Five Observations from the Gap Brand CEO

Mark Breitbard holds a Babson pullover he received as a gift while Stephen Spinelli looks on

As a visiting assistant professor of practice in entrepreneurship at Babson College, Stephen Brand brings a wealth of real-world experience to the classroom. But, he also knows that his isn’t the only valuable perspective. That’s why he is always looking for opportunities to bring CEOs and other executives to his classroom.

“It’s essential,” said Brand, who has worked at Babson in various capacities since 2014 and once had more than two dozen speakers speak to his courses in a semester. “I want students to hear real stories from real business leaders with real successes and real failures and a real sense of resiliency.” He says when they hear multiple speakers, students begin to see commonalities and connections. “And, you could apply that to any industry you’re in as an entrepreneur or as an entrepreneurial leader of a bigger company.”

Last month, Brand brought another high-profile executive to campus: Mark Breitbard P’26, president and CEO of Gap Brand, who spoke to two classes of Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (FME) students, including his son Zachary Breitbard ’26.

Breitbard is one of a handful of prominent CEOs visiting with students this year, including, but not limited to, Jean Hynes, CEO and managing partner and portfolio manager at Wellington Management; David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock; Jonathan Ram MBA’08, CEO at Clarks; Lila Snyder, CEO at Bose Corporation; Claire Spofford MBA’87, CEO of J. Jill; and Jonathan Zrihen P’25, CEO at Clarins. Plus, Audrey McLoghlin, founder and CEO of the clothing brand Frank & Eileen, spent three days on campus to commemorate the official naming of the Frank & Eileen™ Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (F&E CWEL).

‘Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Needed’

After speaking to the FME classes, Breitbard participated in a fireside chat with President Stephen Spinelli Jr. MBA’92, PhD, in front of more than 100 people at Joseph L. Winn Auditorium, where he shared insights from his journey and his experience as the CEO of one of the world’s most successful and ubiquitous clothing brands.

Mark Breitbard speaks into a microphone while sitting in a chair
Mark Breitbard P’26, president and CEO of the Gap Brand, shared his insights with two FME classes before the fireside chat. (Photo: Mark Manne)

Spinelli led a conversation about the Gap’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pace of business, and the proliferation of brands. Breitbard also fielded thoughtful, sometimes probing, questions from students in the audience. Among Breitbard’s observations:

On reacting to the pandemic: “In a business, cash is oxygen,” Breitbard said. “So, for us, COVID hit and we had to go into cash preservation mode, and that meant a lot of really brutal decisions.” He described decisions such as not paying rent to landlords and furloughing employees. “These are landlords we’ve had very strong, long-term relationships with. And, these are employees we’ve had long relationships with and we care about. It was a total crisis.”

On infusing entrepreneurship in existing businesses: “One of the things I love about Babson is (that its) entrepreneurial spirit is needed in companies. (Entrepreneurship is) not just starting your business. Companies need it, and sometimes they don’t like the way it feels or they don’t know that they need it. I got performance reviews in my first four or five years, and I was always told I was entrepreneurial. It was never said as a compliment, but companies need entrepreneurial thinking.”

On the increasing pace of business: “The consumer is moving at a pace that’s just incredible in terms of how quickly trends, brands come and go—4,000 new brands every week on Instagram and TikTok. It’s incredible. There are zero barriers to entry, but at the same time, there’s not a lot of loyalty and the pace is very high. I think that our job as a company is to get out of people’s way. And, my job is to unlock energy and allow people to do what they know how to do.”

“It reinforced that how you do business is so important to this emerging generation. They are super hungry to drive business and to meet consumer needs, but they also want to save the world.”
Mark Breitbard P’26, president and CEO of Gap Brand

On preparing for adversity and setbacks: “We have a financial plan, and you know what’s going to happen? Everything. A ton of stuff is going to happen. Fabric is not going to deliver on time. We’ve had containers fall off of boats. We’ve had issues in the business—storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, store closures, nor’easters. Things are going to happen. And, guess what? We have to make a plan. So, that just means how do you figure out how the adversity is part of it. And, your response is to handle things as best you can with transparency, own it, and move forward.”

On the three main responsibilities of a CEO: “It’s basically people, people, and people. It’s just building culture and unleashing energy. One of my most profoundly held philosophies is about energy. Consumers feel energy, employees feel energy. So, my job is to bring energy and make sure other people bring their energy, and that’s why people, people, and people is one, two, and three.”

After a long day of sharing his wisdom and experience with students, Breitbard left the Babson campus impressed by their engagement and their questions, particularly around sustainability and diversity.

“It reinforced that how you do business is so important to this emerging generation,” Breitbard said. “They are super hungry to drive business and to meet consumer needs, but they also want to save the world.”

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