In a session at the Women in Retail Leadership Summit, a panel of executives did their best to do something they rarely, if ever, do: brag about their own personal career accomplishments. While most prefaced their remarks that their success is the result of a team effort, they did offer examples of how the companies they lead have benefited from their guidance.
The panel was moderated by Heather Giese, senior vice president, diversified client group, Synchrony, and included Claire Spofford, president, Cornerstone; Katherine Bahamonde Monasebian, chief digital and technology officer, executive vice president, Barneys New York; Suzanne Miglucci, president and CEO, Charles & Colvard; and Marla A. Ryan, CEO, Destination Maternity. Here are their personal #careerbrags:
Claire Spofford: One of the things I learned early in my career at Timberland is to hire people who are smarter and better than you are at things that are part of your role. It takes a lot of soul searching to really understand what you’re good at and where you need your team to be stronger than you are. Also, creating a culture of collaboration and accountability is really important. This sounds almost trite, but there are so many organizations that I’ve seen where that isn’t the case.
When I came to Garnet Hill, even though it wasn’t a big business, people were very siloed in their functional areas and we didn’t have an integrated, collaborative way of going to market on a seasonal basis. We stepped back as a team and made some changes that were difficult. But in order for the rest of the team to feel like we had the right team in place, we had to make those changes. We developed an integrated calendar, a way of working, clear roles and responsibilities, set very aggressive targets for ourselves, and we held one another accountable for getting there.
It took about three seasons — we worked on a seasonal basis — for us to really find our rhythm, but then what the team has been able to do in the last five years, when there’s been a lot of disruption and change in the apparel industry, is grow the top line at 6 [percent] to 7 percent per year, and the bottom line at north of 25 percent. The only thing I did was put the right people in the right places, and then chart the course for getting to where we needed to go strategically, holding the team accountable and having the team hold one another accountable.
Now in my role at Cornerstone Brands, we’re working on all of the same things. We’re leveraging best practices and collaborating across the brands to say, “if it’s good for one brand, it’s good for all four.” Let’s make sure we’re leveraging the talent we have in place across the portfolio. We’re starting to see some of the benefits, and that’s been really gratifying.
Katherine Bahamonde Monasebian: In my role at Barneys, I oversee e-commerce and digital, which is about a third of the business. That includes everything from merchandising, marketing, social and editorial, operations, the studio, international, web technology, and the vendor ecosystem. And then I also oversee technology, which includes our POS, WMS, martech system, all the systems that make the enterprise run, as well as security, infrastructure support, telephony — traditionally everything that falls within the CIO’s purview.
My brag moment relates to this role. I think while more common in early-stage companies to have that 360-degree GM technology embedded scope is more common, in older, more traditional organizations it’s pretty rare. Anyone with 20 years, 30 years of tenure in their roles traditionally are functionally specific. I think the future of retail is going to require a skill set that’s highly analytical, while being customer focused. Left- and right-brained. My brag moment is to have this kind of scope as a woman, a true operator.
I know as women we don’t want to brag, we want to downplay our accomplishments, we want to be likable and agreeable, but it’s something I’m very proud of. I do think it’s something that will be instrumental in my career going forward — this very 360 experience where technology is so central to the core of what I do.
Suzanne Miglucci: Charles & Colvard is actually a 24-year-old company, and is the original creator of moissanite, which is a lab-created, man-made gemstone. I don’t come from the retail space, I don’t come from the jewelry space. I come from technology. I was asked to join the board of Charles & Colvard from an oversight standpoint. My career background is in supply chain, e-commerce, and primarily technology with a marketing bent. I was invited to come on this board to help consider how to change this very historical, very manufacturing-oriented organization into something that’s relevant for today. After 20 years, Charles & Colvard had built a manufacturing organization that built rocks. How emotional can you be about rocks?
I joined the board and started asking some very relevant questions about technology and the use of digital to grow the brand. I found that this company had relied entirely on a distribution network to do the job of bringing the brand to market. And there was no brand whatsoever. Basically it was relying on distributors in the jewelry industry to do the job of taking the brand, coddling it, and bringing it into independent jewelers and retailers and explaining to them what this beautiful thing is. It’s the most brilliant gemstone in the world, and it’s a fraction of the cost of a mined stone that would be like a diamond. They didn’t do that job.
They put us in a catalog, included us with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, display cases, loops, and microscopes — everything you need to run a jewelry business. And we got lost in the fray. And after 20 years, we had built a $20 million business. So coming into the board I asked some tough questions. Very quickly after my first board meeting I found myself in this position because the company had really never considered before building a brand of its own could change the market.
My role coming in, and my bragging moment — and I’m bragging about my entire team, because it’s all about the team that you build around — is that I’m happy to have brought the ideas forward. But it’s about bringing a team together that helped this company propel itself. I joined three-and-a-half years ago. In our first nine months we built a consumer brand for Charles & Colvard. In October 2016, we launched it. I’m thrilled to say today that after building this digital model and helping this company rethink the way that it brings its brand to market, we actually have more than 50 percent of our business done today as direct to consumer.
I’m pleased to say we just published our second profitable quarter in a row. As a publicly traded company, which is very unusual for a $30 million company, I’m pleased to say that we’ve got shareholders that are finally doubling down and happy with what they’re seeing from the brand. Bragging moments for myself, but all of my team as well.
Marla Ryan: I came to Destination Maternity in a very unusual manner. I met two gentleman who had invested in the company with the sheer desire to help turn it around. It had seen about 30 months of declining profits and increasing expenses. It was going in the wrong direction. After months of speaking with management, the management decided that they didn’t need any help. All men on the board, and interestingly enough when the founder left the business over 10 years ago, there were only men running the company.
I was introduced to these two gentleman, who were really investment bankers who knew nothing about retail, but wanted to understand what they could do to rebuild the business. Fast-forward about three months working with them and we realized the company wasn’t going to take our help, so we launched a proxy fight.
In a proxy fight, you really bare your soul, and are definitely opening yourself up to criticism that gets put out in a public arena. There was quite a bit of mud slinging about experience. We had a board that said it had over 80 years of experience and had been doing this for over 10 years, but meanwhile the business had been going in the wrong direction. None of us had ever been on a board before, none of us had been a CEO before, but we knew instinctively the right thing to do to change the company. Fast-forward another three months, they lost, and I was installed as the CEO at the end of May last year.
We’ve been in a complete turnaround. It has been soup to nuts, literally pulling up every floorboard and trying to return the brand to what it has iconically been known for, which is to be the largest maternity retailer in the country. We still are, but the space has obviously become crowded with a lot of DTC, a lot of young people coming into the space, and other bigger brands like Amazon, Walmart and Target realizing the loyalty play. So we definitely have our challenges cut out for us.
Destination Maternity has been primarily been a brick-and-mortar company. Very, very late and slow to the e-commerce business. We’ve been in the process of really overhauling our entire digital marketing strategy, trying to position the brand not necessarily for tomorrow as much as we’re trying to look where will be three years from now, four years now as Gen Z comes right up behind millennials.
We’ve had our work cut out for us. I would say that the whole experience was amazing. Not anything like I thought would be. People ask me all the time, “Would you do it all again if you knew what you were getting yourself into?” My answer is yes. It’s been a sheer pleasure to work with the team that’s been at the company as well as bringing new team members on.
I had a young lady who had worked for me several years ago send me a note after we won and I was appointed CEO. She went through a long list of thoughts and sentiments, and said to me at the end, “I really loved working for you. You had such an impact on my career. You gave me the passion to get out of bed every morning. Now I’m working in an environment that’s mostly male, and the thing that keeps me going is I get to look at you and see how far you’ve come with your career, and I’m inspired. Hopefully that’s my path as well.”