Gordon Segal says morale is back up at Crate & Barrel

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Gordon Segal, co-founder of retailer Crate & Barrel, said Thursday he has returned to advise the company’s interim CEO and help choose a new leader to ensure long-term success — not to run day-to-day operations.

“I’m not the CEO. … This is a consulting gig until we find a new CEO,” said the 75-year-old Segal, who said he isn’t being paid for acting as an adviser and as a member of the company’s search committee. “I’m not running things.”

“I’m doing this out of love for the company,” he said in an interview prior to being honored, along with his wife and company co-founder Carole, as the 2014 Entrepreneurial Champions by the 1871 technology hub.

Carole and Gordon Segal in 2012 | Sun-Times photo

Carole and Gordon Segal in 2012 | Sun-Times photo

The honor was awarded at 1871’s Momentum Awards dinner at the Radisson Blu Hotel on Thursday. The Segals are credited with changing the way people shopped for home goods when they opened the first Crate & Barrel store on Dec. 7, 1962 in the Old Town neighborhood. Their innovation was selling unique, stylish, quality home goods at lower prices than the department stores of that era.

Gordon Segal said he was asked by Hans-Otto Schrader, CEO of Otto Group, Crate & Barrel’s current owners and “good friends,” to help out as a consultant.

Segal returned in August to advise on marketing and merchandising because the interim CEO, Adrian Mitchell, is the chief financial and operating officer whose strength is in operations. Mitchell replaced the ousted CEO Sascha Bopp, who left Aug. 4 and was the first — and apparently last — German to lead the firm.

The new CEO will be an American merchant, Segal said.

“They tried a German and it didn’t work,” he said. “Culturally, there is a big difference, and the management styles are very different.”

He declined to offer any further details about what went wrong, but said that he and Mitchell “have turned [employee] spirits back up.”

“Part of retail is people feeling positive, excited and happy,” he said. “The spirit is great.”

Segal said he is optimistic about a new CEO because “it’s a great job — one of the best going.”

“We’re looking for someone who has been a success,” he said.

A search firm has come up with a list of CEO candidates, and the search committee will start interviewing them at the end of October, Segal said, declining to reveal names or the number on the short list.

“I don’t know them personally,” he said of the CEO candidates.

Segal said he is optimistic that Crate & Barrel and its hip CB2 and children’s Land of Nod divisions will thrive and grow. Crate & Barrel will open five new stores in the next six months, and the company is busy updating its websites, creating new mobile apps for the iPhone and iPad, and rolling out iPads to furniture salespeople so they can show customers the retailer’s full collection on the fly.

“There is no store-closing plan,” Segal said. He said the company throughout its history has closed stores that underperform or whose leases run out and are replaced by newer sites. “The company is doing very well. It is not in need of cutting expenses.”

The new CEO will have to “be great with people, have great taste and style, and have experience running a retail business of this scale,” Segal said, describing Crate & Barrel as a $1.2 billion, multichannel company.

“It’s very complex,” he said, noting that candidates would never include someone who has only “run a little store.”

The most obvious successor to the Segals was Barbara Turf, who served as Crate & Barrel CEO for four years after the Segals retired in 2008.

Turf died July 12 of pancreatic cancer.

Segal said he has met with key executives and is “getting excited about the Christmas collection.

“We have two new catalogs coming out in November and December,” he said. “We’re producing great product and marketing ideas.”

Is Segal tempted to take over?

Not at age 75, he said, noting that the company owners wouldn’t want that, either.

At the awards dinner, tech venture capital investor J.B. Pritzker presented the award to the Segals, citing not only their creativity and risk-taking courage, but also their philanthropy and commitment to Chicago.

Carole Segal noted that the couple was 23 years old when they started Crate & Barrel — newly married graduates of Northwestern University.

“We were working at so-so jobs, as you can all relate to,” she told the audience of entrepreneurs, who responded with knowing laughter. She also noted the role that luck played in their success, as well as the willingness to step out of convention by buying well-designed products straight from overseas factories.

Gordon Segal told the audience to follow their passion and to be willing to pour their lives into their creations.

“Push beyond your belief. Enjoy every day,” he said. “Never do anything for the money. Do it for the love and guess what? The money will come.”

He said at first he was so desperate to raise $10,000 to get Crate & Barrel started, he would have given a share of the company to a lender. He never found one, and he was later glad about it.

“We loved being shopkeepers,” he said. “We loved displaying and talking about merchandise.”

“We loved searching for the new, the different and the beautiful,” he said, noting that the couple picked up a European sensibility by shopping sites in Denmark, Frankfurt and Paris.

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