Women in Business Q&A: Sue Fabian, General Manager, umbrellabrand

Sue Fabian began her illustrious career in retail as a consultant working behind the counter for Estee Lauder. A position she feels that everyone working in the Retail industry should fulfil at least once.

During the next 6 years Sue moved up through the ranks of Lauder to become an account executive looking after 44 stores from Scarborough to the M25.

Then in 1988 she was poached by a young American fashion designer who had just entered the UK. Sue would spend 8 years with Calvin Klein helping to grow his UK business from £3million to £50million and as General Manager spearheading the biggest fragrance launch of all time, CK One.

In 1996, she left Calvin Klein to take on her most challenging role to date, growing the Japanese brand Shiseido. Over the next 4 years she would be instrumental in helping the brand establish itself in the UK, host the Shiseido Museum in association with Selfridges and halt traffic with a show stopping ad campaign on the A4.

In 2000 Sue took a 2 year hiatus from retail to follow her passion in botany and horticulture. However, in 2002 she was wooed back to the shop floor by Harvey Nichols, who was opening a new store in Edinburgh. It was an easy yes for Sue who lives in Scotland. Sue oversaw the launch and ran the ground floor. She was responsible for cosmetics and fashion accessories.

She would then be poached for the third time in her career and join Jenners (the Harrods of the North). Here she would stay for the next 3 years as buying controller, running a team of cosmetics, fashion, fashion accessories and lingerie buyers. She would also be responsible for all the concessions within her departments and introduced the apothecaries on the ground floor.

After Jenners Sue began her last brand role as Head of Wholesale for Neals Yard Remedies.

Today she uses her incredible expertise and experience in her latest role as General Manager of Umbrella Brand, a brand development agency that helps owners of growing brands to achieve their retail vision.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My early days in business taught me that retail starts at the ground roots. Literally in the store. If your store staff really love the product, are well trained, feel respected and see you're prepared to roll up your sleeves and work with them, they give you their all.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Umbrella Brand?
At Estee Lauder we were taught to be persistent and never take "no" for an answer. At Calvin Klein, we were taught attention to detail, and Retail Is Detail. Buying was all about the bottom line and exit strategies if you don't sell through.

This mix of detail, persistence and buying experience has been invaluable for identifying clients who have the potential to take their brands all the way.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Umbrella Brand?
Starting a new business from the ground up is challenging, especially when there's just you and a phone. I am a real team player and loathe working solo as I get all my best ideas when 'bouncing ' ideas around.

One of the highlights has to be helping one client to develop a cosmetics brand from scratch. There's a wonderful story behind the brand that involves 3 generations of women from the same family. It has been a real pleasure helping to tell the story through the branding and package design.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Keep to what you know and keep your expectations realistic. Rome was not built in a day. There are two big misconceptions in retail. 1) that it's going to be easy and 2) success comes quickly. Neither are true. To make it in retail, you need grit and determination.

You also need finance as most business fail within the first three years through lack of cash flow. Invoices, especially within retail, can have payments within 90 or even 130 days as part of a standard contract. That's an awfully long time to wait if you are a start up business.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Your personal reputation is everything. It takes a lifetime to gain and a nano second to lose. Protect it. Always be true to your values and don't be persuaded to do anything that doesn't feel right.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
My weekends are sacred. I refuse to take work home with me. But I am always prepared to put in the extra hours during the week.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Maternity leave. Now I know that this is VERY controversial...BUT...how serious are you about your career that you want to take a year off with every child that you plan to have? Really? And then you wonder why women have a glass ceiling? We need to think about this from an employer's point of view. As a mum with four kids, I do understand the challenges that you face. You have to be super organised and gain a support network through neighbours, friends, professionals and if they live close by, parents.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I think it's all about never set someone up to fail. If you take someone on, or a company on then you have a commitment to them to help them be successful. Sometimes, you take someone on that on paper, hasn't got the actual qualifications for the job, but you just really believe in them. I have seen Area managers taken on that can't drive, and one kept on that lost her licence through drunk driving. BUT, once they had learnt to drive (at her expense and uber fast) and the other one got her licence back, they were two of the most committed people on the planet. Lynne Bonson at Calvin Klein really stood by her people through thick and thin, backing you up in public, tellings off behind closed doors!

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Lynne Bonson for being the finest negotiator within the cosmetic industry. Kim Delsing (Calvin Klein) for being truly inspirational. Estee Lauder for her belief in her product and Lesley Reynolds (Harley Street Skin Care) for actually caring about people, not advising them on procedures that they don't need and for her sheer hard work.

What do you want Umbrella Brand to accomplish in the next year?
Umbrellabrand continues to help smaller brands achieve greatness within retail. Personally, I would like to see Rosina's established within its niche market and Harley Street Skin Care gathering all the Skin Care accolades this fabulous brand deserves!