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“Find A Passion Outside Of The Workplace” 5 Leadership Lessons With Kimberly Collins CMO At Occasion Brands

“I’ve dedicated so much of my time and life to what we’ve built, and there’s no denying that I’m proud of how far I’ve gotten. However, I had neglected my friends, family, and myself along the way. The long hours are exhausting, so for many years it was eat, sleep, work, repeat. You can lose who you are in the shuffle, so make time for those that are important to you, including yourself.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kimberly Collins, Chief Merchandising Officer at Occasion Brands. Occasion Brands is a fashion and technology company that aims to be the largest retailer of special-occasion dresses online. As employee number 2, Kim has seen the organization grow by more than 1000% and to a team of 100+ employees since joining the company in 2001.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I grew up with what most would consider a normal childhood. A strong supportive blue collar family — my mom was a mail carrier and my dad a construction foreman. Delaware is a pretty rural place. I was raised to go to school, get a good job with benefits, get married, and have kids. I was a pretty good kid and always wanted to live up to what was expected of me. I had every intention of going to college to study architecture, marrying my high school sweetheart and starting a family. However, I took a slightly different path…

In the late 90s, I was “discovered” as a model on the boardwalk of Wildwood, NJ, and I signed with Click Model Management in NYC. My manager at the time was commissioned to write an ebook about prom, and it was only natural for me to contribute as I was getting ready to attend my senior prom. We soon presented the ebook to the man that commissioned the book — David Wilkenfeld. Knowing I was moving to NY to pursue modeling, he offered me a part-time job working for his online dress company — I remember saying to my family “who would buy a dress online?” I didn’t see a future here, but it was money I would need to afford my own apartment in NYC until I got on my feet with my modeling career.

The day I started, David handed me a phone and a laptop and said “go” — which I did. I was hooked in no time, and I found a passion in what I was doing. I loved the challenge of everything being so new: There were no guides or established best practices and, in the infancy of the internet, many designers refused to sell their products online. At that time, we were working on a commission structure with only two designers. I quickly realized that we needed to expand our product offering, increase our margins, and keep our risk low. With the supply side so restricted, I did what came naturally to me — I showed them the data. Years later, we now work with over 100 designers and have over 100 employees. We’ve developed into a retail company driven by data. We use data and analytics on a daily basis to determine how to best serve the customer.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In a meeting with a top prom dress designer, we were kicked out of their showroom, and they refused to even consider selling online. A few years later, the owners of this same company asked us to come in for a meeting. They wanted to know how it was possible that we were not doing business together, how a company like ours wouldn’t carry one of the top brands in the business. They did not recall kicking us out years before. We now have a great relationship, work closely with this brand, and can laugh about this.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

It starts with the heart of our company — the team. Our members are passionate about what they do and are committed to giving our customers the best experience possible. We have a saying here: Customer service is everybody’s job. Even those that don’t actually talk to the customer are always looking to offer them the best product, price, and experience.

In addition, as the Chief Merchandising Officer, I believe that it always comes back to the product. In our early years, I quickly learned to listen to what the customer wants. Many of our competitors, and even our designers, put themselves into a box. They felt they knew how to best dress the customer. It was decided that in the Spring and Summer, you must wear light colors and dark colors are to be worn in the Fall/Winter months. If the customers want to wear baby pink to their Fall homecoming, burgundy to their Spring prom, or a curvy girl wants to wear something that shows off her figure, who are we to tell them not to? We decided that we wanted the customer to be confident in what they are wearing and not just sell what the fashion industry decided was right.

A few years ago in analyzing the data for our Fall season, we found that our customers started gravitating towards burgundy dresses. I went to our top designers and asked them to make their top Spring styles in burgundy — a few listened and many did not. The few that did were extremely happy, we blew out of these styles and their business doubled that year. This put us ahead of the competitors, as burgundy styles were extremely limited in the Spring season. Since we listened to the customer, we had the styles.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

We’ve always found it important to grow from within and find the strengths of team members. I personally believe dedication and hard work are the backbone of a good employee — find their strengths, challenge them, and you’ll see the strongest rise. We’re far from traditional when comes to an employee’s path, and never pigeonhole an employee into what they were hired to do. We have a Director of Product Management that started on our media team, a Digital Marketing Manager that started as a seasonal customer service rep, and an SEO Coordinator that has worked in customer service and order processing.

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?

The list is rather long, but I know I would never be where I am without each and every person. To start, there’s my father, who would slip me some money when I was struggling so I could afford rent and food for the week. My husband, Matt, supported me in the beginning with his trust when we lived in different states, his understanding when I had to work through the holidays, and and his patience as he still deals with my travel and long hours. David Wilkenfeld, our CEO, is the man that took a chance on a teenage girl from Delaware. I am also thankful for our earliest team members who are still with us today — the ones that had faith in what we were building, no matter how unconventional we were.

However, the primary force behind my success is my mother. Not only did she support me in every decision I made, but she also always helped me believe that I could do anything. She encouraged me through the most difficult times, when I would call crying about how hard my day was, by telling me: “One day, it will all be worth it.” She would drive back and forth between Delaware and New York after a long day of work just so I could come home for a few days and be with family. Her love and strength are unlike any other.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve always been passionate about volunteering. While in school, I would serve food at shelters and spend time with the chronically ill. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I found my true passion, which is helping with the education to help prevent and eventually find a cure for cancer.

In March of 2008, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cancer is the scariest word I’ve ever heard. That moment is one that I will remember vividly for the rest of my life — the moment when I thought I was going to lose my mom, my best friend. I tried to be strong and tell her that everything was going to be alright, as they’ve made so many medical advances since her mother had died (of cancer), but I wasn’t well informed enough to really be there for her. I instead cried like I’ve never cried in my life and went home where I immediately researched everything I could on breast cancer.

Soon she underwent a lumpectomy, in which they determined it was stage 2 (more crying). The cancer had entered her lymph nodes, however there was no evidence of it leaving. The lymph nodes are the method in which the cancer travels through your body to other areas. Since the doctor couldn’t definitively say that it did not leave the lymph node, we didn’t really know if the cancer could have travelled elsewhere in her body, so she had to also have radiation and chemotherapy.

This inspired me to do something! It is my dream to one day start my own charity, but for now I decided to do whatever I can in raising money for The American Cancer Society. I’m personally involved in my local Relay for Life group, along with running my own team of fundraisers. We’ve hosted bake sales, a golf tournament, paint nights, created carnival games, sold raffle tickets, and many other fundraisers throughout the year.

In June when I walk the 2018 event, my mother will be right next to me walking that track! She will be 10 years cancer free this year!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CMO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1.Be the change everybody needs to embrace: In an ever changing environment, you need to be several steps ahead of the competition. You’ll never become a category leader if you’re doing everything just like everybody else. Once successful, don’t become stagnant. We may have been at the forefront of internet retail, but most have caught up. With our quick changes of processes, information, etc, we’ve managed to grow even stronger in our space.

2.It’s hard to be the boss: When you have such a small, friendly work environment, you become very close with your team members. When you have to fire somebody or criticize their work, it is painful, and it doesn’t get easier. I recall having to fire a team member who had several warnings about her work, I had reached a point where I knew it was no longer going to work. This same person is somebody I had hung out with outside of work. She had already invited me to a BBQ that night, obviously I didn’t go.

3.Learn to trust and delegate: In the early days, it was just two of us, and I wore every hat. Merchandising, marketing, photography, technology, photoshop, accounting…the list goes on. However, when we started to hire, it became hard to let certain things go. It became clear to me then that I was terrible at delegating. Once I started trusting my team members, it allowed for not only myself and the company to grow, but also the staff.

4.Listen to what the customer wants: It is not our job to dictate to the customers what we think they should want, but to listen to what they actually want. In the fashion world, it is the instinct to want to be at the forefront of fashion, offering the latest designs fresh off the runway. However, let’s be real here. What portion of the world is actually wearing these high-fashion looks? Who cares what models look like in clothes? It’s all about what makes the customer happy and confident.

5.Find a passion outside of the workplace: I’ve dedicated so much of my time and life to what we’ve built, and there’s no denying that I’m proud of how far I’ve gotten. However, I had neglected my friends, family, and myself along the way. The long hours are exhausting, so for many years it was eat, sleep, work, repeat. You can lose who you are in the shuffle, so make time for those that are important to you, including yourself.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.

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 few years ago, I was introduced to the book Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh. It is the culture represented in this book that inspired me to take a tour of the Zappos offices and take a cue from what he has done to define our company culture. With this, I believe that we have created a work environment in which I and others are happy to work.