The important topic of sustainability took center stage at today’s “Breakfast with the Boss,” featuring Mary Ann Shannon, Senior Vice President of Sales at Levi Strauss & Co. We were very fortunate to have an open discussion with Mary Ann—not only did our scholars ask her questions about her journey and the company, but Mary Ann also had some of her own interesting questions for them. Take a look!
About Levi Strauss & Co.
Levi Strauss & Co. is one of the world's largest brand-name apparel companies and a global leader in jeanswear. The company designs, markets and sells jeans, casual wear and related accessories for men, women and children under the Levi's®, Dockers®, Signature by Levi Strauss & Co.™, and Denizen® brands. Its products are sold in more than 110 countries worldwide through a combination of chain retailers, department stores, online sites, and a global footprint of approximately 2,700 retail stores and shop-in-shops.
With a long history of value integrity, profits through principles and environmental awareness, Levi Strauss & Co. strives not only to make fashionable, durable products, but also focuses on pioneering reforms in the apparel industry. Levi Strauss & Co. is famously known for integrating factories a decade before the law required it to, currently piloting programs such as Improving Worker Well-being and other industry-leading sustainability activities. Notably, innovations like the Water<Less process help reduce the water consumed in the manufacturing process of a pair of jeans. Additionally, the Levi’s® and Dockers® brands include information on product care tags to encourage the consumer to use less water and energy once the garment is in their care.
The Boss’ Journey: Steps to Success
Mary Ann explained to our scholars that she went into the fashion industry thinking she would have one experience, and that experience turned out to be a bit different. After growing up in Kansas City and attending a local college, Mary Ann decided that her part-time job working in specialty store locally was what truly excited her, and decided to pick up work in the business full-time, soon being promoted to store manager and regional manager at a very young age. While she loved everything about the business and began to demonstrate her thirst for knowledge and willingness to take on hard work, Mary Ann came to realize that there was a limitation to how much she could grow and contribute within a small family-owned business. Eventually, she entered Macy’s Midwest Executive Training Program, where she went through formalized training, started as an assistant buyer and gained invaluable experience with both design and operations within the business. It was at this point that Mary Ann realized just how crucial the operational side of the fashion industry is, first being exposed to all of the financial implications that a company faces. She took this knowledge with her as she was promoted within Macy’s to sales manager, and then went on to become a women’s sportswear buyer at Marshall Field’s in Chicago. Next, Mary Ann moved to Spiegel, where she remained for almost 12 years as Divisional Merchandise Manager. She then joined The Limited as a Divisional Merchandiser for women’s bottoms, and then developed an apparel audience for QVC as the Director of Merchandising. Finally, Mary Ann was offered an opportunity at Levi Strauss & Co., where she is now responsible for all women’s sales accounts in the country.
Words of Wisdom: Critical Skills
Mary Ann touched on a number of important skills that would serve our scholars well, regardless of what part of the fashion business they end up leaning towards.
- Communication. According to Mary Ann, “it’s as much about what you say and how you present yourself as it is to listen. And I mean listening to truly hear what the other person has to say, not simply waiting until someone finishes talking to speak yourself.”
- Read your Audience. Whether you’re presenting a design idea, a sales plan or a marketing pitch, really knowing to whom you are selling is crucial. Be aware not only of what you want to say, but also what your audience needs from you. There will inevitably be dissension—be altruistic, but hold your own.
- Facts, Facts, Facts. “The fun part about this business is that it’s comprised of both art and science. There’s a great deal of respect for the design part, but whether you’re on the creative side or the operating side, the facts need to be there.” Always ask “Why?”
- Ability to Influence. Coupling together communication, willingness to listen and facts to support your ideas will give you a power base to enter discussions and influence not just those who sit above you, but those who work next to you as well.
Q: Madeline Hanley (Indiana University)- “Throughout your career, how did you continue to make the transition in and out of operational work?”
A: “What I think is important is that I didn’t initially see myself as an operator, but it came through in my work—Rather than consciously choosing to make the transition, I would be recognized for my operational contribution. I was aware that I wasn’t as creative as many others, and I’d talk to my boss about how to develop an eye for design and gain more exposure to things that don’t come instinctively. As an operator, having that creative inspiration is crucial because I need to understand when trends come and go and when a product’s lifestyle is going to peak in order to drive profitability. Having both a right- and left-brain is really important, but typically people only really excel in one side and need to develop the other. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to raise your awareness [on subjects you know less about] and self-reflect.”
Q: Emma Gage (Marist College)- “Levi Strauss & Co. is clearly a very ethically run company, and sustainable practices run within the company’s DNA. That being said, the customer really drives the industry. It’s one thing to be able to run an ethical company and influence your employees, but from my understanding, the major change can only truly happen when the customer shows a major shift in desiring and responding to ethics and sustainability. How do you make a connection between the company and the consumer being the driving force?”
A: “Sustainability has been important to this company for many years. We also established Terms of Engagement nearly 25 years ago – a comprehensive workplace code of conduct for our suppliers that set standards covering everything from wages to discrimination to health and safety. We made the choice, and we took a stand when it wasn’t popular, but we’re a company that believes in doing the hard right thing instead of the easier wrong.”
Q: Mary Ann Shannon- “What motivates you when you select a brand? Does sustainability influence your decision when you purchase?”
Meghan Floyd (YMA FSF)- “In New York it can be hard because trends are coming and going, so people focus on fast fashion. Everyone loves a nice, well-made product, but that can sometimes take a backseat.”
Emma Gage (Marist College)- “I never used to really look at garment tags and question where products really come from. Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to take part in a conference raising awareness about philanthropy, and I realized it was time to give back to fashion. Sustainability really stood out to me as important…I now look at where clothes are made, which is a relatively good indicator of how ethical the sourcing is. It’s about finding a balance, dedicating your time, and being willing to ask the questions and doing the hard work, but it’s not always so easy.”
Mary Ann Shannon- “We like to say that we are a company that operates through a profits through principles philosophy. You can work towards a better world and uphold your values, but in the end, there will always be certain implications. But always think, ‘how can I be an advocate for social change?’
Q: Mary Ann Shannon- “What influences you from a marketing standpoint?”
Lauren Smyzcek (University of Wisconsin-Madison)- “What’s really important to me is that a product has a story. My friends and I find ourselves shifting from needing 10 pairs of trendy jeans to needing 2-3 pairs of really nice ones that come from a more conscious buyer mentality. If you ask me about my shirt, I want to be able to tell you the story behind it. I don’t always live that way—I think it’s more of an aspirational consumer mentality, but authenticity is something I aspire to.”
Mariel Bolger (University of Wisconsin-Madison)- “I would definitely be willing to [click on a video to learn more about a brand on its’ website]. I would want to learn about the company ethically and sustainability-wise, but I also want to know if what I’m wearing promotes and fits who I am as an individual.”
Mary Ann Shannon- “[Buying clothing is] a really personal experience. With your generation, having some sort of connectivity beyond just the aesthetic is really important. How brands behave can and does influence your purchase. Status is becoming less about money, and more about the experience.”
Thank you so much to Mary Ann Shannon for engaging our scholars in a thought-provoking, meaningful discussion this morning, and for sharing her own journey and advice.
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