2013 Influentials

By RIS Magazine — March 08, 2013

The overarching rule of effective leadership begins with this: First, do no harm. This dictum heads the list because a good leader surrounds herself with smart, dedicated people who will do good work if she stays out of their way.

Leading from the bottom up and the top down is an essential quality that distinguishes accomplished leaders, such as the seven executives highlighted in this year’s edition of the annual Influentials cover story.

These Influentials have learned it is critical to develop partnerships and collaborations with key members of both the executive team and division heads. They articulate business and technical concepts clearly to both technical and non-technical audiences.

They also spearhead major initiatives, deliver strong performance results, guide the creation of new strategies, and help create the culture that nurtures employees and rewards their work.

In recognition of all of the above, here are the seven Influentials for 2013.

Dave Finnegan
Chief Interactive and Information
Technology Officer
Build-A-Bear Workshops
Headquarters: St. Louis, MO
Number of stores: 400+
Sales: $380.9 million (fiscal 2012)
Vertical: Specialty (hobby/toy, children)

When retail veteran Maxine Clark founded Build-A-Bear Workshop in 1997, the concept set a new standard for engaging shoppers with a fun, in-store experience. By allowing children to create their own plush animals and offering options to outfit them with a host of accessories, Build-A-Bear Workshop pointed the way to a new kind of customer interactivity that had not been seen before in retailing.

Less than a year after its founding, Dave Finnegan, the current chief interactive and information technology officer, joined the company as it quickly grew from a handful of stores to a national chain. Today, it has more than 400 stores including company-owned stores in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Ireland and franchise stores around the globe.

For the past two years, Finnegan has been responsible for driving the redesign and transformation of the Build-A-Bear Workshop store. The newly imagined stores, which Finnegan refers to as “half retail and half theme park,” merge hands-on bear-making with innovative technology. 

Working with Microsoft Kinect movement technology, the new stores have a large screen at the front so kids can play games by waving their hands in front of it, and customers visit eight new technology stations that increase hands-on engagement. A new “Love Me” station allows kids to place their bear’s heart on a digital touch screen and add personality attributes, such as “loving” and “sporty.”

The redesigned stores launched last September and have produced a 30% comp store sales improvement. The company plans to redesign 40 to 50 locations over the next two years.
Finnegan is also an active member of the National Retail Federation and is currently vice chairman of its CIO Council, an invitation-only group made up of prominent retailing CIOs. In August, Finnegan will move up to become the council’s chairman.

Michael Moore
VP of Information Technology
Moosejaw Mountaineering
Headquarters: Madison Heights, MI
Number of Stores: 11
Vertical: Sporting Goods/outdoor
apparel & equipment

Moosejaw Mountaineering is known for using silly humor in its customer communications. (A sample from its website: “If the shop doesn’t have what you’re looking for, they’ll for sure get it for you asap. Asap stands for ‘as soon as possible’, but can also mean ‘another slightly awkward parakeet’.”) But the retailer is quite serious about its belief in the power of IT to measure how those communications affect Moosejaw’s business.

“The biggest challenge for Moosejaw’s IT is arming our marketers with information so they can make educated decisions about marketing to customers,” Michael Moore, vice president for IT at Moosejaw tells RIS News. Bringing analytical rigor to Moosejaw’s multi-channel marketing has been a big part of Moore’s mission since he started there in January 2012.

For example, after launching what Moore terms “the meanest e-mail promotion ever,” one that intentionally insulted customers — “Hey, Doofus” — the retailer was still left with questions about its impact: “Were users more engaged? Were they more likely to click on the e-mail, or tell their friends about it on Facebook?”

Now Moosejaw has many more answers to these questions. Today, “the biggest progress we’ve made is rolling out A/B testing and analytical insight to the business users and requires very little of IT,” says Moore. “So we in IT have been able to focus on ‘bullet-proofing’ the site while our marketers and business teams test, target and analyze changes to it.”

Another key success factor for Moosejaw has been its use of mobile POS, which allows associates to stay by customers’ side as they research what can be complex purchases of specialty outdoor apparel and equipment. “Our mobile POS units now account for 70% of our total orders (up from 20% this time last year),” says Moore. “Average order value is up as well and returns have decreased slightly. We will continue to decrease the size of the [stores’] cash wrap footprint as we move fully toward mobile POS.”

Organizationally, Moore has also moved closer to his goal of bringing IT development in-house by the middle of 2013. “The ability to hook a developer up directly with someone from marketing results in the developer being fully vested in the project,” Moore says. “Developers are more engaged, make fewer false assumptions, and have quick access to the answers to keep the development moving quickly.”

Vicki Cantrell
SVP Communities & Executive
Director, Shop.org
National Retail Federation
Headquarters: Washington, DC
Members: 1,800+

Retailing is a big industry, contributing $2.5 trillion to the U.S. annual GDP, and as such it deserves a big association to represent it. Since 1911 this role has been played by the National Retail Federation (NRF). The NRF, like many large Washington, DC-based organizations, needs to keep a finger on the pulse of its membership, so to many industry watchers the appointment of Vicki Cantrell to the NRF executive staff in 2011 was a clear demonstration of its mission.   

Prior to joining the NRF, Cantrell served as the COO and CIO of Tory Burch during a period of extreme growth and expansion domestically and internationally. Before that she worked as CIO of Giorgio Armani Corporation and held positions of responsibility with Gucci Group, Party City and JCPenney.

Today, Cantrell is the NRF’s SVP for communities and executive director of Shop.org, which is NRF’s digital retail division. In this role, she is responsible for providing strategic direction and management of Shop.org and oversight for all NRF business-related communities, including NRF’s CIO Council, the Association of Retail Technology Standards (ARTS), Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA) and Loss Prevention.

During 2012 Cantrell played an instrumental part in the NRF effort to launch the Integrated Mobile Initiative, which is a project that aims to be a platform for thought leadership, educational content, events, original research and knowledge sharing among experts.

In addition, Cantrell has been an effective communicator in the national media on subjects related to the release of major research reports. These include a major report timed during the busy Black Friday/Cyber Monday shopping period, the “State of Retail Online” that was released during the annual Shop.org summit, and the “Organizational Structure for the Future of Retail: The Digital Effect,” which was released during the NRF Big Show.
Beyond her role at the NRF, Cantrell is a member of a dedicated band of retailers who devote their talents to the Retail Orphan Initiative (Retail ROI), where she is a member of the board of trustees.

Phil Shelley
CTO, Sears Holdings
Headquarters: Hoffman Estates, IL
Number of Stores: 2,600-plus
Sales: $41.6 Billion (2011)
Vertical: Department Store

Big Data may be just a buzzword to some, but it’s an everyday reality – and an extremely valuable resource – for Sears Holdings. Phil Shelley has been instrumental in Sears’ accelerated use of Big Data since he took the Chief Technology Officer job just over three years ago.

Data storage costs have gotten low enough, and analytical tools have grown powerful enough, that Sears is able to collect and keep every tiny granule of data, down to the level of individual market basket items and Web clicks. The retailer’s approach to Big Data has shortened the time needed for analytics projects by 60% to 70%, while also improving promotion conversions, lowering inventory levels and boosting sales.

“Because we have large granular data sets without the delays of finding data, it’s taken weeks out of campaign delivery times,” says Shelley. “It’s involved a huge mindset change relevant to keeping data. We used to keep only aggregates of data and throw away the detail, because it had been too big. Now we don’t throw anything away, theoretically, ever.”

Shelley credits Sears’ use of a Hadoop system for providing a database capable of affordably keeping such large volumes of data, applying tools to it and consuming it in user-friendly ways. “For us, Hadoop is the new mainframe – I preach that to my people all the time, and we treat it like one and govern it like one.”

If Sears wants to analyze the role of seasonality or pricing at an item level, “we have eight years of history at a detailed level,” says Shelley. “This allows us to make more meaningful offers and achieve better conversion with our campaigns, and also to lower inventory levels but achieve higher service levels. We saw lower inventories in 2012 but higher sales, and that kind of supply chain optimization is only possible with that level of detail.”

Stacey Shulman
CTO, American Apparel
Headquarters: Los Angeles, CA
Number of Stores: 251 in 20 Countries
Sales: $547.3 Million (2011)
Vertical: Apparel
In the world of apparel, speed to market can mean the difference between success and failure. At American Apparel, the value of moving quickly is known throughout the enterprise – including the information technology department, under the leadership of CTO Stacey Shulman.

Shulman provides a balance to the do-it-now methods at American Apparel with a holistic approach to business challenges. Her background in retail software development, training and consulting have driven home the importance of having strong underpinnings for any technology project, big or small.

When she began at American Apparel three years ago, the company’s rapid growth and its tendency to develop a large number of its IT solutions in-house meant that many of the systems in place “didn’t have a good foundational element to them,” says Shulman. “Since then we’ve been taking and replacing these foundation elements, which is something like changing the wheels on the freight train while it’s moving.”

But Shulman and her team have been doing much more than simply shoring up existing systems. One of their big achievements has been the implementation of a comprehensive in-store customer traffic and analytics solution that has helped boost conversion rates, optimize labor schedules and reduce shrink.

American Apparel was also an early adopter in the resurgence of item-level RFID technology. The retailer has been expanding its use of RFID, from five stores when it began its deployment four years ago to 150 stores now. A combination of the customer analytics technology with RFID implementations and improvements in store management and processes created a remarkable turnaround in a 10-store region.

Shulman’s holistic approach and insistence on solid technical foundations provides a counterweight to the company’s need for speed – although it’s a need Shulman clearly understands well. “I think time to market is much more important than having something that’s perfect,” she says. “If you’re going to make mistakes, make them at 100 miles per hour. Just move quickly, pick yourself up and you’ll still get to the finish line faster.”

John Salt
SVP of Supply Chain
Canadian Tire
Headquarters: Toronto, Ontario
Number of Stores: 1,755
Sales: $11.6 billion (2011)
Vertical: Auto Parts,
General Merchandise

Despite its name, Canadian Tire sells many products in addition to tires. In fact, it’s been referred to as Canada’s closest equivalent to Walmart, with inventory that includes 55,000 SKUs in auto parts and as many in general merchandise, plus apparel sold under the Mark’s banner, sporting goods sold under the FGL Sports banner, gas stations and convenience stores.

The desire to maintain optimal in-stock levels of its “signature” product was a big reason that Canadian Tire began nearly daily deliveries of tires to its stores in July 2011, a move that quickly produced measureable business benefits.

Despite the fact that the mild winter of 2011-2012 didn’t produce a lot of the rough snowy weather that often motivates tire replacements, the retailer grew both tire sales and market share in this category since implementing the more frequent deliveries.

“I attribute a lot of this to being able to get stores back in-stock more frequently,” says John Salt. “This lets us carry a broader assortment of tires that a customer may want, so there’s a higher probability that the tires they want will be there when they walk in – and even if not, we’ll be able to get them more quickly.”
Canadian Tire’s latest productivity improvement tool is a voice-directed picking solution that is integrated with the retailer’s warehouse management system (WMS). The solution includes a headset with earphones and a microphone and a mobile computer that hangs off the picker’s belt and interacts directly with the WMS. “Through a series of voice commands, the picker tells the computer they’re ready to start the next picking wave,” Salt explains. “The computer will direct them where to go and which bin they should be picking from.”

“The whole process greatly simplifies the picking process,” says Salt. In combination with DC layout improvements, voice-directed picking has “probably carved out three-quarters of our pick errors,” he notes. The system also speeds up the process of bringing new or seasonal workers up to a high productivity level, “and we don’t need to burn as many of our best people’s time to train these employees,” Salt adds.

Jack McKinney
Destination XL Group
(formerly Casual Male Retail Group)
Headquarters: Canton, MA
Number of Stores: 500
Sales: $391.7 million (2011)
Vertical: Apparel

The Casual Male Retail Group has some 500 stores under three brands as well as substantial e-commerce and catalog operations, including two e-commerce brands that are online only. Operating all of these channels separately presented a major challenge to enterprise efficiency and reporting accuracy.

SVP and CIO Jack McKinney and the IT department found a glimmer of hope when they discovered that merchandise planning and analytics were unified, but each channel and brand had separate reporting systems and methods. With McKinney’s leadership, the retailer evolved its e-commerce division into a consistent customer experience platform with a unified multi-channel reporting capability on the back end.

The steps McKinney and his team have taken have created an infrastructure that better supports its line-of-business leaders, who can now operate with more agility, delivering a new level of customer experience.

An example of this agility was the recent launch of the Destination XL stores, which benefitted from the analytics reporting foundation created by McKinney. In Destination XL stores, the focus is on offering unique product mixes in each store based on local buying patterns. This hyper-local approach would not have been possible without an enterprise reporting system in place.


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