Fran Horowitz is responsible for two central Ohio-based, global iconic retail brands—Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister Co.

For some businesses, disruption is a newer phenomenon. Not so with retail, says Fran Horowitz, who is responsible for two central Ohio-based, global iconic retail brands—Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister Co.

“There have been disrupters in our business for a very, very long time, and I kind of say disruption is the new normal. That is essentially what we deal with every day in retail, and that's on a day-to-day (basis) what you're doing,” she says.

Horowitz, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. president and chief merchandising officer, speaks from experience—about three decades of it. She caught the retail bug early, starting when she worked in a local clothing store while still in high school in the small town of Armonk in Westchester County, north of New York City.

“I actually feel like I've had retail in my blood from the beginning,” Horowitz reflects.

It helps to know she started so young. Otherwise her resume belies the youthful presence Horowitz conveys as she welcomes guests to a conference room, comfortably attired in jeans, heeled sandals and a crisp, white shirt. She laughs easily and often, clearly loving her job, though less inclined to talk about herself.

“I think what I love about retail is that it's ever-changing,” Horowitz says. “One of the critical leadership skills you have to have is to be agile and open to change, and change is not something a lot of people are very comfortable with. But you come in every day and you think you know what you're going to do for the day, and you turn around six hours later and you're like, ‘OK, that wasn't what I was planning on doing,' but that's fine.”

Horowitz says she tends to be focused even while poised to change plans if needed. She began her retail career immediately after obtaining her 1985 liberal arts degree in international relations at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Soon she began working on her 1990 MBA with a finance focus at New York City-based Fordham University.

Being focused is “part of my personality,” Horowitz says. Experience has also taught her the importance of being balanced. “If I look at my skill set, I have a nice financial side and I also have a consumer behavior, more product-driven creative side, and this business lets you really (use) both of those things.”

In her earlier department store retail career, Horowitz says, “we probably tipped the scales too much to a particular trend. And the biggest learning from that is one of my most favorite things to say today, that you have to stay balanced. You have to keep your assortments balanced. You have to keep your leadership balanced.”

Horowitz has been in Columbus since 2005. She moved here to become EVP, women's merchandising and design, with Express Inc. when it “was still part of Limited Brands,” she notes. Positions as brand president of Ann Taylor Loft and then Hollister intervened before her current responsibility began late last year.

The move to Columbus and to vertical specialty retail has suited her well.

Horowitz explains, “As you grow your career in department store retailing, you find at a point in time you become further away from the product and the consumer. … When I had the opportunity to get into this line, which is much more vertical specialty retailing, where you produce your own goods and you're much closer to the consumer and the product, the opportunity was incredibly intriguing to me, and in hindsight, it was a great decision.”

She adds, “I love, love this part of the business. I love Abercrombie specifically, but I just love being in vertical specialty.”

Horowitz sees Columbus as complementing Abercrombie's needs for professional talent while supporting the positive culture it nurtures.

In Columbus' favor are its ranking as the nation's third largest center of fashion design—behind NYC and LA—and recent recognition by National Geographic on “Why All the Cool Kids Love Columbus, Ohio”—noting the city is home to Abercrombie.

Horowitz says Columbus is “open and welcoming to the arts and to creative associates. At the same time being a Midwestern city, it's a nice place to live—filled with nice, energetic, positive people, and that's very much in line with our culture here. So those two things tend to be really symbiotic, and I think that's why we're able to be here and attract the talent that we do and continue to be successful here.”

The Abercrombie president has no desire to dwell on the company's well-documented missteps before her time—most notably a controversial, insular image that insulted some groups.

“We have been through a lot in the last several years, which is no news to anybody. Again, that is part of the retail business,” Horowitz acknowledges.

“The most important thing for people to know is that we are looking forward. We are very focused and clear on where we are headed with both of our brands, and we are making progress every day on those initiatives. The team on campus and the teams around the world are in it to win it. They are engaged. They are passionate. They are what makes this brand as great as it is. And they are excited that we are making progress,” she adds.

The top priority now is “keeping the customer at the center of everything that we do. … We had a little bit of learning to do on that front here at Abercrombie, and that's why it is our No. 1 initiative. The other thing that I say to the teams all the time is that repetition is recognition.”

The company is also attentive to differentiating Hollister and Abercrombie. Both are known for casual attire, but Hollister is “the iconic brand for the global teenage consumer and Abercrombie is the casual luxury brand for the 20-something consumer,” Horowitz says.

As favorable a climate as Columbus provides for the Abercrombie headquarters, the firm's idyllic 500-acre New Albany campus is even more appealing. “Campus” is exactly the right word to capture the dozen or so simple and rustic buildings set among tall trees well off its self-named winding road, Fitch Path. Supporting that image is a mostly millennial workforce, many of whom grab communal Razor Scooters during summer months to navigate between buildings—sort of a foot-powered Car2Go.

But the company's continued success requires frequently leaving the campus and city, Horowitz stresses.

“One of the most important things that we do is, as much as I love Columbus, we make sure we leave Columbus, especially here at Abercrombie, where it's a global business. You have to make sure that you are out listening, seeking feedback from our associates around the world, our consumer around the world,” she says.

“You really, really more than ever have to be out seeing what's happening. Travel is critical, and traveling with an open mind is the important thing. If you go out looking for the answer, there's no point in going out there. But if you go out there very open to listen to the consumer, you come back and you learn; you learn a lot.”

Less than two years with the company, Horowitz sees positive signs.

Entering a campus “already filled with the energy and the passion. I think (in) my time here I have been able to harness that. I have been able to create a level of accountability and autonomy that was different than in our past. That has enabled the teams to really set their sights beyond, and it's been very empowering to the teams and very energizing for them,” Horowitz says.

Company performance seems to agree. Last year's fourth quarter found positive comparable stores sales across all brands for the first time since 2012. Earnings per share for the publicly traded company exceeded Wall Street expectations that quarter. Global sales were off in the first quarter of this year but were up for US business. Wall Street doesn't expect second-quarter results until the end of August.

Q&A

A media report on Abercrombie & Fitch Co.'s anti-bullying campaign last year mentioned you have a student at New Albany High School.

I have two children. My daughter is 22. She isalso an alumnus of New Albany High School as well as Miami (University) of Ohio. She currently lives in New York City and is starting her career in marketing. It's exciting to start to watch that journey as your children enter the beginning of their careers. My son just graduated from New Albany and is headed to the Kelley business school at Indiana (University).

So they are exactly your target markets. Are they a focus group for you?

You try to keep your personal perspective out of your big decisions, but I triangulate information from everywhere I get it. It's more their friends. Having the opportunity to interface with high school kids, with post-college kids, certainly gives me a nice window into a certain aspect of our customer, but you have to really triangulate from everywhere when you're making decisions. It's another source; one of many is probably the best way to put it.

How do you advise other women who aspire to corporate leadership?

I never, ever view myself as a female executive. I view myself as a business leader and all decisions that I make as far as recruiting and talent, I apply the same exact lens, which is that I look for the best talent for that position. People ask me that question often, and my answer is very consistent, which is, don't think of yourself that way. Think of yourself that we're all equal, we're all here to be successful and do a good job, and that's what you have to keep in mind every day.

Do you use emotional intelligence to lead?

One hundred percent. My style is I am ever-present, I am very reachable, clear on my expectation, so all of those things I think have been well-received on campus.

Does Abercrombie support issues in addition to the anti-bullying campaign?

Health and wellness of youth and teens is the umbrella under which we make decisions on who to support. We recently announced our partnership with SeriousFun, started originally by Paul Newman, a global opportunity for us to support their camps around the world. … We are largely involved with Flying Horse Farms.

We are very focused and clear on where we are headed with both of our brands, and we are making progress every day.

Mary Yost is the editor.