Career merchant brings new purpose, profitability to discount retailer, and an epic gift to Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Career merchant brings new purpose, profitability to discount retailer, and an epic gift to Nationwide Children's Hospital.

How does a kid from Omaha end up running a Fortune 500 company in Columbus? That David Campisi even asks himself that question is part of the reason he believes he is here-his innate curiosity has carried him far.

Campisi's curious nature won him his first promotion nearly 40 years ago and more recently helped him turn Big Lots into a high-performing company that is back on the Fortune 500 list after falling off in a period of decline.

Now well into his fourth year with the discount retailer, Campisi preaches the purposeful practice of curiosity as one of "four Cs" that he calls keys to business success.

Third of six children in a Sicilian family, Campisi learned early he had to work for want he wanted in life.

"My mom and dad made sure there was food on the table but if you wanted anything else-other than a shirt, shoes and a pair of pants-you had to go and get a job. I started very early at 9 years old with a paper route. Then I worked in my uncle's pizza parlor for a dollar an hour and I became a chef in a pancake house for three years by the time that I was like 17, 18 years old and graduated from high school," Campisi recalls.

"We had no money, so if you were going to go to college, it was really not talked about in our family. There were eight of us in a three-bedroom home with one bathroom. And they're still in that same house, my mom and dad," he adds.

Campisi did want to go to college, thinking he would get a political science degree and maybe follow it with a law degree. But the part-time job he took to pay for school pointed him in another direction from which he hasn't deviated.

"I started out selling shirts and ties as a young kid for a couple bucks an hour" in the menswear section of a department store called Younkers, he says, when his curiosity took over. "As a young guy, I was just trying to understand how that business worked," Campisi says.

He remembers calling the buyer in Des Moines to ask questions. "I started being more and more curious, and then they promoted me to one of their bigger stores. Shortly thereafter, they moved me out of Omaha. It was the first time I moved out of state, to Sioux Falls, a very small town, but it was fine, and then 10 months later they brought me into the corporate office and made me a buyer of women's designer apparel."

Campisi was buying $3,000 dresses and $800 skirts for wealthy customers, he says, while he was making just $18,000 a year. "I drove a Ford Torino with bald tires and it wouldn't go in reverse. So I had to get down to the office very early in the morning so I could parallel park in the first stall. … I went to New York for the first time and I'm on 7th Avenue and in these showrooms scared to death 'cause you're buying really outrageously priced products. That's where I started."

He was a vice president by the time he was 28, and aspirations of college fell away. As promotion followed promotion, "the next thing you know you're just way out in front of it," Campisi says. He recalls losing out on only one opportunity over the years for lack of a degree, but he has encouraged higher education for his daughters, aged 28 and 24, and for his son, now a high school freshman.

Campisi says he didn't know what a headhunter was when he first started attracting calls about opportunities in other companies. Those calls took him to the John A. Brown department store, a Dayton Hudson Corporation property, and then to a 12-year run at May Department Stores' Meier & Frank brand in Portland, Ore. Staying in Portland, he then worked eight years for Fred Meyer, a department store now owned by Kroger.

A short stint with Kohl's in Wisconsin followed before Sports Authority lured him to Denver to be president, chief merchant and marketing officer. He became CEO in 2010 and left 19 months later, even then expecting the bankruptcy that eventually came earlier this year, citing problems with how debt was being handled in a transition to take the company private.

Campisi returned to Portland and tried his hand at consulting before being hired by Big Lots. Even before he started in May 2013, and for his first 12 weeks on the job, Campisi said he spent time in the stores and meeting with Big Lots merchants, finance and marketing staff. "I'd scratch my head, 'why, why, why, what is this?' … and boy, did I learn a lot about goofy things."

He keeps size-15 sneakers in his office conference room closet, among other odd items he found in various Big Lots stores early in his tenure. "We'd bring them back and I'd ask the buyer, 'Why did you buy this?'" The consistent answer: It was a really good deal. "That's when I finally figured out, OK, this is what we're going to do, and we just changed the model upside down, and it's working, obviously."

A fan of acronyms, Campisi created QBFV to give Big Lots merchants guidance for buying decisions. The letters represent quality, brand, fashion and value, and each component is rated on a four-point scale. Ideally, they are buying items that add up to 16 on the scale-a major improvement from items the company had been buying that would have fallen in the 1-3 range, Campisi says. "These guys were hungry for someone to help them, so I gave them QBFV, (and also) ECRS, which stands for eliminate, combine, rearrange and simplify," he says.

Big Lots has responded well to changes Campisi has implemented both in leadership staff and operations. In its second quarter 2016 earnings report at the end of August, Big Lots logged its 10th consecutive quarter of increased sales for comparable stores.

A week later, Big Lots announced its foundation-which didn't exist when Campisi began-is pledging $50 million to Nationwide Children's Hospital for its behavioral health services. Both a new 48-bed pavilion and the hospital's behavioral health program are being named for Big Lots in recognition of the gift, which the hospital calls the largest ever for child and adolescent behavioral health services.

Even before pledging the transformational gift, Big Lots was already a champion of the hospital, raising $2.2 million in a 2015 campaign and providing contributions of more than $200,000 each of the past two years from company executives.

The company had a charitable giving history but the program was formalized under Campisi with creation of the Big Lots Foundation in December 2014. The foundation raises money with contributions from associates, business partners and customers.

"The foundation has allowed us to do things at Big Lots we never did before-like writing a check to the Orlando (shooting) victims a few months ago, sending money to the Red Cross (after flooding) in Louisiana," Campisi says. "There's a lot of things we do for our people, too, that we don't talk a lot about, but it's because we care. It's not like I feel like we have to do this; it's just the right thing to do. It's pretty simple when you think about it."

The foundation supports families and children in four areas: hunger, housing, healthcare and education.

When summer floods in Louisiana forced stores to close, Big Lots worked quickly to identify 27 employees who had lost their homes. The foundation couldn't help the flood victims, but the company itself could, Campisi says. "So we decided to cut a one-time check, a large bonus check. I don't care if it was a part-time worker or not, and sent that down there to help them." The response from recipients and leadership was positive as associates throughout the company communicated a singular message: I can't believe what a company we've become. It feels so good to do the right thing.

"Just do the right thing. I probably say that at least once a week."

Improving Big Lots' culture was a major focus when he started in 2013. "The morale was horrible, what I was walking into, but it was even worse than I ever could have imagined," Campisi says. He had overseen turnarounds before and was undaunted. "I love to fix things. That's my biggest thing," he says.

Addressing a lack of trust and many operational siloes, Campisi created cross-functional teams, instituted a mission, vision and values and turned Big Lots' focus to its core customer, who is referred to throughout the company as Jennifer-so-called for one of the most popular names in the Big Lots Buzz Club Rewards program.

"I tell our people, I work for you. It's not about me, it's about you," Campisi says. "They do the work. I'm like the big-idea guy but you've got to have a team that's going to get this stuff done. I talk about the secret sauce; it's really our cross-functional teams," he adds.

Just as the company focuses on Jennifer, Campisi also values input of the women he has brought in, promoted to executive positions and added to the Big Lots board. "I call them Jennifers, too, and they know that. Women control 85 percent of the household spending; why would you not want to talk to her? …

"We're retail. We need women in the business. They have a totally different perspective," he explains.

Now that he has operations running more effectively, Campisi is excited about the new headquarters Big Lots is building in northeast Columbus at N. Hamilton and E. Dublin-Granville roads. Distribution will remain on Phillipi Road but other operations will move to the new site that will reflect Campisi's personal touch. "I get to be the merchant. I've picked out everything from the brick to the carpet. They're coming back with new paint chips because I didn't like what they had shown me. … It's a fun project."

Perhaps the biggest surprise Columbus gave Campisi was the warm welcome he received from other corporate leaders.

"This is the best stop I've had. … I've lived in 10 states and some big cities ?like Portland and Denver, and the people here are incredible. Everywhere I go, you're just incredibly friendly and genuinely nice and the philanthropic part of Columbus is amazing. I've never seen anything like it, to this level the way it is. It's actually made me probably a better person," Campisi says.

Sitting on the board of Nationwide Children's Hospital, Campisi has become especially close with Dr. Steve Allen, the hospital CEO, who himself was a Texas transplant to Columbus in 2007. They and their spouses have traveled together and enjoyed dinner in the Campisis' New Albany home.

"I talked to Steve about it one time when we had a lunch together. I said to him, 'How does a fat kid like me from Omaha get invited to Les Wexner's home with Abigail and Les? … I said to him, 'Is it real? I mean, the genuineness?' He started laughing and he said, 'you know, I thought the same thing the first year or two.'"

When he gets free time, Campisi says he likes to cook and his specialty is traditional Sicilian dishes. It's a pastime Allen also enjoys, Campisi says. "He came over finally after six or seven months of us trying to figure out a Sunday that we could play in the kitchen. I don't have the recipes but I type up all the ingredients for them and we cooked in the kitchen for probably six hours-three different kinds of sauce, teaching him how to make meatballs and dropping them in the sauce raw."

Being curious is another trait Campisi says he shares with Allen. So the rest of Campisi's four Cs?

"You have to have courage, that's the second C. And the confidence. … The last one is consistency, and that's one of the things I think we get a lot of credit for in the building and by our analysts and investors. We said it on our earnings call, we did what we said we were going to do, and we haven't waivered from the strategic plan. We're very consistent in how we operate."

You got into retail and you were curious. What was it that clicked for you?

Never had a clue that this is what I would do. I really didn't know. … I would merchandise everything in the store when I was a young kid, re-arrange the neckwear, the shirts and all that kind of stuff. It just clicked with me. My dad was a wine salesman; he sold to grocery stores and restaurants. I think I got part of his genes, how to be a salesman.

How do you find the business community compared to elsewhere in terms of collaborative civic engagement?

I've never seen anything like it. I've been around real money in Denver. I've sat with the billionaire that owns the Rockies. It's not like I haven't been around people, but I have never, ever seen such a come-together. There's some great things they do.

You've moved around a lot. Is there another offer that can entice you away?

I still get phone calls, and a lot of people still think I'm an apparel guy because I was an apparel guy for so many years. There isn't a chance in hell that I'd go run an apparel company. It's just too tough out there. I love the people here. I love Columbus, but I love the people in Columbus and I also love the people at Big Lots.

What keeps you up at night?

What keeps me up at night, I say, are the four Ws. … The weather-these are things I can't control-the weather, Washington, Wall Street and the world. Pretty simple. I preach about this all the time. Those are the things I can't control, the challenges retail is always faced with.

Mary Yost is the editor.