Lyn Kirby and Ulta

Lyn Kirby will step down as chief executive officer of Ulta, but will be guiding the company she helped put on the map through next March. She will be replaced by Chuck Rubin, who joined Ulta as president and chief operating officer from Office Depot. Rubin inherits a company that is dramatically different than the one Kirby joined in 1999.

When this reporter first met Kirby, she was running the beauty efforts at Sears’ Circle of Beauty. Although that concept was pulled after executive changes at Sears, the products that came out under her watch were ahead of their time. For example, there were items geared toward women undergoing menopause and there were fruity concoctions that predated the Bath and Body Works craze. It was no surprise she knew a thing or two about product development, since she had worked with Bob Ruttenberg at Gryphon Development mastering exclusives for retailers including Warner Bros., Disney, Limited Too and Sears. When she came to Ulta, it was more drugstore than specialty store. In fact, the founders of Ulta were former food and drugstore operators who just copied the drug format sans a pharmacy. They also added salon services to help draw in shoppers and have the opportunity to sell salon items. The company was originally called Ulta3 and locations were in strip centers where rents were attractive.

The salon in the early stores was in the front near glass windows where patrons were on display — not exactly the right locale for removing the gray. The merchandise mix had a sprinkling of upscale names, but mostly in hair care.

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When Kirby was flying out for her Ulta interview, she wrote on a paper napkin (the flight was early and she had left her paperwork and paper at home in a rush) the four key strategies she saw for the company — strategies still used today. Education, entertainment, escape and aesthetics. “That is what we have built the business around,” Kirby said in an earlier interview. Each version of a new store prototype helped bring in more of those four pillars.

Upon joining Ulta, she set out to elevate the ambience of the store with the goal of if you build it they will come — meaning shoppers and premium brands. Salons were moved to the rear and clearly defined prestige and mass areas created. The stores were improved year after year by new “levels” as they are called. The crowning glory was a flagship in Chicago opened 2008.

Throughout her time at Ulta, Kirby has always been on the cutting edge of women’s needs. When yoga got hot; Ulta added yoga tapes and mats. When consumers were on the prowl for flat irons to straighten hair, Ulta brought in a bevy of brands, including Chi. And when the mineral boom took root, Ulta was among the first to get into the business in a serious and meaningful way. Kirby also tried many amenities to please women with internet access and cafes tested along the way. The loyalty program is among one of the most vibrant in the beauty business.

Kirby is a class act and she created stores that are equally classy. Today the retailer carries everything from Clinique in select stores to Cover Girl. The beauty department is an incubator for hot new brands. The appliance selection is unbeatable and the service is top shelf. While there are some stores in need of a loving update, most of the doors in the inventory have a fresh new look. Her vision helped manufacturers take note of Ulta and the mix has gone upscale thanks to Kirby. When she departs next year, she leaves a company in tip-top condition poised for even bigger things.

People, Place and Things

A few worlds with Ulta’s Lyn Kirby in regard to management changes.
Kirby: We are delighted to attract Chuck [Rubin] to Ulta as president and chief operating officer. Chuck’s extensive retail background and knowledge of retailing will be highly valuable to us as the company continues to execute its proven strategy and maintain its successful track record of growth. Chuck is joining us at an opportune time with this established platform for future growth. One of my key priorities is to ensure a smooth transition in leadership and continue our strong performance. I am looking forward to providing insight and perspective to Chuck as well as assisting Ulta to reach its goals and objectives, as a member of our board of directors.

What’s In Store

Tugaboos: Rite Aid is introducing its new private brand baby care line Tugaboos, with Tugaboos diapers now available at all Rite Aid stores. Rite Aid continues to beef up its exclusive brands which include everything from sun care to bath and body.

Hinkaty Joins Prestige Board: Well-known Del Laboratories executive Charles Hinkaty will join the board at Prestige Brands, marketers of New Skin, Little Noses and Spic and Span.

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