Symancyk: Retail is hard but rewarding, good fit for the intellectually curious

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,756 views 

J.K. Symancyk, president and CEO of Academy Sports & Outdoors, addresses the audience during his Thursday presentation at the University of Arkansas. (photo courtesy of the University of Arkansas)

Speaking at his alma mater Thursday evening (Sept. 7), J.K. Symancyk told University of Arkansas students he never set out for a career in retail. James Kevin Symancyk grew up in Little Rock, majored in theater at the UA and planned to go to law school after graduating in 1994.

However, he took a job with Wal-Mart Stores and learned retail on the fly. But he was always thinking in the back of his mind he would work there and save money so he could eventually go to law school. He’s now the president and CEO of Academy Sports + Outdoors.

Symancyk said much of what he learned about low cost retailing came from his early days at Wal-Mart. He worked as a merchandise coordinator in food. Symancyk said he was approached by his supervisors to take a role in Walmart International working out of Mexico City for two years where he oversaw some acquisitions.

“At some point in your career your employer is going to ask you to do something you don’t want to do, but that’s the thing you must do. I never saw myself working in Mexico City but when I was asked I didn’t think too long. … I knew I had to try and do the best I could and it opened up a lot of opportunities for me to advance in my career,” Symancyk said.

He told the students to not turn down opportunities presented by employers because they fear they can’t do the job. He said the employer sees them bringing value to the table or they wouldn’t make the recommendation. He warns turning down an opportunity could stymie a career because it could be 10 years before the employer asks again.

Symancyk spent 12 years at the retail giant which involved several leadership roles at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. In 2006, he had an opportunity to take on bigger leadership roles at asmaller Midwestern retailer, Meijer, which is privately-held and credited with pioneering the supercenter concept in 1962. He signed on with Meijer in a senior merchandising role and advanced to become executive VP of merchandising and marketing and then COO. He was named president in February 2013, a position he held until October 2015 when he became the CEO of Academy.

Symancyk said moving to Meijer allowed him to rise to a senior leadership role more quickly. But the thought of working in sports looked like another great opportunity for him professionally in 2015. It also brought his family closer to his roots. Academy is based in Katy, Texas, a day’s drive or short plane ride to Arkansas.

He said having the opportunity to work in a retail job that allows him to get out and fish or hit a ball and serve the passions for the love of sports and outdoors has been golden. However, he said retail is a hard, challenging business where the best in the world make between 3-5% profit margins. He said the opportunity for error is high in retail, but it’s a career that can provide a wealth of opportunity, from technology to finance and from legal to merchandising. He told the students there is no price tag for intellectual curiosity.

“We want those people,” he said.

He told the students to get used to constructive criticism and use it as a learning opportunity.

“In my role today I certainly get more criticism but very little of it is ever said to my face and I miss the opportunity I once had to learn from it. I have a leadership team that is tasked with making sure I hear constructive criticism because it’s an important growth tool,” he said.

Academy has undergone rapid growth, doubling in size over the past five years. But Symancyk said the regional sports retailer will also turn 80 next year. One of the biggest challenges is keeping the culture in check and redirecting employees toward the company mission.

Academy was a long-time family-owned operation prior to 2011 when it sold to private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. Symancyk said the focus went from serving customers to growing the corporate footprint. He said getting his leadership team back in touch with servicing customer passions has been a primary focus.

Last year Academy sales topped $4.7 billion, up from $4.6 billion in 2015, but same-store sales slipped to single digits in late 2016 and earnings were down 23%. In July, the retailer laid off 100 from its corporate headquarters in Katy, citing a need to be more nimble amid ongoing challenges in this sector.

Talk Business & Politics asked Symancyk about Academy’s e-commerce strategy. He said the company allocates about one-third of its capital expenditures toward technology, but that includes making the in-store experience the best it can be. He said no one has yet to figure out omnichannel. He said pure play e-tailers are not making money and Wall Street penalizes brick and mortar retailers for investing in e-commerce and omnichannel because it can dilute brick and mortar profit structures.

“About 5% of our sales are online. If you took out those categories that don’t translate online like gun safes, fire arms and bulky items like kayaks then online sales comprise about 10% of our total revenue. Industry wide for brick and mortar the average is about 5%,” Symancyk added.

Academy has postponed its second quarter earnings release due to Hurricane Harvey. The company is privately held but does release some financials.

Symancyk said his personal home took on 56 inches of water during the recent flooding from Hurricane Harvey. He and his family were forced to leave. Academy opened up its headquarters to 1,100 troops for a place to stay while working in the storm’s aftermath. He said when 700 troops knock on your door, you let them in.

The retailer also has given $1.6 million in products to the relief effort. Symancyk said the company’s first priority in a storm is to ensure its people are safe, and with Academy being located in the Houston area, there were employees displaced.

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on Florida, Symancyk said logistically the retailer is spread out in central and northern Florida but there is not a local distribution center that stores can draw from like there was in the Houston market. He said the retailer will be there for its people and work to service customer’s needs.

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