out?”

I don’t have simple answers on how to deal with each of the organizational issues listed above. They are all issues of the times. But if you accept a job as a new CEO, and you encounter many of these conditions, then just know you have to work even faster to turn the ship around, because in 2017, you don’t have much time.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235