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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 15, 2017 11 months ago

Love to Teach

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A passion for competition, and sales, has driven Shelley Broader to significant executive achievements. But her favorite part of her career comes from a different place.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

As CEO of Fort Myers-based women's retailer Chico's FAS, Shelley Broader is one of the most well-known executives in the region.

She oversees a company with nearly 1,500 stores in the U.S. and Canada, along with managing merchandise sold in franchise locations in Mexico. The publicly traded firm has some 22,000 employees, and nearly $2.5 billion in annual sales. It's No. 12 on the Gulf Coast 500, the Business Observer's 2017 list of the 500 largest companies in the region, ranked by revenue.

Broader traces her success to the breadth of experiences she's had — even those she wasn't that excited about.

For example, when Broader worked for a regional grocery chain following working for a bank, a supervisor told her to work in the store for a bit. She was initially hesitant. But that's where she found the thing she loved most: picking out associates with undiscovered talents.

It was doing jobs in different areas like this and in leading a distribution center that helped Broader gain a more well-rounded understanding of the customer, she says. “Every job you have up until you are 45,” she adds, “should be a resume builder until you are in your peak earning years.”

Broader, 53, an executive for big brand names such as Walmart, Michaels and Sweetbay prior to landing the Chico's gig in December 2015, shared her career story at University of South Florida's Muma College of Business Conversation with a CEO in November. An edited transcript of her conversation follows.

Growing up: Broader says she grew up “in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck, but never felt it.”

Her father died when she was in the eighth grade, and the family was stuck with no savings. But as a “decision making team,” the family voted to all go to work to try to make a living in Spokane, Wash. As the youngest of four, even Broader's babysitting money “went into the pot,” she says.

She adds that her mother, then 43, made a “brave, strategic decision” and decided to go to college with the little money that she received from a life insurance policy. She was the only non-traditional student at Gonzaga University.

Low prices: Broader ran retail operations and business development for Europe, Canada, Africa and the Middle East for Walmart from 2011 to 2015. “I learned about what I love and what I don't love,” at Walmart, she says. Because it is the biggest company in the world, the job included a lot of government relations, “which was exciting and fun, but not my jam,” she says.

She soon hit a wall there. “I love selling stuff. I love retail. I love the associates. I love the competition — I love figuring out what my competitors are doing,” she says. “The higher I went at Walmart, the less of that I did. It felt more like work to me.”

That said, she loved her six years at the company, and leaving was “a tough decision and a big surprise to them.”

Love retail: “The magic for me is in the associates,” she says.

Many times those people have hidden talents, and they haven't had the opportunity to unleash their smarts, says Broader. “The field is smarter than the home office, bar none. I've spent my career finding those people in the stores, in the distribution center, and helping them achieve things they never thought they could achieve. That's my jam.”

Shared services: In leaving Walmart, Broader sought a brand that was elastic, but resonated with consumers to outlast the transition to e-commerce. She also wanted a place where she could make a footprint.

“I knew we had to protect the brands, but we had to leverage the center,” she says. The different Chico's FAS brands (Chico's, White House Black Market, Soma and an outlet division) should all be leveraging the same IT and accounting departments, she said. “The first thing we did was really educate the team on what a shared services model means.”

Go lean: Instead of telling the team what to do, she asked them what to do. She showed them the current state of retail and the company's costs, and let them come up with ideas for cutting expenses. “Anything customer-facing — service, products, returns, goes untouched. If it is front of the house, leave it alone,” she says. “Back of the house... let's get as lean as we can.”

Retail predictions:
Though Broader says it is difficult to predict the future of retail, she runs Chico's with three certainties:

• “Digital commerce is here to stay,” she says.

• Personalization, she says, “is where it's at.” What Broader means by personalization is the way that companies market and sell to you is unique to you.

• “You need a physical manifestation of your brand,” Broader says. This is why Amazon bought Whole Foods, Broader says.

Different approach: Because competition is so fierce, “You have to make your product or service so unique that it can't be duplicated,” Broader says.

Chico's and White House Black Market differentiate by making sure there is an associate in-store and always available to help, which is a different strategy than a store like Macy's, where it is primarily self-service.

Broader says the company is working toward a goal of leveraging technology to further improve the level of service. For example, allowing people to buy off Pinterest boards is a possibility. Another possibility: helping customers improve their wardrobe based on a virtual closet that matches what they already bought in-store.

Leverage data: One of the most attractive parts of the company to Broader was 95% of Chico's transactions have gone through the company's loyalty program for the past 20 years. “We have item-specific data, and we haven't really tapped it,” she says.

These reams of data can tell the company if certain individuals only buy on sale or at certain times of year, or at certain price points. That in turn, says Broader, can drive pricing, promotion, marketing and item selection.

Being transparent:
Broader has sometimes had to play the tough role of letting people go. The only way she's able to do that, she says, is if she knows she has been transparent, open and honest with the person.

Broader says she learned this initially from running Sweetbay. “There should be a number of meetings ahead of a final conversation, where issues are talked about,” Broader says. That person should know exactly what they are doing wrong — or right. Adds Broader: “If you surprise somebody by promoting them or by terminating, that's on you.”

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