Former retail exec returns to Arkansas to oversee Fayetteville-based Blkbox 2.0

by Kim Souza (ksouza@talkbusiness.net) 686 views 

Shayne Hart, 47, cut his teeth on a six generation family dairy farm in Prairie Grove before landing several high profile retail marketing jobs for the Gap, Old Navy, Limited Brands, parent of Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works and various luxury brands.

In 2015, the native son returned to his old stomping grounds with plans to put his stamp on Blkbox Labs, a local branding and creating group now owned by Fayetteville-based Black Sails Ventures.

Blkbox was founded in 2012 as a creative consulting agency designed to help businesses succeed. The premise of the firm was to act like a Black box in an airplane that understands the final destination of a flight and records the decisions, events and data points that lead up to that final outcome to tell the story of sorts about said flight.

Since that time the company has tweaked that mission since Hart took over the firm’s management last year. The 2.0 version of Blkbox has a mission to grow by choosing the right projects to tackle, regardless of their size. Hart says Blkbox is not an agency, nor a public relations firm.

“I began as a consultant to Blkbox advising the company at the request of Ryan Efurd, CEO of parent company Blackhive, and I ultimately chose to become a partner and took over as chief creative officer about a year ago, managing a team of about 20,” Hart told Talk Business & Politics.

“Arkansas has always been home to me, I grew up in Little Rock, but spent nearly every weekend and summer on my grandparent’s dairy farm in Prairie Grove. Now my partner and I live on that same family farm and it’s still a working farm by some of the family members,” Hart said. “My career has afforded me the ability to live in many great cities, (New Orleans, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C.) but it’s great to be home again. … I don’t fish or hunt, but Arkansas has always been home. I love to cook and I enjoy the local food movement here in Northwest Arkansas. Reading is another passion of mine, along with the arts.”

Shayne Hart, chief creative officer, Blkbox
Shayne Hart, chief creative officer, Blkbox

FOCUSED ON SOLUTIONS
Under Hart’s direction, Blkbox has been able to to double its revenue in 2015 and is on track to double that again this year. Noting that the base level was fairly small, Hart said he’s pleased with the growth and proud of the work that includes a packaging design job for Fayetteville-based Onyx Coffee to working with Walmart on a new creative employment branding effort. Blkbox also continues to work with NorthWest Arkansas Community College on its Brightwater Culinary School brand as well as Experience Fayetteville’s new slogan.

Hart said no job is too big or small, but there are plenty which are not a good fit for Blkbox given the firm’s desire to work from the ground up. He said too many times a company seeks a brand consultant firm for help but does so by presenting a list of solutions – tweak my website or launch a social marketing campaign – that may not be what the company needs. He said Blkbox seeks to be active in the solution finding process for its clients who want to build a brand from ground zero, expand a brand, repurpose a brand or celebrate a brand.

“I only do work I can learn something from and work that helps further the success of a brand, company or entity in the process,” Hart said.

He expects to grow the Blkbox team to 40 employees by the end the year. Hart said that will include art directors, photographers and cross disciplinary designers. He hopes to add a sociologist and cultural anthropologist to the team noting that their human insight could be a benefit in the firm’s end-user design focus.

THE YOUNG RETAILER

Hart comes to Blkbox with much experience. He began in retail merchandising as a shop owner at age 19. Hart said he had knack for curating trendy items that he sold out of the family’s garage in Little Rock. He was selected at an early age to participate in the Neiman Marcus Executive Training Program under the leadership of Stanley Marcus.

“I started working at the high-end of the retail business working with luxury, specialty and beauty brands and I did that for many years. In the late 1990s I also worked as a consultant on brand acquisitions which were a growing trend during that period,” he said.

Hart said he always chose to work as a consultant to large brands and never wanted to work directly for the big companies. But that changed as Hart was serving on the first Procter & Gamble Design Board for then P&G CEO A.G. Lafley. He began to see some amazing individuals having real impacts in their roles within big retail.

He signed on with the Fisher family, who founded Gap and Jenny Ming, founder of Old Navy, around 2004 to work as vice president of cool stuff – literally that was his title because the retailer wasn’t quite sure where to place him. His main task was fixing things and seeking out new opportunities.

“I spent a great deal of time in design and merchandising, but those two areas typically sit on different sides of the table and are nearly never managed by the same person. I think I was the only executive at the Gap to manage both sides of that business simultaneously,” Hart said. “I was charged with fixing things and at that time Old Navy had tremendous market share in ladies denim but had no presence in ladies accessories, which made no sense.”

A CREATIVE OFFICER
Part of his work at Old Navy included increasing the number of accessories and expanding the trusted brand into other areas such as pet merchandise and fragrance. In the first year Hart said Old Navy went from 20 accessories to more than 200 which grew sales to more than $650 million annually.

“I had never worked with so many smart people in one place who fundamentally got it right,” Hart said. “I got to work on the Project Red initiative for the Gap which was incredible.”

Project Red is a brand designed to raise awareness and funds to eliminate HIV/AIDS in Africa. Retailers create products that carry the Product Red label and 50% of the profit from the sales goes toward the Global Product Red fund.

After three years at Gap, Limited Brands, Chairman Les Wexner, and Bath & Body CEO Diane Neal tapped him to become the corporation’s first creative officer. Hart led the creative direction of all brands and sub-brands in the company’s portfolio and the integration of consumer touch points. Hart said his team was tasked with product design and creation and development, marketing and in-store experience. He said it took a year to get the red and white checked table clothes removed from Bath and Body Stores. The cumulative value of the Limited Brands portfolio under his management was $2 billion in annual sales.

“I came to creative through the side door, not the conventional way,” he said, admitting that the creative process has always been in his DNA. “I think of myself as a glorified shop girl (merchandiser/retailer) and along the way collected a creative tool box. The last half of my career I have almost exclusively led teams in design marketing and product development.”

Hart said the focus of Blkbox now is to take that creative toolbox to create connectivity around the entire eco-system of a brand so that all the consumer touch points and business mandates align in a world that accepts nothing less.

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