PacSun General Counsel and HR leader Craig Gosselin believes building a great brand starts with building a great team.
By Carla Rover
Craig Gosselin, General Counsel and Human Resources (HR) leader for iconic American brand Pacific Sunwear, believes that managing legal and HR affairs for a major brand warrants the same outlook as doing so for a smaller company: The emphasis has to be on core values and trust.
Granted, Gosselin’s approach has the challenge of scale—the company has more than 8,000 employees—but he believes that maintaining company values with consistency at every level of employee interaction requires an aggregated form of meditated, strategic thinking which is both adaptive and values-centric.
“At PacSun we have core values that we live by: trust, individual excellence, creativity and passion,” Gosselin said. “The trick is living it all the time, and not just having it displayed on the wall.”
From Wall Street to the Golden Coast
Pacific Sunwear, also known as PacSun, is the quintessential California youth brand; with 640-plus stores across America, the company has been based in Orange County for more than 30 years. It has approximately $900 million in annual revenue.
While Gosselin, who has been dubbed the “minister of culture” by employees, spends a significant amount of his time leading efforts to enhance and promote employee well-being and corporate values, he also has considerable legal background to match his enthusiasm for the “human side” of corporate culture. Gosselin worked as a securities and mergers and acquisitions lawyer in the late 1980s, cutting his teeth in the fast-paced finance world of initial public offerings and leveraged buyouts. He landed at Vans in 1992, staying for nearly 13 years as general counsel and head of HR.
Starting Over at the Top
After Vans was sold to VF Corp, Gosselin searched for the right opportunity in California and eventually found himself at PacSun, where the former CEO of Vans had become CEO and begun a massive effort to turn around the then-struggling company. Again, Gosselin emphasized that a focus on core values helps build not only individual careers but also employee morale and companies as a whole.
“I think that when you are able to establish trust, this is what enables you to succeed—at any stage of your career,” Gosselin said. “Whether it is someone coming to you with an HR issue or a legal issue, trust has to be established as a leader and a decision-maker, or else it is very hard to fix anything.”
Trust, according to Gosselin, has to be grown over time and has to be rebuilt with every new opportunity. During PacSun’s turnaround phase, Gosselin worked on supporting team cohesiveness and building trust as the company moved forward.
Creating an Inspiring Workplace
Gosselin’s approach to his role in HR also means that he is proactive in promoting corporate values in ways that are engaging for employees.
“This year we implemented several initiatives designed to really make PacSun feel like PacSun should; that is, the epitome of California lifestyle,” Gosselin said. “We want associates to come to work and really feel like the are coming to PacSun, not just another office building.”
To this end, Gosselin put together a “culture committee” that meets monthly and has developed more than 20 initiatives, ranging from building a skatepark on premises to bringing yoga classes to employee events—all designed to promote the uniquely Californian aspects of PacSun culture along with the company’s core values.
“We designed all of these initiatives to make PacSun even more welcoming. We want to be the place where people in the industry want to come to and stay throughout their careers.”
Looking at HR as Asset Building
At the core of PacSun’s efforts, Gosselin said, is a belief that the success of the company is not rooted solely in its consumer-facing efforts; rather, a significant portion of the company’s future is reliant on the well-being and morale of its employees.
“Our CEO has said that everything at PacSun starts with our people,” Gosselin said. “We have to attract the right people and retain the right people, and we have to create pathways for them to grow.”
Gosselin, while handling HR, is at the same time general counsel for the company. In 2011, he collaborated on a massive restructuring of its real estate portfolio with the company’s CEO and CFO, while simultaneously closing a $60-million financing with Golden Gate Capital and a $100-million line of credit with Wells Fargo.
“That’s another example of teamwork and trust,” he said, attributing PacSun’s ability to grow and streamline while making progress on important internal initiatives to management’s commitment to its employees and a patient working-out of company values. Gosselin’s secret to managing so many roles is simple: a commitment to the task at hand.
Managing the Unpredictable
“You can’t say, ‘I can’t get this project done because an emergency happened,’” Gosselin said. “Life doesn’t work that way, that’s an unacceptable answer for me.”
Gosselin believes that to live the “failure-is-not-an-option” maxim is to commit to the discipline of long-term strategic thinking and a heightened level of organization that allows one to make adjustments when life becomes unpredictable.
“We aren’t robots, we don’t get to do the same things every day. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you have to be ready to adapt, but we should never be satisfied and never stop trying to get better.”
Carla Rover is a freelance writer based in Miami, Florida.