Valuing the Personal Touch
Rick A. Lepley, CEO, A.C. Moore and Co.
As soon as we sit down to talk, Rick Lepley inadvertently discloses the personal touch he brings to his leadership role at A.C. Moore, the chain of more than 130 arts and crafts stores located throughout the Eastern U.S.
“Here’s an example,” he said, “of the little things we like to do. There’s an 83-year-old man who used to live in Florida. His wife died, so he moved back to Pennsylvania to be close to his children and grandchildren. His hobby is building dollhouses, and there was an article in the paper where he said he buys everything he uses at A.C. Moore.
“So I went to our customer relations person and said, ‘You have to send this person a gift card.’ And the man wrote back this wonderful letter that I just got today.”
Rick is genuinely gratified as he reaches across his desk to show me the note.
“It’s often the little things that matter,” he continued. “More so in this kind of business than in any other. This business is all about those kinds of people. You buy things in our store to fulfill some need for self expression. It’s personal. You’re not doing it to look good or to enhance an image.”
Another aspect of the personal touch is the company’s affiliation with Field Trip Factory, a program that takes kids and teachers on tours of stores to see how a retail store actually works.
“We tie it in to our concept of ‘Dream it, Create it, Share it. ‘When the store of the store ends, they then sit down and make something with our crafts before they leave. We do this year-round in all stores.”
A.C. Moore also features a 10% discount program for teachers. The average teacher, Rick pointed out to me, spends $1300 out of his or her own pocket each year for materials that schools can’t or won’t supply.
Lepley joined A.C. Moore in 2006. He previously held high executive positions with Chrysler, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Office Depot. Additionally, he managed several companies for his close friends, entrepreneurs Robert and Alan Potamkin of Philadelphia. Much of his career had been spent living and working in Eastern Europe and Japan, as well as throughout the U.S.
“Our family had literally had gone around the world,” Rick said. “Our kids were both born in South Jersey. Then we moved to California and eventually lived out of the country for eight years, including time in Poland, Hungary, and Japan. We lived in Florida for a time while I ran Office Depot’s North American stores, and then we came back to work in the Philly area. It was like coming home after a very long road trip that lasted nearly 25 years. That felt good since I was born, raised, and educated in Pennsylvania.”
A.C. Moore, headquartered in Berlin, N.J., was founded in 1985 as a family owned business. Its first store was established in Moorestown, N.J. The founder, Jack Parker, liked both Atlantic City and a character in a book named A.C. Moore. Thus the name.
“I wish he had called it something else,” Rick said, breaking into one of the many hearty laughs that punctuated our talk, “because a lot of people come in here looking for house paint, mistaking us for Benjamin Moore.”
While Rick believes it’s critical that employees do their best, it’s also important that people have fun coming to work.
“At the end of the day, it’s not life and death. I tell my staff, ‘Have fun, we’re not selling nuclear waste here.’ These are crafts. People should have a good time in our stores. If our employees are enjoying their work, our customers will enjoy the time they spend shopping with us.”
Rick was brought in as CEO to completely rebuild the company’s management team, and institute systems, procedures, and processes. A.C. Moore has been successful at achieving rapid growth, which Rick attributes to providing the widest selection of high quality merchandise at value prices. But when he first came on board, he said it took him a while to really understand the business and the level of challenges he faced. I asked Rick whether the challenges were part of the job’s attraction.
“Absolutely,” he said. “You’re like a pennant contender always looking for a left-handed, 20-game winner. It took a while, but over time we have put together a good team.”
Rick’s new team rewrote the company’s mission statement. They hired a consultant to identify common values in the organization and get people operating on the same page. Top management took personality tests to help them understand each other better and to work together more effectively. Project teams met to discuss goals.
“People know each other much better, and on a different, more personal level since we’ve done this,” Rick told me.
I asked him if CEOs had a particular “DNA” in their genes. He wasn’t so sure.
“Ulysses S. Grant said the things that impact you the most in life are the things you not only couldn’t have planned, but you didn’t even know they were happening at the time,” Rick said. “Success might be as simple as being in the right place at the right time. In high school I envisioned myself becoming vice president of Chrysler Corporation. I had that vision, but I can’t tell you exactly how life took me there. I love putting teams of people together to accomplish things.”
Rick had that dream about Chrysler back in 9th grade when he was a assigned a research project about what career he might pursue. He wanted to become an executive at the automaker because of a man named Bob McCurry.
“My father was a Chrysler dealer and that’s how I met Bob, who was executive vice president of North American operations. He was charismatic, a three-time All America football player at Michigan State. He was everything I wanted to be. And he was from a little town in central Pennsylvania very close to where I grew up. If he could do that, I wanted to do that too.”
Eventually, Rick went to work for Chrysler, became Southern California regional manager in his 20s, and got to know McCurry. McCurry went to Toyota, asked Rick if he wanted to work there, and Lepley followed him. He still remembers that phone call as one of the most memorable conversations in his life. Rick eventually moved on to executive positions with Mitsubishi and Office Depot.
When I asked Rick for the advice he’d give to aspiring CEOs, he told me two stories.
“The first guy I worked for at Chrysler came back to the office one night and saw me still at my desk. I was probably 22 years old at the time. He was very impressed and said, “Always remember it’s what you do between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. that keeps you on the payroll, but what you do between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. gets you promoted.’ I never lost that thought.
“And my grandfather was in charge of transportation at a Baldwin Hamilton steel plant in my hometown and worked there nearly all his life. After he retired, as a little kid I’d sit on the front porch with him. At 3 p.m., when the shift changed, the mill workers would be coming down the hill past our house. And I can remember understanding that they didn’t like guy who had replaced my grandfather.
“One day their new boss, the guy who replaced my grandfather, came by and said he was having trouble managing the men. I remember this like it was yesterday and I don’t think I was even eight years old. My grandfather said to him, ‘I drove a mule team for John Miller when he owned the sand mine before World War I. And I learned that you get a better day’s work out of the mule team if you drive them with a loose rein. You need to keep in mind that the same thing is true with men.’
“I don’t get angry,” Rick continued. “Our vice president of marketing made a mistake one day, and I was explaining to her why she made the mistake, and she said to me, ‘I can’t believe how calm you are.’ And I said, ‘What good would it do if I jumped on the table?’ You can only get so far managing people with fear.”
Like most company leaders, Rick worries about sales and making good decisions. There’s also more on the plate if you’re a public company (A.C. Moore is traded on NASDAQ).
“You want to do things perfectly, especially if you’re a public company, and comply with all the rules,” he said. “You want to do the right things, ethically and morally.”
Rick told me he blows off steam through his hobbies.
“I love reading history, particularly the Civil War. I actually enrolled in a Civil War Master’s program, but it took too much time and I never finished. When I was a little boy, my dad would take me to Gettysburg every summer. He’d show me my great-great- grandfather’s name on the Pennsylvania statue. When I touched it, I had the sense that something important happened there and that my family was involved. Perhaps for a time I thought that my great-great-grandfather had single-handedly won the battle.
Rick continued, chuckling, “It took me a few years before I realized that every soldier from Pennsylvania who had been there in July of 1863 had his name on the same statue.”
I concluded by asking him about his vision for A.C. Moore’s future.
“I hope it can become a national company,” he said. “Part of the dilemma is how much cash we can use for growth without jeopardizing the company. That’s the balance we’re constantly trying to figure out, and the way the retail environment has been, we try to err on the side of being conservative.
“I’d like to leave a company that’s still growing, that has a great foundation. I want it to be a place that operates with state of the art retail systems, with stores that customers find entertaining and full of creative ideas. And I want it to be a company where the employees look forward to coming to work every day. Some years ago, when I worked for Bruce Nelson, who at the time was Chairman and CEO of Office Depot, he used to tell me, ‘We want to be a company that is a compelling place for people to shop, work, and invest.’ I can’t think of anything better than that. If we can do that, then maybe I’ll move down to Gettysburg and open a little Civil War bookstore.”