Shinola CEO talks about Detroit's role in company's success
Tom Lewand, a University alum and CEO of Shinola, a Detroit-based company, lectured Friday to an audience of about 300 students and faculty at the University of Michigan about his experiences working in Detroit.
The event, held in Rackham Auditorium, was hosted by Phi Chi Theta, a business fraternity at the University.
Lewand said Detroit has played an integral role in his life and in the crafting of Shinola. He also spoke about his experiences nurturing a startup into a successful brand and the knowledge he gained from 20 years in the executive office of the Detroit Lions, saying even after he was fired by the Lions after several disappointing seasons, he still wanted to stay in Detroit.
“We sensed, for the first time in my lifetime, a tremendous energy, a tremendous opportunity and just a tremendous activity in our community,” Lewand said.
Lewand was hired by Shinola in June 2016. He emphasized that skills he learned while in sports management have been largely transferrable to Shinola.
“We had to have a great product first, and then we had to give people a great experience and that’s the same thing at Shinola,” Lewand said, joking that a great product wasn’t always commonplace while he was with the Lions.
He also described what it was like to walk through the floor of the factory for the first time and listen to employees’ stories prior to being at Shinola.
“It’s the idea of doing well by doing good,” Lewand said, speaking to how the stories have inspired him.
Shinola has based their reputation on the long-standing narrative of manufacturing in Detroit, though they've faced criticism becasue parts for their products are largely not actually made there. This June, the Federal Trade Commission told Shinola to stop their slogan campaign that used phrases such as “Where American is Made," noting that nearly 100 percent of the company's watch materials are made overseas.
In response, Shinola added the phrase “Swiss and Imported Parts” underneath the slogan “Built in Detroit” on their watches.
In his remarks, Lewand emphasized his belief that Shinola’s underlying goal is to play a role in the economic development of Detroit by creating jobs and other opportunities in the community. Business sophomore Megan Graham, who attended the event, echoed his sentiment, saying she supports such efforts to employ Detroit natives.
“I intern for a company in Ann Arbor that actually employs women from Detroit and so I really resonated with the whole story about the startup in a city that is having a lot of problems,” she said. “I just really resonated with the background of Shinola and how that really contributes to the same work I’m doing now.”
Since its inception in 2011, the compant made a name for itself as a luxury lifestyle brand, with products such as watches and leather goods, as well as other items such as bicycles and record players.
“We look at opportunity in the marketplace, we look at opportunity in our expertise, with the men and women who design our products who have the ideas — we are a tremendous entrepreneurial company,” Lewand said of the range of products. “We saw an opportunity in the audio space, just like we saw in the watch space.”
Lewand’s also noted Shinola's success with this model.
“We’re a $100 million company this year but really in our third year of sales,” Lewand said.
Business senior Moynawk Gangopadhyay said he attended because he was interested in learning about that structure.
“I liked how (Lewand) talked about what particular branding strategies they have and whether or not they could have the scale to expand internationally,” he said.
Beyond product mix and sales, Lewand also said diversity, in gender, race and background, has played an important role throughout his career, from his time at the Lions to his time at Shinola. He advised crowd members to lead a balanced life.
“I believe in physical, mental and spiritual health,” Lewand said. “There are three legs to the stool and if you don’t have all three, you’re not going to be successful as a human being.”