Why Petco’s CEO Choice is So Intriguing



Petco and PetSmart both got new chief executives within a week of one another, but timing may be where the similarities end between these two appointments. That is because the two men come from very different backgrounds.


And while PetSmart’s selection of J.K. Symancyk as CEO was the more obvious choice, given his history in traditional chain retailing—at Walmart, Meijer and Academy Sports + Outdoors—it is Petco’s selection of Ron Coughlin, former president of HP Inc.’s Personal Systems division, that I find intriguing because of its potential upside.


There are two areas, in particular, where this hire could prove to be a game changer for Petco. First, at a time when Millennials are playing an increasingly vital role as a customer base for the retail pet industry, Coughlin brings to his new role a successful track record of engaging this demographic. This was true not only at HP Inc., which he helped make the No. 1 PC company last year, but also in his previous role as chief marketing officer for PepsiCo’s $10-billion-plus international beverage business. In that position, he led a major transformation of the company’s marketing model—a major component of which targeted young consumers—resulting in double-digit revenue growth.


Innovation—particularly in technology—is another area in which Coughlin has excelled. As the leader of HP Inc.’s combined personal and business systems groups, he helped deliver six consecutive quarters of double-digit growth for his division, which generated $33.37 billion and captured 21.8 percent of the worldwide PC market in 2017. According to tech industry experts, this was accomplished through aggressive innovation; but to Coughlin, it was all a matter of listening and reacting to the needs of the consumer.


“A lot of the success we’ve had we attribute to insights. We spent a lot of time mining insights, mining customer needs, and we combine that with our technology and engineering to create products,” he said in an interview with VentureBeat.


In today’s retail environment, where online outlets continue to steal market share from brick-and-mortar stores (particularly the big-boxes), the ability to reach and entice consumers through technology is critical—and, quite frankly, not something that either Petco or PetSmart have historically been very good at. It will be interesting to see how Coughlin’s past technology-focused experience will inform his approach in the retail pet industry.


Which brings us to the fact that, at the end of the day, Coughlin’s past achievements will mean nothing for Petco unless they can be translated for the pet care market. Still, he does have a pretty remarkable history of success in two very different industries; I look forward to seeing what he does in ours.


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