Colleen Kelly, CEO of Alex Apparel Group, graduated from Boston College with a major in theater. Throughout her college career, Colleen supported herself with retail jobs, giving her a true taste and appreciation for the world of apparel. After graduation, she began to focus her energy toward the business of fashion, and entered the Executive Training Program at Jordan Marsh, a Boston-based department store. It was through this program that Colleen was placed into her first job as a department manager, officially launching her corporate career in retail.
Deciding to pursue further opportunities in the industry, Colleen took a position at Bloomingdale’s for one year. She then moved into working wholesale for several smaller companies, learning as much as she could at each place to develop her skill set, interact with customers and gain expertise. With the end goal in mind of becoming the president of a company one day, Colleen knew she needed experience working for a bigger brand. Her next career move was taking the position of Vice President of Sales and Merchandising for DKNY’s Men’s Sportswear and Underwear Divisions, transforming the product line to appeal to a broader audience and doubling sales in her first two years at the company. Following DKNY, Colleen held an impressive array of positions as President of Kahn Lucas, Group President of North American Wholesale for Tommy Hilfiger USA, and President of the Calvin Klein Jeans division at Warnaco, Inc. before taking over as CEO at Alex Apparel.
Words of Wisdom
Always keep your big goals in mind and verbalize them. “For me, it was always ‘when I become president of a company, when I become CEO’ - it was never if.”
Candor with kindness. “It’s my motto and I always stick by that. I’ve lived my whole life as a manager, as a coworker, being able to be forthright and direct about what I needed to communicate, but I’ve always been nice about it. I’ve lived through many companies where management is not particularly nice, and I don't think you need to be that way to get ahead.”
Manage up. “If my boss ever needed something, I would drop everything and get that done for him/her first. In that way, you become the person they can rely on, you become the person that they need.”
Answer email. “Somehow, some way, I answer emails before the next day. It will make your life easier.”
Go above and beyond. “I would always volunteer to do things above my job description. I would go to other departments and see if they needed help and get to know people. If you want to get yourself known throughout the company, make yourself the helpful person.
Networking. “Breakfasts, lunches, every opportunity. If there was somebody that helped me, I would always send a thank you note to them. If somebody was promoted, I would send them a congratulatory email - people remember that.”
Never criticize. “When people come to me criticizing or complaining, I just turn off, I won’t listen to it.”
Be interested in others. “The more you show people you care about who they are and what their needs are, the more beneficial that becomes to you.”
Q: “You didn’t come from a traditional design and merchandising background, did you experience any challenges in your career where you had to just jump in and learn on the job?”
A: “I think it was because I went through the Training Program at Jordan Marsh that I developed the skill set I needed, working alongside all those managers. I did do a lot of reading and studying if I didn’t know a certain area.”
Q: “How have you dealt with the issue of being a strong leader, but also not having people view you as ‘bossy’ as a woman in the industry?”
A: “That’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn. I’ve been passed over for jobs because I’m ‘too nice’, but I can’t try and be something that I’m not. So, the way that I get around that is by being very honest and direct. If there’s something that’s not going well, I address it directly, but I am still ‘nice’ - it took a lot of practice, you can’t make things personal. If something is on my mind, making sure I get it out there.”
Q: “How do you find people to work for you, do you use a recruiter?”
A: “LinkedIn has been the way that I find people these days. If I need a technical designer, I’ll go on there and search. We’ve hired people from LinkedIn before, including our senior designer.”
Q: “How do you suggest we look for jobs?”
A: “Make sure you have a killer LinkedIn profile. Your headline is where most of the search results are pulling from, so work the job you want into the headline so people can find you. You should get recommendations and make your profile as complete as it can be. Then, target all the companies you want to work for - that’s what I did. I targeted private equity firms in apparel and would spend my time off connecting with people who worked there and arranging to meet.”
Q: “Do you have any suggestions for making career jumps, but also making sure you stay within your abilities?”
A: “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get a job in something that was outside of my core competencies. For example, I couldn’t run an e-commerce company. But, perhaps I could go somewhere that has a bit of e-commerce so I can learn that area. You have to take little jumps - I didn't know kids, I didn’t know that market - but I knew wholesale.”
Q: “You talked about being very goal-oriented, how have your goals changed throughout your career?”
A: “It’s really about personal growth and what resonates with you. My goals went from a small company, to medium, to a big company and now I’m back to small. You have to know when you want to change directions, and always think about what’s next. I went to the kids company because it was such a stretch for me. I knew no one in kids, whereas men’s you tend to see the same people all the time. It’s good to challenge yourself.”