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6 Management Lessons From The Duck Store’s Jim Williams

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Jim Williams, the soon-to-retire manager of Oregon's The Duck Store, to discuss what he has learned about management during his 36-year relationship with The Duck Store. Although The Duck Store, like all college stores, sits at the evolutionary vortex of retail, education, and content, Williams doesn’t believe the future of college stores or retail will be driven by technology, but by service.

Williams is only third manager to nurture The Duck Store over its 92-year history. At $42 million in revenue and a staff that varies seasonally between 300 and 350 people, The Duck Store is not a minor operation. And in all of its locations, the mantra of Ducks serving Ducks is reinforced by practices built on respect, leadership, and empowerment. Here are six lessons that embody those traits.

Lesson One: Reflective Learning

The Duck Store is part of a learning institution. Williams and his team don’t just hire people to stand behind counters or help locate merchandize. They hire people who know about their topics.

The Digital Duck, which exists through a wide corridor just off the main floor of the Eugene store, sells all things digital, from tablets and laptops, to mice and memory. The people who sell them know the difference between i3 and i7 Intel processors, as well as which programs tend to Mac and which ones to PC.

In the basement, the Creative Duck offer supplies for art students and designers, sold not be clerks, but by art students and designers who not only know which aisle houses the paint brushes, but which paint brushes are best for the project you are about to undertake.

For retailers to be relevant, they need to differentiate themselves on the knowledge they provide, not just the products they offer.

Lesson Two: Orchestration

With talented individuals, not just workers or employees in his care, Williams perceives his General Manager role as one of orchestration, not management. He fancies himself a conductor of bright, dedicated musicians, all specialists in their fields.

Organizations that want to retain high-quality retail talent need to think about creating a respectful, learning environment where management is focused on outcomes, not output.

Lesson Three: Rapid Innovation

Because of this environment, new innovations at The Duck Store can be turned around in as little as one hour. One recent example was a viral video featuring the Oregon Duck. The video was developed by student to promote Oregon’s 2010 Rose Bowl run (I Love My Ducks). As the only licensed Disney character outside of the Disney cannon, using the Oregon Duck for anything comes with some strings. Williams and his team got involved, creatively transforming the video from a random post into the promotion for an "I Love My Ducks" line. The store worked with students, their attorney, and the store to create what Williams calls a win-win-win-win (students, Duck Store-university, and Duck fans) situation. The contract, executed from idea to a handwritten agreement scrawled on a blank piece of paper, took 30 minutes and lead to the sale of over 90,000 shirts and an exclusive deal to sell other merchandise derived from the "I Love My Ducks" theme.

Innovation also means adapting to change. If college stores are to survive, Williams asserts, they need to build strong relationships with all constituencies: students, parents, alumni. Those they see in the store and those that they encounter on the web through their online retail arm. It is through these relationships that resiliency overcomes technical change. As long as you serve people, you can deliver that service through whatever channels evolve.

Other organizations would still be quaking about why they couldn’t do something in the first 30 minutes of an innovation discussion. Williams becomes a bit Yoda-like as he says: "We don’t ask if we can, we figure out how we will."

Lesson Four: Drive Fearless Service from the Floor

Executive may see customers, and they interact with employees, but they aren’t the front line. At The Duck Store, the front line drives customer perception, and management knows that, so that front line also drives the perception of management.

Bottom-up reviews effectively invert the organization so the store’s learning derives from those closest to the customers. And even the newest employee knows he or she can act fearlessly in service to the customer. The review process gives managers direct feedback about respect, communication, participation, and mentoring—managers are evaluated by how fearless their employees feel around them.

Lesson Five: Be a destination

At the corner of 13th and Kincaid, across the street from a main University of Oregon pedestrian entrance, The Duck Store is a fixture in the community. A large part of its success comes from being close to campus, but that wouldn’t mean anything if it wasn’t integrated into the lifestyle of the students. When families visit, seeing the dorms makes their sons or daughters college experience real, and eating in one of the many campus eateries engenders a nostalgic experience. But parents spend hours in The Duck Store. In some ways, that’s where the real campus orientation takes place, as the green and yellow somehow osmotically seeps into one's skin.

Retailers need to recognize that people don’t just come to shop, they come to experience.

Lesson Six: Ownership

Being in control of one’s own destiny is a good lesson. Many college stores remain captive, sometimes outsourced arms of the central campus. Not so The Duck Store, which has been owned independently by faculty, students, and staff since 1920, when it was acquired from a local pharmacy owner after being sold to school to finance Oregon’s 1918 Rose Bowl berth. Ownership allows the store to create its own culture while supporting the needs of the college and the community. And while public institutions of higher learning struggle to maintain learning excellence amid shrinking budgets, The Duck Store can stay above any issues facing Oregon. The store has no long-term debt and owns its buildings (expect where it leases satellite operations in retail areas around the state). Ownership means self-determination.

36 Years of Learning

Williams sees service at the core of his philosophy and his experience. He harkens back to January 1969, the day before he was to leave to serve in the Vietnam War—a day filled with snow and delays. He had already said his goodbyes to colleagues and friends and readied himself to head off to boot camp. But the snow delayed that trip. And when the phone rang, Williams unquestioningly answered the call to remove the three feet of snow weighing down the roof of the iconic corner store.

The college store is changing, and rather than sit back and complain, waiting for technology and business models to roll over them, The Duck Store leads change rather than resisting it. They are currently exploring expansion plans that include a state-of-the-art retail location as well as a hotel with extended food services to complement their already cozy coffee corner. And as more retail moves online, The Duck Store is prepared to complement their physical location with state-of-the-art e-commerce tools and effective Internet marketing.

All of the strategic concerns of the college bookstore store industry seem less daunting if you decide that the answer lies in creating a caring culture that adapts, not by overthinking the future, but by paying attention to the present. It won’t matter to The Duck Store if the Kindle surpasses the iPad, if e-books become as easily bootlegged as MP3 songs, or if open-source courseware predominates. Whatever products, technology, or channels evolve, The Duck Store will unflinchingly apply its management principals and find a way to cloak the future in its own unique veneer of yellow and green.

Watch an interview with Williams conducted by the Oregon Daily Emerald here.

[Image: Flickr user Sean Davis]