Breakfast with the Boss: Lisa Panattoni, President of Merchandising at Ross Dress for Less

This morning the scholars got their first taste of off-price retail over breakfast with Lisa Panattoni, President of Merchandising at Ross Stores, Inc. After a few weeks dabbling in the spheres of wholesale and private label, getting an inside view of the fast-paced off-price retail world was both refreshing and exciting. The scholars enjoyed a casual conversation with Lisa—they learned a bit more about Lisa’s day-to-day work experience, and had the valuable opportunity to ask Lisa all kinds of questions, ranging from personal preferences to corporate advice. Here’s a peek at the dialogue between Lisa and our scholars this morning! 

About Ross Stores, Inc.
Ross Stores, Inc. is a leader in delivering fashionable trends to the everyday consumer since 1982. America’s largest off-price retail chain, Ross Dress for Less, offers in-season, name brand and designer apparel, accessories, footwear and home products at discounts of up to sixty percent off of department and specialty store prices. Over the past thirty years, Ross has grown from a small chain to nearly 1,300 stores in 33 states.

The Boss’ Journey: Steps to Success
Lisa’s entrance into the fashion world came as a surprise when, while holding a part time job at a ski and tennis store in college, she was offered a job to fill in as the buyer and got her first taste of being a merchant. She described this shift as “not a planned or strategic move, but something that’s been perfect for [her].” Soon realizing her love of retail, Lisa’s wishes to move to a larger company were granted when she entered Weinstock’s department store training program in Sacramento, California. After gaining almost six years of traditional retail experience there, Lisa moved East to join Marshall’s Marmaxx Home Store as a buyer, and then went on to become SVP of Merchandising and Marketing for the TJX HomeGoods division.  It was at Marshall’s that she first developed her passion for off-price retail.
In 2005, Lisa joined Ross Stores, Inc. as SVP and General Merchandise Manager of Ross Home. After being promoted to Executive Vice President and Group Executive Vice President, Lisa earned her current title as President of Merchandising at Ross Dress for Less.  Her everyday job consists of beyond-the-moment tasks including strategic planning for the future, both months away and in the long range. When asked what drew her to off-price buying, Lisa noted that she finds the act of “toggling between many different times and seasons” especially rewarding. “I like it because there’s just a different speed and immediacy to it,” she explained. “There’s an immediate, connect-the-dots understanding of what worked and what didn't, and a focus on how we can learn from and make decisions based on past mistakes.”  Additional aspects of Lisa’s responsibility at Ross include human resources, where she coaches and develops her team, as well as managing specific product strategies, particularly around vendor relationships. As she shared with us, “your ability to build relationships and figure out how to have a partnership with your vendor base is really what makes you successful.” 

“The best job to have is being a buyer,” Lisa explained from experience, because it’s “where you get closest to product and merchandise and really generate a love for it.”

“The best job to have is being a buyer,” Lisa explained from experience, because it’s “where you get closest to product and merchandise and really generate a love for it.”

It was such a fabulous opportunity to be able to ask Lisa for her thoughts on many different topics; both questions about her personal journey and concerns or ideas we have about our own futures. Below is just some of the helpful advice Lisa provided.
Q: Ruby Ghastin (University of California, Berkeley)- What do you find most difficult about your job?
A: “I’d say our biggest challenge is feeding the amount of talent that we need. Recruiting and filling jobs with people that are a cultural fit to our company proves harder than it seems. A lot of people have the skill set or intellect to do the job well, but all the pieces have to fit together…they have to be a cultural fit and a good team player. Those are hard qualities to pull together into one package. We especially love our internship program because if we can bring people in early and watch them grow up in the company, it makes for a pretty successful employee formula.”
Q: Emma Gage (Marist College)- What do you look for when you hire?
A: “I want somebody that’s curious. Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s in design or in retail, a level of intellectual curiosity gets you a long way. What’s going on in the world? What’s happening on TV/in fashion? And how does that apply to me? Being able to look at things beyond the obvious is crucial.  You also have to be a good team player and a good collaborator. And it sounds silly, but you’ve got to be nice! Being nice, professional, respectful are qualities that we value. Of course it’s important to locate strategic, analytical, numerically sound individuals. But it’s really about those other less obvious qualities that make someone successful.
Q: Ruby Ghastin (University of California, Berkeley)- Since you’re getting product from so many companies, do you find it hard to plan for what’s coming next?
A: “In off-price retail you have to live in the gray. We always know that some pieces are a given and can plan those, and then we have to use our best guess about what we know from the market to plan our next moves. We think about current business…for instance, it was a really cold winter and there’s not going to be much outerwear out there, so we need to buy more outerwear and get ahead of that. So, while it’s not planned, it’s thoughtful. And of course we make mistakes.”
Q: Katie Class (University of Missouri)- “How do you go about maintaining a work-life balance?”
A: “It’s a very difficult thing to do, and as you grow and your lives evolve, you will have kids, families, and outside interests. Any job, and particularly this job in merchandising, is intense and requires time and commitment. That being said, you want to look for a company that understands and appreciates a level of balance, because a lack of balance can only be sustained for so long. I really try to be able to separate work and what I do personally…to be able to step away is important. You do have to make it a priority to not get too consumed with work, because you’re going to be a lot better with work if you have balance on the other side.”

Q: Grace Dusek (Texas A&M University)- “Do you have any interview tips?”
A: “The first thing is always to do your homework. If you come in prepared with knowledge about company and the people you interview with, it goes a long way. In fact, you’d be surprised how few people do that. I’m not necessarily looking for a specific answer to my question, but I’m looking to see candidates’ thought processes. It’s very easy to have a “packaged” answer…I’m looking for someone with a level of transparency, where I feel like I got to know and learn something about them. Someone who is self-aware, in touch with things that they need to work on, honest and transparent. Be yourself, be authentic…that’s what people are really looking for in the interview.”
Q: Katie Class (University of Missouri)- “Now that you’ve been in the company for a while, how would you know going into a company that it’s the right fit? What do you look for?”
A: “Great question! A mentor once said to me, ‘when thinking about making a big decision, think about the 3 C’s.’ It really resonated with me. Culture, it has to be a place that you like and where you respect the people, where you feel like you belong and there’s a fit. Challenge, you want to continue to evolve, grow and develop, never be bored. And you want to be Compensated. If you can put those 3 together, you’ve landed on the right combination. Ross really delivered on that, and I give that advice to anyone who’s considering changing a job. It’s a risk, but follow your gut and you’ll generally be right, and if not, you’ll regroup.”
Q: Emma Gage (Marist College)- “In your own words, what would you describe success to be, and failure to be?”
A: “I think success is if you’re happy. It’s just as simple as that. That means both personally and professionally, but at the end of the day that’s what you go home with and what you live with. And failure…I would say failure is regret. I wouldn’t want to wake up one day and have done something longer than I would have wanted to and was unhappy, or regret that I should have made a move that I didn’t.”
A huge "thank you" to Lisa for taking the time out of her day to converse with our scholars and for providing so much support and generosity. 

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

Rachel Feller