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Women in Business Q&A: Melody Wright, COO, Von Maur Department Stores

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Melody Wright is the chief operating officer for Von Maur Department Stores.

With more than 20 years of retail experience, Wright is responsible for the oversight of Von Maur's extensive operations, including merchandising, store operations, distribution and logistics, information systems, e-commerce and security. She joined Von Maur as a sales associate in 1996 and served in a variety of increasing leadership positions before being appointed to her current role in 2009. Additionally, Wright is actively involved with the Iowa Retail Association at the University of Iowa and regularly mentors students seeking to explore and develop a career in retail.

Prior to joining Von Maur, Wright worked at Herberger's Department Stores and Coach House Gifts Hallmark. She earned a bachelor of arts in history from the University of Northern Iowa.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in Tripoli, a very small town in Northeast Iowa, where women don't typically go on to serve in leadership role in a company. I learned about work ethic and using a common sense approach to problem-solving. In rural areas with limited means, you face adversity and learn the practical value of teamwork. In my leadership role at Von Maur, my style is inclusive and allows for the sharing of ideas, as well as criticism of things we are doing as a company. I find idea generation to be easy - it's the practical application that falls short. Common sense helps you to predetermine the grandiose notions that simply won't work, therefore helping you to hone in on the ones with real potential.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Von Maur?
I worked full time in college and learned early on to balance multiple responsibilities. Right after college I worked for a different department store that followed more of a promotional business model. I found myself spending a lot of time putting up sale signs, then taking down sale signs. I wasted so much time that would have been better spent assisting customers and selling. Associates were put in the tough spot of handling upset customers that had paid double the price 24 hours before a "sale" started. I realized quickly it was an environment that just didn't make sense to me. It led me to Von Maur. I started with Von Maur on the sales floor and was promoted into each level thereafter. Learning the business from the ground up yields such rewards when you are prioritizing projects for a company. It allowed me to better evaluate what areas of the business had the most to gain from change.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Von Maur?
The highlight has been helping to develop new Executives and employees. Being able to directly impact someone's career in a positive way is extremely rewarding. We promote from within so I have witnessed hundreds of employee promotions and have seen people grow from new hires to Senior level management roles. When I started with the company we had 11 stores. We now have 31 locations and recently announced plans to open our next two stores in Atlanta and Milwaukee. To see the company evolve and get stronger has been incredible.

The biggest challenge has been the short term panic reactions that the retail industry has experienced in the last three years. Pricing, promoting, and the rise of the "outlet" is going to have an impact on brands and we have already seen many vendors hurt by pricing volatility. It may not be right now, but I predict there will be a day when vendors recognize that a retail partner that unnecessarily promotes their brand is in effect causing them to be a "discounted" brand by proxy. The two cannot be separated. You can't say you're protecting your brand image, but then open hundreds of outlet stores. As a privately held company, we can remain true to our philosophy: we offer unique product at a fair price while providing top level customer service. That is the long term strategy that has guided us in our success for over 140 years.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Do your homework. Make sure that the retailer you are looking to join is in alignment with what you want. If they tell you they support women in management, but there are few or no women in Senior management roles, that is an indication of what they practice. However, performance rises above anything. I have had people tell me I am lucky to work for a progressive company that values women in all levels of employment, including as Chief Operating Officer. I tell them I'm not lucky and it was no accident. I chose a company that promotes based on performance and my rise was not based on my gender or the progressive nature of the company.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Talented people tend to attract talented people. If you build a team that is high functioning and strong, you will tend to have similar employees working for them. That is not to say they have the same thought process. A high functioning, talented person understands that to be the best, you must have a diverse set of ideas and approaches to achieve results. Not everyone can rise to the highest level position in an organization, but everyone can perform at a high level in their position. Never settle for less than that and keep working toward that result.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
The reality is that to be the Chief Operating Officer of a company, you are not going to work 40 hours a week. Support at home is a must, but work/life balance is very subjective. I am the mother of two young boys and we have a routine of nightly book reading. When I am traveling for the company, those books travel with me and I use FaceTime to keep our routine going. It may not be the conventional way that parents read bedtime stories, but it works for me. I'm certainly not a reliable PTA member, but I focus on the small things that I can do to strike a balance between being a mother and an Executive. It is possible to have both a career and a stable home life.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I work for a retailer that has absolutely no glass ceiling for women, so the issues that I tend to see do not involve the limits placed on women in the workplace. I tend to see the limits that women place upon themselves. I have witnessed several promising young women with so much talent give up their career for what many times ends up being a short term relationship. As more and more women become the breadwinner of the family, their expected role at home must change. Preconceived notions of what their responsibilities are at home can often lead them to sacrifice their career. It is possible to have both, but they must be balanced. Women should not feel guilty about having a successful career and be made to feel that in order to be a good mother or wife or partner, they must give it up. They do not have to be mutually exclusive.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
After being with the company for five years, I found myself in the Director of Stores role reporting directly to our President, Jim von Maur. For 14 years, I have learned a lot from him. When it comes to being balanced, he taught me to never mistake someone staying late as a sign of dedication and talent; measure someone by their performance and output, not the number of hours they put in. I learned as a result to figure out how to be efficient and truly manage my workload. That helped me both professionally and personally. Secondly, he taught me to never mistake someone who uses buzzwords as the smartest person in the room. There is a lot to be said for providing clear direction in clear language. From that, I learned how to reach people at all levels and get them to not only understand the direction we were headed, but to get them excited about it. Lastly, I learned there is no place for politics or bureaucracy in an organization. It's unhealthy and slows down the ability to evolve.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Condoleezza Rice. She is accomplished and did it in an environment that heavily favors men.

What do you want Von Maur to accomplish in the next year?
The next year will bring about continued evolution of the business. We are taking a year off from opening new stores, which is by design. By taking a breather every few years, we ensure our high standards are maintained. We have advanced our internal systems over the past two years and I am excited to see the positive impact it will have on our business. We successfully modernized without breaking the bank and are now poised to rollout new technology across the organization. Our stores continue to grow at both the total level and comp store level which gives us a lot of confidence in our future. Customer service excellence is the cornerstone of our success and that will continue to be our top priority.

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