Gina Thorsen of Stormy Kromer: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times
Make people feel safe. Make work a place where they feel comfortable. Don’t have an environment where the minute times get tough they worry about keeping their job.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Gina Thorsen.
Gina Jacquart Thorsen is CEO of Stormy Kromer, a division of Jacquart Fabric Products, and an iconic, USA-made outdoor apparel brand. As part of the third generation of Jacquart family members to oversee the business, she plays a key role in developing the company’s strategic vision for the future. Under her leadership, the Stormy Kromer brand successfully expanded a small, century-old line of men’s caps into a complete apparel and accessory collection for families and pets, increasing the product offerings five-fold. She has led successful product design collaborations with national brands such as Carhartt, Wolverine and Merrell. Thorsen serves on the board of the Small Business Association of Michigan and the Emberlight Festival. She is also the vice president of the Mercer Lake Association and a member of the Ironwood Economic Development Corporation.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am the daughter of a business owner/entrepreneur and it all starts there! My father and grandfather worked together in our family business, with my dad taking full ownership when I was fairly young. The “store” — the small, former site of my great-grandfather’s grocery store where our family’s industrial sewing business began — was like a second home, and sometimes even a playground. My dad worked 6 days a week and my sister and I spent most Saturdays with him there — watching him work, learning how to talk to customers and make change, and playing business make-believe. I learned so many lessons from him — either at the dinner table, or in long car rides as I rode along with him making deliveries to customers.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I know this sounds cliche, but so much about my success comes from my parents and how I was raised. First, I was always taught to advocate for myself. When I was quite young, maybe the second grade, I was in a local community theater production. I was just an “extra” kid, but there was an opportunity for one of the extras to get a bigger role. My mom encouraged me to talk to the director and tell her exactly why I was the right kid for the part. I didn’t get the part (I was too small for the exciting costume!) but it was a great lesson in being brave and speaking up for yourself.
Secondly, growing up with my dad was like my own personal MBA. And first and foremost I saw the example of showing up, of keeping commitments, especially to customers.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
My point of view during difficult or uncertain times is to get the team to focus on what we can control — and try to leave the rest behind. During the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, none of us knew what would happen. I had no idea what long-term impacts there would be on the business. How long would the shutdown last? Even though it started in March, I started to wonder — would we miss an entire busy season (fall/winter) of sales? Our employees wondered about the certainty of their jobs. But. We knew how to sew, and people needed sewn products. So we got the entire team focused on something we could do, that was in our area of expertise — sew PPE.
Even to a lesser extent today with the uncertainties around inflation, world conflict, and other disruptions to consumer spending — I’ve been focused on what we can do every time I talk to a group of employees. Statements like, “We can’t do anything about the price of gas, but we can create impeccable, high-quality products that our customers will love. And we can execute our next marketing campaign to the very best of our ability.”
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m not sure I believe any business person who says they have never thought about giving up. It’s HARD. And our business has some particular challenges; making apparel and other sewn consumer goods in the USA is obviously challenging — there’s a reason so few companies are doing it. I’m a big fan of quotes and I always come back to that line from the movie A League of Their Own: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
At the end of the day, the commitment that I and our family have to our 100 employees, our community, and our family legacy of employing people in the Western Upper Peninsula make it all worthwhile.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I’m a voracious reader and so I’ve read tons of business and leadership books and taken something from all of them. Some of the top ones include Leaders Eat Last, Good to Great, and The Carpenter. But one I keep coming back to is Essentialism by Greg McKeown. I have a tendency to want to say yes to everything, to take everything on. Essentialism is a great study in focusing and narrowing your efforts for maximum success.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Stability and showing people the path to get through to the other side of the challenge. Not with pollyanna positivity, but by facing the challenges with the best attitude possible.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think the best thing we can do is treat our team like the humans we are. One of our core values is “built on relationships”. To us, that means that all our relationships — with customers, vendors, and especially employees — are more than just transactional. We live and work in a small community, and those relationships don’t go away under our roof. We truly care about our employees, about their families, and we work with each of them when they are going through difficult times to give them the flexibility and other support they need.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Honestly and respectfully. Be clear — trying to sugarcoat bad news doesn’t help anyone. Be honest, be respectful in the way you present it, and be ready to answer any and all questions.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
All you can do is act on the information you have at the moment — but you have to have the ability to adapt, flex and react as circumstances change.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but flexibility is key. We have survived as a sewing company in the United States for over 60 years because we have been flexible. We were never married to a particular industry — we have the skill of sewing things and have been willing to learn any kind of new product. If it is sewn, we can sew it! When Jacquart Fabric Products bought Stormy Kromer in 2001, we had never sewn a hat with a brim before. We had never produced any kind of apparel. And now, those products make up 80% of our business.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Stubbornly adhering to a plan when the circumstances have obviously changed.
- Leaders can often under-communicate during times of stress when it is actually the time to over-communicate.
- As the leader, while you may be worried during difficult times, you need to remain calm and show your team the path through the difficult times.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be honest. As recently as earlier this summer I told our team I really didn’t know how inflation and the economy were going to impact us. Because that’s the truth and ignoring that will not help us.
- Make people feel safe. Make work a place where they feel comfortable. Don’t have an environment where the minute times get tough they worry about keeping their job.
- Focus your team on what you/they can control. Recently I rallied our sales and marketing team to reassess their plans against the uncertainty in the economy. We had a brainstorming session to talk about how we could refine/improve/add to our plan because while we couldn’t control big global factors like unrest, we could control how well we executed our plan.
- Take risks. Two days before the state was shut down for COVID-19 we got a request to make a large quantity of face masks. We had never made them before. We had no idea what to charge for them, or if a factory full of people making masks would be profitable enough to even cover overhead. And we didn’t have the luxury of time to make these decisions. So we did our best and made the best decision we could at that moment. That decision ended up keeping our people working, kept our doors open, and ultimately brought us positive PR that fueled sales of our regular products once we could get back to selling them.
- Trust your history. A few years before COVID-19, our business had another tough challenge to deal with. Due to an acquisition, we lost our biggest non-Stormy Kromer customer — someone we had been doing business with for over 30 years. It felt like a devastating blow. But the truth is, any company in business for 60+ years has weathered many things that felt devastating. So we didn’t get consumed in the negativity, we just hunkered down and made decisions that would help us move forward in the best possible way. We did not lay off a single person due to losing that customer — we retrained people to work in other parts of the business and went out and found new businesses to replace what we had lost.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My final semester in college was an internship in St. Paul, Minnesota at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. It was my first time living in a “big city” and shortly after I settled in, my dad sent me a card with this quote on the front: Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced (Kirkegaard). I still have that card to this day, on a corkboard in my home office. To me, it means we have to take whatever life throws at us, the good and the bad, and truly experience it, not just muscle our way through it. We need to savor the good moments and learn from the challenging ones. But to experience it all with eyes wide open. Those thoughts have gotten me through a lot of difficult and interesting times.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Gina Thorsen of Stormy Kromer: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.