Carla Stef has come a long way from the shy, young girl who loved to spend time alone filling every spare writing table with fashion drawings. Years of working a wide range of jobs in the retail industry and running morning meetings for staff lured out a hidden love of public speaking, a knack for engaging others and a talent for public relations. As Director of National Events and Regional Public Relations at Holt Renfrew, each day offers the promise of interesting new challenges.
An Extraordinary Experience
by MARILYN R. WILSON
In 1981, Stef graduated from the University of Alberta with the idea of becoming a lawyer. Needing to find a job, she turned to retail. After rising quickly through the ranks at two other businesses, it was time for a fresh challenge. The decision to accept a position at Holt Renfrew - the epitome of luxury fashion - was a life-changing moment which opened the door on long career with the company. She shares, "What I value most about my experience with Holt Renfrew is I've had extremely wide-ranging job positions - sales manager, divisional manager within the store, human resources, operations, public relations, buyer, special events, marketing and communications. Over the 25 years I have been here, I have had five or six mini careers along the way. They have been incredibly supportive in terms of my development."
Despite it's world-class status, Holt Renfrew is actually a surprisingly small company when compared to other luxury retail chains, with only nine stores across Canada. This creates an atmosphere where employees have the chance to work closely with those in other locations. "We know the people in Montreal, Ottawa and Calgary really well. We see them, we work with them and we talk to them on a daily basis. It doesn't matter what position you hold in our company and it's an extraordinary experience." Stef lives and works in Vancouver, but deals with employees Canada-wide. It requires a special intuitive touch as different people respond to different styles. "The secret is to not take a cookie cutter approach. To really take a look at each person on your team and help them achieve their goals by pushing the right buttons for them."
The day often starts very early. This gives a chance to work before others arrive and facilitates dealings with stores back east. There are emails and phone calls to answer as well as managers to touch bases with to assure everyone understands the day's priorities and sales goals. Communication is all important to ensure they have the right products in the stores, employees are motivated and each has the tools needed to be successful. Everyone who wears a Holt Renfrew name tag, no matter what their position, is expected to help a client if needed. Public relations requires her to take those same skills and apply them to connecting with media and the wider community. Each project requires a tailored approach, be it working with the Holts national communications team on larger opportunities or individual brands to drive awareness of their products.
In January 2011, the position of Director of National events was added to her resume. Stef notes, "Events are no longer day-to-day stuff, they are really big projects. My job is to make sure the experience in the store is extraordinary - that there is always something wonderful going on. Last weekend we had "Christmas Comes Early. Our windows all reflect the 12 days of Christmas and we had a flash mob spectacle where the 12 days of Christmas came to life. We had 12 drumming, 11 pipers piping - the whole thing."
Stef has seen tremendous changes come about during her time in the industry. Retail used to be very hands on. Cash registers only rang up sales and credit card approvals were done one at a time by phone. There were no bar codes or scanners. Inventory was a manual process. Fax machines, computers, email and word processing didn't exist. "Technology has changed the world and it's snowballing and accelerating at a rapid fire pace. Customers are extremely savvy and know what they want the minute it's seen on the runway." Staying up to date and aware of trends as they happen ensures when a customer walks into Holt Renfrew, she sees what she wants ready and waiting.
When asked what advice she had for those just entering the work force, first and foremost was to love what you do. That might mean taking the time to try several different jobs before deciding on a career. Stef also shared, "You are your own brand, so determine what it is going to be. Your brand will be how you present yourself, how you carry yourself and how you live your life. And try to be your company's greatest asset. Be the one they know they can count on, the one they can go to when something needs to get done." What you do each and every day is an investment in your future.
2012 promises to be extraordinary as it will be Holt Renfrew's 175th anniversary. Stef is already beginning to look what celebrations for this remarkable milestone will look like. How this unfolds over the next several months will only be one item filling her very busy slate of responsibilities, but she wouldn't have it any other way.