RAEN CEO on Business Trends, New Role at Linksoul, and His Fight with Cancer
2020 was quite the year for RAEN CEO Jeff Fitzhugh. Not only did he help lead RAEN through the pandemic, but he also took on an additional role as President of golf lifestyle brand Linksoul.
And, Jeff was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer.
We talked to Jeff about all of that including a coming hiring spree at RAEN and how his diagnosis has changed his perspective on life.
How did 2020 turn out for RAEN?
RAEN CEO and Linksoul President Jeff Fitzhugh: I’m happy to report that our overall global business grew 48% over prior year. We are extremely pleased with these results.
We learned a ton about what’s ultimately important to RAEN and we were able to focus on very valuable brand development decisions for the coming years.
We know the pandemic has been hard on many people and companies, though, and we really feel for everybody. It was especially difficult to watch many of our retail partners go through the ups and downs of the pandemic. As a company, we value our relationships with our retail partners and in many cases consider them family.
What worked well for the brand?
Jeff Fitzhugh: Sunglasses grew 59% over prior year in global sales. It’s very interesting that much of our sunglass sales are to consumers purchasing multiple pairs within 12 months. I’m super impressed that we are becoming their consistent “go to” brand. This is a great indicator that we are providing consumers what they are looking for in a sunglass brand.
Our prescription frames and lens business also really took off in 2020. Globally, our 2020 RX business experienced significant growth over prior year and it shows our brand is expanding in popularity outside of the sunglass space.
On the global front, we transitioned most of Europe from a distributor model to a subsidiary model three years ago. We are now direct in most countries in Europe and we have certainly taken advantage of this opportunity in providing better service. Not only are we now able to better control our brand and increase gross margins, but we are also able to directly drive retailer and end customer relationships with our own employees.
Lastly, and what I’m most proud of, our customer service team performed incredibly well for RAEN. We always say that companies compete with product but win with customer service.
How much did DTC grow in 2020?
Jeff Fitzhugh: Like most brands, we did see a significant shift in consumer shopping behavior. Our DTC business had a nice increase in revenue over prior year which helped keep us healthy and in a position of momentum. It also kept our inventory levels healthy and we didn’t have to become promotional which would have hurt our retailer sales and margins.
As you would expect, sunglasses are a seasonal business and the pandemic started during our busiest shipping months of the year. We reacted quickly with goals to support our retailers who remained open and worked hard with at-once replenishment orders so they could capitalize on turns.
Once most stores were able to open their doors, we quickly became either the No. 1 or No. 2 selling eyewear brand with most of our retail partners. Sell through was very brisk – some of the best turns I have ever seen.
We will do everything possible to maintain our current position and will continue to be extremely grateful to our retail partners and loyal consumers.
Will you add new positions at RAEN in 2021? If so, in what kinds of areas?
Jeff Fitzhugh: Yes! We have budgeted for 16 new positions for 2021. I actually think we may need more. It seems crazy but based on our growth we really need it.
Here’s a short list of the positions we will be hiring within the next couple of months: Vice President of Marketing, Director of Supply Chain, Demand Planner, Social Media Community Manager, E-Commerce Merchandiser/Coordinator, Marketing Coordinator, RX Business Unit Manager and Product Coordinator.
Tell us about taking on the President’s role at Linksoul.
Jeff Fitzhugh: Linksoul is such a dynamic brand and company. Both RAEN and Linksoul share investors and board members, so there’s great synergies between the two companies. And I’ve known Linksoul founder John Ashworth for years. John is not only a legend in the golf world, but also part of golf royalty due to the successes and impact he made with his previous company Ashworth Golf.
John and I have been discussing for a couple of years how I can get involved with Linksoul while I’m still in my current position as CEO at RAEN. We finally figured a structure that worked well for both Linksoul and RAEN and I started as the President four months ago. John is still the CEO at Linksoul and is a tremendous leader.
Both John and Geoff Cunningham are absolute masters at building product lines, marketing collateral and brand development. John realized that he needed to free up more of his time so that he can focus on those things. Since I’ve started at Linksoul, I’ve been able to dig in and start to learn their processes and take much of the business management off of John’s plate.
You recently went through a battle with cancer. How are you now, and what was that experience like?
Jeff Fitzhugh: Yes, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma (cancer of the bone marrow) last May. I have been receiving great care through Dr. Amrita Krishnan at City of Hope. She’s regarded at one of the top specialists in the world for Multiple Myeloma. Last November, I had a bone marrow transplant and was in the hospital for a month. The results from the transplant have been great. I am already in deep remission and due to my maintenance protocol will continue to keep my cancer in remission for a long time.
Cancer has changed me in a profound way. I look at life through a different lens now. I’ve never asked, “why me?” Instead, I ask “why not me?” I have made so many great friends that also have Multiple Myeloma that support and share information with each other all of the time. I’m in the process of organizing a charity golf tournament to help other patients with Multiple Myeloma. Treatments can be costly if not covered by insurance. Fortunately, cancer hasn’t slowed me down. I had to take a break for the transplant and time to recover. Overall, I’m still working long hours and having fun doing it. More fun than ever before!
Has your perspective on life or work changed after that?
Jeff Fitzhugh: It certainly has. When diagnosed, you immediately realize that life is fragile and can change at any moment. I’m not sure why, but when I was first diagnosed and the doctor said, “you have cancer,” I did not have that “oh crap” moment or fall into a deep depression. Instead, I remained positive, started doing research and got on my game face.
I started working out like a fiend, changed my diet and kept a smile on my face at all times. After all, I’m not dying from cancer, I’m living with cancer. And that’s the attitude you need to have if you battle this disease. Cancer is not fun. It’s downright ugly and difficult to fight. But you have to get focused and deal with it head on. There’s no shortcuts or easy paths. I view this as a competition and I’m a fierce competitor.