‘We were making it up as we went.’ Kohl’s CEO on weathering the COVID storm

Everything was set for Kohl’s investor day on March 16 in New York. CEO Michelle Gass was going to lay out her new strategy for the retailing giant to the hundreds of people in the room and many more watching online.

Then COVID-19 started advancing across the globe. As a precaution, Gass switched the event to online only. And until just days before, her team was busy finalizing the slides and scripts they were going to use to trumpet their plans. But on the evening of March 12, with the pandemic gaining a foothold in the U.S. and Kohl’s customers starting to sequester at home, Gass canceled the event entirely.

“What we’re going to tell investors when we didn’t even know what the world was going to look like?” Gass said during a conversation on Fortune’s “Leadership Next” podcast.

Instead, Gass recalls spending March 16, the day she was supposed to be on stage discussing Kohl’s future, “all huddled around a conference room, figuring out what moves we needed to make to come out the other side of this.”

So started what has now been eight months of scrambling for Gass, the leader of one of the nation’s biggest retailers. She didn’t know whether the lockdowns, which required closing most of the company’s 1,200 stores, would last six days, six weeks, or six months.

But it did mean Gass had to make sure that Kohl’s had enough cash to survive—it did, with the help of $1.5 billion in revolving credit and by selling $600 million in bonds. It also meant negotiating with vendors to reduce deliveries of store merchandise. It meant putting procedures in place to protect the workers who were still on duty, equipping them with hand sanitizer, masks, and Plexiglass. And after a few weeks into the pandemic, Gass’ job included furloughing 85,000 workers.

“There’s no playbook for this, right?” Gass says. “We were making it up as we went.”

To listen to the discussion about Kohl’s pandemic-era learnings in its entirety, plus how the company thinks it will emerge stronger, listen to the full episode. 

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