San Antonio-born Hermes CEO credits push by family, teachers
SAN ANTONIO (AP) – As a teenager growing up on San Antonio’s South Side in the 1970s, Robert Chavez looked longingly at the clothes in the Frost Bros. department store at North Star Mall.
“I was in awe,” he said. “Of course, I couldn’t afford it.”
Today, Chavez is the president and CEO of Hermes of Paris, where he oversees business operations and represents the 181-year-old luxury brand on a global scale. He returned to San Antonio recently to speak at Burbank High School, wearing an orange tie to reflect his alma mater’s colors, the San Antonio Express-News reported . Chavez was the valedictorian and the ROTC colonel in the class of 1973 and used to walk down Edwards Street to and from school every day.
“In a million years, I never dreamed that I’d be where I am today,” Chavez told a room of about 100 students recently. “I was sitting in your chair 45 years ago.”
Though he had an interest in retail and fashion from an early age, Chavez never intended to pursue a career in those fields. He wanted to be a third grade teacher because he loved Mrs. Rodriguez, his third grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School, and planned to attend an in-state university after graduation.
The farthest Chavez anticipated going was the University of Texas at Austin until a teacher persuaded him to try for the Ivy League. The day he received his acceptance letter from Princeton University, he ran from his family’s home on Hawthorne Street back to Burbank to tell the teacher. Chavez credited the educators at Hillcrest and Burbank with encouraging him to work hard, dream big and expand his horizons.
“I was very fortunate because I had great teachers here who really pushed me and inspired me to go and do beyond what I thought that I could,” he said. “Don’t underestimate your teachers.”
But the news was bittersweet: Chavez’s father died during his junior year, and he worried about leaving his mother and younger brother alone. His mother ultimately persuaded him to go. They couldn’t afford a plane ticket, so Chavez spent two days on a Greyhound bus – “scariest thing I ever did in my life” – traveling from San Antonio to Philadelphia.
The first year at Princeton was hard, and Chavez earned his first C-minus. At a dinner one evening, Chavez recalled his classmates talking about high school graduation gifts. One girl had received an Audi from her parents, and Chavez had no idea what an Audi was and had to ask her. It was an experience he said he learned from.
“I don’t have to be embarrassed, I don’t have to be ashamed just because my family didn’t have money,” he said. “You realize that everybody brings something different to the table.”
Chavez moved to New York City after graduation to work in an executive training program for Bloomingdale’s. He planned to spend a few years working before enrolling in graduate school to become a professor – his undergraduate degree was in romance languages and literature – but “got hooked” on retail. Over the years he rose through the ranks, working for Macy’s and Etienne Aigner before joining Hermes in 2000.
Though the Internet has transformed the industry, any retailer must change to remain relevant, Chavez said. With around 300 stores, Hermes has a limited distribution, which has helped the company “control client experience” and add a personal touch, he said.
Though Chavez didn’t end up becoming a teacher, he said the profession isn’t completely divorced from his job at Hermes. He works with people in every position, from those who got their start in the stockroom like he did to company executives.
“I find myself being able to teach people, whether it’s from my past experience or from all the things that I’m able to bring to the table,” Chavez said. “I love to see people do things that they didn’t think they could do . to help them realize that they have so much more potential than perhaps they thought that they did.”
Chavez, who is in his early 60s, encouraged the students to broaden their horizons, explore new possibilities, follow their dreams and travel. Pursue a career you’re interested in, because otherwise you won’t be passionate about and motivated by it, he said. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s something you can’t do, and don’t desert your roots even when you move on.
“Don’t ever forget where you came from,” he said. “That’s something that I always live by.”
The speech was eye-opening, said Adriana Garcia, an 18-year-old senior at Burbank. Garcia hopes to pursue a career in international business and travel. One of her takeways was “not to give up.”
Another senior, 17-year-old Jose Chavarria, is an aspiring pilot who plans to join the Air Force after college. Chavez was inspiring, he said.
“If we push ourselves, we can do more than we think we are capable of,” Chavarria said.