I had the pleasure of working with Ann Bush, vice president of brand management for Colony Brands, and her team recently on strengthening the company’s fashion and home décor businesses. Ann impressed me as a lifelong learner and leader who took her people, projects and customers seriously — and joyfully! Ann’s upbeat demeanor, entrepreneurial spirit, sense of team empowerment, and active engagement in strategic and tactical decision making will be missed as she prepares to retire. She’s been with Colony Brands for 30 years, a rarity these days when the average tenure of these types of positions is less than 30 months!

I was curious about Ann’s career path, including all its twists and turns. No two of those 30 years proved ever to be alike. Colony Brands originally began selling swiss cheese by mail (The Swiss Colony), and today sells apparel, shoes, home décor and furnishings, outdoor, health and beauty, electronics, toys, food and gifts through 10 distinct brands.

Ann’s leadership role helped launch a few of those brands. As brand director, Lisa Stageman-Pavelski shared, “Through tenacity, team acumen, and an entrepreneurial spirit second to none, Ann built a legacy within the retail industry as a vibrant leader. The contributions Ann made were key in launching several multimillion dollar businesses which are sure to thrive well into the future.”

Here’s a glimpse into Ann’s journey and some of her lessons learned in a career that began in a small town in Wisconsin and took her places far and wide — both physically (to China several times, Germany, Italy, Turkey, France) and intellectually into all phases of the business.

Ann Bush

Ann Bush, vice president of brand management for Colony Brands

Andrea Syverson: Ann, tell us a bit more about the role that you started in and the role you’re in now.
Ann Bush: Swiss Colony recruited me fresh out of MBA school because they liked my balance of analytical and creative skills. In most of the other positions that I was looking at, my creative side was viewed as a detriment. Today, the balance of left brain and right brain is valued, but then it was not. Lucky for me, this mix was exactly what Swiss Colony was looking for in a marketer.

  • Right and Left Brained: I was hired as an advisor to Dick Cope, president of Swiss Colony Stores. I did marketing research, learned how to read the financials, market to franchisees, and run a company. After working in this division for several years, I moved over to the mail-order side of our company. This is where I’ve spent most of my career.
  • Holistic Brand Leadership: My path was full of great experiences in many different areas. I’ve worn a lot of hats and worked in many different areas: circulation, marketing, merchandising, and catalog management. Throughout my years, I’ve led departments including purchasing, inventory, forecasting, merchandising, and technical design. These roles taught me a lot about the business and gave me a well-rounded perspective. Today, my role is vice president of brand management. As the world has changed and moved towards the internet, we stopped calling ourselves catalog managers and are now called brand leaders. We develop the positioning and strategies for the brand. We guide the business by working with creative, merchandising and marketing to be sure that everyone is aligned.
  • Listening, Learning, and Being an ‘Intrapreneur’: I’m curious and an avid learner. Each time that I gained new responsibility in areas that I wasn’t as familiar with, I spent my time learning and listening so I could be sure that I was guiding the department well.

When I joined the company, I thought we were only going to stay for a couple of years and then move back to Minneapolis or out West. Thirty years later, we’re still here. People always ask me why and my answer is always the same: I love the culture, entrepreneurial atmosphere and the people that I work with. I’ve always been challenged in a positive way here. I’ve been lucky enough to start two businesses, Country Door and Monroe & Main, and to lead others in growth with the Ashro and Midnight Velvet brands. What an amazing opportunity to run your own company within a larger corporation!

AS: I know firsthand that you’ve been a mentor to many people at Colony. Who was yours?
AB: In my early years, Dick Cope was my mentor. Dick was a great encourager. He taught me how to ask questions, how to dig for answers and, most importantly, how to develop solutions. He listened to my ideas and taught me to not be afraid to speak up. He also guided me about how to work well with others. These are all critical skills, and I thank him for that. In many ways, everyone that I work with serves as a mentor in some way. I still learn each day and enjoy the perspectives that others bring.

AS: Besides the variety of product types being sold, what’s most different about Colony Brands now than when you started?
AB: At the time when I was hired, our company owner was very visionary and just wanted to surround himself with really smart people with good ideas. It didn’t matter if you were male or female. He’s a great entrepreneur and taught me a great deal as well. If you had an idea, he was the first to get on-board with pursuing it. We didn’t have a training program, so I learned on my feet. Common sense, curiosity and hard work have taken me a long way. We’ve gone from a small company to a very large, complex organization. So, jobs have become more specialized. We now have more female executives than ever before. That’s rewarding to see.

AS: Please share a few career highlights with us. What has been your favorite role and why?
AB: I love to create growth in businesses and in people. Starting companies like Country Door and Monroe & Main have been highlights. I thrive on creating a vision and then working with a team to make it happen. It’s so creative to develop the business plan, the merchandise, marketing, and creative concepts, and then watch that vision become reality. It’s exciting to read the results and constantly analyze how to make it better. Business is a roller coaster, and I’ve been up and down a few times. When you’re going down, it’s amazing to figure out how to get the business moving back up. It takes a team to make all of this happen, and it’s rewarding to help others learn and grow. It’s hard to land on my favorite role. My brand role of today is there for sure. I also enjoyed leading our merchandising staff. I’m a merchant at heart and helped build this department. It was so rewarding to watch this department grow and flourish, providing our customers with unique products they really wanted to buy.

AS: Any do-overs or unexpected discoveries about yourself?
AB: There’s very little I would change about my career. Like everyone, there are ups and downs. Each experience has taught me something. Along the way, I discovered that I’m a better leader than follower. When I started my career, I never envisioned that I would become a leader. It evolved through my career. I do love to teach, and in my role I’ve been able to teach others.

AS: You raised a family. How did you — or did you not — find balance?
AB: Tough question. I hoped that I found balance, but know that I often didn’t. I worked a lot of hours and that made it tough on my family. I was lucky enough that my husband left his job when our middle son was two. That helped tremendously. I made it a point to attend my kids’ sporting events, band, and after-school activities. We traveled a lot with sports events on the weekends and always took vacations as a family. That time is so precious to connect as a family. I also would work after my kids went to bed and early hours of the day. This wasn’t great for finding balance and time for me. It took a big health scare 10 years ago for me to add myself into priorities. I also learned to not sweat the little details. We’re selling products to customers, not saving lives. So, I keep it in perspective. That has helped my stress level.

AS: What advice would you share with young women starting out in retail? What would you tell your 20- or 30-year-old self?
AB: My top piece of advice is to find joy in your job. If you love what you’re doing, the rest of it comes easy. If you don’t love your job, then it isn’t the right job or place for you. Here are some other pieces of advice:

  • Find a good leader or mentor, then watch and learn.
  • Be curious. Don’t take things at face value. Always ask the why. This will give you great insights into the business.
  • People skills count for a ton. Respect and value people at every level of the company and they will respect you. It’s way easier to get things done if people want to do it for you.
  • Work hard. Things will not always be given to you. You’ll need to prove that you can do it and work hard to make it happen. Have high standards for yourself and deliver more than is asked.
  • Take calculated risks, make mistakes, but learn from them. If you don’t, then you’re too risk adverse. When you make them, be forthcoming and admit it. Learn and don’t repeat them.

AS: Thanks Ann for sharing your business wisdom with all of us here at Women in Retail Leadership Circle. Also, thanks for reminding us the importance of looking for joy in every step of the journey! We wish you an adventurous retirement!

Andrea Syverson is the founder and president of IER Partners, and has dedicated more than 20 years to providing clients both domestic and international with innovative approaches to branding, product development and creative messaging. She’s the author of two books in which she shares her hands-on approach for both brand building and creating customer-centric products that enhance brands: “ThinkAbout: 77 Creative Prompts for Innovators,” and “BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Approach for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants.”