Debbie Harvey sits at a conference table with a book about surfing pictured in the background.

Riding the retail wave to success

How Debbie Harvey’s career in retail led her to the helm of the iconic Ron Jon Surf Shop.

Even before Debbie Harvey (BSBA ’76) came to the University of Florida, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in business. Growing up, she watched her father run his own business making glass products, which grew her entrepreneurial spirit.

While she knew she’d gain access to a variety of opportunities by studying business, it was the field of marketing that interested her the most.

“Marketing, to me, is how a company can achieve goals and drive its sales and growth,” she said.

After completing her degree in marketing at UF, Harvey started on a career path in retail that would take her to multiple iconic Florida companies and would culminate in a C-suite role which she would hold for 13 years before her retirement this year.

“I have enjoyed retail literally since the day I started,” she said. “In the early days of retail, it gave women opportunities that they might not have had otherwise.”

Harvey’s first opportunity came from an on-campus recruitment event with the retail chain Maas Brothers, which would become Burdines and later Macy’s after various acquisitions. While the nation was facing a recession at the time of her graduation, Harvey felt she was lucky to have the chance to join the Maas Brother’s executive training program. Harvey recalls her first day on the job was at the retail store’s location in Gainesville the Monday after she walked across the commencement stage.

Over time, while working at different Maas Brother’s locations, Harvey built her retail business knowledge, including what she would need to become a store buyer. It was this experience that would allow her to climb the ladder and hold roles at large retailers like Bealls, HSN and Goody’s.

With the role she took on at Goody’s, Harvey moved to Tennessee, but the Ft. Lauderdale native missed her home state too much to stay in The Volunteer State for long. In 2000, Harvey made her way back to Florida after securing a job with a company well-known to Floridians and tourists alike, Ron Jon Surf Shop. After starting with the company as the director of buying for its flagship Cocoa Beach store, Harvey became vice president and then president and COO in 2008.

Thanks to its iconic billboards, drivers on Florida’s interstate highways know how many miles away they are from any one of the state’s seven Ron Jon locations, spanning from Key West to Pensacola Beach. While the idea for the well-recognized billboards came long before Harvey started with the company, the expansion of Ron Jon locations across Florida and into Alabama, Maryland, and South Carolina, is more recent.

The biggest challenge with expanding, Harvey said, is finding the best locations that balance the Ron Jon brand with the local culture.

“We want to fit into the local beach atmosphere,” she said. “It’s important to find a place that works size and look-wise, while remaining authentic to the city. [Because of that vision] each location is really unique.”

The uniqueness of each Ron Jon location presents another interesting challenge – stocking each store with items that both physically fit into the location and making sure the items are what customers would like to buy.

“Our locations range from 4,000 square feet to 55,000 square feet,” Harvey said. “Because each location is different, it’s challenging for buyers because they can’t get all of the same merchandise in each store. With limited space, you have to focus on what works for that store.”

For Ron Jon Surf Shop, that means doing an analysis of item categories by square foot to determine the best and worse sellers for each location. Overall, Ron Jon t-shirts are consistently its biggest sellers, but during the pandemic, the company saw huge growth in outdoor recreation items like surfboards, bodyboards and skateboards, Harvey said.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented new challenges to Harvey and the Ron Jon team, but overall, Harvey notes that coming through the experience is the proudest moment of her career.

“I had some very difficult days at the company during COVID,” she said. “But it showed me how strong of a brand we have, how strong of a company we have, and how strong the people who work for Ron Jon’s are. We didn’t have a playbook for what to do, but we came out together on the other side. It was my proudest moment when we were able to reopen our stores.”

For Harvey, the challenges of growing the Ron Jon brand, doing store analyses and operating during the pandemic made her career in retail everything she could have hoped for.

“Retail has always provided me with the variety and the challenge,” she said. “No two days are the same. You have to be analytical and have an eye for what the customer wants, but it’s also a people business, focused on customers and employees. [With retail] I got all the things, for me, that were important – variety, challenge, learning and interaction with people.”

As someone with 45 years of retail experience and more than 20 of those years in leadership roles, Harvey notes that it’s the challenges that give leaders the best opportunities to learn.

“I’ve worked with a lot of personalities, but you have to remain true to who you are and to your ethics,” she said. “Even when you’re in tough situations, learning about leadership is best when you’re in the most challenging moments. You learn from both the challenges and the good [moments].”

While Harvey’s time as the leader of Ron Jon Surf Shop ended with her retirement in May, she remains a member of the board and plans to continue her support of causes that are important to her, like the Special Olympics.

In the early days of her retirement, Harvey plans to take a well-earned break and travel, but will reassess once she’s recharged. One activity she plans to skip, though, is surfing.

“I have surfed, but I wouldn’t call myself a surfer,” she joked. “[It’s funny that] I ended up the president of a surf shop!”