At the annual Two Ten WIFI National Summit in New York on Tuesday night, Liz Rodbell, president of Hudson’s Bay Co. and Lord & Taylor, spoke candidly to a packed audience of female footwear leaders about her professional journey to the top of the retail industry.
The department store executive confessed that she discovered a passion for the business while selling shoes at 16 years old. “I knew I wanted to be in fashion and I got my start in a department store in Springfield, Mass.,” Rodbell said. “I fell in love with the industry right there on my knees, showing the shoes.”
Armed with that knowledge, Rodbell enrolled in the Tobe-Coburn School for Fashion Careers in New York and later landed in the executive training program at Abraham & Straus, where another industry icon also got his start. “Mickey Drexler was at the CFDA Awards getting his Lifetime Achievement Award [this week], and it was not mentioned that he worked there when I was there,” she joked. “But he was definitely there.”
In 1985, Rodbell was recruited to join Lord & Taylor for “what felt like a dream job as a dress buyer.” A focused young woman, she was driven by her own results and pushed hard to beat her own numbers — that is until a lead merchant taught her an important lesson. “I was negotiating a deal that was fantastic for the store but challenging for the vendor,” Rodbell recalled. “My GMM was not satisfied with my tactics because it wasn’t the best thing for the partnership. Learning that was very important — about what it means to be a true partner.”
She noted that cooperation has become a key element in her approach to business, as have listening skills. “You have to listen carefully and really hear what the other person is saying and figure out what they need,” she said, pointing out that women in particular tend to excel at that.
When Rodbell took over as president of the Lord & Taylor and Hudson’s Bay chains last year, she made it her mission to put those listening skills to work. She recalled that she and her husband spent weeks visiting Hudson’s Bay locations throughout Canada to fully understand this new organization and new country.
She told the WIFI audience, “There isn’t that much difference culturally between the U.S. and Canada, but it takes time to get to know people. And it takes effort to integrate thousands of executives at a company that might have a change in strategy.”
On a personal note, Rodbell said she’s been lucky to have a found a healthy work-life balance. How has she done it? Three key things helped: deciding not to move out of New York City, including her family in her professional life and having a supportive husband.
“I also took an art class for many years that was about self-expression,” she confessed. “I can’t paint portraits but it helped me explore something beyond business and get outside myself.”