With more than 25 years of retail experience at Von Maur Department Store, Melody Wright has a unique perspective on the company’s growth trajectory. The executive started out on the sales floor in 1996, which she said was crucial to climbing up the ladder. And indeed, over the years, she’s held various leadership positions at the company, eventually taking on her current role as chief operating officer in 2009.
Since then, Wright has been a crucial architect of Von Maur’s operational strategy, touching each aspect of the business, from merchandising, store operations and distribution to logistics, information systems, e-commerce and security.
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As Von Maur celebrates its 150th anniversary, Wright talks about working in a family company, taking a measured approach to retail expansion and excelling as a woman in business.
WWD: What makes Von Maur and its leadership stand out?
Melody Wright: They truly value everyone who works for the company. That’s number one. They view it as a family. And one thing that I believe [chief executive officer Jim von Maur] is better at than anyone in the industry is that he allows us as leaders to make decisions. He serves as a guide. When I get stuck, I can go to him. But he gives me a great amount of latitude. He allows us to test and try and we do not have bureaucracy. And I mean zero. Even if it’s risky, it’s his ability to be patient but let us be involved. It makes it fun.
WWD: What are the biggest advantages and challenges in being a private company?
M.W.: It’s completely different [than a public] company. This is a family that cares about the long-term impact. Others care more about the bottom line, and if your viewpoint is only for the next quarter, you’re going to make the wrong decisions at times. CEOs are coming in and out. This is for the long haul. We aren’t looking to make a bunch of money and get out. We have long-term employees and leaders. We care about the business and it feels like my name is on the door. The challenges are, because we don’t have a stock price, vendors misunderstand us. They can be West Coast/East Coast-centric. There is a tendency for a vendor to overlook us.
When they do find us, however, they realize they are missing out on great margins and a stable business, so those that get it, get it. But vendors can be late to the party.
WWD: What areas of the country present the biggest potential for Von Maur?
M.W.: We are born and bred in the Midwest and have grown out from there. Pennsylvania will be on the map for us. We will continue to grow in the East and Southeast. There are also a lot of populated areas in Texas, so that’s certainly on the map. We are willing to go nearly anywhere if the opportunity is right. The state of Michigan has been fantastic — that was a bit of a surprise back in 2003. Wisconsin has been incredible. We do well in climates that offer all of the seasons. In some of the markets, if they don’t have a Von Maur, it takes some time for them to understand us. But we are able to be patient. We aren’t running crazy promotions or shouting from the rooftops. That’s a benefit for us. Our Dry Goods banner is a good example. It’s a specialty store business and you can crank those out much easier. That was a vehicle to help us grow.
WWD: How do you view the future of physical stores versus digital?
M.W.: E-commerce is our largest store, so to speak. When we launched our website in 2005, we treated it like a physical store. [Other] retailers poured tons of money into it and lost money; we didn’t do that. We did it in a healthier way. It’s a complement to our stores. Strategically, that helped us to remain balanced. We allowed it to grow organically, and we didn’t set out for it to make X amount of sales. In terms of the physical, there’s a huge misconception. Physical is the most important, but you need both. There’s just no question. The folks that function online understand that now. When business was amazing in 2005, 2006, 2007, retailers were opening stores everywhere. During that time, we opened one to two stores a year. We maintained that philosophy, while other people overbuilt. Now they have to trim back, and we never did. We never had the knee-jerk reaction, and that’s how you sustain life for the company.
WWD: Von Maur is known for its customer service. How have you maintained a close relationship with your top customers and new ones?
M.W.: From a service aspect, you need to have the bells and whistles, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have fitting rooms open or a salesperson on the floor, it doesn’t matter what the magic is around them. We have our Von Maur charge, an interest-free charge card that drove a lot of customers to be loyal. They knew we weren’t trying to stick it to them and that has been the OG program. We aren’t going to charge a fee and that has brought customers to us. They shop more frequently. [And then] there is the handwritten thank-you note [from associates]. I can put a Ferris wheel in the store, but the handwritten note, they will take it over the Ferris wheel. It’s sincere appreciation and that’s the goal. You want the customer to feel that you care.
WWD: How would you describe your leadership style — and has it changed since you took on this role?
M.W.: I’ve changed, definitely. But some things remain the same. I love talking to people and getting opinions. Leaders surrounded themselves with yes-people. We don’t have that here. And I love that. In my early years, I wanted control as we were evolving and my intensity was at a level that was a bit much. I wanted things to be perfect. That can be tough to work for. Then I came to understand that people may know more than I do. I got much better at understanding the timing of when to let go of the reins. That can be challenging for leaders. I pushed myself and continued to hand off some responsibilities as we grew. That keeps everyone challenged and learning. Once I figured that out and how to delegate, it just got better and better.
WWD: As a woman in a leadership role, what has been the biggest obstacle?
M.W.: I grew up in a rural area. I learned about the need for teamwork. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I don’t have a business degree. I was self-taught and I worked really hard. Interestingly, Von Maur has been very progressive. What was a shocker to me was, one of the first times I went to New York, as a young blonde female, I would go up to vendor appointments and the number of times I would hear, ‘What position do you hold?’ I think they thought I might have married into the family. It was tough. Someone told me once that I didn’t understand the business, that we weren’t on the same altitude. I had those experiences. However, I had support from Jim early in my career and he gave me a lot of confidence. And it’s much, much better today. There’s improvement and diversification, and that’s amazing to see.