Retail legend Marty Wikstrom talks to Drapers about a lifelong love of product and people.
Marty Wikstrom was destined to be in fashion retail.
“I remember being about four and seeing Ernest Hemingway’s wife. She had on fishnet stockings. I have the most unbelievably vivid memory of being absolutely fascinated,” says Marty Wikstrom, reflecting on a lifelong interest in product and people.
The softly spoken Coloradan might not always remember a name but, as she tells Drapers, she can always remember someone’s shoes. With more than 30 years’ experience in some of the industry’s most senior and challenging roles, Wikstrom is something of a retail legend. Her impressive career includes time as the president of upmarket US department store Nordstrom and as managing director of Harrods, as well the chief executive of Swiss luxury goods company Richemont.
I worked every Saturday for 20 years because that was when the most customers were in the stores
To further cement her place in retail royalty, she was joined the World Retail Congress’s hall of fame at last month’s event in Dubai. The hall of fame recognises the achievements of retail’s pioneers and entrepreneurs, and Wikstrom joins such retail stars as Tommy Hilfiger, Ted Baker’s Ray Kelvin and former Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose.
“My career has been a privilege: I’ve been surrounded by beautiful product and very talented people,” Wikstrom says, as we sit in a private room in the quiet luxury of Fortnum & Mason’s eau de nil Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. The London landmark is just one of the businesses of which Wikstrom is a non-executive director, and her remit is strategy and performance. She also sits on the board of footwear brand Harrys of London, Scottish cashmere company Johnstons of Elgin, high-end paint manufacturer Farrow & Ball and accessories and lifestyle brand Cath Kidston.
“Marty brings a wealth of experience in global retail,” says Cath Kidston chief excutive Kenny Wilson. ”Her significant department store experience is a great asset for us.”
Wikstrom’s career began at Nordstrom in 1981 in Murray, Utah. She spent almost 20 years at the retailer, working her way from sales assistant, to buyer, to store manager and eventually, president of Nordstrom’s full-line store group. The experience proved formative.
In the UK what was very different from my background, coming from Nordstrom, was that people were very deferential
“It was foundational because, at the time, Nordstrom was quite entrepreneurial and cared so deeply about the consumer. [Former co-president] Jim Nordstrom was a big retail hero of mine. I worked every Saturday for 20 years because that was when the most customers were in the stores. We wanted to see how customers moved round the store, what worked and what didn’t work.”
An offer from another famous department store convinced Wikstrom to leave the US and move her life across the Atlantic. She was appointed as managing director of Harrods in 2001 by then owner Mohamed Al Fayed. Originally, the move was to be temporary and Wikstrom thought she might stay in the UK for a few years. But, she laughs, she has stayed for 16.
Widely travelled herself, it was the increasing pace of globalisation in retail that made Harrods a tempting prospect.
“You could see how businesses were reorganising themselves into global luxury brands and it was really interesting to me,” she explains. “[Harrods] was a big chance to take but my family were up for it, so we trotted over here.”
Wikstrom says she admires British retail’s roots in shop-keeping, as well the number of unique brands in the UK. However, the move was not without some culture shocks.
“What was very different from my background, coming from Nordstrom, was that people were very deferential. What I mean by that, is that they were very polite. They didn’t want to speak to customers until they were spoken to, they didn’t want to interrupt. I realised we had a global customer shopping in the store and, when our sales people didn’t say anything, in some cultures people almost felt like they were being sized up or profiled. A smile and a greeting is international.”
A move to Richemont, the world’s second-largest luxury goods company and owner of Chloé, Alfred Dunhill and Azzedine Alaïa, followed Harrods. Wikstrom was appointed as a non-executive director in 2005 and, after some persuasion, became chief executive of the fashion and accessories division four years later. She stayed until 2013, turning around what had been some struggling brands, including Chloé.
“Our chairman [Johann Rupert] was after me for a long time to join the company as an executive and I really had to think about that, because he wanted me to work on a portfolio that had not always been successful.”
Women are great at leading companies and leading stores
Wikstrom was, as she puts it, the first woman to walk into the Richemont boardroom. She was also the first, and to date, only, female managing director of Harrods in its 182-year history – a record she looks forward to being broken.
“Women are great at leading companies and leading stores. Retail has always been a good place for women, but then they fade away, and don’t join boards and directorships. I’m hoping that will stop with time. It’s good enough yet, we still have a lot of work to do, but it is better.”
Wikstrom is clearly an enthusiastic champion of the many talented women who have crossed her path. She speaks with warmth about British star designers Stella McCartney and Clare Waight Keller, both of whom she worked with during their spells at Chloé.
“I recently had lunch with Clare to congratulate her [Waight Keller was appointed as Givenchy’s artistic director in March – the first female to run the house] and it’s amazing to see her grow and flourish. She works on being thoughtful and calm, when so many designers are temperamental. That’s a great moment in my life, to think about this beautiful British woman with three children running a French design house.”
The feeling is clearly mutual. Waight Keller has also paid tribute to Wikstrom, thanking her for making her Chloé’s creative director when eight months pregnant, and saying “no other executive in the world who would have taken such a risk”.
A measured, considered approach to leadership is something Wikstrom shares. Unlike some at the very top of retail, she relies on the strength of what she says, rather than shouting, to get her point across.
“People have a hard time hearing you when you’re screaming. Often, people don’t hear the message. It’s much better for me for my words to be heard. I don’t have a big loud voice and I’m not overly out there, but I bring people into a place where we can hear each other. I think it’s really important that people who work with you and for you know that they’re important.”
It was after she left Richemont in 2013 that businesses began to approach Wikstrom to ask her to consider joining as a non-executive director. Fortnum & Mason owners the Weston family were amongst the first to call, followed by a flurry of others including Johnstons of Elgin and Farrow & Ball.
fortnum and mason
“The first question I asked the Westons was: ‘Is it fun?’ I think they thought I was kidding. But the greatest projects in the world happen because people get inspired. We need the rigour of the balance sheet, but quite frankly, retail is about product and people. If you can have fun as well – that’s where creativity comes from.”
People have a hard time hearing you when you’re screaming. Often, people don’t hear the message
At first glance, the boards Wikstrom sits on might seem an eclectic mix. Her portfolio spans everything from Farrow & Ball’s eco-friendly paint to Johnston’s classic cashmere, but all share a focus on craftsmanship and quality. She has a clear criteria for the businesses she chooses to work with.
“It came to me that the only things that were really interesting to me were things that had a unique and special proposition at their heart, rather than necessarily a big business proposition,” she explains. “I had big American boards asking me to come and join [when I left Richemont], but they just didn’t seem to be a place where we were trying to do something beautiful and unique, with a sense of integrity.”
Wikstrom is an interested and involved non-executive director, describing with pride the innovation at Harrys of London and Johnston of Elgin’s manufacturing pedigree. Although she stresses she does not overstep the mark, she is also happy to offer a guiding hand when asked.
“It’s interesting: as a non-executive director my role is governance. We review strategy, we review the numbers and we look at the performance of the company, and, for the shareholder, that’s what my job is. But if you’re in these kind of companies, you can also help in other ways. I never impose myself, but if I can help in any way, I’m really happy to bring in any resource I can.”
Johnstons of Elgin chief executive Simon Cotton describes Wikstrom as “hugely influential” in developing the company’s new brand concept.
“Marty brings with her unparalleled experience and expertise in luxury branding and retail development. She understands the consumer experience incredibly well and is held in the highest possible regard by everyone who knows her in the industry.”
Creating a good customer experience through theatre, product and most importantly, service, has been a key focus throughout Wikstrom’s career. The lessons learnt as a sales assistant at Nordstrom are still fresh in her mind.
“We need to get young people feeling excited about serving others. I tell young people: learn to sell, because you’re going to sell your ideas, your proposition, your business, yourself. I tell them to go and sell something – sell handbags, sell bikes, just sell something.
She adds: “The reason I’m so focused on the shop floor is because it doesn’t matter what I do with strategy and the balance sheet and product – you can win and lose a customer in that moment at the cash register. It would be a tragedy to lose a customer over an interaction.”
With Wikstrom’s experience, expertise and love for retail, any business would be lucky to have her on board.
Wikstrom’s wisdom on …
“When I was first told Nordstrom thought I would make a good store manager, I was really a product person. I didn’t know how the money got in the money bags. But I walked around and said to people, what do you do, how does this work, now show we what the deal is. I did that for a year and I learned.”
“Jim Nordstrom told me the most important person at the store was the head of housekeeping, because you learn from the people closest to the customer. If you find out what their struggles are and solve those struggles, your business will be better.”
“What interests me is product and craftsmanship. Luxury is a very interesting word: it can be a product, it can be a time or it can be a beautiful resort. Luxury is about rarity. When a product is ubiquitous, I think we have to ask whether it’s really luxury – it might have a great ad campaign, but that doesn’t mean it’s a luxury product.”