Claire Powell didn't start J.W. Hulme; she was brought in to resuscitate the century-old St. Paul-based leather goods brand and found herself in the difficult position of having to change the business model. She talks about how to pivot while staying true to a brand, and the challenge of leading through turmoil.
Wednesday April 1, 2020
Claire Powell is CEO of J.W. Hulme, the century-old leather goods brand based in St. Paul, Minnesota. She didn’t start it; she was brought in to resuscitate it. J.W. Hulme road the wave of the heritage movement—enjoying national media buzz around its history of U.S. manufacturing, but that hype didn’t add up to profits. Unable to succeed as a vertically integrated manufacturer that relies primarily on catalog and online sales, Powell found herself in the challenging position of having to change the business model. “We ended up having to make a really difficult decision,” Powell says. “Are we a manufacturer? Are we a retailer? Are we a brand? Who are we? Ultimately, a business has to sustain itself. It was really a fork in the road moment.”
In 2018, J.W. Hulme, which is owned by a private equity firm, stopped manufacturing and outsourced production. Around 30 employees were laid off, and only a small marketing and sales team remain. “I’ve had a lot of difficult conversations over last year,” Powell says. “I’ve tried to always be honest, as kind as you can, as supportive as you can, but not hide anything.”
J.W. Hulme opened a retail store in St. Paul with plans to focus on broadening its brand. Powell shares her perspective on retail today, and how a 114-year old company can pivot while staying true to its character. She also talks about the challenges of U.S. manufacturing of artisan goods and the perception of the heritage movement, where buzz “doesn’t always translate into sales.”
Having held management roles with a number of consumer product goods companies both large and small, including Bali, Wonderbra and American Giant, Powell describes the differences, and the perspective of coming in as a leader, not a founder. “It’s really healthy to have both of those in the organization. The founder can be almost irrationally attached to certain things in the business. Someone coming in can feel as passionate about driving success. But you might have a different perspective and a little less deep attachment.”
After our wide-ranging conversation with Powell, which includes her self-care techniques to be a more effective leader, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Associate Professor Patricia Hedberg offers advice on leading through turmoil, and accepting that not everything works out as you might hope. “Failure is a beautiful moment for learning,” Hedberg says. “The idea is that by taking risks, you learn a lot about yourself and how to do it better the next time."