What are they
CEO, Tandy Leather
What were your early years like?
I grew up in California in the Bay Area. I was a good student, but I didn’t come from a college-bound family or receive any college counseling, and was naive. I remember walking into the SAT, thinking, what is this again? Why do I have to take this test? I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. And it makes me laugh now because things are very different for my 17-year-old son.
Were you always interested in business?
Not exactly. I worked my way through college, in accounting and as a paralegal. But I liked science in high school, so I majored in biology as an undergrad at San Jose State University. We had a fascinating wildlife and ecology department. I had the opportunity to be involved in a significant research project funded by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. And, I graduated with my master’s degree in biology.
With such a strong science background, why did you decide to get your MBA?
I thought about law school and medical school, but I ultimately decided that business school would give me the most options. I liked the cross-functional, well-roundedness of an MBA degree. After graduating from Cornell with my MBA, I worked at American Cyanamid doing agricultural product development in the R&D group.
What drew you to Strategy&?
I needed to find a new job in Chicago because my husband was transferred there for his job. So one of my colleagues at American Cyanamid introduced me to a partner he knew in the Chicago office of Strategy&. During my interviews, I remember one of the consultants described the firm as a “collection of individuals with intense intellectual curiosity.” That was it for me. I joined the marketing intensive group, which included entertainment, consumer packaged goods, and industries like ag-chem. And after a few months, I knew Strategy& was where I belonged. Even if you were the most junior person at the table, if you were saying something smart, everybody listened. I really appreciated that culture and that kind of problem solving. I worked out of our office in Chicago for about a year before transferring to Sydney, Australia, and then to San Francisco.
So why did you move on?
For me, the thing about consulting is that I wanted to go where the interesting project is, beyond the local projects. So after my son was born, I decided to move on from Strategy&, and I took a role in corporate pricing strategy at Safeway. It was a job that kept me closer to home.
And how did you go from supermarket pricing to CEO of Tandy Leather?
After about a year at Safeway, I left to become the VP of strategy and consumer insights at the Gap. That was my first step into fashion and accessories. From there, I went to Coach, Ghurka, Nine West, Caleres, and now Tandy Leather. All of these opportunities have come about through my personal connections — many of which I made during my years at Strategy&.
Here’s a 100-year-old company, publicly traded, with more than 100 stores and 700 employees, in the niche market of leather crafting. But that niche of leather crafting is right in the bull’s-eye of a broader crafting / maker / artisanal movement — and that category has all kinds of reasons to be growing. We’re already the biggest national leather retailer, so we have a diverse customer base. Our core customer might be buying leather tools, leather belts, and saddles. We also have many other customers — for example, people in fashion, shoemaking, cosplay (costume play, like Comic-Con), bookbinding, and bag making. We have growing potential right now to reinvigorate both our retail and wholesale channels with greater focus and customization.
Any lessons you took from Strategy& that remain relevant today?
My analytical approach to problem solving is something I still use every day, as I’m tackling all kinds of emerging issues and challenges that I haven’t necessarily seen before. I also learned how to help people grow and develop, and how to teach them to draw out the most important insights. Both relevant and very valuable lessons I still apply today, with my teams.
What’s been your greatest challenge as CEO so far?
People are too nice to me. I’m pretty sure that at least half of my ideas are terrible, but it’s difficult to get people to tell me when I have a bad idea.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m what I call a “macro-manager” — the opposite of a micro-manager. My job is figuring out the vision, navigating the path, and nudging everyone in the right direction. But really, I want to activate others to lead the charge, do the work, and make decisions. I think my leadership style is similar to how Strategy& consultants approach their client engagements.
What do you look for when you hire people?
Intellectual curiosity and a strong desire to collaborate.
How would the people closest to you describe you?
I think most people would say I’m fact-driven, analytically oriented, and consumer focused. My particular talent is getting to the heart of the matter. I’m usually the one who calls out what we’re all thinking around the table. I’m not afraid to say things out loud.
When and where do you find yourself happiest?
I have a little house in Greenport, which is the tip of Long Island, where there are farms and fishing villages and vineyards, and it’s just quiet and beautiful. I spent a lot of time there this summer — canning, cooking, reading books and swimming at the beach with my dog – all of these experiences really filled my soul, I have to say.
Of all your accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of my relationships with people. I value my friends. I value my team. I value my network. And I truly love meeting new people and reconnecting with the people I’ve known for a long time.
What career advice can you offer?
Try to do something you love, and try to do right by people. The best parts of my own success are a direct result of my personal connections. At this most recent crossroads in my career, I didn’t have 20 companies lined up, banging down my door saying, “Hey, come and be our CEO.” I’ve had high points and low points in my career. But the one consistent thing I can say is that I’ve definitely followed my heart. I did what I loved. And I tried to do right by people. I didn’t always succeed, but I always tried.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to what lies ahead at Tandy. Now that I can see the destination, I know the journey between here and there is going to be really interesting. And mostly, I feel very lucky to be where I am today.
This interview was conducted and edited by Jen Swetzoff, founder of Closeup, a content strategy and creative studio. She was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.