"You Cannot Delegate Vision"
Beth Cross is the founder and CEO of Ariat International. Based in Union City, California, the company makes footwear and apparel for riders and the equestrian lifestyle. Cross grew up on a horse farm in Pennsylvania, and moved to California to attend Stanford Graduate School of Business, graduating in the class of 1988. She went on to work at Bain and Company, where she worked with a team that developed strategy for athletic shoe makers Reebok and Avia. She co-founded Ariat in 1990 with Pam Parker, a fellow student from Stanford GSB. Their first product was a boot made for both English and western-style riding, which used materials and construction techniques common in athletic shoe manufacturing. More than 20 years after its founding, Ariat continues to push the boundaries of style and technology.
In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?
To bring the most innovative performance footwear and apparel to the world’s top equestrians.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
As CEO, you cannot delegate vision and culture. That advice came from one of our early investors, and one of my most valued mentors, Angel Martinez, who runs Deckers Outdoor Corporation. In the early days of Ariat, we had a clear vision that we wanted to be the number one equestrian footwear and apparel brand in the world. That was a very bold statement in the early days when the company was just getting going! As the founder, you have to be able to visualize the full potential of the company and the brand — to see it in your own mind so that you can build a road map to the long-term vision, and start to work out how to get there. Vision frames the opportunity for the team, for customers and for investors. Culture is the other critical part of the CEO’s job, which requires a continual focus on the core values and day-to-day character of the organization, always making sure that the organization stays true to those core values.
What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?
There are no do-overs. There is so much on-the-job training when you build a business. Every day, there seems to be at least one decision or discussion, large or small, that in hindsight I would love the opportunity to rethink or redo. I'm reminded of a decision I pushed for to make an inventory purchase of a new product that I thought would be terrific — but our buying team was very skeptical. I thought it was a great opportunity and convinced everyone we should go for it. Well, of course the product was a flop, and we were stuck with the inventory. My team teased me about it for a long time, and I learned to not interfere with the collective wisdom of an experienced team! You have to own your bad decisions, and in doing so you reinforce a culture that celebrates success and learns from failure.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?
The most critical thing is to visualize the company as a fully formed entity. We started out with an idea to revolutionize the equestrian footwear industry with performance technology. Once we pressure-tested the idea with consumers, we started to architect the company on paper. We asked ourselves, what will the company look like at $1 million in sales? At $50 million in sales? Study the leading companies in your industry and learn everything you can about their structure and go-to-market strategy. Sketch it out by function so you know what you will be competing against, and also have a sense of what relevant organization structures look like as you’re building your team.
Visualizing massive success from Day 1 helps you design the many small elements of what will eventually form the structure, strategy, and business model of a much larger company. Often the excitement of the startup — of product development and fund raising — distracts people from taking the long view about the company and the culture. Perhaps it can be compared to the difference between a wedding and a marriage — the excitement and flurry of activity during the start-up phase is the wedding, and the hard work of building a sustainable company is more like a marriage.
What inspires you?
Simply, the chance to learn something new every day. As a team, we have so many creative ideas, but my favorite part of the process is working together to take those ideas and bring them to life. We do a lot of testing of our ideas, which allows us to learn as we go. If you fail small, you smile, you learn from it, and you move on. Continual innovation is built into our culture.
We love being a force for innovative change in the industry. One of my favorite recent examples is the Volant. It is an English riding boot and everything about it is new: the construction, the materials, the athletic platform and design. It is a non-traditional boot designed for a very traditional sport. Holly Andrews, our English product manager who originally visualized the Volant, is also a top rider. She guided the product team to design and build a product that she herself would compete in and really appreciate from a styling standpoint. The Volant is a tall, English-style riding boot that could rival Nike running shoes in its performance technology and design. The Volant has a modern cut and a bright red racing stripe, looking more like something made by Prada. Its punk sister, the "Volant Lace H20,” could be worn by a Vivienne Westwood model. Today, Ariat is the global leader in equestrian footwear and apparel.
What is your greatest achievement?
Raising three great kids and having a successful marriage. I had great role models growing up. My mom ran the farm, my dad ran the family business, and they both worked together to raise eight kids. Working has always been an integral part of my life. I love to work and consider it a privilege. Work-life balance is a big topic of discussion at the GSB, and there are many different paths for different people. For me, I’m not able to boil it down to one headline or pithy bit of advice. There is no simple answer.
What do you consider your biggest failure?
We have small, medium, and big failures all the time. The question is: How do you handle failure when it happens? How do you handle it with your customers, your team, your shareholders? A real failure is when you make a mistake and don’t do the right thing, fix it as quickly as you can, own it, and learn from it.
How do you come up with your best ideas?
Our product creation team is relentless. They are riders as well as designers. They read, travel, and shop, and they are out in the market constantly. For me, personally, the environment that creates the most idea generation is being out in the field with our customers. You need to carve out enough time to talk about what is going on in order to share ideas. Sometimes people are so busy that there is no time left over to really brainstorm. It is critical to find time to share ideas in an open way.
What values are important to you in business?
First is integrity — keeping your commitments, being honest and fair, and treating everyone with respect. It is important to remember when you are hiring to add people who share your values. The hardest part of building a team is hiring people who share our strong sense of values, who bring a strong work ethic, and are great teammates. When hiring, you cannot rely on interviews alone, you need to tap into your network to learn more about the person you are thinking of adding to the team. A reputation for personal integrity is formed over time, and people typically either have those values or don't.
Another critical company value is appreciation. We all feel grateful for the business we’ve built together and the opportunities we have, and we work hard to communicate that to the team, our customers, and our business partners.
What impact would you like to have on the world?
The opportunity to impact in a positive way the lives of our employees, our customers, and our partners. Business is a team sport for me. Every day we go out on the field together and play to win. We are competitive and we like to have fun. I am grateful for the chance to help build a great company, create fulfilling jobs, and transform an industry.
What was your first paying job?
I was a busgirl (clearing tables) in a busy restaurant when I was in high school. Most of the people in the kitchen and the wait staff were parents working two jobs to support their family. It taught me early on how to be part of a team and get along with all types of people. I learned how to be the best “low man on the totem pole,” how to learn on the job, how to have fun and still get the work done. On school nights we often stayed until one a.m. to clean up. The rule was that no one went home until the work was done.
What is the best business book you have read?
Getting Things Done, by David Allen. It’s a great time management system.
What businessperson do you most admire?
I’ve been lucky enough to have a handful of amazing mentors in the business, all of whom I’ve learned different things from. How can an athlete go on the field without a coach?
What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?
I’m energized by online education, like what's being developed at Stanford and the GSB. We employ roughly 50 people in China, and most of our factories are in Asia. China is a global powerhouse, and yet there is still limited access to high quality local education. Online learning will be a game changer.