TopVet: Ken Hicks, Foot Locker Chief Executive
"Veterans have the advantage in that they are more comfortable being leaders of people because they have done it before,” says Ken Hicks, a former Army artillery officer, now leading Foot Locker as chairman and CEO." I learned a heck of a lot in the Army about people and how to lead."
The successful businessman was born in Tulsa, OK and later moved to Houston. His WWII veteran father instilled in him and his four sisters the values of hard work and the importance of education. "I was standing on the street corner selling papers at 10," said Hicks, his first venture in the business world. His Cherokee dad was in the oil business, but enlisted in the Army during World War II. He was captured in France, hit by a grenade, and became a POW there. He left the Army as a Corporal.
Like his father, Hicks sought service in the military. After playing football in high school and enjoying studying history, he chose to attend West Point during the Vietnam War.
"My father had served in the military, but like most people at that point he wasn't really bent on it," he explained. Not many students sought military education at that time, but "it was the best education I could afford," he said, referencing a line from General Eisenhower. He had his 40th reunion recently with notable classmates Gen. David Petraeus, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Marty Dempsey, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Keith Alexander, who served as Director of the National Security Agency.
When he graduated, the war was over and he was part of the "drawdown Army" that included budget cuts and the remnants of a draftee heavy Army. First stationed in an armored Calvary unit at Ft. Bliss, Hicks later served in Korea. He stayed on for an extra year to complete serving as an artillery battery commander in the 3rd Calvary before making the decision to transition into the business world.
"When I got out of the Army, the thing I knew best in the world was how to shoot cannons," he explained. To expand his skills, he pursued an MBA at Harvard. "West Point taught you how to think and lead people and Harvard taught you how to think and solve problems. It's a pretty powerful package."
From business school, and after his first job at McKinsey & Co, he then found his start in retail at May Department Store Company, which owned Lord & Taylor, among other major stores. From 1987-1990, he "carried the clipboard of the CEO" as Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning spending all day, five and a half days per week reporting directly to him and learning from the Retail Legend, David Farrell.
Later, he became Senior Vice President and General Merchandise Manager at May Merchandising Company, Senior Vice President and General Merchandise Manager at Foley's Department Stores, Executive Vice President and General Merchandise Manager at Home Shopping Network, President at Payless Shoe Source, and President and Chief Merchandising Officer at JCPenney.
Now he’s heading Foot Locker's successful growth. Before he took over as leader of Foot Locker in 2009, the company's stock price traded below $11 and annual sales were down to $4.8 billion, according to Forbes. After taking the reigns, he has led the Fortune 500 Company to 19 consecutive quarters of comparable store sales growth and its best-ever financial results in the 2013 fiscal year with sales of $6.5 billion. The stock price is currently above $55.
Why does he love what he does? "Its fun. Our job quite frankly is to make people happy." Plus he relates it to the military in the sense that the retail industry is dealing with people, action-oriented, and very results focused. "You get measured 365 days a year on how you are doing."
For veterans considering entering the corporate world, he advises them to "take advantage of what you learned, or what the opportunities are for what you did. You have the ability in the service to learn and develop skills that are applicable in the business world. It is not about taking orders and you do it. . . it is the opposite...motivate people to do what you need to get accomplished. Use the skills you learned."
Though Hicks says "my job to some degree is my hobby," he also enjoys movies, reading, music, and spending time with his wife of over 40 years, Lucy. He enjoys working out as well, since he now owns a pair of sneakers for every sport.
"Ken is, as they say, an energy source, not an oxygen thief," David Petraeus told Forbes. They met as freshmen cadets at West Point in 1970. "He rolls up his sleeves, gets involved, pitches in and leads by engaging and walking around." And while now he walks in Foot Locker sneakers instead of Army boots, his military experience paved his way to success.