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The Making of a Modern Retail Executive | Gail Amsterdam

Welcome to the RETHINK Retail Podcast, your go-to weekly podcast where we team up with industry experts to discuss the news, trends, and big ideas that are redefining commerce.

In this episode, Julia Hare speaks with CEO and Founder Gail Amsterdam of Amsterdam Associates, a retained executive search firm focused on recruiting retail and digital senior talent for growth-oriented businesses. Gail shares what qualities she looks for in retail executives, how leadership has changed, and stories from her career that will surprise you!

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Hosted by Julia Hare
Produced by Gabriella Bock
Edited by Chase Atherton

Post Transcript

Julia Hare: Hello everyone. And welcome back to another episode of the Rethink Retail podcast. Joining me today as guest, Gail Amsterdam. Gail is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Amsterdam Associates. That is a retained executive search firm, focused on recruiting, retail and digital senior level talent for growth oriented businesses. And prior to founding her firm, Gail has a storied history of working for global executive search firms. You may have heard of some of these Foster Partners, KPMG, some of the big names. Welcome to these show, Gail, Gail Amsterdam: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here, Julia. And thank you again. Julia Hare: Thank you. It’s interesting we don’t have as many people with your profiles on the show. So I think this is a really interesting episode for our listeners in the retail sector to learn some insights from your career about what goes into the recruiting process and what are some tips you can share. So kick us off. Can you do tell us a little bit, the overview of Amsterdam associates and the work that you do? Gail Amsterdam: Absolutely. I’m a C-Suite Talent Curator and I solve my clients hiring problems, which today people have many between the great resignation as a result of the pandemic. What we do is we try to adequately pivot in order to figure out where are the brightest and the best talent out there in order to meet the needs of our clients, and then try to make a bridge between that person, the culture and what they technically do in order to bring them onto the organization and the company’s business so that they can stay in the long term and they can get promoted. And we do a lot of work in all types of retail and now digital direct to consumer, particularly Nordstrom, Bob’s Discount Furniture, the Limited, David’s Bridal, TJX, Boscov. So it’s all different types of retail. It could be hard lines, soft lines. Retail is retail and direct to consumer is very much like retail. Gail Amsterdam: And what we’ve done is over the past 20 years is to put together a personalized approach in order to try to identify what is going to work in your business and where are the people going to fit into your culture and to make sure that they do that and they stay, and that they’re happy and their families are happy. And especially, these days, because everything has changed in the past two years from whatever it was in the past 20 years. But people are having a lot of difficulty recruiting. And I think a lot of that is how are your resources going about creatively trying to find who it is, it’s the diamond in the rough. Julia Hare: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And you mentioned culture plays a big part of that. Is it the right fit in really understanding that when you’re placing executive level positions? And you mentioned D to C, did you focus on D to C as its own area or segment of your business prior to the pandemic? Or was that newer that you folded in? Gail Amsterdam: Good question. We concentrated on eCommerce. We concentrated on internet and today it’s sort of called DTC. Although, many retailers are minimizing with everything that’s happened in the pandemic and maximizing online types of delivery of service, but many retailers are still staying with their bricks and mortar. So yes, we did do both of them. And it was sort of a vertical integration in some cases. And the closer you get to 2022, the more D to C internet eCommerce companies you have. So 2002, when we start of the business, you really didn’t have that, 2010, 2015, it was rocking and rolling. Now, you’re seeing a lot of, and you see a lot of DTC companies which we’re getting into that don’t have retail. Julia Hare: Absolutely. And a lot of people argue it’s one of the same, it’s part of eCommerce. It’s just an extension or a new way of branding it in some sense. And great to hear that David’s Bridal is a client. We had their CEO, Jim Markham on the podcast a couple months ago, and he told an amazing story of during the pandemic when the dresses weren’t making it because of the shipping delays, literally at the ports, the dresses were on the ships. They made the dresses on demand with their team of tailors. So crazy story there. Amazing retailer. Definitely values their clients. And I understand retail runs in your family. I heard that your grandfather was a fashion designer. Can you tell us a little bit about your history there? Gail Amsterdam: Yes. His name was Jack Amsterdam, and he was my father’s father and he was a fashion Couturer. And he designed very expensive women’s and men’s clothing. And one of the most notable things is that he designed Grace Coolidge, President Calvin Coolidge’s wife’s inaugural dress, which is now in the Smithsonian. And he did a lot of heads of states, new Bernard Altman at the time from B. Altman’s and knew everybody who was in retail at the time. He would go over with my grandmother to Paris and get the models and the lines in order to meet the season, the upcoming season. He was written up in Fortune magazine in 1930, which is going back a couple of years, et cetera. But I really identified with him. The fit had to be right in couture and the fit needs to be right in putting together people and organizations. And so I say the fit is the goal. And whether it’s couture or it’s people and talent, the fit is the goal. Julia Hare: I like that analogy. That’s a clever one. And it sounds like he, maybe, was part of your inspiration to start this business and go into the retail side of things. Gail Amsterdam: Yes. I always was a shopper. So I have to say that from being a little girl so I always understood retail. And when I was back at KPMG before Foster Partners, where I was the Managing Director heading up retail, we really looked and said, “Which area would be the right one for me to go into?” And it just so happened that one of the audit partners became the EVP CFO at Melville Corporation, which was a $12 billion. They owned linens and things and CBS, and Wilson’s, and Tom McCann shoes and a number of other banners. And when he went in there, he brought me in and I did so many of their, they had 10 different monikers and brands, and I did all the CIOs, the chief information officers, the CFOs within the division, the supply chain, human resources. And I really understood retail in a way that I had never understood it before. And that took off. Gail Amsterdam: And then back in 1995, Melville became CVS drugs and then that became the banner over all of the companies and everybody left. And so then they hired us additionally, and that was when it was Foster Partners. And in 9-11 back in 2001, a lot of things changed in a different way than the pandemic, but people went on their own. And so in 2002, I spun off and started Amsterdam Associates and hit my grandfather’s company’s name was Amsterdam Inc so it wasn’t too far afield. Julia Hare: Yeah. Carrying on the family name for sure. And what was the jumping off point for you as a founder? It’s a big step to take. Was there a pivotal moment where you remember deciding I’m going to go ahead and do this on my own? Gail Amsterdam: When I worked for KPMG and all, we were part of the big four at the time, accounting firms. And there was an SCC prescription and they couldn’t have an executive search firm and the public accounting firm. So that’s when we formed Foster Partners and it was a boutique an organization. And I really felt like I was the founder of the retail practice then and I operated as if I was the founder. And we sort of were siloed in the sense that we worked together, but we really managed our own practice areas. So in 2002, when I spun off, I had really been running the business for 12 years prior to that. So certainly it was going into my own business accordingly, but I sort of felt like it was a continuation of what I’d already done. And I knew so many people having been in retail search for 16 years between KPMG and Foster Partners that it was really kind of a seamless transition. Julia Hare: Yeah. That sounds like a really natural transition because you already have the experience, the connections. And I want to just put a pin in connections really quickly because everyone in retail knows that, especially, at the higher levels, there’s a lot of turnover. And can you shed some light on why that is and if that’s changing? Gail Amsterdam: I don’t think it’s necessarily changing, but I think that there’s been a lot of turnover and I’ll say at all levels as well as at the high levels. I think that there’s less of turnover at the high levels. Particularly, in retail every day, a retailer looks at their numbers. They know whether they’re up or they’re down because it’s traffic and sales the day before. And so it’s different than many other industries. And they’re under the gun. Gail Amsterdam: I think that in the past two years, there has been just such undeterminable turnover at all levels because people’s value systems have changed and they really want to make sure that the alignment of the culture and who they are as people, no matter whether they’re a, I was just on with IT people, whether they’re an engineer or the chief information officer, they want to know that where they are is going to make a difference because they’ve lost a family member. They’ve lost a very close friend and life means something different to them, even if it means that they’re going to stay on the sidelines. Gail Amsterdam: There was some research that was done by Zip Recruiter saying that people at the start of the pandemic had about 33 percent of savings. And now at the end of December of 2021, they had less than eight percent. So that’s bringing people back to work and maybe it’s less so at an executive level. But I think that what is important now, and it’s always been important, but it’s become more important because it’s a buyers’ market in regards to where people are going is the way that you treat people. And it’s not just holding out that, “We’re going to treat you this way.” It’s six months, 10 months, two years into that person being there that you really are coming up with a customized incentive lever type of situation, where you’re keeping those people there and they know that you care. And they know that they’re appreciated and more than ever. Gail Amsterdam: And I think that people always want it to be appreciated. Don’t get me wrong. But I think that now they’re putting that right up front. And if the organization isn’t doing that, then you’re going of people leave. But if they are doing it, you are going to see people stay. And if you are going to really know who your employees are, who your stakeholders are, who your customers are, it’s going to come back with raving fans who are going to stay, who are going to be promoted, but it’s a two-sided selling quotient. Julia Hare: And that’s a big change. I like how you explained it in retail versus other industries. The numbers are so clear. It’s the traffic and the sales. There’s not a lot of gray area, which accounts for a lot of turnover and a lot of change, but you’re insinuating a little bit of that is changing because of the culture and the value systems evolving, not only over time, but especially over the pandemic, it sounds like. Gail Amsterdam: Right. And there’s been an awful lot that’s been written about it. And the CEOs that I speak to, they know that they need to have be the message. And the qualities that take a very strong leader used to be that the person could manage the P and L, that they could drive supply chain expenses down. Those things are all important that they can be able to speak to Wall Street and be able to deliver the numbers accordingly. But that is not going to be the case anymore if they’re not going to have those soft skills and be able to culturally appeal to the people. And if you do appeal to those people and these CEOs do throughout their organization change, they are going to have brand ambassadors in regards to the employees, the executives, the stakeholders Wall Street, they’re going to be loved. But they’re going to have to up the ante because sometimes it’s like I was saying, I was speaking with a client one day and they’re having a lot of problems with regional vice presidents in regards to them traveling around the country. So I made a suggestion, get a nicer car for them. It’s going to cost next to nothing in regards to the lease, but it’s going to make them feel better. And that’s what they’re driving around in. So what can you do? And everybody has cost considerations and it’s not… Gail Amsterdam: And 44% of the people out there are looking for the best compensation, but 56% are looking for other things. And that’s the ones that you want to appeal to along with people that want a lot of compensation, because if somebody’s going out there and they’re shopping in the market, and there’s plenty of those people that are doing it, and there’s plenty of them that are doing it now, you want the ones that are going to be more authentic and that the diamonds in the rough and that you’ve got a way of going about finding those people. And they’re not playing both sides, this company against that company. Julia Hare: Sure. Yeah. And it sounds like you hit on a really important topic, which is the how people lead and a little bit of the empathetic leadership. I think Harvard Business Review has talked about a lot in the last few years and how important that is across industries and looking for the people that aren’t solely driven by the dollar amount that they’re being compensated for so what… Gail Amsterdam: But you want to make sure that you’re incentivizing those people because you want their passion, you want their initiative and you want their smarts. I’ll tell you something. I, once, earlier on in my career, there was someone that was being offered. He was a CFO that we were hiring and they offered him a lot of stock options. And he had five kids and he was from Buenos Aires. It was Carlos Elbert. I shouldn’t say that. But anyway, I said, “If you gave your 15 month old, who was in the playpen a new toy, and then you gave him another toy, wouldn’t he want another toy in about 15 minutes? And he kind of is like that.” And he took the job. So it’s not just money. It’s what’s going to make that person happy. And what’s going to really stretch them on the runway. So you’re not hiring them for this job, you’re hiring them for their next job. Julia Hare: Like the car example, you said, why don’t you go ahead and give them a luxury vehicle. It just elevates the experience of having to drive so much, which sometimes can get old. But the cost trade-off is probably really small as opposed to the cost of hiring and finding a new talent to replace them. Gail Amsterdam: Absolutely. And all that you’ve taught them before. And you don’t want to, nobody wants to lose people. They just don’t know how to keep people. And they don’t know how to get people a lot of times. And especially after the pandemic, it’s been something that’s reared its ugly head. Julia Hare: That’s a good way to say it though. They just don’t know how to keep people. I like that. What are some other qualities in general, if you were just listing off some qualities that are top of mind for you when it comes to the executive level positions in retail? Gail Amsterdam: I think that certainly somebody who’s got ambition and a get up and go kind of a mentality. Will they leave their ego at the door and more and more? Arrogance is not being tolerated in the C-suite. Maybe it was at some point, that’s not to say that there aren’t people that are arrogant, and sometimes that comes with the territory. But it’s collaboration, but not to the point of paralysis. So people need to work together. And also people need to be able to because a lot of people are working hybrid or remote, most companies, but some companies are not requiring people to come into the office all the time, but they need to be able to come into the office when they need to come into the office because there’s vendors or because there’s meetings or whatever, how do these people keep the community going within the organization? Because it’s different than it is, than if you want to say, let’s grab a sandwich together. And how do you build in? And how do the people that you hire build in time to develop that relationship and those soft skills? Gail Amsterdam: You can hire someone, who’s got the best financial marketing, supply chain, business, best schools, but if they don’t fit into the culture and if they are rigid, unless you’re going into a rigid organization, then they’re perfect. And I think that one of the things that you need to take a look at is you could look at different organizations and some of them are dysfunctional and some of them are very functional and it’s okay if you have a dysfunctional organization, but they’re going to probably take a particular type of person and the person who’s your resource generator has to understand what works because it doesn’t mean that even though an organization is dysfunctional, that it’s not going to be effective. It’s just people might not be as happy. Gail Amsterdam: People are not tolerating that as much now, accordingly. I think that still all of those other skills that took a great CEO and a great leader, but I think that also judgment and someone that can is nimble in their ability to pivot because in business today and looking at everything that’s going on with the supply chain issues, and it’s not just a supply chain issue with merchandise it’s with talent. How do people pivot in order to be able to deal with the obstacles that are coming up and not freak out and also be able to come up with solutions and how do they partner accordingly? Gail Amsterdam: I went to a luncheon recently with a lot of retail CEOs and you’ve got Amazon and Walmart and they’re the leaders in regards to the way that they’re delivering things, et cetera. Maybe there’s a need for a third party type of supply chain kind of an arm that deals with everybody else because everybody is bleeding in regards to that in detail otherwise. So how does this person come up with solutions that are not the most expensive? That they know how to say, this is the Rolls Royce solution. This is the Oldsmobile solution. And this is the Chevy solution. I want to take 10 percent of the Rolls Royce, 80 percent of the Chevy, and 10 percent of the Oldsmobile, and this is going to be the cost and these are going to be the benefit. Julia Hare: So a little bit more of that creative thinking. And you said, how to partner with the right people to get things done and pivot in times like these. Do you have any stories from your career about what happens when you place someone who was really the right fit? You said, I mean, companies are run by people so a lot of times they are dysfunctional, they’re not perfect oiled machines. They have their hiccups too. But are there any things that have stuck out to you where you’re like, yeah, that really changed the game for that company? Gail Amsterdam: Sure. We were doing the search for the senior executive vice president, CFO for TJX, and they wanted the best CFO in the country. Everybody wants the best, whatever, but they wanted it and they didn’t want anybody to know that they were looking for a CFO. So which many times is the case with clients. So how are we going to go about it? So the way that we went about it, which will sort of answer your question is we went to, this is the creative arm that I really like to figure out. We decided to go to investment banking conferences for retailers, and we saw how the CFO handled themselves with the CEO. Because if you know the drill they sit with the CEO and the CEO usually speaks first and then the CFO, but we didn’t just go to their original presentation. Gail Amsterdam: We went to the breakout sessions and instead of bothering them while they were at the session, we got in touch with them when they were, because they were there to have the short and the long investor invest in them. And we didn’t want to take them away from their biggest purpose of being there. And we brought Jeff Naylor in and he then became a member of the board and became fabulously successful. And we did work there and then Ted English, who was the CEO who we did that search for, hired us at Bob’s Discount Furniture, who we’ve done a tremendous amount of workforce since then. Gail Amsterdam: I’ll tell you a funny story, maybe funny. But we were hiring the top person for Victoria Secret, the top merchant and the person that we were hiring was working for Ann Taylor and their husband was an OBGYN. And they lived in Long Island and this meant that they had to move at the time to Columbus, Ohio. And there were very limited choice is about places where the husband could work. And we spoke to Les Wexner, who was the CEO at the Limited who owned Victoria’s Secret at the time, and we got him into Ohio State University Hospital, and he opened his own practice. And then they moved and they’re still there and it’s been 20 years. Julia Hare: That is impressive, Gail. That is service. Gail Amsterdam: Thank you. Julia Hare: Serve above and beyond. Gail Amsterdam: I just want to say this, it’s not just filling the job. It’s filling the culture that it’s making sure that the family is all right, and that you’re going to make it better. So there’s several search touch points to lower the obstacle level, lower the pain level, because it’s always hard for people to move and then making it so that they stay and that person went on to be promoted, to be promoted. It was unbelievable. Gail Amsterdam: I’ll tell you one more story. We were doing the search for the Chief Watered Officer for Nordstrom. And we found someone who is now the chief watered Officer at Uber, but we hired her, Dominique Vincenti. And she lived in Florida, in Orlando, and her husband and her two children were there. And it was at the end of the year. And Anna, her oldest daughter was due to be at the bat Mitzvah in April. And Dominique joined Nordstrom in November and she went back and forth and Nordstrom gave her the tickets to go back and forth so that Anna could be at the bat Mitzvah in April. And it was because of the way that Nordstrom treated her and that’s going back. So I’m not saying that this is anything new, but it’s more widespread that she stayed there for a number of years. And then Uber was lucky enough to be able to recruit her many years later. Julia Hare: Well, it really speaks to the culture of Nordstrom because we always hear great things in the retail industry about their level of service to their customers. And it sounds like service to their own employees, which is huge. So thank you Gail for sharing those stories. I know a lot of our listeners are retail executives themselves. So if they would like to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to do so? Gail Amsterdam: My email is Gail G A I L @Amsterdam associates.com. Our phone number is (212) 486-6002. And if you go on our website, www.amsterdamassociates.com, or you email me, my cell phone’s on there so feel free to reach out to me at any time. Julia Hare: Thank you, Gail. Gail Amsterdam: Thank you.