Lucy Kalkman, Vice President of Operations for Empire Today, is proof that a steadfast work ethic can go a long way.
By Stephanie Harris
While her peers were out having fun, 16-year-old Lucy Kalkman spent her free time working as a bagger at Jewel Food Stores in Chicago. She continued to work full time throughout college, and by the time she graduated, she was co-managing her own grocery store.
Kalkman credits her early professional experiences at Jewel for developing and instilling an aggressive drive within her—one that has taken her far in her professional career. She has since moved through the retail industry’s ranks, holding various positions of increasing responsibilities with outlets such as Target, Marshalls and CNG Financial. Currently the Vice President of Operations for Empire Today, Kalkman oversees more than 200 employees throughout the U.S. and oversees all of the company’s new markets.
With an extensive travel schedule and literally hundreds of direct reports with whom to maintain constant communication, Kalkman fosters a work environment in which she empowers her employees to succeed—all while sustaining a healthy work-life balance.
Kalkman believes a strong work ethic and a positive attitude are key to success. “One of the most important things is to work hard and have a very strong work ethic,” she said. “Showing your colleagues and superiors you have a great attitude toward your work will also help you build a good reputation that carries you far.”
Path to Present
After working as a bagger beginning at the age of 16, Kalkman continued working full time at Jewel throughout college, this time as part of the company’s store management training program. At the time of her college graduation, Kalkman also graduated from Jewel’s management program, and was assigned a store to co-manage.
She continued to hold a management position at Jewel until she was recruited to work for Target, which was just entering the Chicagoland marketplace.
“Target was opening 13 stores in one day, and it sounded like a great opportunity to work with a Fortune 500 company that was entering a new marketplace,” Kalkman said. “I knew there would be a lot of growth potential, from a professional perspective.”
During her tenure with Target, Kalkman gained exposure to management in every phase of a store, including the soft-line areas such as clothing, giftware and domestics, as well as the hardline areas, customer service and even the warehouse. “I really learned all the different functional areas of a store,” she said, “and how a store operates.”
From there, Kalkman spent a short time working as a District Manager for Montgomery Ward before she went on to work for Marshalls, owned by TJX Cos., as a Regional Director. Here she was responsible for opening new markets and stores, as well as for merchandise presentation in existing stores, which exposed her to retail’s purchasing side. In this role, Kalkman worked with buyers and planners to ensure all of her stories maintained the right mix of products.
“I spent a lot of time learning that side of the business,” she said, “how products are bought, how you allocate them to stores depending on the demographics of the area, and understanding the gross margin and the product line so you can merchandise it accordingly.”
Kalkman spent six years in varying roles with Marshalls, including instructing stores how to merchandise properly to maximize profit, developing product mixes in stores, as well as overseeing dozens of new store openings and completing store refurbishments. She also spearheaded the opening of more than 75 new stores throughout her region.
Because Kalkman oversaw an 18-state territory and more than 100 stores, her responsibilities also involved a heavy travel itinerary, which became challenging once she started a family. “I traveled Monday through Friday,” she said. “When I started my family, I needed [a role] where travel would decrease, so I went to work for a company called CNG Financial.”
CNG Financial, which provides loans to subprime customers, provided Kalkman a unique retail perspective. Although the product she was selling this time was money, she quickly realized several parallels with retail. “You still had the same functional areas, such as human resources, operations and customer service.”
After serving for six years as Vice President of Operations for CNG Financial, where she oversaw more than 300 stores for the company, Kalkman was recruited to work for Empire as the Vice President of Operations—the position she holds today.
Managing a Diverse Workforce
Kalkman holds an essentially dual role at Empire: corporate responsibilities as well as field responsibilities. On the corporate side, she oversees all new markets. “Because I have extensive background opening new markets, I open all new locations across the country,” she said. The company also will be going international this year, with new market openings in Canada—a task that Kalkman is charged with overseeing.
Kalkman’s corporate team is responsible for managing everything that has to do with opening a new market, ranging from facility and operational readiness to hiring and training all new associates. She also oversees loss prevention, safety and key purchasing accounts. Her field responsibilities encompass 26 markets, from Hartford, Conn., all the way down the East Coast to Miami. Kalkman indirectly oversees more than 200 people, and is tasked with developing business in those market areas.
Because she manages such a diverse workforce, with the majority of her staff located in the field and nationwide, Kalkman’s greatest challenge is maintaining constant communication with her reports. “I make an effort every day to reach out to my [staff in the] field,” she said, “whether it’s the General Managers, which are the people who are my direct reports, all the way down to Warehouse Associates.”
Kalkman communicates with her direct reports on a daily basis. Through the use of video conferencing and conference calls, she also maintains constant communication with her field markets. “I’m talking to my markets every day,” she said. “Not all of the markets, but maybe a couple each day.”
These conversations are directed toward developing strategies for operational issues that may exist in a particular market and need to be addressed. They also discuss sales growth opportunities and develop resolutions to improve business. “We discuss where we are right now, where we need to be tomorrow, and how we are going to get there.”
Because Kalkman maintains a work environment that empowers her employees, she prefers to have all staff members, regardless of their role, participate in strategizing discussions. “It’s critical to have everyone at every level of the organization participate in strategy,” she said. “Everyone’s opinions are valued, whether it’s the Warehouse Associate or the General Manager—they all add value to your organization.”
Kalkman believes that by enabling all employees to provide input, and valuing their opinions, you will end up with a more productive workforce and a higher level of performance. “By empowering employees,” Kalkman said, “you are encouraging them to take ownership, and that instills a sense of pride in them.”
How does one empower their employees? Kalkman makes sure she provides them the tools, knowledge, skills and—most importantly—the opportunity to perform. “And then I get out of their way,” she said. “Give them those things to succeed, and then get out of their way and let them succeed.”
In addition, Kalkman is a strong advocate for communication, and maintains an open-door policy where any employee, at any level, can come to her and she will always address the issue.
As a mother with a heavy travel schedule, she also respects the importance of work-life balance. “I know where I have to be and when I have to be there, and I try to balance my work time with my family time,” she said.
Kalkman is grateful to work for a company that values family and affords its employees the flexibility to balance work with personal life. “In the end, it makes our performance and our productivity that much stronger and much more effective,” she said. “If you’re happy at home, you’re going to be happy at work.”
In the Works
Since Empire purchased Luna, a Chicago-based flooring company, in January 2012, Kalkman has been busy integrating Luna’s facilities and market operations into Empire’s. She already successfully oversaw the Luna-Empire integration in Boston this past September, and is currently overseeing the process in Baltimore as well.
Kalkman is also leading new market openings in Salt Lake City and Tulsa, Okla., which will be completed this Spring. In the meantime, she continues to oversee the daily operations in all of her other market areas, ensuring operational efficiencies and meeting sales goals, all while maintaining that work-life balance and remaining an active philanthropist to organizations such as St. Judd’s, the American Heart Association, Relay for Life, Amvets and the Red Cross.
All photos of Lucy Kalkman provided by Paige McFadden Photography.
Lucy's Key Partners:ABC Printing Company | American Eagle Office Supplies | Waste Management (Recycling)
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