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MEET SEARS' MS. FIXIT

Jane Thompson is behind Sears' home-improvement and repair push

It was a big basketball game in the small town of St. Albans, W.Va. Jane J. Thompson, star forward for the St. Albans Highline Baptists, knew her team was outgunned by the older, taller girls from St. Francis Catholic Church. But her team had an edge--they had just come from a giddy birthday party. As they dribbled and passed to victory, Thompson absorbed a lesson that helps her nearly three decades later. The secret, she says: ''Relax, and play a better game.''

Thompson, 45, is trying to stay loose as she implements Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s riskiest growth strategy: its drive to dominate the fragmented $160 billion market for appliance repairs and home improvement. The game plan laid down by Chairman and CEO Arthur C. Martinez calls for Thompson's Sears Home Services division to triple its revenues, to $10 billion, in four years. To that end, he's putting lots of advertising and training dollars on the line, not to mention his own reputation, as he talks up the plan to Wall Street.

MISTRUST. With slow growth prospects for Sears' 820 mall-based stores, Wall Street loves the plan to consolidate repair and home-improvement services under a national brand name. Sears already has repair and home-improvement personnel in place nationwide, and it can afford the technology to repair today's complicated electronic goods. And Sears' name and guarantee of satisfaction could overcome consumers' mistrust of repair people--the retailer's studies say its reputation bounced back after its own 1992 auto-repair scandal. ''This is a big opportunity to create one big portfolio of services. No matter what your problem is, dial 1-800-SEARS,'' says Skip Helm, a retail analyst with William Blair & Co. in Chicago.

Whether Thompson or anyone else can consolidate the mom-and-pop industry is an open question. But ''if ever there's a brand name that could work, it's Sears,'' says Gary M. Stibel, principal with New England Consulting Group in Westport, Conn.

Thompson is used to challenges. After she joined Sears as vice-president of planning in 1988, she was dismayed to realize the depth of its troubles. Prices were high, customer service dismal, and earnings slipping away. When Martinez, named vice-chairman in 1992, launched his bold revival plan, Thompson was part of his inner circle. She had won him over with her analysis of problems and her willingness to initiate such drastic moves as closing more than 100 stores and axing the venerable catalog. ''She had just enough experience inside Sears to grasp the issues and not enough to be co-opted by the old practices,'' Martinez says.

Thompson may seem an unlikely leader for a dirt-under-the-nails business like home repair. But don't let her Harvard MBA and perfect manicure fool you. Her father was a union pipefitter and her mother a nurse--as well as her basketball coach. Her schoolmates had similar backgrounds. Says Thompson: ''I didn't know what social classes were until I went to college and read about them in a sociology textbook.'' Nancy Karch, a senior partner at McKinsey & Co. in Chicago who has known her for 20 years, says: ''Jane is quite thoughtful about people, extremely well-intentioned, and not at all political.'' Thompson is Sears' fourth-highest-paid executive, pulling down total compensation of $1.8 million in 1995. But that doesn't stop her from riding along on repair trucks to get a sense of the obstacles technicians face.

Crunch time comes later this year when Sears rolls out a national ad campaign, ''The Service Side of Sears,'' a play on its successful ''Softer Side'' slogan. Ads being tested in six cities are generating double-digit percentage increases in repair calls. That means Thompson's 14,000 employees must be ready to go. Every week, hundreds are retrained in the latest gadgetry. More important, they're being taught to sell other Sears services--to recommend a furnace-cleaning during a repair call, for example. Thompson encourages workers to see themselves as part of a larger effort. ''I really believe the front-line person wants to do a good job and be on a winning team,'' she says.

AMBITIONS. Despite Sears' fast-growth plans for Home Services, she isn't rushing in. Over the past year she has held hundreds of focus groups to figure out what matters to home-repair customers. It's a studied approach she refined during 10 years at McKinsey in Chicago. So intent is Thompson on making the right changes that she listens to tapes of focus groups on her 50-minute drive from her home in posh Lake Forest, Ill., to Sears' Hoffman Estates headquarters.

Thompson has proven she can get results. In 1993, after she asked to run a line business, Martinez named her head of Sears Credit Group. She lowered credit standards and opened more than 11 million new accounts in 1994-95, transforming credit from a support operation into a competitive unit with aggressive growth targets. During her three-year tenure, operating profit climbed 34%, to an estimated $2 billion.

But she wasn't satisfied. ''I felt I was playing Wimbledon-quality tennis, but I wasn't in center court,'' she says. When Martinez offered her the chance to build Home Services, she jumped at it. While dodging succession questions, Martinez notes that Thompson ''is a very effective executive and has ambitions that go beyond her current job.''

As she did in credit, Thompson is benchmarking, building a management team, and developing a written set of values for the division. She's such a strong believer in values statements, she had her family write their own six years ago. At points, she says, it resembles the Credit Group's statement, which embraces integrity, fairness, openness, and mutual respect.

Despite a heavy travel schedule, Thompson recently became assistant coach of her 10-year-old daughter's basketball team. Sundays are reserved for her daughter, 14-year-old son, and husband. She still loves competitive sports, though she quit playing polo in 1994 after a fall. She misses more school events than she would like, but her kids don't complain: ''They've never known me any other way.''

Although Thompson has her hands full, she admits she sees her Home Services post as a stepping-stone. ''I can picture myself running a major corporation some day,'' she says unabashedly. Sounds as though her boss can, too.

By Susan Chandler in Hoffman Estates, Ill.



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