“Embrace the Unknown”, Words of Wisdom from Mary Ellen Coyne, CEO of J.McLaughlin
I used to be a perfectionist in every aspect of my life. It took me many years (and a lot of heartache) to learn that everything doesn’t need to be perfect. As a mom, this is an important truth, and one that applies to my career in much the same way! Show up, give it your all, and do your best. People appreciate that.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Ellen Coyne, mother of three and CEO of J.McLaughlin, the innovatively nostalgic American clothing and accessories brand that celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. With decades of merchandising experience at high profile brands including Ralph Lauren, The Gap, and Ann Taylor, Coyne joined the J.McLaughlin team with a clear vision for growth as the company looks towards the next 40 years — and Coyne isn’t stopping anytime soon.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Soon after graduating college, I found myself in New York City interviewing for a job at a bank. After the interview, as I was heading to Penn Station to catch a train to see a U2 concert (which really shows my age!) with my now husband of 26 years, I stopped in to Macy’s to pass the time and browsed the Ray Ban counter. The attendant was very friendly and as he was processing my sale we got to talking. Long story short, I told him my background and that I had always loved fashion, but wanted a stable, lucrative career. It turns out that he was the head of recruiting for the Macy’s Corporate Training program and within a week, I had a job there. I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe in being in the right place at the right time. I also believe that you should always follow your dreams and do what makes you happy.
Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
a. There is never a dull moment in our office! Kevin McLaughlin, our Co-Founder and Creative Director, is as funny as he is inspiring. I’m grateful every day that I get to work alongside him. We recently shot our holiday campaign at Kevin’s family home, and it evolved into a companywide dance party. Even after 40 years, J.McLaughlin is really still a family brand with an entrepreneurial spirit. That means that when I wake up in the middle of the night with a new idea, I can see it come to fruition in a week.
b. We recently held an incredible event at our flagship store on Lexington Avenue. In order to ensure the store was fully prepared, I transported, delivered, and helped unpack the boxes of inventory on my way to a charity dinner that evening — in high heels and a tailored J.McLaughlin dress, of course. This is not an unusual occurrence for any member of our team, and I’m proud to say that everyone at J.McLaughlin is always willing to lend a hand and go above and beyond to make sure that anything from an event, to a customer interaction, to a sales transaction is executed flawlessly, a testament to the culture of our brand.
Yitzi: So, what exactly does your company do?
J.McLaughlin is a women’s and men’s clothing and accessories company founded in 1977 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan by brothers Kevin and Jay McLaughlin. We are focused on classic styles with a twist and a personalized shopping experience — especially in the era of impersonal ecommerce — in our boutiques known for their signature warm, residential feel. We’ve been a customer-centric company from the very beginning. We also maintain our “local and loyal” commitment at every boutique by hosting events throughout the year to benefit childcare, healthcare, the arts, and animal rights causes close to our hearts and close to the communities in which we’re located. Our customers are simply incredible, and they are our focus every day.
Yitzi: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
a. J.McLaughlin has an amazing history and heritage, and it’s a brand with real integrity. Our Co-Founder is very much involved in the day-to-day operations of our company. In the same vein, every member of the company is willing to work on any project at any level and get their hands dirty. I feel that this sense of ownership, innovation, and creativity is what makes our brand truly unique.
b. We’re truly a classic Main Street retailer, with boutiques where our clients live, work, and play. We still love providing a unique in-store experience for every shopper, whether they’re new to the brand or a lifelong loyalist. The goal is to pleasantly surprise our customer in every interaction that they have with the brand. The personal touch is such a rarity today.
c. Our associates are known to feed customer parking meters, stay open late for a last-minute request and provide expert gifting advice. One associate recently helped create an entire travel wardrobe for one of her customers. She organized complete outfits in clear travel bags and delivered everything to the customer’s home. She helped with the wardrobe packing and even went so far as to include images of the customer’s coordinating shoes to go with each outfit.
Yitzi: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
a. I have an amazing circle of family and close friends who are always willing to share perspective and advice. My Dad is at the top of my list as an incredibly accomplished, quiet, thoughtful leader in his field. He is my go-to for career — and any other — advice. My husband Andrew and our three children certainly come next. These days, I often think that the children are teaching me so much more than I am teaching them. They have always had the most insightful comments without even knowing it. My two best friends from high school are my lifeline. And then there’s my NYC crew — the fabulous women I’ve met since our kids started school together. I would not be where I am today without our beach conversations!
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
a. I’ve been so inspired by J.McLaughlin’s “local and loyal” philosophy, and was incredibly proud of our Hurricane Relief Pop-Up store in New York last month to support the Red Cross’s efforts in Texas and Florida. I’m very much looking forward to our partnership with the Everglades Foundation in Florida, and am consistently impressed with our team. We make an effort to weave ourselves into every community, championing the causes of our employees and customers nationwide.
b. With my kids, I’ve also tried to instill the qualities of generosity and compassion. Growing up in NYC, they are exposed to such incredible diversity, culture, and progress, so I have the opportunity to turn those experiences into lessons for the future. My family is involved with Feed My Starving Children, an incredible food pack model that supplies individual meals with tremendous nutritional value to the neediest areas of the world. It is a fun activity, as you work in teams and compete to see who can pack the most boxes, and an incredible experience as you see the impact it has on your children. It is so important that we instill the drive to give back at an early age.
c. I also strongly believe that education opens doors for people. I am currently involved with Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School, a local charter school with a unique work-share program, giving students below the poverty line an opportunity to join the work force, make career connections, and gain real-life experience while attending high school classes. For the past five years, all seniors at Cristo Rey have been accepted into 4-year colleges and have received funding and/or scholarships to cover their full tuition.
Yitzi: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
a. Love what you do — Kevin McLaughlin leads by example, and after 40 years, he is still so passionate about the work we do and the service we provide. I am excited every day by this brand, and that is such a crucial element to being a successful CEO.
b. Remain authentic — In an era of ever-changing trends and technology, it is so important to stay true to your brand’s core identity — and your own. Trust your instincts.
c. Focus on the journey — I’m fortunate enough to work alongside talented and motivated people every day, and my team makes the journey an absolute pleasure. The destination can be tough to see at times, but hard work will always pay off — so enjoy yourself in the meantime!
d. Take risks — With a background in finance, I took a leap 30 years ago to pursue a career in fashion. I didn’t know where it would lead, but I’m so grateful I took that chance! As a CEO, I’ve realized how important that sentiment remains each and every day.
e. Embrace the unknown — I used to be a perfectionist in every aspect of my life. It took me many years (and a lot of heartache) to learn that everything doesn’t need to be perfect. As a mom, this is an important truth, and one that applies to my career in much the same way! Show up, give it your all, and do your best. People appreciate that.
Yitzi: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
a. I’ve recently started watching “The Crown” on Netflix, and I am in awe of Queen Elizabeth II — to the point where I’ve started taking notes on her leadership style. She was thrown into a role that forced her to become a leader and she handled it with such grace. As a daughter, sister, wife, and leader, she faced incredibly difficult situations with poise and resilience time and time again. I’m listening closely to the advice that she’s given and the confidence that she radiates, and already looking forward to next season!