Helena Foulkes, the president of CVS Pharmacy who kicked tobacco to the curb and took on airbrushing in beauty ads, is bringing her “transformational” take on retail to Hudson’s Bay Co. as chief executive officer.
Although an avid shopper of HBC’s Saks Fifth Avenue banner, Foulkes acknowledged she has “lots to learn” as she comes into her new, fashion-centric job on Feb. 19, but she stressed the similarities in the challenges faced by all kinds of retailers in today’s market.
“While drugstores and department stores are very different, both really require us to think about how do we make the shopping experience exciting and relevant for the customer,” she told WWD in a joint phone interview with Richard Baker, HBC’s governor and executive chairman. Baker has been serving as interim ceo since Jerry Storch left as ceo in October.
“I’m starting at a point where what was attractive to me about this company was the strength they have and Richard’s creativity and the board and the fact that they’ve done some really out of the box deals,” Foulkes said.
She pointed to two moves from the company’s Lord & Taylor division, which inked an $850 million deal its flagship on Fifth Avenue to WeWork Cos. and also linked up with walmart.com, where it will have a “flagship” digital store offering “premium” fashion.
“The future of any great retailer is going to be defined by how they can think creatively,” she said.
Just what Foulkes’ creativity brings to HBC remains to be seen, but she said the “exciting part of this is marrying the physical stores with digital.”
When she shops at Saks, for instance, she thinks about the data the company has and how it can be used to provide shoppers with a personalized experience.
Baker said he’s looking for Foulkes to “really be a transformational leader as the world moves,” citing her move to pull tobacco products from CVS since they didn’t jibe with the retailer’s mission as a health business or the Beauty Mark initiative to spotlight beauty imagery that has not been altered post production.
“We are living in a changing world and there are tremendous opportunities for HBC with our different banners and different countries,” Baker said. “We need to move quickly and move decisively to make the wind in each of those different categories.”
Foulkes didn’t say if the Beauty Mark approach was the right one for HBC’s own beauty business, but noted, “What is true regardless of wherever you play in the beauty space is that women are looking for authenticity and that’s an opportunity across the whole beauty industry.”
She joins the publicly held company just as stocks overall took a sharp dive amid fears of an overheated market and rising inflation. Shares of HBC slipped 2.4 percent to 10.10 Canadian dollars.
While this is her first outing as the ceo of public company, Foulkes has some experience going back and forth with the investment crowd, chiming in regularly on the quarterly conference calls of CVS Health, where she was also executive vice president.
When CVS executives were asked about the threat of Amazon last year, she said: “We spend a lot of time talking about serving the customer wherever, whenever and however she wants….Getting a prescription in 15 minutes or less is super convenient, but we wanted to add on to that….But we’re also doing even more just to make the in-store experience great, adding clinical programs. So we keep pushing ourselves very hard to solve the customer pain points.”
At CVS, Foulkes ran the $80 billion pharmacy division, which has 9,700 stores and 200,000 associates. Prior to joining the drugstore in 1992, Foulkes worked at Goldman, Sachs & Co. and Tiffany & Co.
And at HBC, she will be responsible for the global strategy and operations of all of HBC’s banners, which include Saks Fifth Avenue, Saks Off 5th, Gilt and Lord & Taylor in the U.S., Galeria Kaufhof and Galeria Inno in Europe and Hudson’s Bay in Canada. She will also sit on the firm’s board of directors. The retailer has more than 66,000 associates, 480 stores and various e-commerce businesses.
Foulkes will be challenged to lift HBC’s struggling Lord & Taylor, Gilt, Saks Off 5th and Kaufhof businesses, and to sustain HBC’s track record of monetizing its real estate for acquisitions and managing debt. Last year, the company reported losses and triggered a major cutback involving 2,000 job cuts.
While Foulkes has been tapped to create change, her arrival could be a sign of broader change in itself. In an industry where the c-suite is still dominated primarily by men, she steps into one of the key ceo spots.
Asked if her appointment was a sign of broader change, she said: “I hope so, we don’t know for sure. I think it’s an exciting time for young women to be able to think about their careers and I hope in some way I can inspire younger women to think about what having a great career looks like.”
For his part, Baker said, “We did a very complete global search for the best, most-qualified leader to run HBC and Helena was our very first choice.”