Jill Granoff: The Happen Stance

Jill Granoff ascended to the top tiers of the beauty industry guided by a simple motto: “Ask for what you want and make things happen.”

Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 05/10/2013

Jill Granoff doesn’t wait for opportunities. She creates them. Granoff ascended to the top tiers of the beauty industry guided by a simple motto: “Ask for what you want and make things happen.” She then successfully applied the same dictum to fashion, rising to her current post of chief executive officer of Kellwood Co. and Vince, which together generate an estimated $1 billion in retail sales.

This story first appeared in the May 10, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

People often ask me how I made the switch from beauty to fashion,” says Granoff. “They are both really about aspirational brand building. The key is to ask, ‘What are you good at?’ I am good at defining a vision, a strategy to achieve it, building and motivating great teams and delivering results. You can apply that to many different industries. For me, fashion was a logical extension.”

But her fondness for beauty remains front and center: A bookshelf in her office overlooking Times Square displays a collection of framed photos of Granoff alongside industry heavyweights, including former Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. ceo Fred Langhammer, Limited Brands Inc. founder, chairman and ceo Les Wexner and Robin Burns, her mentor both at Victoria’s Secret Beauty and at Lauder.

Granoff, who exudes decisiveness and determination, is now happily entrenched in her new role. She says with a smile, “Fashion is my passion now.”

You left beauty in 2006 for Liz Claiborne. Do you ever miss the business?
Of course there are times that I miss the business. I probably miss the people the most. After 17 years in the beauty industry, I’ve forged many great relationships, and the caliber of talent in beauty is very high. One of the things I am particularly impressed with is the number of women in senior leadership roles.

Do you continue to keep close tabs on the beauty business?
I do. I serve on the board of CEW, so I stay abreast of key industry activities and I read all the major news stories in WWD, but I’m not into the product details as much as I had been. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Fashion is my passion now.

In your view, what are the similarities between beauty and fashion?
The beauty and fashion industries are both about making women and men look good and feel good. But they are also about letting individuals express their unique personalities and sense of style. I think it’s really important for companies to focus on understanding the consumer both from a psychographic and a demographic perspective. The most successful companies are those that convey an aspirational lifestyle, offer compelling products and product experiences that are tailored to that lifestyle and establish an emotional connection to the customer. Examples in fashion would be Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Urban Outfitters and Vince. And in beauty, I think MAC does it the best.

What’s an insight that you’ve had in fashion that would be relevant to beauty?
In fashion we often talk internally about merchandising pyramids and having the right balance between fashion and core products. You need to have the right balance of tried-and-true and you need to have something new. At the base of the pyramid are the item drivers that form the foundation of the business. At Vince, it would be products like tanks, T-shirts and basic leggings that every woman has in her wardrobe. They are basically seasonless. However, at the top of the pyramid, we need the emotional, got-to-have-it items, including leather, fur, mixed-media products that are going to generate the editorial coverage and likely sell out quickly. The beauty business could and should think of its product assortment in the same way.

What’s your assessment of the current consumer mind-set?
They are smarter than ever before. They expect shopping experiences to be tailored to their everyday needs. People want the ability to shop from anywhere at any time, with mobile commerce and social media growing in importance. Perceived value and convenience are also paramount given the explosion of choices on what to buy and where to shop. And value is not just about price. It’s also about frequency of use and wear occasion.

What does the industry need to pay close attention to in the year ahead?
The digital revolution. It’s changed how people shop and communicate with one another. Companies need to rethink customer engagement, online experiences, marketing strategies and even inventory planning. An omnichannel approach is critical to ensure consistency across channels and to drive competitive advantage.

What types of retail formats do you find most interesting at the moment?
There are a lot of interesting things that are happening online. I still find customization at sites like Nike ID very cool. Mr Porter is also among my favorites. The site talks about what’s new and what to wear. There’s a lot of editorial context—it’s almost like a magazine online. From a bricks-and-mortar standpoint, I just love Eataly. I could spend hours there. It combines high-end shopping, eating and hanging out all in one location. It’s very similar to how Apple and Starbucks made their stores a place of community, encouraging people to linger and to come back again and again. My favorite store from a fashion perspective is 10 Corso Como in Italy. It’s like the Museum of Modern Art for fashion. It’s a curated collection with some of the most well- known designers, but also fabulous up-and-comers and there is always a sense of discovery.

You’ve worked for some great leaders. What did you learn from each?

I have worked for some great leaders, including Leonard Lauder, Fred Langhammer, Robin Burns and Les Wexner. From Leonard, I learned to protect your brand at any cost. This means never compromising on product quality, being highly selective about where you distribute and market your products and that details matter. From Fred, I learned to do your homework. Get to the point quickly and deliver results. Fred was super smart, very fast and very busy. So you always had to be prepared and hit your numbers. Robin taught me many things as she was truly my mentor at Estée Lauder and Victoria’s Secret and she is still a dear friend. The thing that stands out the most is the power of innovation and to treat people with kindness and respect. Robin really knew how to motivate a team and cultivate loyalty. And from Les, I learned how to start with the end in mind. We never would have doubled Victoria’s Secret Beauty from $500 million to $1 billion if Les hadn’t stretched our thinking. He said, ‘Don’t increment off the base. Close your eyes. Envision the future and work backward to define the road map.’ Les was also a big believer in the power of distortion—constantly pushing us to focus our time and attention on things that move the needle.

What are the qualities of a great leader?
They posses four qualities. They create and articulate a compelling vision of the future along with the strategies to achieve that vision. They surround themselves with the best and the brightest people and leverage their talents to implement the strategies. They focus on things that matter, and they don’t get distracted or sweat the small stuff. And they deliver results consistently and recognize and reward the team that made the results happen.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I’ve been told that I am passionate, high energy and an inspirational leader—someone who never loses sight of the big picture, but also who gets into the details. I tend to surround myself with star athletes and push people to be their best while working as a team. I also firmly believe in transparent leadership, so I try to communicate as openly, honestly and frequently as possible. I also try to wake up every day with a positive attitude and encourage my team to see problems as opportunities that we should seize so we can continue to raise the bar.

What advice would you give to young executives?
You are in charge of your own destiny. You have to ask for what you want and make things happen. Don’t be one of those people who watch things happen. Take the initiative. Do your homework. Make the most of every opportunity. For example, if you are going on an interview, research the company by reading the annual report and current news articles. Go to the company’s stores and check out the Web site. Google the people who you’ll be meeting with and prepare a list of questions in advance. It’s also important that you think about the results that you’ve achieved and the functional and leadership skills that make you special. Then think about how those skills and experiences help the company. You have to remember that it’s not about you. It’s about the company and how you can help the company achieve greater success.

What drives you?

I am driven by a fear of failure. To put that in a more positive light, I’m driven by a will to win. My parents taught me to work hard, work smart and be the best that you can be. That’s how I live my life. I encourage my team and my kids to do the same. I’ve been quite fortunate both professionally and personally and now I feel an obligation to give back and help future leaders.

What do you do to relax?
I love to ski in the winter. I’ve probably skied over 30 days this year. We have a house in Vermont and a place out in Utah. Even though I’m not relaxing the body, I am definitely relaxing the mind. I also love to travel to exotic places. Some of my favorites are Bali, Africa, Alaska and the Galapagos Islands. And to relax, I like to drink red wine. My husband has a great cellar. And of course, be with my kids.

What keeps you up at night?
Nothing. I only need four to five hours of sleep a night. I’m always on the go, but when I get into bed I fall asleep the second my head hits the pillow. I burn the candle at both ends.

Would you consider returning to the beauty industry and if so, what would your dream job be?
I would absolutely consider returning to the beauty business. It would have to be a ceo role of an aspirational brand or portfolio of brands that really resonate with customers globally.

In Brief
Jill Granoff, a native of Long Island, N.Y, received her undergraduate degree from Duke
University and her MBA from Columbia University. She began her career as a management consultant at A.T. Kearney and then ran her own consultancy for five years. The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. was a client and Granoff asked then chief executive officer Fred Langhammer for a job. With no openings to fill, Langhammer created the role of executive assistant for Granoff. She spent nearly a decade there, rising to senior vice president of strategic planning, finance and information systems. In 1999, she departed for Limited Brands Inc.’s Victoria’s Secret Beauty, where as president and chief operating officer she helped double sales to $1 billion. She traded beauty for fashion in 2006, joining Liz Claiborne Inc., before moving to Kenneth Cole in 2008 as ceo. She joined Kellwood Co. as ceo in May 2012, and added the title of ceo of Vince in Jan. 2013.