Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mickey Drexler at the Met

The J. Crew buyout announced this week calls to mind the time I saw its CEO, Millard (Mickey) Drexler, in action — giving a standout performance on, of all places, the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.

That needs some explaining. So let me back up a bit.

Investor Ronald Baron of Baron Capital Group was holding his firm's annual investment conference at the Met. This was November 2007. I was a shareholder in one of the Baron family of mutual funds at the time, and thus was invited to attend.

This was my first Baron Investment Conference, and I was bowled over by what an event Ron Baron puts on for his investors. The daylong gathering included presentations in the morning by CEOs of companies in which the Baron funds hold sizable positions and who are leaders that Ron Baron and his portfolio managers hold in high regard. During the lunch break, in a tent set up on the Lincoln Center grounds, we ate our box lunches while rocking out to a live performance by Sheryl Crow. After lunch, back in our comfy seats at the Met, came brief remarks by the firm's portfolio managers and a fuller overview of the investment landscape and state of the firm by Mr. Baron. He then turned the stage over to a "surprise entertainer" – who turned out to be Bette Midler. She proceeded to give one of her inimitable songfests. The day then wrapped up with "milk and cookies" with the firm's portfolio managers and analysts. This was not your grandfather's annual meeting.

Now back to Mickey Drexler. This "retail statesman," as the Wall Street Journal called him in its report on the buyout, was one of the CEOs addressing the packed house. His presentation on J. Crew was cleverly couched in the context of "Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Out in Business."

Befitting the setting of this grand opera house, Drexler gave a riveting performance. His "wish list" was full of sound management wisdom that would be widely applicable across industry lines, not just for success in retailing trendy apparel. For example, one of his learnings was, "Let those who aren't working out go quickly." Another: "Old dogs need younger dogs around." He had rich material to amplify each of his management maxims.

Indeed, I was so taken with Drexler's presentation — immediately seeing its potential to be a cover story in Directors & Boards — that I followed up after the conference with his counselors about adapting his remarks into an article. Alas, nothing has come of that . . . yet.

But I am nothing if not dogged in pursuit of worthy additions to the canon of how great leaders lead. It may be hard to pin this down while the buyout process runs its course, but Drexler's "Things I Wish I Knew. . ." deserves to be captured in print — in the pages of Directors & Boards. Then, we will all know what he means, and how we can apply it to our own businesses, when this business dynamo says such things as, "It's All About the Mustard."