Top CEO – Strategic Management – Randy Watson of Justin Boots

Martha Deller Business Press Correspondent

If Randy Watson had been a better baseball player, he might never have taken a job at a Houston Western wear store to support himself through summer tryout camps for a series of national teams. By the time Watson realized that he “wasn’t good enough” for professional baseball, his part-time job hadbecome his new passion – one that he pursued to the executive boardroom of Fort Worth-based Justin Brands Inc., a recognized leader in Western footwear. Watson said the competitive and team spirit he learned playing football and baseball helped him succeed in the business world. It also led Ernst & Young to select the Justin CEO as its 2013 Southwest-north Entrepreneur of the Year in manufacturing and distribution. “In athletics, you have to compete amongst yourselves to be a starter on the team; then you have to work together to compete against someone else,” he said. “It’s just how you deal with co-workers against competitors. “You learn how to be resilient when bad things happen. You don’t always have good games or good years. You learn how to respond to all that in athletics. It’s not just being competitive but being professional about it.” The work has paid off for Justin. In the past five years, the boot manufacturer has seen double-digit growth while its retailers are seeing sales increases in the triple digits. Watson’s vision doesn’t stop at the U.S. border. In 2012, Justin moved into new territory: Canada, Asia, Mexico, Central and South America, Europe and Australia. Justin President Jamie Morgan said his competitive skills, along with Watson’s ingrained compassion and respect for others, were already in place when the two met as new employees of the burgeoning Western wear industry. Watson managed a Don’s Western Wear store for about one and a half years after “falling in love with the Western lifestyle at the height of the urban cowboy phase.” He was soon recruited into the wholesale end of the business. Both men were in their 20s when Watson, a sales representative for a boot company, sold inventory to Morgan for Wells Boot Center in Hurst, where Morgan got his start. “The key to being successful in anything dealing with people – whether manufacturing or retail – is to treat people the way you want to be treated,” Morgan said. “Randy had a knack for that. He has a tremendous disregard for people who are rude or bullish. “One of his strengths is that he really and truly treats people how he wants to be treated – with compassion, fairness but firmness.” Others noticed those qualities as well. By the mid-1980s, Watson had been hired as vice president of sales and marketing for Lucchese Boots. He hired Morgan in 1997, two years before Justin Boots founder John Justin recruited Watson as his own vice president of marketing and national sales. Dee Kelly of Kelly Hart and Hallman law firm, a former Justin board member who now serves on the John and Jane Justin Foundation board, said the company has flourished under Watson, who shares a management style with the founder. Justin promoted Watson to president and CEO before his own death in 2001. “The company has enjoyed its best years basically because of the management skills of Randy Watson,” Kelly said. “He’s obviously a good marketing man. He sold a lot of boots. He came up the hard way through the trenches. He’s a hard worker and a great personality. “John Justin was the same way – a great salesman and great personality. He saw the same things in Randy.” Watson assembled his management team the same way John Justin did. He hired Morgan as director of sales in 1997, and the next year Justin promoted him to president. Morgan said Watson immediately showed his hands-on leadership when a new business management software system failed, resulting in the consolidation of operations and the closing of two U.S. factories. “We were gearing up for Christmas orders and the system just failed,” Morgan said, recalling the scene 15 years ago as if it were yesterday. “Everybody laughs today about ‘going live,’ but we didn’t go live. It just went,” he said. “Randy could have hidden in his office, challenged the rest of us to fix it and come to the table with solutions, but that’s not the kind of guy he is. “We had so many retail customers depending on us to deliver products, it was all hands on deck. Randy was at the distribution center shipping boots, talking to customers, being part of the day-to-day responsibilities.” Instead of blaming technology, Morgan said, Watson relied on common sense to help Justin staffers work alongside computer experts to overcome the challenge that threatened to cripple the firm – and the industry. “We were sweating bullets for months,” Morgan said. “He brought people along. You didn’t have to look for him. He was on the front line with the rest of us, trying to calm customers down, understand that things will get better if you give us the opportunity to make things better. “That’s where Randy did a great job.” Also noticing Watson’s work was his boss. Not just any boss, but American business magnate Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. acquired Justin Brands in 2000. Buffett cited Watson’s leadership in the 1998 computer crisis in a news release announcing the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur award. Buffett also lauded Watson for his role in acquiring a Maine manufacturer of hand-stitched footwear in May to join the firm’s three plants in El Paso and Missouri, and for overseeing a 54.5 percent increase in U.S. production and a 48 percent increase in sales of American-made goods since 2009. Buffett reiterated his description of Watson as “the prototype Berkshire Hathaway manager” when he promoted him to CEO and board chairman of Justin Brands in 2011. Morgan succeeded Watson as president. “Randy Watson loves his company, his products and his associates,” Buffett said in a written statement. “He thinks like an owner and delivers on his promises.” Buffett’s confidence in Watson was demonstrated by his response to the strategic plans and budgets Watson sent him last year. Watson told a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast with Berkshire Hathaway CEOs that Buffett sent back the top page with only the words “Looks good” and asked what they would be doing for the next annual meeting. “As a leader of one of Fort Worth’s legacy companies, Randy is as authentic as the Justin brand itself,” said Fort Worth Chamber president and CEO Bill Thornton in relating Watson’s chamber story. “That’s why he’s revered by his employees, respected by his peers and trusted by Berkshire Hathaway to deliver not only a good return investment but also an outstanding kickoff at the annual shareholders meeting,” Thornton said. Watson also has earned the respect of Brad Barnes, president and general manager of the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, for his commitment to youth. Barnes and Watson were part of a group that helped start a chapter of the National FFA Organization at Arlington Heights High School and raised money to build a barn to allow urban students to raise animals. With three children now in their 20s, Watson still attends state FFA conventions to talk to students about their communities and responsible leadership, Barnes said. “Those kids in 4H and FFA are our future leaders,” he said. “You can watch TV and read the newspapers and think the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But if you go to state 4H and FFA conventions and listen to kids stand up and make presentations, you realize kids will be OK. “Nothing gets the attention of those kids than having a leader like Randy stand up and talk to them.”