Diane Sullivan will be honored as person of the year Dec. 4 at the 2018 FN Achievement Awards (watch the livestream here). Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 3 print issue about Sullivan’s bold agenda.
Even as Diane Sullivan was still formulating her master plan for Caleres Inc. in 2013, the CEO, president and chairman told FN she was thinking big. “I have very high aspirations for where we’re going to go. It’s that competitive spirit in me — I want to win,” she said.
Five years later, the executive has led a dramatic transformation at the St. Louis-based company — and she’s definitely winning. In 2018, Sullivan engineered two sizable acquisitions — Vionic Group and a majority stake in Blowfish Malibu — and installed a new woman, Molly Adams, to lead retail powerhouse Famous Footwear.
Under Sullivan’s leadership, Caleres also racked up impressive digital growth and notched market share gains across the wholesale division — no easy feat in a complex retail climate. According to year-to-date data from The NPD Group Inc.’s women’s fashion footwear database, six of the top 30 brands in the index are Caleres labels, including Sam Edelman, Naturalizer, Vionic, LifeStride, Franco Sarto and Dr. Scholl’s.
“What the company has accomplished is remarkable,” said Steve Marotta, an analyst at CL King & Associates. “Diane is stellar in a whole bunch of ways — not just professionally but also personally. She’s a class act and cares about people.”
In October — on the day Caleres revealed it was acquiring Vionic for $360 million — Sullivan flew to the brand’s San Rafael, Calif., headquarters to meet the entire team. “I wanted to be out there in the moment for a town hall. People want to know what the values of the company are. I literally shook every person’s hand,” she recalled.
Sealing the Vionic deal was an important milestone for Sullivan, who had been working on it for some time. “I loved what Vionic was doing in a space where there wasn’t as much competition, and the fact they had differentiable technology,” she said.
The executive was also attracted to the strong team, led by CEO Chris Gallagher and president Connie Rishwain. “Not only did we get a great brand, but I picked up first-class talent,” she said.
For his part, Gallagher said the two companies were a strong cultural fit, thanks in large part to Sullivan herself. “I was looking for a CEO who was well-respected, with a passion and vision for the footwear industry,” he said. “Every person I have met from Diane’s team is intelligent, caring, proactive and great to work with.”
Cultivating more diverse talent across the company’s top ranks has been a priority for Sullivan. When longtime Famous Footwear president Rick Ausick retired this year, Sullivan conducted an expansive search for a new leader, both inside and outside the company. She eventually picked Adams, a Walt Disney Co. EVP, to lead Caleres’ largest division — which reported its seventh consecutive year of comp gains during the all-important back-to-school season.
“One of the things I wanted to do is augment our leadership team with someone who had a great consumer focus and a different set of experiences,” Sullivan said. “Molly has a wonderful way of engaging with people. The early read is that she’s shaking things up, asking a lot of questions and establishing her vision for Famous.”
In addition to appointing Adams, Sullivan has worked hard to foster female talent within the company’s board of directors, where Caleres now has 55 percent women representation.
Beyond her own boardroom, Sullivan is also a force in the community, both in Caleres’ hometown of St. Louis and beyond.
The CEO has been one of the most prominent supporters of the Two Ten Footwear Foundation and FFANY Shoes on Sale, and Caleres gives to charitable organizations such as the St. Louis Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. The company is a longtime patron of the United Way of Greater St. Louis and March of Dimes.
As she juggles her business and philanthropic pursuits, Sullivan is adapting to a rapidly shifting landscape. “The pace of change is unprecedented,” she said, noting that new inflationary pressures and sourcing challenges are issues that everyone is facing.
But through it all, the industry veteran is determined to stay optimistic. “Anything is possible if you keep working at it,” she said. “Don’t sweat it day to day; think about it from a long-term perspective. Keep the faith.”