In 2012, Talbots was predicted to be one of top ten brands that would disappear by 2013. Coming out of the recession, the Massachusetts-based women’s clothing company experienced a period of profit losses, waning clientele and was looking to close almost 20% of their stores. Enter Lizanne Kindler. The retailer was barely treading water when Lizanne, the brand’s former Executive Vice President of Merchandising, returned to the company as the President and Chief Executive Officer.
“We like to call it my very long vacation away from Talbots,” she jokes.
Today, Talbots has more than 500 retail stores and outlets throughout the U.S. and Canada, and attracts some of the country’s most powerful women as clients, including First Lady Michelle Obama, who touted the brand on national television this year with Jimmy Fallon.
Emerging from years of brand dilution and experimentation with trends and audiences, Talbots has recreated a cohesive style, focused on women’s professional wear with a classic foundation and modern edge. Under Lizanne’s direction, Talbots has streamlined its marketing and defined itself as a brand that empowers women both through the power of fashion choices, as well as the company’s philanthropic support of our very own organization. Such tactics have brought Talbots out of the rat race and into a unique space in the retail industry. Lizanne credits her part in the redirection to an internal sense of competition.
“I don’t get caught up in what you would call the shiny bright objects,” she explains. “I don’t really think about my drive as it relates to other people and that has enabled me to stay extremely focused with a tremendous amount of clarity around what I can achieve.”
Unlike many in her field, Lizanne was equally attracted to the business aspect of retail as she was to the fashion. Before originally linking up with Talbots, Lizanne began her career at Ann Taylor Inc., where she climbed the ranks to serve as Senior Vice President of Merchandising over the course of 15 years. At Ann Taylor, Lizanne was instrumental in guiding the foundational stages of their ecommerce, as well as kick-starting the now lucrative youth brand, Ann Taylor Loft. She then joined the Talbots team for a three-year period before accepting a position as Executive Vice President of Product Development at Kohl’s to gain a piece of retail education missing from her resume. Without any direct knowledge of product development and sourcing, Lizanne’s strong communication and relational skills gave her an edge, but the ability to recognize her own strengths and weaknesses became her most valuable asset.
“In any leadership position, but especially as a female executive, you don’t want to appear as if you don’t know, so you have this need to feel like you have everything under control, but I’ve found that it’s so much more powerful to just understand that you can’t control it all the way down to the lowest level, you have to trust that the talent you have around you is going to drive it,” she says.
Now back at Talbots, Lizanne has the self-awareness to trust in her own strengths as an executive and the humility to place the same amount of confidence in her team. This model has encouraged her employees to work collaboratively in cultivating a mutual respect and opening Talbots to new opportunities for growth, both internally and externally. Lizanne maintains a diverse team of professionals around her and is proud to lead an executive leadership team where seven out of 12 members are women.
With more than two decades of experience as an executive, Lizanne now leads an international brand with employees that number in the thousands, but her business savvy can be traced back to childhood. Born in Denmark, Lizanne and her brother were raised by deaf parents. From a very young age, she became somewhat of the family ambassador, handling everything from her parent’s tax returns to booking their plane tickets. Early exposure to handling her parents’ external affairs gave Lizanne the interpersonal skills necessary to move steadily up the corporate ladder.
“I was sort of their ears and voice to the world, so I learned very early on that communication and how you connect with people can be very powerful, and can change the outcome of a situation,” she says.
As Lizanne got a little older, her parents braved drastic career changes, quitting their jobs in factories to become teachers for other deaf learners. As an integral part of their interaction with the outside, she was inspired by her parents’ strength and curiosity to make their mark on a world where they were intrinsically marginalized.
At 11 years old, Lizanne traveled to the United States for the first time to visit her aunt, who had moved to Washington, D.C., and ran a department store chain. Though Lizanne admittedly didn’t know exactly what she was witnessing at the time, she watched as her aunt in a leadership role and returned to Denmark devout in her career choice. Her aunt was breaking through “glass ceilings” before that phrase became commonplace and Lizanne became enamored with her aunt’s work ethic and business savvy, as well as her accomplishments within the workplace.
“She became my role model. My parents were my backbone, but she was really my north star,” says Lizanne.
Even with decades of experience and as an accomplished CEO, Lizanne consistently leverages the foundational skills she learned outside of the classroom and the office. “I wake up every day coming in to win and do better, but with the appropriate amount of humility and ambition,” she laughs. And it is this mix of qualities in Lizanne’s leadership that has helped Talbots recreate a legacy that is shared through generations and consistently keeps women coming back to shop for more.