Originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mike Edwards is a career executive who has held high positions at many large corporations. Always self-sufficient, Mike paid for his own college education, majoring in marketing and earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Drexel University in 1983. After graduating, he went straight into retail, having been recruited by May Department Stores into their executive training program. He continued to work at May for five years, before accepting a job as a store manager at Target. Starting in 1990, Mike Edwards took a position at CompUSA, starting out as an assistant store manager and rising the ranks to attain an executive role as senior vice president before leaving the company in 1998. 

Mike has been president and CEO at more than a handful of well-known companies, including Lucy Activewear, Borders Inc., eBags.com, and Hanna Andersson. He has also held various senior leadership positions at Golfsmith, West Marine, Jo Ann Stores, and Staples. Mike Edwards currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is the independent director and digital technology committee chairperson of the publicly traded company Central Garden & Pet.

Tell us a little about your industry and why you chose to get into retail and e-commerce?

I think getting into retail was a bit of a wild guess that ended up paying off for me, as it seemed like it was virtually my only option when I was graduating college. There just weren’t a lot of jobs on the market at the time. The opportunities in retail seemed interesting and exciting, but I won’t pretend that it’s what I had planned on doing. Once I started working in the industry, though, I immediately loved it. 

Now, e-commerce didn’t really enter the picture until much later for me, because it didn’t really come into fruition as an industry until the late 90s. I will say that I was very involved with e-commerce from the get-go, and I was there as it just became a way of life, both for retailing organizations and for direct-to-consumer brands.

What surprised you the most when you started your career, what lessons did you learn?

I think what surprised me about retail was the instant access to information about how well we were doing, or what mistakes we were making and how big. Having that kind of direct feedback from customers always sort of excited and challenged me. I also love the people side of it. It’s really about people, about working with teams, with partners, and with suppliers. I enjoyed that tremendously. And I liked the fact that I could be both highly analytical and very creative at the same time. It matched my skill set well. For all those reasons, it just felt very natural to me.

What is one piece of advice you would give someone starting in your industry?

That you really have to have an entrepreneurial mindset. You have to constantly think about trends and opportunities, and constantly be very aware about what’s happening in society. And you have to bring those insights into your job. If you have that mindset, and you’re able to live through really good times and really bad times on a fairly consistent basis and thrive in either environment, retail is a career you should absolutely consider pursuing.

If you could change anything about your industry what would it be and why?

I think that the shift in consumer behavior to more of an online focus is actually further ahead than what most retail training programs, business classes in most universities, as well as retail structures, are ready to deal with or teach. They haven’t really caught up with how important data analytics and understanding technology is to the basic concepts of retail and product development. So, there’s a big gap today between the consumer and the retailer. I would like to close that gap.

How would your colleagues describe you?

I think my colleagues would describe me as aggressive, in that I’m not afraid to take risks. I’m very communicative about my goals and plans. I’m also hyper focused on getting the job done right.

How do you maintain a solid work life balance?

That’s just a personal choice and discipline. I’ve worked very hard to be as efficient as I can. I’ve always had a strategy of going into work very early, but leaving by 4 or 5 pm, and that works for me. It lets me spend time at home or do other things in the evenings; things like going to dinner, working out, or spending time with my wife and with my kids. Also, I never ever skip vacations, and I make them as fun and interesting and mentally expansive as I can, which has been very helpful.

I think having some kind of healthy routine helps, as well. Mine is a combination of eating well, staying active, keeping my mind active, and surrounding myself with super positive people. That’s how I balance the demands of an executive career with the benefits of living a complete life.

What is one piece of technology that helps you the most in your daily routine?

I just think having quick access to all the news feeds for things that are of interest to me helps me the most, by far. Besides that, I would say the most important single piece of technology is my smartphone. Think of all the staggering advancements we’ve seen in that field over the last several years! My phone makes it super easy to stay as connected as I choose and have access to any information I want anywhere I am. That’s probably the biggest breakthrough of all.

What has been the hardest obstacle you’ve overcome?

That would have to be when I, in my role as company CEO, faced bankruptcy with Borders Books and Music. I had what I considered to be one of the best business plans I’ve ever developed, but I ultimately didn’t win the new capital needed to support it. I led the company into bankruptcy and then ultimately, liquidation—which, of course, created a career obstacle for me. The way I overcame it was by accepting a position not at the CEO level, but at the senior executive level at Staples. That position not only got me back on track, it also broadened my experience in a different category, in a different industry, and within a very credible and large company. So, I was able to take that negative situation and then apply it to my career going forward in a way that was both positive and productive.

What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?

Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop, told me to seek as much advice and outside counsel as possible, but to be very careful about what advice I follow. That was good advice which I have carried with me, and, ironically, always followed.