Away, the luggage company valued at $1.45 billion, named co-founder Jen Rubio chief executive officer after she spent two months in the role on an interim basis.
Rubio, 33, is taking the reins at a precarious time. The pandemic upended travel, and Away’s revenue fell by an estimated 55 percent last year, according to Bloomberg Second Measure, which analyzes anonymous consumer transactions. Before that, the company was plagued by a report in December 2019 that its workplace culture, under the leadership of co-founder and then-chief executive Stephanie Korey, upset lower-level employees.
JRSK Inc., which operates as Away, had been cruising since its 2015 founding. Rubio and Korey worked at eyewear brand Warby Parker and used a similar direct-to-consumer business model to disrupt luggage. In 2019, it hit unicorn status after a funding round pushed its value above $1 billion.
Now Rubio, who previously served as Away’s president, has to revive the brand as the company and its investors, which include Wellington Management and Comcast Ventures, eye a potential initial public offering. She succeeds Stuart Haselden, who left in January after taking over from Korey. Bloomberg spoke with Rubio about her new role and Away’s future. She declined to comment on the allegations made against Korey.
Away also brought on Laura Willensky, a veteran of J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret Beauty, to be its first chief commercial officer. Her duties include overseeing merchandising and customer experience.
Why add this position now?
As we look toward a potential IPO and think about our position as a retail company, in addition to a travel brand, we really needed someone in the position with experience. There are a lot of ways we want to mature as a business, and that’s what Laura brings to the table.
As part of that maturation, Away started holding its first discount events to clear out inventory. Promotions in September and March helped boost sales, according to Bloomberg Second Measure data. Will this be a regular occurrence?
Just doing things that a mature retail business should be doing. We’ve learned a lot from these past two sales, but right now there’s no plans to do it with any regularity.
While the company is known for suitcases, it recently launched travel accessories such as neck pillows and compression socks. Before that, Away responded to changing demand during the pandemic, including releasing a pet carrier as adoptions soared. What are your expectations for sales growth in 2021?
Overall, there’s a lot of optimism. As people have travelled differently, we have leaned into the things they’re asking for (like backpacks for more day trips). The versatility of products has been a saving grace. You’ll see more of that from us in the coming year.
The company only sells through its website and about a dozen stores, which are located in big cities such as New York and London. You’ve paused store openings, but plan to reinstate them next year. How has the pandemic impacted where you’ll go next?
Our location strategy is going to change. Before all of this, it was a lot of customers in big cities. There’s a big part of our following that has relocated to places that are smaller cities with a lower cost of living. There’s been a lot of migration. The big question is how long will that last?
You must think a lot about travel. Where are you going once it’s safe?
I don’t have a ton of travel plans this summer because I am expecting a baby in June. Everyone is telling me about their travel plans, and I’m asking the doctor when I can get on a plane with a baby. I’ll be the only person not travelling.