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A kind of deja vu for Jersey guy

Hired to turn around A.C. Moore, he's back in the state where his career began.

BERLIN, N.J. - You can take Rick A. Lepley out of New Jersey, but you apparently can't keep him out for good.

Lepley, president and chief executive of A.C. Moore Arts & Crafts Inc., joined the retail chain here in June 2006 to implement a three-year turnaround plan.

A quarter-century earlier, the Western Pennsylvania native worked in Bridgeport, Gloucester County, where he helped launch U.S. operations for Mitsubishi Motor Sales. He rose to the top of Mitsubishi's executive ranks and traveled the globe, including as an executive of Office Depot Inc. Lepley, 58, and his wife had just bought a farm in Ohio as part of their retirement plans when A.C. Moore came knocking.

Lepley brings a low-key, laid-back vibe to the publicly traded retail company that was founded with a single store in Moorestown in 1985.

When he signed on to overhaul the $560 million chain, the economy was stronger and consumers hadn't yet run for the hills. In the last quarter, the chain of 139 stores reported a $4.3 million net loss. Lepley's focus remains on improving the company's antiquated inventory systems as a way of making profits grow.

He talks about business and life like a perennial optimist with the sensibility of an even-tempered pragmatist. Did we mention he also speaks Japanese - and with a decent accent, no less.

Question: Why did you take this job?

Answer: It's kind of interesting. I decided to take a year off. Wasn't going to do anything. Just wanted to retire and go out to the farm and work on the farm. And these guys [A.C. Moore] called, through a headhunter. . . . The interesting thing that's sort of intangible about why I would come here is because when I first got married - maybe like 1980 - we moved here. I lived in Voorhees. . . . Both kids were born here in the Voorhees hospital. And here we were, like 25 years later, and the kids are grown up and gone and we'd lived in Europe for five years, Japan for three years, California for six or eight years, it was like going the whole way around the whole world and coming back to sort of where we started our lives together.

Q: Have you ever been a cashier at a store anywhere in your life, or worked the floor?

A: Yeah. When we started Office Depot in Poland we all worked every Saturday on the floor.

Q: You weren't stocking shelves, were you?

A: I've done that, sure. I go to stores on Saturdays and if they're out of stock I'll go find the stock and put it on the shelf.

Q: You've said A.C. Moore's greatest strength and weakness has been its old-fashioned approach to doing business.

A: They had a sales culture, which is a good thing. They were always driving to sell more, sell more, sell more. They just weren't always focused on whether or not it cost them more to sell it than it was worth.

Q: Is that just a rookie mistake? How does that sort of thing happen across an entire chain? Is it just infrastructure?

A: It's a big piece of it. You don't have systems, procedures in place that help you understand what percentage of sales advertising is - and what it should be - or what percentage your gross margin is and what it needs to be.

Q: Why aren't you, say, in investment banking? Why did you pick retail?

A: I probably wasn't smart enough to be an investment banker. (He chuckles.)

Q: How did you land in retail? What was your first gig - and was it intentional?

A: When I got out of college I wanted to be a lawyer and I didn't have the money, so I went to work for Chrysler Corporation. . . . I thought I'd work for a little while and then go to law school. They put me in a training program, moved me to Detroit. I don't know - I must have moved eight times in eight years to different jobs.

Q: So this was an accidental career in some respects?

A: I agree completely that a really low percentage of people outside of accountants or doctors or lawyers do whatever it is they're educated to do with their lives. No question about that. I started down a path to become a lawyer. What I'm doing today doesn't have anything to do with being a lawyer.

Q: Is that a good thing for you?

A: I think it's good if you're doing whatever makes you get out of bed and enjoy every day.

Q: How do you draw on a liberal-arts education (political science bachelor's degree) to do this job?

A: Isn't it all interacting with people one way or the other?

Q: A lot of liberal-arts graduates don't understand the world that you're in at all.

A: Then they may not understand the world they're in. You can't get away from people. You can't push your point of view. If you can't work through people, you can't be a leader. I don't know if I'm a good leader or not. I think the jury's still out on that. But I would say this: I've seen some of the smartest people I've ever known weren't good leaders.

Age, birthplace: 58, Lewistown, Pa.

Occupation: President and chief executive officer, A.C. Moore Arts & Crafts Inc.

Hometown: Burlington County, N.J.

Education: Political science, Lycoming College, Williamsport, Pa.

Personal: Married; son, 25,

in U.S. Army Special Forces training; daughter, 23, college senior in Ohio.

Hobbies: Reading U.S.

Civil War history.

Relaxes by: Visiting the family's farm in Ohio. "My wife drives a tractor and cuts the grass."