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A Savvy Captain For Old Navy

People: Trend Spotters

A Savvy Captain for Old Navy

Jenny Ming's drive and vision are paying off big for parent Gap Inc.

It's just two weeks before the Old Navy chain will open its biggest and most elaborate store yet, and Jenny J. Ming, president of the retail chain since April, is in a tizzy. As she flits about the giant San Francisco store among half-dressed mannequins and boxes of merchandise, no detail escapes her eye. Ming quickly orders the boys' and girls' displays moved closer together, then instructs her staff to position a rack of fleece hats more prominently.

A pushover for clothes all her life, Ming, 44, now presides over one of the country's fastest-growing retailers. Handpicked in April by Gap Chief Executive Millard S. "Mickey" Drexler to head Old Navy and one of four top executives there since its 1994 launch, Ming has been a key force behind its explosive growth.FLEECE 'EM. Above all, Ming has shown an uncanny knack for predicting which hip-looking clothes of the moment will appeal to the masses, then making big bets on producing the huge quantities needed to assure the chain a continual string of hits. "She gets very excited about the merchandise," says Jeffrey A. Pfeifle, Old Navy's executive vice-president of product design and development. "She's definitely a toucher and feeler. When she sees something she likes, she winks, claps her hands, and says, `I love that."'

Ming has been clapping her hands a lot lately. This season, she has been heavily promoting Old Navy's hugely popular fleece pullovers and baggy cotton pants. And her knack for spotting and promoting hot trends has the 450-store chain on an expansion tear. Each year for at least the next few years, Ming plans to open more than 100 of its instantly recognizable stores--which sport 1950s Chevies and merchandise piled high in old freezers. San Francisco-based Gap Inc. doesn't normally break out sales at its three units, which include its Banana Republic chain as well as Gap stores themselves. But Old Navy, with just 16% of the company's total stores, will account for around 35% of projected overall sales of $11.5 billion in 1999, according to Alan Mak, an analyst at New York-based Argus Research Corp. Moreover, Gap expects Old Navy's sales to surpass those at the Gap chain in just a few years.

Ming has been so successful, in fact, that Old Navy now competes head-on with the core Gap stores, and in some ways it appears to be winning (page 136). Positioned as something of a downscale Gap that offers up T-shirts, sweaters, and jeans for teens and young adults on a budget, its prices are far cheaper than the namesake chain. Shoppers seem to love the difference. Over the past six months, sales at Gap stores open at least one year have been falling while Old Navy's same-store sales have been barreling ahead at about 20%.

Jenny Ming's secret? A lifelong passion for fashion. "Talk to me about merchandise, and I can talk to you for hours," says Ming, wearing a grey pants suit paired with a handbag with fashionable bamboo handles. She gets many of her ideas and industry insights nearby--from her three teenage children. Ming will sometimes sit down with her two daughters and flip through the pages of Seventeen. One day last year, her younger of two daughters, Kameron, 14, came in wearing Adidas decorated with nail polish. Ming figured the sneakers came that way. Then, Kameron told her all the kids were painting them themselves. "I understood why nail polish is so popular and selling so well," she says.

Other ideas come from regular trips to big cities like London, Paris, and New York, where she pays close attention to what's in at the cafes and other student hangouts. "Trends are everywhere, but I'm not going to see them sitting behind my desk in San Francisco," she says. "Being a merchant is knowing what's happening around you, what kids are wearing."SECOND OPINION. Ming doesn't do all this trend-spotting by herself, of course. She has an 85-member New York-based design staff whose job is to spot the big trends. And Old Navy, like so many retailers, uses youth-oriented research firms to help identify potential blockbusters. But her own zest for the field clearly gives her an edge. "Her attitude is `let's try it,"' says Kevin M. Lonergan, executive vice-president of product design and development. "She's extremely intuitive about merchandise."

Certainly, that was behind her biggest hit yet: the current craze over big-pocketed cargo pants. After seeing them crop up in both hip clubs and in collections by such high-end designers as Ralph Lauren, Ming sensed the potential. And on one of her regular store visits, this time to an Old Navy on Staten Island, Ming really became convinced she was on to something big: She saw a fortysomething guy who was buying himself three pairs. "He wasn't 18 or the hippest person you'd ever seen," says Ming. "That told me that cargo pants could be even more mass-market than I thought."

So Ming says she stocked cargo pants to the roof and splashed advertisements everywhere. "One thing I know best is when to maximize something," she says confidently. "If I believe in something, I'll push it bigger and harder."

Ming has been pushing hard all her life. The daughter of a printer and a homemaker, she emigrated from Macao, the Portuguese colony near Hong Kong, to San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood at age nine. "I came from humble beginnings," says Ming. The middle child of five, she held down weekend jobs as a bank teller and a sales clerk at Macy's. But her favorite job was working as a seamstress. She would put ads in a local paper, then do the work at home.

Balking at her mother's suggestion to become a pharmacist, Ming pursued her interest in fashion. At San Jose State University, the home economics graduate took mostly courses in textiles. Then, after college, she went to work for Dayton Hudson Corp.'s Mervyn's unit, first as a management trainee and later as a buyer in linens and junior wear.

In 1986, Drexler recruited Ming, whom he had heard about from a supplier. Drexler put her to work at Gap as a buyer. One of her early moves: taking Gap's T-shirt business and boosting sales by increasing the color assortment from six to a couple of dozen and marketing them all year instead of just in the summer. "She would always produce results without a lot of fanfare," says Drexler, who promoted Ming to a Gap vice-president after three years. Co-workers say one of her biggest strengths may simply be an intuitive sense for what's missing. "She's excellent at asking questions even on small matters, such as the labels that go on individual items," says Richard M. Crisman, Old Navy's executive vice-president of marketing. "She'll ask, `Did you try this color?"'

Yet for all her intensity, Ming rarely if ever works on weekends--and she doesn't expect her staff to, either. Instead, she likes to hang out with her daughters and husband, Mitchell, a former business broker for American companies dealing with Asian manufacturers. These days, Mitchell is busy developing a winery in Sonoma County.

As for Ming, she just has to keep finding all those cool threads to sell. Visiting an Old Navy in San Mateo, Ming spies a teenager wearing a white T-shirt over a colored one. A flash of color peeks out from underneath the sleeves. "Wonder if it's a trend?" she muses. Old Navy shoppers take note: From her eyes to your store shelves.By Louise Lee in San FranciscoReturn to top

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