Brand Name Design
Selling jeans may not seem like rocket science, but that fact doesn’t keep Joseph Dzialo from turning to physics in his role as president of Lee. The 1976 graduate explains his logic: "The most valuable aspect of WPI is it helped grow rigorous thinking capability—a skill essential to success in any career endeavor. As one example, I still teach my folks about the physics law F=ma. We use it frequently in business life to create programs that are powerful, and we evaluate same based on their mass and our ability to bring them to life quickly."
In the past three decades, Dzialo’s forces, mass, and acceleration have propelled products ranging from shoes to tampons to eyeglasses onto store shelves with a steadiness that has earned the respect of higher-ups at organizations including Procter & Gamble, where he worked for a dozen years, and his current employer, VF Corporation, the world's largest apparel company.
Between an afternoon meeting in Boston’s Prudential Center and a f light back to Lee headquarters in Kansas, Dzialo has stopped at the Prudential’s food court to chat about the route that has taken an environmentalist civil engineering major deep into retail territory.
Youthful looking in jeans and a sports jacket, Dzialo sounds enthusiastic, even about products he handled years ago. He is as happy describing the inking process in designer Bounty paper towels as the mindset of middle-age women trying on jeans. Challenges—past, present, and future—captivate him, and he offers recaps of some of his favorites.
Easy Spirit shoes, for instance. When he was named president of the company in the early 1990s, after working at Procter & Gamble and LensCrafters, Dzialo was eager to develop a shoe that would be both stylish and comfortable. That’s when the company turned to an unlikely source for inspiration. He says, "We knew that in New York City women would go to work in sneakers and carry their shoes in a plastic bag. We studied the NFL: How do these guys run into each other and not get hurt? We looked at cushioning systems—in helmets, in pads. We took cushioning technology, which was developed before I arrived there, and looked at ways to improve upon it and put it into footwear that was stylish."
Sales soared. Dzialo's career moved along nicely, as well. He tends to credit "lucky breaks" for his progress, although the breaks came from people with whom he had worked at previous companies, who were familiar with his dynamism and can-do approach. When he joined LCA-Vision in the late 1990s, he was so positive about their service, he had laser vision correction surgery himself. "I have worked for companies where I believed in the product," he says. "If you can find a way to delight consumers, you can generally be successful."
At LCA, he realized this objective required finding two groups of people: customers who would be receptive to having the vision-improving surgery, and top-of-the-line surgeons who would be drawn to the high standards of LCA. Dzialo outlines various steps taken to create a business model that would satisfy both groups, and shareholders, too. He estimates the stock price increased 30-fold, following the lows from post-Sept. 11.
If such achievements have veered far from the subject matter Dzialo pursued at WPI, they nevertheless connect to the education he values. "I remember my Major Qualifying Project with Joe D’Allesio and Rich Allen,” he observes. “We worked with Professor Fred Hart, studying the eff luent from wastewater treatment plants and looking for ways to reduce the potential for creating chlorinated hydrocarbons. I don’t know why I still remember that project, as it wasn’t especially brilliant (though we did get an article about it published) and it really has nothing to do with life since WPI. But we managed to find ways to have fun during our classwork at WPI. Professor Hart was a pretty inspirational but clear-eyed guy. A good role model."
Nowadays, it’s Dzialo who serves as the role model, leading teams on a different sort of quest: building a brand. "At Lee and everywhere else, too, being a multidimensional thinker is important," he says, ticking off practical, analytical, strategic, and conceptual capabilities. "Lots of Aha! moments come when someone discovers a significant conceptual similarity between things, places, ideas, despite significant perceptual dissimilarities." Such insights were needed when Dzialo came to Lee three years ago. "It had become kind of sleepy," he recalls. In his assessment, the product didn’t fit that well, didn’t look that good, and didn’t offer a favorable price-to-value ratio.
Dzialo goes on to plot out a path to achieving the goal of a great brand. "You really need to know and value your target customers," he says. “Then build products that delight them at a price they find desirable. Then have a great back-and-forth dialogue with them. Then convince a retail partner to help distribute your product/service (if you're a wholesaler). And do all this in a way that competition cannot easily duplicate. It's that easy!"
There are two moments of truth when Dzialo wants to win over the consumer: when that person makes the decision to buy, and then, later on, when the customer chooses to use the product. To learn more about these pivotal times, Dzialo has gone one-on-one shopping with individuals, and has done what he calls "show me your closet."
The enterprise has the sound of reality TV—retail style. For Dzialo, it's just another facet of a professional life that clearly still excites him. Unfazed by the current financial climate, he declares, "The economy is punishing everyone, but especially the weak or faint of heart. It can be a great opportunity for us, done right. That is our goal at Lee."
Looking back over his 33 years since WPI, he adds, "My career goals were and continue to be pretty simple: I want to be part of a winning team. I want to be where the action is. I want to be able to support my family and give back to my community. And I want to have fun along the way."
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Last modified: October 08, 2009 13:25:49