Mark Syrstad, who’s the boss at Sheplers Inc.—the world’s leading retailer of Western-style clothing, country-inspired apparel, and authentic work wear—has recently taken to calling North Texas home. Sheplers, founded in 1899, was based in Wichita, Kan., until last March, when it quietly relocated its headquarters to Arlington. (The company’s distribution, finance, and accounting functions remain in Kansas.) Syrstad came to Sheplers in July 2007, after the company was acquired by Gryphon Investors, a San Francisco-based private-equity firm. Previously, he held top executive positions with companies including Carter’s Retail Stores, Stride Rite Corp., and Eddie Bauer Inc. Born in San Antonio and reared in Southern California, Syrstad says he’s aiming to move Sheplers beyond its traditional customer base—working cowboys and rodeo performers—to appeal to more fashion-forward men and women who like the “casual-country” look.

photography by Joshua Martin
Title: President and CEO, Sheplers Inc.

Age: 55

Your secret for looking so youthful? Retail keeps you young, because you’re constantly looking at newness, at a real wide variety of things. You can’t become insulated. I’m a cultural surfer, absorbing everything from MTV to magazines and books.

Why the move to Arlington? Ten of the top 12 Western-apparel manufacturers are based in North Texas, so it made sense to move the company’s “offense”—sales, marketing, brand-building—to Dallas to be close to them.

Best part of your current job: Seeing happy customers. Our offices are elevated—in a mezzanine in the middle of the Arlington store—so I can look out and see the customers making real-time purchases. I see the pride and joy they have walking out.

Management style: I used to think I was a control freak. Now I just think I have a high ‘need to know’!

Challenges: With a company that’s been around for more than 100 years, it’s probably the cultural issues. I work hard at embracing the tenured employees. I applaud their new ideas, and I ask them to tell me what the customers think. I want to respect the store’s history and heritage; I just don’t want to be held hostage to it.

Typical day: One of the things I like about retailing is, it’s never typical. I do everything from merchandising to touring the sales floor; I take care of the customers and the board of directors; I sit in when the manufacturers’ reps show their new lines.
Movies I’m looking forward to the new James Bond movie. Fast cars, great locations around the world. It’s kind of like taking a mental vacation. 

First job: I ran the show productions at an amusement park near Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California called Japanese Village and Deer Park.

Worst job: Being a janitor at a supermarket in Orange, Calif. Cleaning the toilets every day, dumping out hundreds of overflowing ashtrays, jumping into garbage dumpsters.

Recent purchase: I just bought an Amazon Kindle. They’re amazing.

Hobbies: I enjoy high-end cars. I have a Mercedes SL55, a BMW 6 Series, and a Porsche 911.

Family: I have three daughters. One’s a senior at the University of Southern California; one’s a psychologist in Florida; and one’s a banker in Bakersfield, Calif.

Advice: You need to learn from the past, but don’t get bound up by it. Stay close to your customers, and stay close to your employees, because they’re both moving targets. If you assume you know what they think, you’re setting yourself up for a fall.