One-on-one with American Eagle CEO

Megan Welch

Jim O’Donnell, Class of ’63 and CEO of American Eagle Outfitters, visited campus on Sept. 26 to speak to students about the retail process. He and several other American Eagle employees gave students an in-depth description of the day-to-day activities a big-name retail organization faces.

They particularly described the benefits of working in an ever-changing, fast-paced business, where new is old very quickly.

O’Donnell prides himself on his understanding of the demographic to which his product is tailored: 15 to 25 year olds.

“You’re always in the headset of young people,” he said, referring to his role as CEO of the company.

American Eagle invests heavily in its internship program as a way to provide new recruits with actual experience and allow them to be an integral part of the company.

O’Donnell strives to make American Eagle Outfitters, whose career motto is “Live Your Life, Love Your Job,” the kind of organization where coming to work is a positive experience.

“We keep the fun factor and energy factor at a maximum,” he said.

O’Donnell sat down with The Villanovan to impart a little wisdom that is the secret to his success:

Q: What was your favorite part about Villanova?

A: The parties! Actually, I really did enjoy academic life, and I must say that my last two years I really enjoyed the learning process – more than anything it was the ability to meet different people from all over the United States and even all over the world. I also formed some pretty good relationships with some of my professors. It was growing up. It wasn’t high school. I was a young man, and not that things were so serious, but it really took on a whole new perspective. I found myself interested in more things, and it helped me to be more inquisitive, which I have carried forward into today. If you ask questions you are going to get answers, and with answers you are going to get know-ledge, and that’s what they kind of taught me.

Q: I heard you might be Villanova’s No. 1 fan. What do you think of the basketball team this year?

A: I think they are pretty good actually. The recruiting class – I mean, they have a few young guys, but they are very talented – extremely talented – and I think they are going to surprise some people. They are going to be good this year, and if they stay healthy, they are going to be really good next year.

Q: How did Villanova help you in terms of finding your place in the corporate world?

A: The University really gave me professional and personal discipline. As a young guy in the last year of college, you start to envision – uh oh, what do I have to do now? – the real world is coming up fast on me. Versus when you are a sophomore or a junior, especially when you are a junior, you kind of know your way around. You think you’re kind of cool, but when you hit senior year, you really start to look at things a little differently. I thought they really gave me a good perspective and also real discipline in approaching problem solving as well as how I approached life.

Q: What goals did you set for yourself after you graduated, and do you feel you have achieved these goals?

A: Actually yes – more so than I ever would’ve thought. When I graduated, I wanted to be successful. I don’t think I could’ve defined what successful was, but I knew it wasn’t just about making money. I really wanted to make an impact in something, primarily in business. And I think I have achieved many milestones.

Q: I absolutely agree, but if you could change one thing about your career what would it be?

A: I probably made a bad decision when I was in my early 30s, and I took a job with this small company that I took for the wrong reasons. I should’ve done a little more research about the company. It ended up being a positive, but it started out as a negative.

Q: What is your favorite part of your job now?

A: I just love working with our people, and I love the product. There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing people grow, especially our young people – watching them come in, taking on major responsibilities and actually succeeding. It’s very, very gratifying. It’s above the numbers. The team makes the results, but watching these people grow and become an integral part of the company- I can’t tell you how gratifying that is.

Q: What values make American Eagle Outfitters an ideal place to work for the college student or recent college graduate?

A: Our values are pretty simple. They are listed by definition: our people No. 1; they’re the ones that make it go. We have a very high level of integrity with our employees, our customers and our shareholders. We’re passionate about what we do. We feel really strongly about teamwork, and we have a strong amount of innovation in our company, which is a key component to whatever success we have enjoyed.

Q: What do you think is the most important issue facing students today?

A: Other than graduating, I think that there is always insecurity with being a student. I think getting through that insecurity, getting some accomplishments and getting the self confidence – that’s big. Coming out of school, you can’t be cocky, but you really need to be confident. You have to be able to have a good sense of who you are. You don’t have to exactly know where you are going in life. You don’t have to be that serious, but you really have to be confident that whatever you are going to do, you have that innate ability to go out and succeed. And I really believe you have to have a real strong sense of integrity. I think Villanova does that for its students; I know it imparts integrity through the curriculum, and I think it is exemplified not only in how the University runs, but in the staff and in its reputation in academia.

Q: What advice would you give to students leaving school and entering the real world?

A: Don’t be too serious. Don’t get so paranoid that you really don’t project who you are when you are out meeting your future employer. Don’t be afraid to ask some very serious or provocative questions, but always keep them very focused and not ramble. Do your homework, but above everything else do your research. You really want to make sure you are doing something that is compatible with your values and what you see as important to you. And if you do, you are going to be successful.

Q: If you could have one superpower what would it be?

A: I’d probably want to hit a golf ball about 350 yards.