David Rawlinson walks onto a well-lit QVC home shopping set adorned with pink and white prop flowers and modeled to look like a suburban Southern sunroom. Fake French doors open up onto a screen-printed image of a brick mansion and hedgerows. He’s camera-ready for a photo shoot in a navy suit sans tie or button-down, a matching sweater, and laceless leather Axel Arigato sneakers, and he flashes the unwavering smile of a TV host. But he’s not one of the famed shopping channel’s on-air personalities. He’s the CEO of its struggling parent company, Qurate Retail, Inc.
Rawlinson’s sunny disposition comes with a steely resolve. He was brought in to turn around the purveyor of infomercials that were once a staple of cable TV—no easy feat in the age of streamers and social video. I ask him, what does it take to execute a corporate rescue mission of this scale?
“Optimism,” Rawlinson tells me. “Even in the dark days you have to be able to see through to the promise on the other side.”
Optimism might seem a little incongruous for someone whose company just posted a 47% quarterly decline in operating income in its latest earnings release. In May, Qurate, which also owns HSN, was officially notified by the Nasdaq that its stock risked being delisted for having traded below $1 for more than 30 consecutive business days.
But Rawlinson, 47, has known since he was a cadet at the storied military college the Citadel how much he can achieve if he leads with the right attitude. In 1996, when he was a cadet first sergeant in his junior year, Rawlinson’s company was one of the first to integrate women, and as an officer, he was tasked with spearheading the unpopular but necessary process. The Citadel had lost a federal court case that forced it to allow female students to enroll, and the uproar was tremendous.
Rawlinson’s excellent academic and military performance had made him a leader, but he realized he couldn’t just order his peers to accept the changes.
“You couldn’t command it,” he recalls. “If you didn’t truly convince them, then that attitude of resistance was going to make it a place where no woman would want to be … So, it was night after night after night of just talking people through the case—human to human—of why it could be a better school with women than it ever was without women. That was maybe the first time I learned just how human a business leadership is, and how soul-to-soul and heart-to-heart leadership at the highest level has to be.”
Rawlinson went on to earn a law degree from the University of South Carolina and an MBA from Harvard. During George W. Bush’s administration he was a White House fellow working in the chief of staff’s office, and he stayed on through the transition to become a staffer at Barack Obama’s National Economic Council.
Now he’s making a name for himself as a master of the corporate pivot. Rawlinson was appointed as Qurate’s president and CEO in July 2021, and is one of only eight Black CEOs on this year’s Fortune 500 (an all-time high, though still drastically low). In his prior role as CEO of NielsenIQ, Rawlinson shepherded the market research company through its spinoff from Nielsen’s famed TV ratings arm. Before that he was the president of online sales at industrial supplies company W.W. Grainger, leading its growing e-commerce business.
Greg Maffei, Qurate’s executive chairman, says that made Rawlinson the right person to lead the $12.1 billion home shopping TV company. “David was hired because he has … an impressive track record managing two storied brands, in Nielsen and Grainger, through evolutionary transitions,” he says.
Rawlinson is driven by his certainty that Qurate’s position at the convergence of media and retail, two industries racked by systemic, existential upheaval, makes it uniquely poised to succeed in both. His big bet is that the next iteration of online shopping will be video commerce (known as v-commerce)—shoppable video on social media and livestreaming websites that involves increasingly sophisticated product demos, often starring influencers.
“I can’t imagine a world where the next generation of shopping online is not deeply personal, deeply about connection, and deeply about video,” Rawlinson says.
That future is already here. Poshmark, Walmart, YouTube, eBay, and Amazon are among the companies diving into “live shopping,” as the New York Times recently reported. It’s a sector that’s in its infancy in the United States—with an expected $32 billion in sales this year—but has become a juggernaut around the world, especially in China, where it’s projected to bring in $647 billion this year.
Qurate might seem like a relic from the peak of cable TV, but it arguably has been doing a version of live shopping for decades, and has all the right core competencies: state-of-the-art production studios, minute-by-minute sales data, and plenty of camera-ready talent.
To execute his vision, Rawlinson built a new business unit called vCommerce Ventures, and hired former Amazon Prime Video executive Soumya Sriraman to run streaming services based on the company’s beloved brands, QVC+ and HSN+. In March the division released a public beta test of Sune, a TikTok/QVC Frankenstein.
As Rawlinson points out, he has a leg up on other companies trying to make streaming profitable. As the big streamers scramble for advertising dollars, Qurate doesn’t have to worry about selling ad space: It sells products—$5.2 billion in home goods, $2.2 billion in apparel, and $1.7 billion worth of beauty products in 2022. QVC’s masterstroke had always been to make advertising so entertaining that people would tune in just to watch it.
“What’s really interesting about this company is we both generate the eyeballs and we consummate the transaction,” Rawlinson says. “So, it’s end to end. It’s not a retailer partnering with an entertainment company for advertising. When you go to our streaming service, we don’t charge you a fee. You buy stuff, and you buy from us.”
It’s a beguiling vision, but Qurate has a long and difficult road ahead. As a part of a three-year turnaround plan, the company laid off 485 employees in February and March.
Then there’s the challenge of QVC’s and HSN’s aging customer base—with an average age over 60, according to the company’s 2022 investor day presentation. At the moment, 89% of the shipped sales from QVC U.S. and HSN, Qurate’s largest division, come from just 54% of their customers, who on average purchase 29 items a year totaling about $1,500, according to Qurate. That’s a level of customer loyalty many retail businesses would envy, but it belongs to a segment of the population that is getting smaller, not larger.
It’s all well and good to dive into the streaming era, but can QVC pivot quickly and effectively enough toward changing media habits? Can it replenish its longtime fans with younger, digitally native consumers before its cable business craters for good?
On the sunroom set, bathed in studio lights that were a poor substitute for the warmth of real sunshine, I asked Rawlinson how he navigates the precarity at the core of such a delicate corporate balancing act.
“Absolute clarity,” he answers. “You have to see reality as it actually is. You can’t sugarcoat it. You can’t be under any illusions because if you can’t see it, you can’t fix it.”
This article appears in the June/July 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Mastering the art of the pivot.”
Qurate Retail ranks No. 342 on the 2023 Fortune 500 list. The company brought in $12.1 billion in revenues last year.