Jenny Ming

Jenny Ming fell into the GAP in 1985. The rest is history, one powered mostly by Ming’s uncanny ability to sense what kind of value fashion propositions could be made irresistible to young female shoppers.

“How you create the ‘want’ is a mystery to many people – it’s genuinely puzzling,” explains Ming. “I learned how you can create that emotion, how you can tap into the psyche of the customer. In fact, it’s relatively easy to do at a high-end designer-level – if you have great designers, of course. But to do it for the mass market is a much harder proposition – and it’s what can set you apart from the competition in a saturated marketplace.”

Jenny Ming (front right) poses at her family’s Sonoma County vineyard with husband Mitchell (right rear) and their children Korbin, Kristin and Kameron (center).

Ming’s rise to the upper reaches of fashion retailing began in 1985 as a GAP activewear buyer. It didn’t take long for the company to spot her knack for forecasting hits and duds. Within three years she was promoted to vice president. In 1994 she was picked to spearhead the birth of the Old Navy division. That led to her impressive success in building Old Navy into a major retail brand from scratch. By 1999 she was named president of the chain. By the time she stepped down from that position, Old Navy had grown larger than its parent GAP, with 950 stores in North America, $6.7 billion in revenues and 45,000 employees.

Along the way Ming has garnered both acclaim and vilification. In 1999 BusinessWeek magazine named her one of the year’s Top 25 Managers. Fortune listed her among its “50 Most Powerful Women in American Business” in 2003 and 2004.

Many Asian Americans are more likely to remember Ming as the culprit behind an Old Navy commercial that aired in 2000. It featured Chinese American TV journalist Lisa Ling cavorting with five shirtless men. Her tagline was, “I like my men strong and good-looking.” The problem — in the minds of irate Asian Americans — was that none of the men was Asian. Chinese American Ming may have been enough of a hardened marketer that she secretly welcomed the vocal protests against Old Navy staged by Asian American activists as yet more free publicity for the brand. If she ever regretted the commercial, Ming never made that fact public.

Ming claims to have left Old Navy in 2006 with no plans but to take time off to travel for pleasure. She had barely begun to enjoy the luxury of being able to contemplate the world from a non-business perspective when she got a call from David Mussafer, CEO of Advent International, a global private equity fund that invests money for institutions like pension funds, universities and other investment funds. She declined Mussafer’s initial offer for Ming to sit on the board of Lululemon Athletica, one of the companies in Advent’s portfolio. But when Mussafer called again later to offer her the chance to become an operating partner for a fashion retailer to be acquired, Ming was ready to jump back into the business.

“During my travels, particularly in Asia, which was a real inspiration, I started to get creative again,” she recalls. “Sometimes, when you’re in the midst of running a business, it’s hard to see what’s going on around you – you’re under a lot of pressure to deliver. When you step away, you can start to imagine more possibilities. I got excited about retail again. I was refreshed and I realized how much I loved the business.”

She joined Advent in September of 2008 and took on the challenge of picking a fashion retailer of sufficient scale that was underperforming its potential. Ming persuaded Advent to buy Charlotte Russe, Inc, a troubled chain of 500 stores with over $800 million in sales, mostly to young adult women. Advent took the company private in 2009 and placed Ming in charge of guiding its turnaround.

“Charlotte Russe was at the top of my wishlist,” Ming explains. “It was trending well — focused on ‘fast fashion’, good value products, a brand with young adults and some good retail space. Those customers are fickle – they tend to have little loyalty. If you can get the proposition right, they’ll come right into your store immediately. It wasn’t broken, but it was in need of new strategies, new people and new ideas. It basically was the “C-” student in its competitive set.”

But the biggest challenge Ming faced was persuading Charlotte Russe to agree to be acquired in a leveraged buyout.

“Just because you have the money, that doesn’t mean you can just walk in and buy a business!” she says. “As experienced business leaders, Operating Partners tend to be action-oriented, so sometimes having to wait around for things to happen is just not normal. The process took longer and involved much more back and forth than I expected—but for private equity, the deal actually went pretty quickly.

“But I enjoyed learning about it as we went along — areas like due diligence and valuations, for example. During the deal, I would go along and sit in on meetings so I could learn about the business of buying a company. It gave me a chance to do a lot of planning and strategizing, so I could hit the ground running in the first 100 days.”

To help bring about the cultural and image transformation Ming felt Charlotte Russe needed, she divided the chain’s management offices between its original one in San Diego and a small San Francisco office staffed with former colleagues she recruited. Ming divides her time between the two offices.

Ming had some difficulty getting used to the fact that, unlike at Old Navy, she isn’t the executive who actually runs Charlotte Russe.

“As an OP, you’re on the board of directors, but you’re often not the person who’s doing everything — you’re advising them and guiding them. You do have to be careful about your role. I’m a real doer by instinct. I have to be conscious about that. I can be strategic; I can be a supporter offering advice, expertise and experience — but I had to learn that.”

Jenny Ming was born in Canton, China, in 1955. She was three months old when her parents decided to flee the country’s communist regime. Her family walked most of the few miles that separated their hometown from Macao, then a Portuguese colony. Her parents carried Jenny. Her sister, 4, and her brother, 2, walked.

In 1964 the family moved to America. Jenny was nine then, the middle child of five. The family settled in San Francisco’s North Beach district. Ming recalled her first years as an immigrant quite clearly, even forty years later.

Ming’s uncanny feel for the aspirational factor driving the fashion purchases of young women may have been acquired in those first years in America.

“I wanted to be American so badly,” she told New York Times. “I loved the food. I loved Halloween: I couldn’t believe there was a holiday where they gave out candy. I didn’t have a costume, only a mask. Early in the evening I tripped, fell and cut my chin. The blood dripped down my neck. No one noticed.”

From an early age Ming translated her hopes into hard work. While in high school she worked as a bank teller and a Macy’s salesperson to earn her own spending money. She also sewed her own clothes and became skillful enough to take out a newspaper ad as a seamstress.

Her mother discouraged Jenny’s interest in fashion and pushed her toward a career as a pharmacist. At San Jose State University Ming majored in home economics. As she explained in an interview conducted by her daughter Kameron for CosmoGIRL, the turning point came when her college boyfriend Mitchell Ming — whom she later married — told her, “You love clothes. You should be a retail buyer. You should take some business classes.”

Jenny Ming graduated in 1978 with a bachelor of arts in clothing merchandising and a minor in marketing. Her first job was assistant manager of the hosiery department at a Mervyn’s department store in Colma, California. A promotion to manager of the linens department forced Ming to confront her own inability to assert her authority. “You’re never going to make it in this business because you’re such a pushover,” the store manager told Ming.

“I was heartbroken,” Ming recalls. “I’d only been in the business nine months and already someone was saying I wasn’t going to make it!” Her husband advised her to simply tell the workers what kind of performance she expected of them. That advice seemed to have done the trick. Ming was soon recognized as an excellent manager who merited a promotion to the more important junior wear department. It was from that position that she was recruited by Gap CEO Millard S. Drexler.

One of her earlier successes was persuading Gap to sell their basic T-shirts all year instead of just in the spring/summer months and to expand the line from six colors to dozens of trendy hues.

Jenny and husband Mitchell have three children Kristin, Korbin and Kameron. Mitchell heads up Korbin Kameron Winery. Son Korbin is the winery’s sales & marketing manager. The Vineyard sites on 180 acres on Sonoma County’s Mount Veeder. In her spare time Jenny enjoys tennis and cooking.