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Former Calvin Klein CEO shares wisdom about fit and strategies for success

By Heather Hudson


When Tom Murry was 18, he learned a lesson about work that he never forgot.

The son of an oil executive, he was handed a job on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Stepping onto the rig for the first time, 80 miles off the shores of Louisiana, he wore a brand-new uniform and carried a pristine helmet – and was instantly met with a wave of hostility. “I quickly learned that I had taken one of the regular worker’s jobs,” he said.

“On the first night, I was in the shower and guys started shoving me back and forth… I thought I might be fighting for my life.”

As a high school wrestler, Murry was able to defend himself and prove he was up to the job and the environment. Over the next few months, he learned a lot about the importance of contributing to a team, finding your place within a diverse group of co-workers and working long and hard. “These takeaways helped shape and form me at an impressionable age. I learned that even if it’s not your ideal job, you can figure out a way to make it work and learn something along the way.”

It was a critical early experience for a man who would go on to retire as CEO of Calvin Klein, after 17 years of growth, including building the business from $2.8 billion in global retail sales to $7.7 billion. He says the most essential part of becoming successful is finding not only the right fit, but a great fit.

“A great fit goes beyond liking your job or being competent – it’s a place where you belong, where your talents are both fully expressed and needed, and where you can serve the greatest number of people.”

We asked Murry to share some of his hard-earned wisdom about creating the right conditions for a satisfying career, cultivating the right fit for your workplace and strategies for personal and professional success.


Career in a capsule

While his adventure on the oil rig might have helped shape the man he would become, the direction of his career took a sharp turn away from manual labour. Always interested in fashion, Murry worked in a men’s store after school and during summers throughout high school and college, where he majored in psychology and minored in marketing.

He began his official career at Head Ski and Tennis Wear, an active apparel company, starting in sales and ending up in merchandising. From there, he moved on to a large women’s apparel company called College Town (now Intuitions). It was there that he got his “PhD in the apparel industry.”

“The CEO recognized potential in me and hoped that, over time, I could replace him. He gave me the opportunity to go from department to department and do nothing but learn for a year,” said Murry.

He learned the ins and outs of merchandising, manufacturing, finance and distribution before ultimately deciding to move on to become president of Tahari, a women’s clothing company. After seven years, he was recruited to join Calvin Klein, where he worked for 17 years, primarily in the role of CEO.


Why the right fit matters

Murry recognized early on the importance of the right fit. “In order to be successful, you’ve got to feel good about the work you do and look forward to your workdays. It’s also helpful to be part of a team you enjoy working with,” he said.

“I always worked in a team culture and, as CEO, worked hard to establish and maintain a good team environment. It was a key reason we were so successful at Calvin Klein.”

He says he always had an HR partner who was his right hand in many ways, helping to nurture a positive culture and find people who were the right fit for the team. “We developed almost a sixth sense about who would fit in, enjoy being part of our team and prosper. I relied heavily on my HR partner because she knew exactly who worked out, who didn’t and why. We applied our learnings and got better at it over the years.”


Knowing when to walk away from the wrong fit

Murry’s sixth sense for fit was honed earlier in his career – particularly when he had to make a tough (and unpopular) decision based on nothing but instinct.

Starting out in sales at Head Ski and Tennis Wear, the CEO recognized Murry’s potential and quickly promoted him to head of merchandising. This meant that all designers reported to him. “The head designer was 45 and I was in early 20s. It didn’t take long to realize that I was in over my head,” he said.

After floundering for a short time, he decided to have a difficult conversation with the CEO. “I told him that I was flattered that he thought I could do the job, but I wasn’t ready, and it wasn’t fair to the company, to him or to me.

“He said, ‘Tom, it’s either sink or swim.’ And I said, ‘Or swim away,’ but he didn’t think that was funny.”

Murry ultimately went back to sales and continued growing. “I learned a lot in sales because you have to listen. It was a great growing experience.” When he went back into merchandising, he was more mature and was able to apply what he’d learned in sales.

“When it comes to finding the right fit, you have to know what your limitations are and be realistic. Sometimes you should just hang in there and make sure that you get it right eventually, but sometimes the leap is too big. It’s important to know the difference.”


“Keep going”

Another piece of wisdom that came from his youth was the advice to “keep going” no matter what. “Someone very smart said that to me when I was young, and I never forgot it.

“Work is not always going to be fun and you’re going to run into difficult times in your life, everyone does, in their career or personal life, but you have to dust yourself off and keep going,” said Murry.

Despite his career success, Murry says he experienced his share of failure when he had to put into practice his one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mantra. One memorable setback was when he purchased Intuitions with a partner without doing the proper due diligence. The business ended in failure and he was discouraged and disappointed.

“I was 40 years old at the time and had been successful in everything before that. We looked at each other and said, ‘This is not going to work. We’re going to have to close this down and move on.’”

Murry took off for a head-clearing run and returned with a new strategy and go-forward plan. He reached out to a recruiting company and began entertaining multiple offers before choosing to work for Tahari. “From that day forward I didn’t look back. Everything from then on was onward and upward.”

Although it was a difficult time, he says the misstep was a learning opportunity he wouldn’t have wanted to change.

Murry believes in optimism and the long-term. “I’ve always been a positive person, perhaps I was born with it and it’s part of the reason for my success. If it’s not natural, you have to try hard to achieve that attitude because it’ll make everything easier and more enjoyable.”

Since he retired from Calvin Klein in 2015, Murry’s had time to reflect on the highs and lows of a career and a life well lived. His forthcoming book, A Great Fit, offers insights into what went into the successes and challenges in his life.


From an oil rig to the boardroom, sometimes the right fit is all a matter of perspective.




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