Jenny Ming is president of Old Navy, the enormously successful chain of clothing stores owned by Gap, Inc. A retail executive her entire career, Ming has won praise for her skilled management of the 850-store Old Navy division and the seemingly effortless way new fashion trends appear on its racks. She has been with Old Navy since its start in 1994, as part of the team of Gap executives chosen to help launch it, and she was promoted to president in 1999. In 2004, thanks to her impressive track record overseeing a division whose sales had actually outpaced those of its parent company, Ming made her second appearance on Fortune magazine's list of the "50 Most Powerful Women in American Business."
Ming was born in Canton, China, in 1955. Six years earlier, a Communist revolution led by Mao Zedong (1893–1976) had come to power in China, and many middle-class Chinese or those opposed to one-party rule were harassed. (Communism is a system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy and a single party holds power.) The government also confiscated property, and in some cases professionals were forced to take menial labor jobs as part of a "re-education" campaign, which was designed to remake the middle classes into fully supportive communists. When Ming was three months old, her parents decided to flee the country and go to Macao, a small peninsula and two-island territory located on the coast of China's Guangdong Province. At the time, Macao was a Portuguese colony, and had been since the late sixteenth century. Like nearby Hong Kong, a colony belonging to Great Britain, Macao did not become part of Communist China until many years later.
Ming's family had to walk most of the way to Macao. Her parents carried her, while her four-year-old sister and two-year-old brother hiked alongside on the half-day trip. They stayed in Macao for several years until Ming's father, who was a printer by trade, took them to America around 1964, when she was nine years old. No longer the baby of the family, she was the middle child of five by then, and they settled in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Ming recalled her first years as an immigrant quite clearly, even forty years later. "I wanted to be
"[Jenny] 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."
American so badly," she told New York Times journalist Amy Zipkin. "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."
Ming was an ambitious teen and eager to earn her own income. She worked as a bank teller and as a salesperson at Macy's department store when she was a high school student. Like many teenage girls of the era, she also sewed her own clothes. She became so skilled at it that she took out a newspaper ad offering her seamstress services. She was deeply interested in fashion, but her mother hoped she would become a pharmacist, a profession of some prestige. Instead she studied home economics at San Jose State University. Ming's nineteen-year-old daughter, Kameron, interviewed her for an article that appeared in a 2005 issue of CosmoGIRL! and Ming explained how she discovered her career path. Ming recalled that her college-era boyfriend at the time—Kameron's future father—pointed out to her one day, "'You love clothes; you should be a retail buyer. You should take some business classes."' Ming said. "I thought, Why not? Thinking back, that was a really big turning point."
Ming graduated from San Jose State in 1978with a bachelor of arts in clothing merchandising, with a minor in marketing. Her first job was at a Mervyn's department store in Colma, California, as an assistant manager in the hosiery department. She was transferred to the store's linens department as a manager and recalled that the saleswomen she was supervising there were older, part-time employees, mostly homemakers who took the job as a way to get out of the house. They treated Ming like a daughter, and she had some trouble asserting her authority at first. Aside from ringing up sales, not a lot of work seemed to get done in linens. "They'd just talk or take breaks," Ming told her daughter in the CosmoGIRL! interview. The store manager soon noticed the problem, and called Ming into the office to tell her, "'You're never going to make it in this business because you're such a pushover,"' Ming recalled.
"I was heartbroken," Ming remembered feeling that day. "I'd only been in the business nine months and already someone was saying I wasn't going to make it! That night I talked to your dad and he said, 'Just tell them what you need from them."' She went back to work the next day and assembled her staff, telling them, 'I need you to do what you signed on to do. If not, you'll get a new manager who is not going to be as nice as I am."' The women liked Ming and wanted her to succeed in her first job. Their work habits improved, and soon the junior linens-department boss was earning high marks for her management skills.
Ming moved over to junior wear at Mervyn's before she was personally recruited by Gap's chief executive officer, Millard S. Drexler (1944–), in 1986. She joined the San Francisco-based retailer that year as a buyer for its activewear division, and rose quickly within Gap management ranks thanks to her ability to forecast what would sell. For example, she thought that customers might like to see Gap's affordable T-shirts in the stores all the year round, not just in the spring/summer months, and she also expanded the basic T-shirt line from six shades to dozens of hot fashion colors.
Ming became a Gap vice president after three years on the job. In 1994, Drexler named her as a member of a new executive team that would oversee a planned Gap spin-off, to be called Old Navy. The Old Navy stores would sell affordable casualwear basics for men, women, and children. The first Old Navy opened its doors in 1994 in Colma, California, not far from the first job Ming had out of college at Mervyn's. She initially served as senior vice president of merchandising for Old Navy, with responsibilities for production, planning, and distribution. In 1996, she became executive vice president of merchandising for the chain and helped fine-tune the funky, retro-Americana look, with amusing vintage fixtures and signs, for which its stores had become known. She was named president in March 1999.
Old Navy had grown impressively in the five years since that first store had opened in Colma. It reached the $1-billion sales mark in 1997, which retail analysts claimed made it the fastest-growing apparel retail start-up in American business history. By 1999, the year that Ming became president, sales figures from Old Navy stores—513 in all by then—were higher than those from Gap stores. Recognizing a successful concept, Gap executives okayed a major expansion of Old Navy, with a hundred new stores set to open each year. Old Navy had caught on with shoppers because of its reasonable prices for items like cargo pants, one of the trends that Ming forecast early on. "One thing
• 1969: Don Fisher opens the first Gap store on San Francisco's Ocean Avenue, near the campus of San Francisco State University, with his wife Doris. Don Fisher's business experience was in hotels and real estate, but when blue jeans began to become popular in the late 1960s, he had a hard time finding ones that fit his six-foot, one-inch frame properly. He contracted with Levi Strauss … Co., the San Francisco-based jeans maker, to supply the first Gap store with jeans in dozens of variations on waist measurement and length. The company's name came from an often-debated topic of the day, the growing "generation gap" between young people who seemed more relaxed and outrageous and their parents who seemed more reserved and conservative.
• 1970: Gap's second store opens in San Jose, California; sales reach $2 million.
• 1974: Gap kicks off a new "Fall into Gap" advertising campaign; stores also introduce the first private-label Gap merchandise.
• 1976: Gap, Inc. becomes a publicly traded company with an initial public offering (IPO) of stock, with its shares listed on the New York and Pacific Stock exchanges.
• 1983: Gap buys Banana Republic, a two-store company that sold safari and travel gear.
• 1986: The first GapKids store opens in Hillsdale, California.
• 1987: The first overseas Gap store opens on George Street in London, England.
• 1992: Gap becomes the second-largest selling apparel brand in the world.
• 1994: Gap opens its first Old Navy store in Colma, California.
• 1996: Japan gets its first Gap store in a Tokyo retail district.
• 1997:Gap.com, the company's online store, is launched on the Internet.
• 2003: Don Fisher announces his retirement as board chair of Gap, Inc., and is succeeded the following year by his son, Bob.
• 2004: Company revenues reach $16.3 billion. The store is the largest specialty retailer in the United States.
I know best is when to maximize something," she told Business Week. "If I believe in something, I'll push it bigger and harder."
By 2002, there were 842 Old Navy stores across the United States, but further expansion plans were halted after the downturn in the American economy that began in 2001. Though Old Navy had done extremely well under Ming, retail analysts believed that because some of its merchandise was similar to—but cheaper than—lines Gap carried in its stores, this had ultimately threatened the health of the parent company. Gap, Inc.'s overall sales, profit, and stock performance had suffered. Drexler retired in 2002 after nineteen years with the company and was replaced by a Disney executive. Ming's new boss was Paul Pressler (1956–), who had formerly run Walt Disney Theme Parks and Resorts. Recognizing Ming's talents, Gap's board of directors made no changes to the Old Navy executive team.
In 2004, Old Navy celebrated its tenth anniversary in business with a new series of the amusing television ads for which the company had become known. Several celebrities had appeared in the winning ad campaigns over the years, including the late New York Times fashion writer Carrie Donovan (1928–2001) and television-soap vixen Morgan Fairchild (1950–). The 2004 tenth-anniversary campaign featured former Dynasty star Joan Collins (1933–) along with Sherman Helmsley (1938–) and Isabelle Sanford (1917–2004), who played husband and wife on the popular 1970s-era sitcom The Jeffersons. Sales from Old Navy stores continued to exceed those from Gap. Old Navy posted $6.7 billion in sales in 2004, while Gap's U.S. stores moved $5.7 billion in merchandise.
Under Ming, Old Navy continued to introduce fresh, fashion-forward items at affordable prices. Ming devoted a large part of her work life to spotting new trends, and some of her off-work time as well. She was visiting London once and noticed that teens were wearing blue jeans with a darker shade of denim. "So I thought, 'Let's darken our stonewash a little,"' she told Business Week in 2000. "Now, we have a whole section of dark denim." Ming was also known to interrogate her three teenaged children about trends that were either coming or going. Once, she dropped one of the two daughters off at school on a planned "Pajama Day" and noticed that the teen girls were wearing what her daughter had chosen to wear, too—men's pajama bottoms, belted, with a tank top. "I drove away wondering, Why do we have PJ tops? They never wear them," she recalled in an interview with Fast Company. "At the same time, we couldn't sell a lot of pajama sets." Ming voiced the idea of selling just pajama bottoms, and the line became a best-seller at Old Navy stores.
Ming's hobbies include cooking and tennis. Her husband, Mitchell, is involved in the Sonoma County, California, winery industry. When asked by James J. Owens, a writer for a publication of the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, what she considered her greatest accomplishment, Ming replied that it was the fact that she had managed to have both a career and a family. "You don't have to sacrifice your personal life for a career," she told Owens. "I never stopped working to have a family. I took six weeks off and came back to work." Some of the thanks for being able to achieve that balance came from the Gap corporate atmosphere itself; among its fifty-one corporate officers, a record twenty-one are women.
Owens also asked her what kind of legacy she hoped to leave behind. She said she hoped it would be "the team of people who take over. I want the business to thrive and I want whoever replaces me to take the business to another level. I also want to leave behind the process of democratizing our brand: students who make very little money shop in our stores, but so do people who can afford to pay more."
Caminiti, Susan. "Will Old Navy Fill the Gap?" Fortune (March 18, 1996): p. 59.
"Fast Talk: Better by Design." Fast Company (June 2004).
Ming, Kameron. "Shop to the Top!" CosmoGIRL! (March 2005): p. 118.
Nothum, T.R. "Top Woman." Future (Winter 2005).
"Old Navy's Skipper." Business Week (January 10, 2000): p. 64.
"A Savvy Captain for Old Navy." Business Week (November 8, 1999): p. 130.
"Why Gap Isn't Galloping Anymore." Business Week (November 8, 1999): p. 136.
Zipkin, Amy, and Jenny J. Ming. "Tying the Two Strands." New York Times (October 27, 2002): p. BU14.
Executive Leadership Team Biographies: Jenny Ming. http://www.gapinc.com/public/About/abt_leader_ming.shtml (accessed on August 23, 2005).
Women in Leadership Conference: Keynote. http://www.wilconference.org/2003/keynote.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).