A Conversation With the CEO of Drunk Elephant, Tim Warner

Tim Warner, CEO of Drunk Elephant, and Shella Abe, Partner at True Search, caught up over coffee in the library of the NoMad Hotel in NYC and talked about Tim’s move to Drunk Elephant and how to be an impactful leader.

Prior to Drunk Elephant, Tim was CEO of Urban Decay Cosmetics and Executive Vice President at Benefit.

The Decision to Join Drunk Elephant

Shella: You’ve worked with some incredible brands throughout your career… what runs through your head when you’re considering taking on a new role with a new company?

Tim: You’ve got to love the brand. If I don’t really think the brand is cool, interesting or different… nobody can change that; nobody can sell me on that. I either love it or hate it.

Shella: What was it about Drunk Elephant specifically that spoke to you or stood out from other opportunities you’ve been presented with?

Tim: It’s always great to join a brand that already has headwind. And because the company is small, you can make decisions really quickly. You can implement really fast. So that was super intriguing to me. I’ve never seen a brand grow so quickly. I’ve seen a lot in my career but nothing quite like this. It’s just phenomenal.

I’ve always really loved the brand. Drunk Elephant has such a great story. Who would call a skincare brand Drunk Elephant? But that’s what I find interesting; it goes against convention. I like to align with unexpected things.

Shella: Drunk Elephant’s founder, Tiffany has mentioned that the responses to the “Drunk Elephant” name were initially all over the map.

Tim: Yeah, I still ask her, “Where did that come from?” I mean, it’s still kind of amazing. If it wasn’t called that, it wouldn’t be the same as it is today. It’s unpredictable and there is so much predictable out there.

Shella: So, this is the third time that you’ve worked directly with a founder. You seem to enjoy that and have this ability to bring out the best in them.

Tim: Yes, I do like working with founders. I love getting the most out of them; especially creating a business model that allows them to dream. It requires patience, intuition and an ability to not react impulsively.

Finding The Right People

Shella: When it comes to building out a team, how do you go about it?

Tim:
Honestly, I’m recruiting all the time. I’m always meeting people and thinking, “Hmm… maybe I want to hire them now, maybe I’ll want to hire them later.”

I’m often a risk-taker when it comes to hiring people. Just because that person hasn’t exactly done “that” before, I’m not so sure that they can’t. I look for the attributes and then see if they understand the principles of it. I like to give people opportunities to do things they haven’t done before, to push them.

I’m creating jobs for good people versus finding people for good jobs.

Shella: You’ve built some incredible leadership teams. Why do you think you’ve been so successful with that?

Tim:
That’s kind of hard. Recognizing people for their strengths is a big part of it. The people that say they’re good at everything, they’re not. I like to talk to people and find out what they are really good at and see if I can create a job around that. In a small organization everyone has to cover a lot of territory and stretch themselves.

Drunk Elephant was maybe a team of 17 when I started; since then we’ve grown exponentially.

Shella: When I once asked what inspires you, you answered “beating the big guys.”

Tim: Yeah, that’s inspiring to me because nobody can take you for granted. You don’t need to be a really big company to be successful; you need to have super smart people.

Leadership: The Importance of Relationships

Shella: Let’s talk about leadership. The ability to be a strong guide—you are either born with it or hone it over time. For you, do you think it’s just naturally a part of who you are? Or is it something that over the years, you’ve been able to develop?

Tim: I think it’s a little bit of both. I’ve internally always tried to push myself into places where I’m not really sure I really belong.

My whole journey has been unconventional. Even in college, I wasn’t great at math but still majored in finance because I thought it was something that would push me. Then after I graduated, I looked for jobs in banking. I don’t know if I wasn’t the right personality or just not the right fit, but nothing ever happened. So I interviewed with the retail store, I. Magnin, for no other reason than because I loved retail. I had no plan on doing that at all, I had a finance degree. After six months in their accounting department, I realized that it was really boring—all my friends were the buyers and assistant buyers, all these big personalities and eclectic people. I realized that I wanted to go into merchandising. They offered me cosmetics—I didn’t know anything about cosmetics.

Shella: So pushing yourself sparked what would become a wildly successful career in the world of beauty….

Tim: Yeah, I didn’t really realize what it was until I got in there. Cosmetics at a retail store is a lot of numbers, it’s a lot of inventory—and relationships. It was very interesting. I was with a small retailer and didn’t have the biggest pen in town. But I had the coolest store so everybody wanted to be in it. It was great relationship building.

Shella: Do you think that’s a top characteristic of a leader? Constant relationship building?

Tim: It’s part of it—constant relationship building at all levels. Those ladies on the floor at I. Magnin drove my business so I made sure they felt rewarded and motivated. I tried to take care of them. It is always about the people and investing in a one-on-one relationship.

But I also have to be very neutral, making sure everyone is working well together. I think I listen a lot more than I talk. Because if you’re not listening to what your people are saying, then you don’t know what’s going on. It’s relationship at all levels, being nice to people. I’ve always made the effort to talk to everyone. That’s sometimes how you can get the most insight—like how I am with you.

Shella: Yeah, I think you have me on speed dial. I hear from you a lot.

Tim: I’ll call you up just out of the blue without having an agenda. “Are you having a good day today?” You placed me at Drunk Elephant but I don’t call because I need something, it’s to continue to develop a relationship—it’s the end of the day and I want to hear how you’re doing.

Shella: There is trust there; I know I can get your take on things. We have a strong partnership having worked together on building out your senior leadership “dream” team. It’s not always easy, but we always manage to figure out the right strategy in finding a solution.

Tim: Yeah, it just takes time—we always figure it out.

Shella: Let’s end with something personal. What makes you laugh?

Tim: It takes a lot to make me laugh.

Shella: We laugh a lot!

Tim: Yeah, you crack me up.


Shella Abe is a Partner at True Search who specializes in conducting CEO and C-suite searches for founders, entrepreneurs and PE/VC investors in the Beauty, Retail and Fashion industries. With over 15 years of executive search experience, Shella continues to successfully partner with founders/owners of high-growth companies to help build dynamic and progressive leadership teams.