After shattering his holiday retail sales goals, Tom Campion was reprimanded by JC Penney management for not wearing a suit and tie to work. As the ultimate act of defiance, he opened his own retail store, Above the Belt, only a few feet from the JC Penney he had just walked out on.
40 years later — today — Above the Belt is now known as Zumiez, and is spread across three continents. This year Zumiez is forecasting more than $900,000,000 in store sales. What’s more, they are valued at $29.90 per share compared to JC Penney’s $1.75. Go figure.
I had the honor and privilege of working with Tom and his wild bunch of tattooed retailers for more than a decade. Tom taught me how to be a retailer. More importantly, he showed me what it meant to be a leader, and a caring human being. His life’s motto: work hard and give back.
Zumiez’s success was built on this rally cry. Tom understood the enormous effort involved in creating a meaningful experience for every customer, but he was determined to tackle hard things for the right reason. Tom and the Zumiez team created a sophisticated approach to customer service, revolved around helping customers buy the right product for their needs.
Tom invested countless resources developing a customer-first culture. One example: every May he would bring his store leaders to Winthrop, a small farm town in eastern Washington where his dad used to take him camping, for a week of sales training, role-plays, and bonfire type team building experiences.
It was a badge of honor to pass down the knowledge from one retail generation to the next, and we didn’t take the responsibility lightly. There was nothing more important to us then making Tom’s vision a reality, because we knew it to be true.
Sure, we wore our hats backwards and our stores were often messy, but when a customer walked in, they were all that mattered. We’d get to the messy pile of t-shirts later, we’d finish windexing the window tomorrow, and we’d eat our lunch long after it went bad. And our customers loved us.
We may have been the mall outcasts, looked down upon by big box retailers and stores that sold bedazzled jeans, but we had something they didn’t. We had Tom. He taught us the way of retail, showed us how to give to others, and he always had our back. And we will always have his.
It’s clear that Tom was ahead of his time. He recognized the need for an impassioned, educated, and empowered team focused on creating great retail experiences. He invested in developing his team when others viewed this as a cost center rather than a revenue driver. In today’s consumer ecosystem, retailers should take note of Tom’s approach. It worked 40 years ago and it will continue to endure the test of time.
So here’s to Tom. The best retailer I know, and an even better man.