Former Calvin Klein CEO Tells Young Professionals When to Say 'No'

Former Calvin Klein CEO Tells Young Professionals When to Say 'No'

Tom Murry attends Parsons 2009 Fashion Benefit Honoring Calvin Klein's Tom Murry and Francisco Costa at Cipriani Wall Street on April 29, 2009 in New York.

SourceBILLY FARRELL/Patrick McMullan via Getty

Why you should care

Even as the business evolves, much expert advice stays the same: learn as much as you can, avoid risk and be patient about your growth. 

Cross-country travels — and selling underwear in the Deep South — made up just a few of Tom Murry’s adventures throughout his 42-year career in the apparel industry. He dove in early, working in men’s stores during high school. After graduating from Oklahoma State University in 1973 with a degree in psychology and marketing, he got a job with Head Sportswear and later worked for College Town, Inc., Interstyle and Tahari, Ltd.

He went on to acquire a company called Intuitions in the late ’80s — which ultimately failed. Murry credits President Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, as a key factor that helped him get back on track before he climbed the ladder to become CEO of Calvin Klein. Now retired, Murry sat down with OZY to discuss professional development tips. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Which mentors or influencers surprised you the most throughout your career?

Murry: Arthur Sibley was the son of the founder of a company called College Town, which was a very large company with $200 million back in the ’60s, when that was, you know, a lot of money … He was the CEO, and he brought me in and really moved me in from one department to another over the course of an entire year. I didn’t have any responsibility at all, except to learn the business. I went from production to merchandising to virtually every single aspect of the business. It was a little bit like getting a Ph.D. in the apparel industry.

Why would he give you such a learning opportunity? Were the department managers receptive to helping you?

I was a salesman on the road, and Sibley thought I had potential. The idea was for me to ultimately succeed him [as CEO]. I had to learn how to interact with people that I needed to learn from. [They probably thought]: “Who is this young guy coming in and why do I have to spend time with him? And why is it my responsibility to teach him about the business?” I spent a lot of time really making sure I maintained and acquired good relationships with those managers.

Some of them were immediately receptive, and others did not appreciate the fact that they were responsible for teaching me. I was younger than most of them … so that was a challenge for me. I worked very hard to gain their respect.

How do you advise young professionals to learn as much as they can while also understanding that their priority is to do whatever the company needs?

You have to do both, and you have to do both at the same time. It’s not easy. You have to be a pretty bright person, you have to be very hardworking, and you have to have a lot of tenacity. Communication with your boss is really important. Let them understand how you’re feeling about your progress, how you’re feeling about their management style. You can be very candid and respectful at the same time. It’s a two-way street.

You’ve mentioned before how you were promoted as a young man but didn’t feel ready and asked for your old job back. Why, and how did you say no?

The position he put me in was head of merchandising. Merchandising is actually pretty difficult; you can’t just do that without having the experience to do it. I found myself being ineffective, not to mention the fact that the designer was twice my age, and she was reporting to me. I was 21, and she was probably 45 at the time, so she didn’t respect me, and I understand why. So I said to [my boss], “I’m honored that you gave me this position, but I cannot be effective in this position at this time.”

He said to me, “Tom, it’s sink or swim.” And I said, “Or swim away.” So he gave me an eight-state sales territory, and I continued to learn about merchandising. By the time I was back in a merchandising role, I was ready.

Do you tell young professionals to focus on slow career development, or to set a high bar and throw themselves to the wolves?

I think, in general, the slow and consistent path of growth is more effective. Jumping in and setting the bar real high is a fairly high-risk endeavor. That’s not to say it doesn’t work for some people really well, but it’s not as sure of a thing as more of a slow-growth path.

What would you say to someone who fears they’re in the wrong career?

I think they have to get out and get exposure. Look around. If they’re not getting fulfillment and pleasure out of what they’re doing, they probably need to find something else. But at the same time, I think they have to stick with it for a reasonable period of time to make sure that they’ve exhausted every opportunity.

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