Visionary merchants have one desire in common: to fulfill the dreams of others, said Zale Corporation CEO Theo Killion in a recent lecture at Mays Business School.

Prior to his lecture, Killion was presented with the 2012 M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Award for leading the company’s turnaround plan and returning Zales to historic levels of profitability.

2012 M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Award honoree Theo Killion (right) and Donald Zale '55
2012 M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Award honoree Theo Killion (right) and Donald Zale ’55 (view more photos)

Killion spoke on the company’s strategy and its commitment to providing outstanding products, service and value to the customers of the Zale Corporation brands: Zales Jewelers, Gordon’s Jewelers, Zales Outlet, Piercing Pagoda, and Peoples and Mappins Jewelers in Canada.

Killion’s management style emerged before he was even hired. After a friend became CEO of the company and invited Killion to work there, Killion visited three stores. “The sales people all had their heads down. They didn’t want to be there. I found it really exciting to think about turning that situation around,” he recounted to more than 450 students, faculty and guests who attended his April 4 lecture in Ray Auditorium. “I saw this company that had unbelievable DNA, a great rich story and a founder who had vision. My challenge was, how do you pull that forward?”

When Killion became CEO in February 2010, he focused on strategy, marketing, quality products and credit promotions, while improving the quality of the guest experience. He said he wrote a three-year plan — something he called “a bold step… There’s fire in the basement and fire in the ceiling, and we’re planning three years out.”

Killion said he incorporated seven “P’s” in those plans:

  • Product — “If the product is wrong, nothing else matters. If the product is right, everything else matters.”
  • Price — “We have to be sure we are offering the price value proposition where our male customer can be the hero and she can fall in love with a beautiful piece of jewelry.”
  • Promotion — Killion’s management team meets with consumers four times a year to “get their permission to be their diamond store.”
  • People — Killion said the employees need to realize they work for the guests of Zales.
  • Place — Zales invested in improving their stores, especially technology.
  • Process — Do things smarter, not harder. Killion said his goal is to “Stamp out stupid.”
  • Profit — You’ve got to make money.

Under Killion’s guidance over the past two years, Zales’ bottom line improved $141 million and its reputation has improved. “Zales was a mile long and an inch deep,” he says. “We’ve been working methodically to build up our work force so that our guests feel valued and excited and they know we really care.”

Killion’s career in retailing includes extensive experience in human resources. Prior to joining Zale Corporation, Killion was with the executive recruiting firm Berglass+Associates, where he focused on companies in the retail, consumer goods and fashion industries. He has held leadership roles in human resources strategies at Tommy Hilfiger Corporation, The Limited Inc. and the Home Shopping Network.

The Visionary Merchant Lecture concluded an invitation-only conference for retail executives, the Center for Retailing Studies’ annual Retail Sponsor Forum. Speakers for the one-day event included Mays faculty members and industry experts who addressed topics such as creating unique marketing campaigns, managing workplace violence and looking to the classics to understand human behavior.

Cheryl Holland Bridges, director of the Center for Retailing Studies, said this year’s award is particularly meaningful to her organization. “Thirty years ago, M.B. Zale, the founder of Zales, gave Texas A&M a grant to establish the Center for Retailing Studies,” she said. Donald Zale, M.B.’s son, presented the award to Killion, who Bridges called “an extremely talented CEO who exemplifies M.B. Zale’s success as an innovative merchant.”

“Mr. Killion was invited to come to the company at a time of transition,” Zale said. “He said he would come on an interim basis, then he said, “All CEO’s are interim.'”

Killion says he is not a visionary merchant, but that he accepted the award to keep from making the same mistake twice — he passed up coming to Texas A&M when it was one of four choices for his college career.

“I don’t think of this award as being my award,” he said. “It belongs to the 13,000 people who come to work every day to help people celebrate the magic moments in their lives with a piece of our jewelry.”