It took Jeff Gennette thirty-five years to go from his first job as a trainee at Macy’s (M) in San Francisco to the CEO job in Herald Square. In 2017, he was tapped to run one of the most iconic department stores in the country with revenues of nearly $25 billion and ranked number 120 on the Fortune 500 list of America’s biggest companies.
What’s the secret to his success?
“You know, I’m a good listener and I’m an avid learner,” Gennette tells Fortune. “Wherever I’m going, my head is up. I’m looking at pop culture. What can I learn? What is the consumer digesting? What website should I be going to?”
That curiosity is still guiding him as he shakes up the 160-year-old department store chain. He is a regular presence walking through a store at any one of Macy’s 600 locations. He stops customers to ask them how they feel about shopping at Macy’s and he questions employees on what’s working and what’s not.
“You just ask them what is the customer saying and they will tell you,” he explains. “And you learn so much behind the strategy. Where it came apart. Where you didn’t execute it right. What the need is.”
He describes that feedback as “marching orders”. He says he puts that new information to work right away. Over the past year, Gennette has been closing stores, sprucing up others, boosting online shopping, and making acquisitions that draw in customers by creating in store experiences. He has also hired executives and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley who Gennette says are bringing innovative thinking to Macy’s traditional culture.
“If you were to talk to vendors today, they would say Macy’s is operating with more speed than they every thought we could, based on what we did with structure, what we did with talent,” says Gennette, adding, “and that talent is totally empowered to make decisions themselves. We’re going faster than ever.”
Watch the video above for more from our interview with Gennette.