How Lyn Kirby used a new vision to guide Ulta beyond cosmetic change Featured

8:00pm EDT August 31, 2009

It could be said that the fate of Ulta Salon, Cosmetics & Fragrance Inc. was changed because Lyn P. Kirby is not a morning person.

A finalist for the beauty retailer’s top leadership role in late 1999, Kirby had to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Dallas to meet with the company’s chairman. She had plenty of ideas and materials to review on the flight, but again, it was early.

“And I had left all my materials at home,” says Kirby, Ulta’s president and CEO. “I was about to spend four hours with the chairman, so I needed to create on this plane something to speak to him about.”

Not giving full faith to the charm of her Australian accent, Kirby began to solidify ideas about completely overhauling the business by turning it into a retail experience superstore.

“So I actually penned what has ultimately become the mission and the vision for the company,” she says. “Which includes the four E’s, which is to provide an experience for women by providing them with entertainment, education, escape and then the last one was aesthetics, which I always used to joke was how the Australians spelled it, with an E — which they do not.”

Maybe it was that joke or maybe it was the fresh ideas for turning the company around, but the chairman stuck his hand out at day’s end and offered Kirby the job.

Of course, that was the easy part. When she accepted the position, her new charge was to convince corporate employees and people in Ulta’s roughly 70 stores that had been doing business as a discount beauty store for eight years that everybody could do an about-face and make a new company. And while she was doing that, she also had to make sure the vision she’d put so much stock in was working.

Make a strong introduction

Kirby knew that many employees would still be attached to the prior positioning of Ulta, so she went right at the issue on her first day.

“I did not believe that was a long-term winning strategy,” she says. “And my first day on the job I knew people were going to be embedded in that past, so after I got through the this is who I am, this is the vision that I want to paint for us, this is why I want to paint it, I said to them, ‘Not right now, but over the next few months, I’m going to ask you to make a decision, and the decision is, after you’ve had more time to process this and spend some time with me, whether you can share this vision with me or whether you can’t. And if you can’t share this vision, I’m going to ask you to move on to a place where you share that company’s vision, because what I cannot do is have people stay who don’t share the vision because there’s too much work to be done.’”

Over the next few months, Kirby dealt with the hard decisions at the highest levels of the company.

“A few months in, there were people who had not been able to make the decision to leave the company that clearly did not share the vision, and I needed to have some tough conversations,” she says. “And I did.”

Kirby says it’s fairly obvious who is just hanging on if you spend a good bit of time floating through departmental meetings.

“It was very clear in day-to-day meetings who was grasping the new vision and who was completely open to trying to mold the strategies around the vision versus those who were just struggling and wanted to stay in the past,” she says.

Basically, those who lack commitment to big overhauls aren’t won over. Take the merchant side of Kirby’s business as an example. She wanted a large marketing campaign around loyalty programs and newspaper inserts.

“If the merchants were not willing to do what it took to decide what was on every page of those books, what it looks like and redo that two or three times … that was a pretty good indication that they were not on board,” she says.

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll see people throw themselves into the vision. The search word Kirby says you should be using is entrepreneurialism, as in those taking your vision to their own tasks.

“It was clear to see those people that were buying it, because they were working with me day in and day out and gained a passion to be innovative in the beauty category,” she says. “The word I use in here is actually entrepreneurial, and what I’ve always looked for in the team is to find people that are intuitive about their business, who are passionate about the business they are working on — and passion can be passion about product, but it can also be passion about the numbers if they’re on the finance team. Because out of the passion comes inventiveness, and so out of those desires, we have filled the ranks of our organization here in the corporate office with creative and/or entrepreneurial business leaders.”

As she looked for that entrepreneurial spirit, Kirby was able to deal with turnover and embrace the remaining members of her team and then begin to assess the holes she had.

Take simplicity to your front line

Still, having a bunch of executives behind an idea, believe it or not, is like having eight kings on a chessboard: You’re not going to get a lot of movement. Kirby spent 18 years at Avon Products Inc., and she learned something from her CEO.

“Jim (Preston) used to say to us, ‘Never forget who pays your salary. It’s not me; it’s the Avon lady,’” Kirby says. “It’s one of the great things that has always stayed with me. I repeat it to this organization all the time because that front line of the business, without them, we can’t execute anything.”

So Kirby had to get front-line employees behind her vision or it would die. That would take rewriting systems and expectations that were effective yet easy. First, she hired a store operations person who was behind her vision to watch over the processes.

Then, like looking for entrepreneurialism with her executives, Kirby thought it useful to go the one-word route to describe what she was looking for in front-line people so she could sum it up for anybody doing hiring. That word is approachability.

The industry was mostly composed of drugstores, which were not approachable because, Kirby says, they generally offered little help and were dirty. On the other end were department stores filled with commission-based help that most women find intimidating. But approachability gave Ulta an angle.

“So there’s this huge swath of space in the middle to offer women a nonthreatening experience where they could come and learn comfortably,” Kirby says.

Most of Ulta’s legacy employees had come from the drugstore heritage, so building that approachability required some new blood and better training.

“I put a very simple tenet in place to begin this transition to the right culture of approachability. When you’re interviewing a candidate for the store team, if they are not outgoing, if they don’t smile at you during the interview process, they’re not the right candidate for us, because they have to have that in their basic DNA,” she says.

Kirby also hit the road with her four E’s, explaining them to every store along the way. They may not seem relevant to other businesses, but there’s a wrinkle of genius to it. While the four E’s apply directl

y to Ulta, it’s the simplicity of the systems that acts as the main lesson. You don’t have to be in the beauty business to understand what customer experience means. It’s just one phrase, but it allows quick recall about everything from how customers shouldn’t have an intimidating retail experience to organizational functions like shelving products so people don’t have to look for them. Putting a vision into memorable pieces makes all the difference.

“It was a game-changing approach because they’re simple words, but I could give you six other strategies behind each,” she says. “It was really important for them to be able to remember the framework, because the execution can manifest itself in different ways. To be able to get the team to embrace the vision that we were not going to be discount beauty, that we were going to be a superstore … was a very big shift for our people on the front line. When I joined the company, the front line was only 70 stores or so. We’re now 320 stores and without that easy memory of what the vision gets translated to, day in and day out, by our front line, we would have never done it.”

Last edited by Dustin S. Klein on April 10, 2011 at 11:35 pm

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