It seems fitting that Barry Gilbert, CEO of Smith & Hawken, is a gardener. “I’m working on an organic garden at home,” he says. “And since I really like to cook, almost every night at home I’m trying something new.” Gilbert takes the same adventurous approach when it comes to invigorating companies.
He definitely had his work cut out for him when he joined The Sharper Image as chief operating officer in 1996. “When I joined, Sharper Image had been barely profitable. Over the next three years, through focus and good retailing disciplines, the company’s results soared. Its stock went from 3 to 12!”
After Sharper Image, he joined the dot-com craze as CEO of luxury goods retailer, Miadora.com. “We all know how that story ends,” says Gilbert wryly.
Now Gilbert is tending to Smith & Hawken and trying to make its garden grow, by weeding (they’ve cut the product inventory by a third) and cultivating (they are selling in other stores, licensing, improving packaging, and expanding their storefront on Amazon.com).
But Gilbert didn’t always know he’d be a businessman. After earning his BA in Philosophy at Cal, he went to McGeorge School of Law thinking he’d follow in his brother's footsteps (he had gone to Harvard Law School). But Gilbert decided the legal life wasn’t for him, so he left and started working in retail.
“It was love at first sight. I realized immediately that I loved the retail business,” says Gilbert. “But a philosophy degree didn’t prepare me for all I needed in business, so I decided to expand my business acumen at Haas.”
After his MBA, Gilbert continued his retail career, but he chose not to go into men’s clothing, because he didn’t want his personal taste in clothing to affect his buying decisions. After gaining experience in women’s apparel at department stores, Gilbert moved back to California to become vice president of Rainbow Records and in 1990, he became senior vice president of Warner Bros. Stores.
But while he may have come a long way from his philosophy roots, he’s been reminded of some basic truths. “At first I thought the definition of success was how much money you could put in the bank. Then I saw friends and relatives die at young ages. My existential background reminded me there’s more to life than just having a big car or house. At Smith & Hawken, we encourage people to bring their dogs to work,” says Gilbert. “It just makes for a more relaxed environment and allows people to not take things so seriously.”
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