Women in Business Q&A: Ruth Hartman, Chief Merchandising Officer, Le Tote

Ruth Hartman joined Le Tote in November 2014 and brings with her over 20 years of in-depth practical operating expertise. She has a proven track record of consistently delivering profitable growth with responsibility for merchandising strategy, product assortment, organizational development and strategic planning. Ruth started her career at Henri Bendel in New York before joining the merchandising team at Macy's in San Francisco. While at Macy's she was responsible for $1B in revenue in branded and private brand categories including apparel, accessories and footwear. Following her tenure at Macy's, Ruth spent five years at DSW where she oversaw the $1.2B women's footwear business, and increased sales and profits year over year. Ruth sat on the senior leadership team at both Macy's and DSW and is recognized as a skilled merchant and expert problem solver, known for developing and leading influential and impactful teams. Ruth holds a bachelor's degree from Simmons College.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I've always been independent (second child!) and was encouraged by my parents at a young age to create my own adventures and pave my own path. In my early 20s I had the incredible opportunity to live abroad and see firsthand how different cultures behave and interact. These experiences have greatly influenced my career and leadership style as I progressed in the corporate world. I encourage my team to take risks and think outside the box. I want to empower the smart, creative women I work with to take every opportunity and make it their own.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Le Tote?
Having worked in big corporate environments and at public companies for over 20 years has taught me to work cross-functionally, to respect diverse points-of-view and to adapt to changing business conditions. In addition, my previous experiences made me extremely results oriented - as the old retail adage goes "you're as good as yesterday's sales results."

At Le Tote, I'm able to harness the lessons learned from my previous roles and apply them within Le Tote's dynamic, productive, and fast paced environment. I love that my cross-functional partners are literally all in the same room - it's energizing every day!

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Le Tote?
There are so many highlights - Working with vibrant, talented, and passionate people, all of whom are here to create something new AND having fun doing it.

Being able to share the Le Tote story with my existing industry contacts in apparel and accessories. Brands are really excited to be part of a new retail model, particularly one that has shown 450% growth over the last two years.

The biggest challenge is competing priorities. There is always so much to get done and yet you can't rush the process. It's so important to have specific goals that are thoughtfully strategized and completed before moving on to the next item on the to-do list. Sometimes we call it 'whack-a-mole'.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
No matter what part of the industry you're in, the customer comes first. Your priorities and short/long term goals must be customer centric - assortment, strategy, everything.

Also, this is a people-driven industry. Building strong relationships within your company, and within the broader industry, is key to success. The only thing you have at the end of the day is your reputation - make the most of it.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
To be fair, firm, and friendly - and not always in that order!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It's a juggling act. It's easier now that my kids are older and are more independent (although sometimes I do miss the days when they couldn't wait for me to get home at night). My husband is a wonderful father and has always been a great support system.

At work, I trust and rely on my team to do their very best and I try not to micromanage. I work smart vs. putting in endless hours - quality vs. quantity. And personally, I try to eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep - all of which help me manage stress and keep things in perspective. Being out of balance is a downward spiral.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
For me, it has always been maintaining a good balance between work and home. Feeling great about my contribution as an executive, and at home as a wife and mother. My solve is to try to be the best that I can be in the moment - wherever that may be.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Having strong mentors/role models, as well as good friends, has played a big part in molding me into the executive and person I am today. I have had several people in my life take an active interest in my development. They've provided not only motivation and direction but also good, constructive feedback when improvement was necessary. I try to learn something from everyone I worked with - absorbing the good, and learning from the rest.

Giving back as a mentor myself means a lot to me. Helping someone overcome an obstacle, grow as a leader, or work through balancing their lives is extremely fulfilling.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Diane Sullivan, CEO of Caleres. She embodies the leadership and personal style that I strive for. She's highly engaged in everything she does while allowing her team autonomy to grow and drive their business.

Debbie Martin, CEO of Debbie Martin Designs. We have worked together several times throughout my career, both in retail and wholesale. I was her assistant at Henri Bendel at the very start of my career! She took the time to teach me the fundamentals of being a great merchant, and remains an inspirational force in my life to this day.

What do you want Le Tote to accomplish in the next year?
I want Le Tote to continue its tremendous growth trajectory of the past two years by giving our members an outstanding assortment of unlimited wardrobe choices. We are working day and night to make fashion accessible and approachable for everyone, every day. And as we become a bigger company, I want to hang on to the incredible culture that has been cultivated here and maintain the pace of a scrappy start up.