A Conversation with David Campisi, CEO & President, Big Lots
Big Lots is a compelling turnaround story in the off-price retail segment. Same-store sales have climbed for ten consecutive quarters running—a solid rebound from two years of quarterly of declines. Net income has also begun to rebound driven by consistency in sales, strengthening margins and inventory turnover, and leveraging the cost structure. A key reason for this renewed success is David Campisi, a savvy retail veteran who took charge of Big Lots in 2013. David previously served as Chairman and CEO of Respect Your Universe (RYU), a publicly traded premium performance apparel and equipment brand. Earlier, he was Chairman, CEO, and President of The Sports Authority, following successful stints in senior merchandising roles at Kohl’s, Fred Meyer, and May Department Stores.
David shared the key principles guiding the turnaround at Big Lots, and offered his perspectives on how traditional retailers can meet the fresh challenges of the coming decade.
David believes, first and foremost, in a laser focus on the customer. To cultivate this focus in Big Lots, he has personified the discount chain’s core consumer in a composite customer he calls Jennifer, which is among the most common first names of members enrolled in the Big Lots loyalty program.
“The rallying call at Big Lots is our core customer,” David said. “Everything we do, we do for Jennifer. Our Strategic Planning Process, or SPP, is built on three pillars—the first of which is the Jennifer Pillar. It encompasses merchandising, marketing, e-commerce, and in-store execution with a common goal of serving her better and breaking down silos.”
Jennifer is mentioned in every quarterly report and earnings call, and “What would Jennifer want?” has become the central question asked by employees at every level, across the organization.
“Retailers urgently need to gain deeper insight into their changing customer base, especially the distinct values and thinking that guide millennial purchasing decisions,” David said. “Our research shows that our customers spend the most with us when they’re in their 40s. By the time today’s millennials reach that point, we will not only be prepared to serve them, we will also have invested in the relationship, so they will want to come to us.”
Leadership – The “4Cs”
The second pillar of Big Lots SPP is the Associate Pillar. Very early in his tenure, David introduced the company to Servant Leadership and “The 4Cs”.
“The ultimate key to success, now and in the future, is leadership,” David continued. “In 2026, those that win will have found the ability to develop leadership models that are both new and built upon time-tested principles. Personally, I’ve found that to succeed as a leader, you need what I call the 4Cs. You need to be curious, have courage and confidence, and be consistent. We’ve worked hard to embody these values at Big Lots, and to inspire them in our teams.“
As critical as company leadership and culture already are in attracting and retaining talent, they will only become more important going forward. By 2050, millennials will be 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, while studies by IBM and others show millennials place particularly high value on inspirational leadership. David often references a quote from another well-known CEO in retail—Jim Sinegal, “Culture isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.” David believes the cross-functional teams and collaboration of the SPP are a key to the improving culture at Big Lots. So is the company’s renewed focus on philanthropy. Under David’s leadership, the Big Lots Foundation was established and allows associates to actively give back to the communities it serves.
David has received dozens of emails from employees extolling the value of working at Big Lots. And this, he said, is among his proudest achievements at the company.
Innovating For ROI
The final pillar of the SPP is the Shareholder pillar—David puts nearly as strong a focus on ROI.
“Testing and learning are the most important things any retail organization can do today,” he said. “You always have to try new things, while making sure whatever you do will deliver ROI.” David believes this combination of laser focus on the customer, the culture and constant innovation to raise ROI can sustain a prominent place for stores in Retail@250.
“Stores won’t cease to exist—some stores will remain critical for the customer,” he said. “But winning stores have to find their reason for being, their critical role in the world. There’s too much sameness now. Stores have to stop trying to be all things to all people. Next, they need to regain leadership. We started calling our store managers ‘store leaders,’ an acknowledgment which has empowered our stores’ organization, or the face Jennifer sees each and every day.” Our executive team is focused on the next three years of the SPP (2017-2019) and how Big Lots will change to stay relevant.”