Breakfast with the Boss: Abbey Doneger, President and CEO of The Doneger Group

This morning the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund Scholars had the fantastic opportunity to meet with Abbey Doneger. As President and CEO of The Doneger Group, the leading source of global market trends and merchandising strategies to clients in the fashion and retail industry, Abbey’s advice and expertise were truly unique. We also had the pleasure of meeting Marla Rosen, Director of Marketing, and hearing some of her insights. Here are some of the highlights from our second “Breakfast with the Boss!”

About The Doneger Group
The Doneger Group is a family owned company, founded by Abbey’s father in 1946. It provides fashion design, trend and merchandising guidance to clients in the fashion and retail industry. The company is made up of four major divisions, which review the marketplace throughout all stages of the design, development and merchandising process. TOBE, the company’s inspirational “think tank,” predicts consumer behavior by examining individual stores, the overall market, and other factors (pop culture, media, health & wellness and travel) that influence the consumer. In addition, Doneger Creative Services, the company’s trend and color forecasting division, works with designers and product development teams to anticipate colors, fabrics and silhouettes 12-18 months in advance of the season. The Merchandising Division analyzes the wholesale and retail marketplace to deliver actionable insights on merchandising strategies, resource information and key item identification. Lastly, Price Point Buying matches sellers of off-price merchandise with companies interested in buying the merchandise, rounding out the retail process from start to finish. The Doneger Group works with domestic clients as well as international clients who are interested in retail, fashion, merchandising and trends from a U.S. marketplace perspective.

The Boss’ Journey: Steps to Success
Abbey graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1973. Shortly after graduation, he entered the family business under his father’s guidance and has not looked back since. Abbey was appointed President of the company in 1980 and to this day has continued to lead The Doneger Group to success. Abbey maintains a very well rounded presence in all facets of the company, generally spending one-third of his time on HR related matters, one-third of his time on financial, operational and strategic matters, and one-third of his time on client activity and business development. Additionally, and especially important to the company dynamic, Abbey makes himself extremely accessible and gets to know each of his employees on a personal level. Each member of the company has an opportunity to showcase his or her talents to Abbey, making it easy for him to identify individual talent, passion and growth in the business.
Abbey rightfully takes pride in the fact that The Doneger Group has “figured out how to navigate through the complexity of the industry, through the ups and downs of the economy, and through the significant contraction of retail.” Abbey has helped maintain the company’s integrity by carefully making strategic decisions and thinking consciously about long term outcomes. “Consistency is important,” Abbey explained. However, since the company ages back well over half a century, one of Abbey’s major roles is to make sure the company’s products and services are still considered “modern and relevant.” He has taken careful steps to invigorate the company with fresh ideas and global thinking. 

Scholars' Q&A
Q: Emma Gage (Marist College): What has kept the company intact for so long and helped navigate through contraction of the industry?
A: “We try to stick it out through rough patches. Not everything in the industry or in life is smooth sailing, and it’s so simple to take the easy way out, throw up your hands, say “this isn’t for me” and move on. Sometimes that is important to do. But I think it’s only important to [give up] when you’ve already exhausted the opportunity to try to fix things, or at least come up with solutions.…Being able to think clearly, react to crisis situations and deal with challenges that arise within business, the economy, and life overall has really served us well.”
Q: Alicia Underhill (University of Virginia): In terms of merchandising and retail, what is the process of determining what items are trending (or will be trending)?
A: “We have an experienced team who studies fashion. In retail, things are constantly evolving. In the past it was a lot easier [to trend forecast], because fashion historically was designer and runway driven. But today, it’s what’s happening on the streets, in grade schools and on college campuses that really drives consumer activity. Identifying trends isn’t as easy as it once was. We need to be out there in the field, be visible, capture as much information as we can, do our research, and examine many different areas in order to gain the perspective necessary to properly advise our clients…It’s not an exact science.”
Q: Madeline Hanley (Indiana University): When you’re looking to hire someone/promote someone, what stands out to you?
A: “Interpersonal skills are so important for our business. Some areas of the external industry require less interactivity, but there is always internal interactivity. Having a personality, being able to present yourself professionally and being comfortable are all really important. We all have different personalities and characteristics, but to the extent that you are comfortable, try to get out there and present yourself. It’s people who are outgoing, those who are aggressive and assertive in a professional way, who demonstrate a level of passion, commitment, energy and work ethic that stand out.”
Q: Madeline Hanley (Indiana University): How do you motivate people to work hard?
Abbey: “My father set an example for me when I was first starting out here. At the time he was always the first one in the office each morning and the last one at night, and he used to open up every piece of mail that arrived each day. He motivated me [to do the same] by example. In everyday work, I will never ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do. When you’re in a leadership position, it’s important that the people you work with understand that you’re right in the trenches with them and that you work hard. If you work hard, you can expect them to work hard.”
Marla: “I see Abbey every day, and it makes me want to do my best to make him proud. He never says ‘get motivated,’ but he doesn’t have to. When you have somebody leading by example and watching someone that inspires you every day, you become self-motivated to do your best.”

One of Abbey’s favorite quotes is basketball star Michael Jordan’s motto:  “   Approach every game believing that there is at least one person in the stadium who has never seen you play before   .”  Abbey believes that if you approach your life and your career that way, never taking anything for granted and always putting your best self forward, you will succeed.

One of Abbey’s favorite quotes is basketball star Michael Jordan’s motto: Approach every game believing that there is at least one person in the stadium who has never seen you play before.” Abbey believes that if you approach your life and your career that way, never taking anything for granted and always putting your best self forward, you will succeed.

Abbey's “Words of Wisdom”
Despite being President and CEO of a renowned company, even Abbey doesn’t feel it is trivial to ask others to share their “words of wisdom” with him. In fact, his main advice to our scholars was that they “interact with people who have more experience” than they have. Abbey explained, “I love the opportunity to talk with others who I feel are more knowledgeable, and who have some level or experience or perspective that I don’t have.” Here are some of the other pieces of advice Abbey shared. 

  • Learn from others. In any job, meet many different people and try to develop a few very significant relationships that will carry you far beyond one position. 
  • Know who you are. Abbey recognizes that while he has the personality characteristics necessary to successfully run a family business, he may not have the qualities required to engage in a startup technology company, and that is perfectly okay. 
  • Stick it out. Steady hands, a steady course and consistency are important in decision-making and steering a business ahead. 
  • Go with your instincts. Abbey explained, “Your instincts will serve you well. In fact, I can think back to the decisions I’ve made where I got swayed or lazy and didn’t trust myself, and these were times I made some significant mistakes.” 
  • First impressions matter. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Each time you meet someone new is an opportunity to learn and grow. 
  • Use common sense. Today, with the amount of technology at our disposal, common sense is surprisingly uncommon. 
  • Try big and small. There are incredible opportunities to learn and grow with large companies in terms of networking. But if you’re fortunate enough to work in a small company where you get to try more, that can be a very positive experience as well.
  • Explore while you can. Don’t stress over your first job or first experience—your twenties are the time to make mistakes and try new things. You don’t have to have all the answers just yet or know what your career path will be. 
  • Maintain your integrity. Handle your responsibilities. 
  • SHINE! Showcase your talents and your passions. “It’s not only performing well in a specific area that matters, it’s also about participating, volunteering, giving back, using the opportunity in a job to elevate yourself and making an impression on the people you work with.”

Top Takeaways
Some of our scholars shared with us what they found most meaningful or memorable about Abbey’s presentation. Take a look!
Hannah Wheeler (Cornell University): “I liked what he said about how he really values talking to people with more experience than he has. That simple action could take someone really far.”
Daniela Gallo McCausland (Washington University in St. Louis): “I thought that he had such a refreshing point of view on managing such a large business. He explained how he always thinks about how a decision will affect the company in the long term, and that being able to think clearly as well as being able to react to crisis situations has helped that company succeed. I also liked that he said he loves talking to people that are more experienced or knowledgeable than him, because it reflects that even though he is the President of such an important company, he appreciates talent and understands that there is always room to learn from other people.”

Alicia Underhill (University of Virginia): “Finding a mentor. Making sure that wherever you are, you find one person you can look up to and learn from.”

A huge thank you to Abbey for taking the time to teach and inspire us all today!

Copyright © 2015 YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund, All rights reserved.

Rachel Feller