Colleen Brown, board chair of American Apparel, participated in the Albers Executive Speaker Series on February 16 th . The theme of her presentation was, "American Apparel--Difficult Choices," as she shared some of the difficulties the troubled firm has faced since she joined the board in 2014.
In addition to chairing the board of American Apparel, Brown serves as a board member of TrueBlue, Inc., a Tacoma-based staffing company, and Delta Dental of Washington, a dental insurance company. She recently bought and now manages Internetreputation.com, a web monitoring business. Brown is also the former President and CEO of Fisher Communications, Inc., which she turned around and successfully sold in 2013, capping a career in the broadcasting industry that spanned more than three decades.
A few highlights of her extensive business and civic boards include the National Association of Broadcasters, serving as Chair of the Washington Roundtable, Chair of United Way of King County, and board member of the Pacific Science Center. Brown also has been elected twice to the board of the National Association of Broadcasters. She has served on the boards of the National Association of Television Program Executives and the Television Bureau for Advertising.
Brown started her presentation with a slide showing American Apparel protesters waving placards with her picture on it. The point was to illustrate the stress that AA had been under due to financial mismanagement that had left the firm teetering on bankruptcy, while clouded by misconduct allegations against the founder. Within a few months of having joined the board, Brown was swept up in the firing of the CEO and the installation of a new management team.
As Brown explained, she had found herself in another business turnaround project, only this time it was not Fisher, it was AA. It was her success at Fisher, of course, that opened the way for her to be asked to join the AA board. When she joined Fisher, it was a respected company losing money. Brown returned it to profitability and was able to sell the company at a share price more than five times what it was when she took over.
Brown told the audience that her resilience and leadership can be traced back to her youth. She was one of ten children, but her mother died when the family was young and her father was frequently travelling for work and battling mental illness, so the kids were very much on their own. Brown was the oldest girl in the family, so much of the work needed to get by fell to her. Today, she is not sure how they all made it, but she traces her self-reliance and "can do" attitude back to her early years.
Brown provided three points of advice to the students in the audience:
- "Remember that laughter is the best medicine." Don't take yourself too seriously and when things get difficult, finding the humor in things will help you get through it.
- "There are no realists in fox holes." Substituting "realists" for "atheists" in this old adage, her point is you have to have faith you can succeed, even if it looks like a long shot.
- "Live beyond yourself. Know there is a greater good than you." We need to be in a mode of giving back to others, or "being men and women for others" as we say on a Jesuit campus!
Brown closed her presentation with an AA video entitled, "86 Hands," which she said was being shown outside of AA for the first time. The video illustrated that it takes 86 hands to make a pair of AA jeans, highlighting the vertical integration of AA and its "Made in the USA" commitment.
In the Q&A, Brown revealed that her driving commitment at AA was to preserve jobs for employees and turn it into a good place to work. That is what kept her going through all the stress. When asked if she had changed as a leader during the AA experience, she noted that she was used to a business being well organized with processes and infrastructure in place, only to find that AA was not well organized and "chaotic." She had to learn to loosen up and "let go" and not try to fix everything at once. Finally, she noted that one of the things that gives her the most joy is mentoring others to be successful in their careers, and was proud to look back at all the people she had supported in the past and what they have gone on to accomplish. She even gave a shout out to one of her former Albers mentees who was in the audience. That alum is now paying it back by mentoring our students in the Albers Mentor Program!
After more than three decades in the broadcast industry, Colleen Brown agreed to apply her leadership skills to the challenge of American Apparel. Never a dull moment since then, and a great opportunity for our students to hear her tell that story about difficult choices!