The second conversation in our Legacy Series is between SPESA President Michael McDonald (the interviewer) and his father Mackey McDonald, former Chairman and CEO of VF Corporation. Here you’ll learn about Mackey’s journey into the industry and insights on how to manage and operate a successful business.
How did you get started in the industry?
Mackey McDonald (MM): My introduction to the apparel and textile sector happened when I was at Davidson College as an undergraduate student. I worked at a men’s clothing store and came to appreciate different product lines and a unique attention to detail.
After I finished at Davidson, I went into the military as a pilot. The first part of my military time was spent in Vietnam. When I returned, I was stationed at Fort McPherson in Atlanta where I started night classes as part of an MBA program through Georgia State University.
By the time I finished my military service and MBA, I was offered a job with Hanes Company making $7,000 a year. That was a lot of money for a man my age at the time. I went into a management development program and worked across multiple divisions in the company. While my interest was in marketing, I spent most of my time on the manufacturing side overseeing sewing operations. It was that experience that introduced me to the whole manufacturing process which was helpful when I eventually became more involved in the marketing side of the business.
After being at Hanes for 7-8 years, one of my colleagues took a position as the President of Lee Company. He knew I was interested in doing more marketing and merchandising and offered me a position to come work with him in Kansas City where Lee is headquartered. It was there that I eventually became president of a small pants manufacturing company under the Vanity Fair (now VF Corporation) umbrella. I moved up the ranks at VF from there.
How did you see the industry change from when you began to when you retired?
MM: Talking specifically about VF, we transitioned from being a company focused on operations and manufacturing to being a company focused on the needs of consumers. We weren't trying to sell them what we wanted to make, we were making what they wanted to buy. While it may seem like a subtle shift in business strategy, it played a big role in how we operated moving forward. It was an investment, for sure, but resulted in a greater value to the consumer.
In addition to prioritizing consumer demands, we also began presenting our brands directly to consumers. Take The North Face and Vans, for example. We created storefronts that focused exclusively on those brands. This gave us creativity flexibility when it came to how we marketed and sold products. We still relied heavily on large retail partners like Walmart and Macys, but this provided a new sales strategy that worked well.
What has the industry lost over the years that you wish it would get back?
MM: The most difficult thing we had to do at VF was relocate manufacturing operations to lower cost areas. There were so many great domestic manufacturing facilities that employed hard-working, loyal, and efficient teams. But we could not compete if we did not move. I watched as several companies tried to hold onto their domestic operations without strategies in place to compete with offshoring and most of them didn’t make it. It was a tough time and required some very hard decisions.
Only one of your kids joined the industry. So why am I your favorite child?
MM: No comment!
In all seriousness, did you want your kids to follow in your footsteps?
MM: For all my kids, the most important thing was that they each had confidence, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment in whatever they pursued. I did not want them to depend on what I did for their success. I wanted them to build their own success stories. It didn’t matter to me what industry they landed in, it mattered that they were happy. And fortunately, for me, that happened with all of my children.
We see a lot of family-owned businesses in this industry. Why do you think that is?
MM: It’s a very stable industry. It has changed and become more complex over the years, but not as rapidly as many other industries. I think this stability makes it conducive for family-operated businesses. I’ve seen this particularly in the Southeast. Businesses established roots early on, and families stuck around.
You’ve been retired for a while now, but still have a pulse on the industry. What is one problem or issue you wish the industry would solve?
MM: I wish the industry would devote more attention to the constantly shifting demands of consumers. We operate in a world now where one style of jeans isn’t enough to appease a large consumer segment. They want many styles, many colors, and many fits. Similarly, we’re seeing a lot of business move online. At one time, I didn’t think online shopping would take hold. I thought consumers wanted to experience the product before buying the product. That’s obviously not the case. Consumers are turning to online retail more and more, and with that comes an expectation for quick turnaround. This requires companies to better adapt and position their brands and products to meet those demands.
What advice would you give to the next generation interested in entering the industry?
MM: Even though the industry has changed since I entered it, I still think the same skills hold true today: Learn the ins and outs and intricacies as you grow within the industry. Familiarize yourself with both the manufacturing side of the business and the marketing side of the business. Listen to the consumer. They’re the ones guiding the levers of your business.
I’ve also always been an advocate of seeking out support from other people in the industry and beyond. Gain insight from leaders who have achieved success in the past. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. The same thing goes from an internal perspective. You need a smart and savvy team that has the capabilities and skill sets to manage workloads and help businesses achieve results. This is important for any industry.
I learned a lot from you over the years, and one thing that has always stuck with me is a part of your management style that focuses on hiring people smarter than you, giving them the support they need, and getting out of their way.
MM: Yes. It worked throughout my career and I still believe it applies today.