The Profile

Jim Speltz ’97

Leadership learned on the Hill has helped Jim Speltz ’97 shepherd the unique company he loves through troubled water.

By Mike Cullity ’94

It’s Thursday afternoon, and Jim Speltz ’97 is like
a kid in a candy store. 

Escorting a visitor through the product laboratory at the Merrimack, N.H., headquarters of Brookstone, the retailer known for its array of innovative goods and gadgets, Speltz shows off the company’s latest creations, which range from the mother of all baby monitors to a simple hand-held luggage scale designed to make extra baggage fees a thing of the past. 

Dressed casually in jeans, a zip sweater and moccasins—he had donned the prototype memory-foam slippers in his office that morning after discovering a broken heel on the shoes he had worn to work—Speltz describes Brookstone’s product-development operation as one of the best-kept secrets in retail. And judging from his palpable enthusiasm as he moves about the operation’s nerve center, he clearly relishes being a part of it.  

Since joining Brookstone a year after graduating from Holy Cross, Speltz has risen to the rank of president and CEO, a position he assumed in April 2013. His ascent began with an entry-level position in the company’s IT department, and, in over a little more than a decade and a half, he earned several promotions that exposed him to virtually every aspect of Brookstone’s business, from inventory management and planning to supply chain and business development. 

Still, becoming CEO of a $480 million retailer at age 37 is something Speltz never envisioned during his years on the Hill.    

“I had a variety of jobs throughout high school and college, and none of them involved retail,” he says. “And so I would have never pictured this career path.” 

Launched in Peterborough, N.H., as a catalog purveyor of hard-to-find tools, Brookstone will mark its 50th anniversary next year. Over nearly half a century in business, the company has grown into a multichannel retailer operating nearly 250 stores in shopping malls and airports across the country, along with an e-commerce and catalog business. But perhaps more importantly, Brookstone has established a niche by developing proprietary products that it sells through its own channels and wholesales to other well-known retailers, such as Bed, Bath & Beyond and Staples.   

“That creates the distinguishing competitive advantage in the marketplace,” Speltz says. 

But despite its distinctive brand identity, Brookstone hasn’t been immune to tepid consumer demand amid the lukewarm U.S. economy of recent years. As a result, Speltz spent much of his first year at the helm preparing Brookstone for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy-protection filing intended to position the privately held company for sale to one of several suitors. (At presstime, an Asian firm appeared to be the frontrunner.) 

“We’re now at a point where I’ve been able to find a solution for the company, both from a stabilization and a forward-ownership standpoint, that puts us back onto an entirely new playing field, or a new starting point from which we can grow all of the channels,” Speltz says. 

A Wisconsin native who grew up in a military family—his father, Mike, is a West Point graduate—Speltz moved around a lot before his family settled in Londonderry, N.H., when he was a sophomore in high school. When it came time to choose a college, he followed his dad’s advice. 

“He said, ‘I get it, you don’t know what you want to do with your life. … Don’t pick something specific. Go to a liberal arts school and learn how to learn.’ ”

At Holy Cross, Speltz’s leadership potential began to emerge when he became involved with the Appalachia Service Project during spring break of his third year. After traveling with a group of fellow students to Virginia, where they rebuilt homes in a poor community, Speltz led a similar journey to Kentucky as a senior, thanks in part to encouragement he received from Rev. James Hayes, S.J., ’72, associate chaplain, whom Speltz considers the person at Holy Cross who had the biggest impact on him. 

Speltz’s early leadership lessons continue to inform his work today. “What Holy Cross did, first and foremost, was to teach me how to work with people, how to get a team to function together when you’ve got different people with different motivations and different skill sets. I think the biggest single thing it taught me is interpersonal skills.” 

If you venture into a Brookstone store, you might catch those skills in action. As part of his job, Speltz spends four or five days a month on the front lines. 

“Nothing is more educational than being on the sales floor either talking to associates or talking to customers directly,” he says. “I love to sell. My family hates going into a store with me on the weekends, because I’ll end up there for two hours selling stuff, working the floor and replenishing the shelves. I grew up at Brookstone, so it’s very much a part of who I am.”   ■
Q  Do you have a Brookstone massage chair at home? How often do you use it?

A  I don’t, but I have one in my office. I would say that my guests use it more than I do. But I do get to try all the new models that come in. In fact, I went through four different chairs yesterday. It was hard work, but someone had to do it. 

Q  What are your favorite Brookstone products?

A  My favorite Brookstone product currently is the Big Blue Party, a Bluetooth wireless outdoor speaker. Big hit in the neighborhood, great sound quality, and it all comes from your phone. Second is the Connoisseur’s Wine Opener; it’s just by far the best and classiest wine opener on the market. And third would have to be my BioSense pillow that I sleep on every night. 

Q  What was the top seller this past Christmas?

A  Our Sand product [a kinetic molding substance that’s 98 percent sand and 2 percent polymer] was No. 1, and our HDMI Pocket Projectors were the second most popular. 

Q  What’s the best perk of your job? 

A  It’s the amount of different products that I get to try out. Being a company that represents so many different categories, there are so many innovators who are looking to work with us, and we really get an opportunity to touch and try all of the emerging concepts in the market. Playing with stuff is an absolute blast. 

Q  What words do your friends use to describe you?

A  Focused, intense and fun.

Q  What was your most memorable class at Holy Cross? 

A  I think it was called musical theatre. It was a senior-year class, and I had thought I was getting into exposure to musicals and things like that, and it turned out to be very heavily weighted toward opera. I never saw myself learning the first thing about opera, but I’m actually kind of glad that I did. 

Q  Your wife is a fellow Holy Cross alum … how did you first meet?

A  She was dating my roommate. We’re all still good friends. 

Q  What are your favorite leisure-time pursuits?

A  The Red Sox and golf.