Banana Republic’s President, From Choir to C-Suite

JACK CALHOUN is the global president of Banana Republic in San Francisco.

I GREW up in Lafayette, Ind., the youngest of five in a family of modest means. I had big dreams and was ready to do the hard work to achieve them. My first job was in a busy ice cream store. I remember the owner saying, “If you can lean, you can clean.” I learned that there’s always something to do in a business, and that hard work is rewarded.

I started playing the recorder in elementary school and went on to play all the wood instruments. In high school, I sang in the choir. I knew that I wanted to study voice, so I enrolled in the music school at Indiana University in Bloomington as a vocal performance major. Every student there was good. I did well, but I wanted to be the best.

My voice teacher explained that it could take years to become successful, and I didn’t see myself as a starving artist while waiting. I felt as if I were on an ice floe and didn’t know where to jump off. He encouraged me to be honest with myself about what would make me happy and said that artistic people also tend to be very analytical.

During the spring, I took some aptitude tests at Purdue University, and they indeed indicated that I was analytical. I transferred to Purdue and headed several organizations on campus. I received the G. A. Ross Award, the award given to an outstanding graduating male. When I graduated in 1987 from the College of Technology, it was becoming clear that balancing creativity, analytics and leadership would be important for me to feel fulfilled.

Credit...Drew Altizer

I spent three years at Procter & Gamble, starting as an assistant on the Bounce brand. We were looking for an idea to eliminate static cling that was more portable than a competitor’s spray can. I came up with the Bounce purse pack for carrying the sheets, which customers could rub against their clothes and achieve the same results. The pack had a zipper along the top and a little Bounce logo like the Levi’s tag. It was an innovative and lively idea that showed how creativity matters. My former colleagues and I still laugh about it.

I left to get an M.B.A. from Harvard, then returned to P.& G. for a year as assistant brand manager for Cover Girl makeup. Next, I moved to Levi Strauss for a year and then to the advertising industry for six years, rising to general manager at Young & Rubicam. After that, I worked for two years in brand management and advertising at Charles Schwab. I was serving as an executive vice president when I left in 2002.

I joined Banana Republic as executive vice president for marketing and merchandising in 2003 and was promoted to president in 2007 and to global president in 2012. Every day at the company, I remember the tenets of creativity, analytics and leadership, whether in managing our collections or in solving a problem in our supply chain or sourcing.

To our 20,000 employees, I have to give a clear vision of where we’re going as a company. Over the years, I’ve learned that any problem can be solved. Smart people will figure it out, and there’s always more than one solution.

We add outside stimuli to get employees to think differently. Once, we brought in an expert sword swallower to show what it means to have focus and clarity. Another time, we brought in a cellist. By progressively adding stanzas to a song, she illustrated how things built upon one another.

I’m now designing the interior of my second home, in Sonoma County, in the California wine country. It’s another creative outlet for me and helps me to keep things in balance.

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