Allison O’Connor is the current President and CEO of the American-Made Luxury Home Furnishings Brand, Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams.
She is a strategic Executive retail leader with a progressive history of conceptualizing ideas that drive brand awareness and consumer loyalty. From launching kids at Abercrombie and Fitch to reinventing home gardening at Urban Outfitters/Terrain to her recent roles at Williams-Sonoma, Inc and Sheridan Australia, her impressive career journey is one that spans through compelling distribution channels, many industry sectors, and multiple product categories, as well as launching new business concepts.
Allison has made big career pivots with confidence and success while supporting high-performing teams as a hands-on leader, mentor and advocate for retail wellness and mental health programs.
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FC Podcasts: [00:00:00] Pivot with Purpose a podcast that highlights the unique stories of professionals that pivoted their careers to align with their work lives and personal lives, more purposefully, and with more joy.
Pivot with Purpose is hosted by Meghan Houle, a globally accredited career and business coach and creator of the Meghan Houle method.
Meghan Houle: [00:00:32] Welcome back to the Pivot with Purpose podcast in this episode, we talk to Allison O’Connor, current president and CEO of the American made luxury home furnishings brand, Mitchell Gold, and Bob Williams.
FC Podcasts: [00:00:45] Thank you for listening to Pivot with Purpose with host Meghan Houle. You can find out more information about each guest, including full transcripts at pivotwithpurposepodcast.com. And if you’d like to share your own pivot with purpose, click on the share button and add your story to the conversation. Finally be sure to subscribe and share your comments wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Your support amplifies our voice. And now this week’s episode.
Meghan Houle: [00:01:18] Allison is a Strategic Executive retail leader with a progressive history of conceptualizing ideas that drive brand awareness and consumer loyalty. From launching kids at Abercrombie and Fitch to reinventing home gardening at Urban Outfitters terrain to her recent role at Williams-Sonoma, Inc.
Allison has made big career pivots with confidence and success while supporting high-performing teams as a hands-on leader, mentor and advocate for the retail wellness programs. Allison O’Connor, thank you for being here with me today on the first season of Pivot with Purpose podcast, I’m really looking forward to our conversation.
Allison O’Connor: [00:01:54] Good morning. It’s great to be here. Thanks so much.
Meghan Houle: [00:01:57] Of course and, as we dive in to start, I would love for the listeners to have a chance to get to know you. Can you tell us a little bit about your current position at Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams and what brought you to the team?
Allison O’Connor: [00:02:09] Sure I joined Mitchell Gold Bob Williams in July of 2019 after spending about five and a half years in Australia. I had the pleasure of meeting Mitchell and Bob when I worked for Williams-Sonoma home and fell in love with the brand, fell in love (with) what Mitchell and Bob had.
Grown fell in love with the brand ethos of taking care of their employees and taking care of their customers. And so we made the journey back to the States, to North Carolina, to really start to transform the brand to what it is today.
Meghan Houle: [00:02:46] I love it. I’m so impressed with all your pivots and knowing your story a bit from our chats and through so many different categories globally, and as you mentioned, even spending some time in Australia. For anyone listening, looking to pivot industry categories, can you give us some expert insights into what you think has been the key to all of your successful career pivots?
Allison O’Connor: [00:03:07] Sure. For me, it’s been a long journey, but a one that’s been rich in experiences. I think professional discipline, hard work mixed with some imagination and definitely possibility are fundamental in pivoting, I think you have to first and foremost be focused on strategically where you want your career to go and to then marry that with brands that share the same values.
For me, I spent a number of years working in apparel. Really developing brands like Abercrombie kids. But at a certain point found that I wanted to pivot to something that was more meaningful to me, which ultimately was working in the home industry. I think at each point as I pivoted, I could see my ability to contribute to a culture, to leading a team, to mentoring those on my team. And it really helped me to focus businesses around strategy and with each pivot there’s lessons, right. There’s lessons that you learn about yourself. There’s lessons you learn about yourself as a leader.
For me, it’s really been an honest approach to, building teams and brands.
Meghan Houle: [00:04:26] I love that you’ve worked for some really well-known brands globally. Can you give us a few important career highlights for some of the brands that you work with and what you were doing with them?
Allison O’Connor: [00:04:36] Sure. I guess I would start first and foremost in my youth, when I worked at Nordstrom’s, I put myself through college being on the selling floor Nordstrom’s and that was really the first experience that I had around serving customers. And when I think about the thread of my career, each and every position that I’ve taken and brand that I’ve worked for has been centered in putting the customer at the heart of everything that I’ve done. Whether it was, the beginning at Nordstrom’s to today at Mitchell Gold Bob Williams. I was planning to go on to a PhD program when I got an opportunity to meet Elliot Stone, who was the chairman of Jordan Marsh. And he literally said to me, well, why don’t you give this a try? Why don’t you come into our executive leadership program, you can always go back to get your PhD program. And lo and behold, many years later, obviously I never went back, but I think as I moved forward into, my career, certainly working under Mike Jeffries at Abercrombie and Fitch was a memorable experience to say the least. Doing a startup within, a multi-billion dollar company was incredibly exhilarating. Working with some of the most talented merchants that have gone on today to do incredible things, was probably the most fun that I had at that point in my life. But as I move forward, I really, as I said, wanted to shift into home and garden. And that’s when I pivoted to work ultimately in home and garden, when I started garden business with my sister in Portland, Oregon called Poppy Box Gardens, which was really her concept that I came in to bring to life her two favorite plants are poppies and boxwood. It was sort of the formal and the informal mix together. And that really, has brought me to where I am today, which , is working for this iconic craftsman brand that’s focused on comfort for all.
So, it’s been an incredible, journey to say the least.
Meghan Houle: [00:06:37] Yeah, so you, you can help me keep my plants alive and make my house look amazing. Right? Wow.
Allison O’Connor: [00:06:44] I can help you keep some of your plants alive. I can’t promise on all, but, I think the thing that you learn with gardening is that gardening is, all about memories.
For me, it was being in, my mother’s rose garden with my grandmother. And so it’s such a therapeutic time to be in the garden at whatever level that is. It could be, just putting beautiful tulips into a vase, to a more elaborate vegetable garden. It doesn’t really matter, but there’s a lot of joy, certainly that we all get from, tilling the earth and watching things grow.
Meghan Houle: [00:07:19] I agree and I love roses so much and I try to surround myself as, where are we spending the most time now than ever is in our homes, right? Yeah, and definitely, we want to make our spaces look beautiful and it’s amazing Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams, I feel like your business has been pretty strong throughout. How are things going with you and your teams right now?
Allison O’Connor: [00:07:41] I have to say we are so grateful for how things are going with our business today. Looking back and reflecting like so many of us over the last year, it’s really with, with a lot of gratitude, gratitude to my incredible team who each and every day inspire me to be a better leader.
Certainly gratitude to our customers who have been with us through the last 31 years, but in particular the last year. And we’re doing incredibly well. People obviously are spending so much time in their home, wanting to create this safe sanctuary. And I think for us at Mitchell Gold, Bob Williams, where we’re making artisan furniture by hand in our own factories.
I think that’s resonating with customers. They want to know where their product’s coming from. They want to know that it’s made safely. They want to know that it’s made to last. And so, it’s been an incredibly humbling year to say the least.
Meghan Houle: [00:08:42] For sure and that’s so interesting to know, and I guess anyone new listening know about Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams and all that they do. And I do also love that it’s American made and it’s so wonderful to hear your teams are doing well. And I know with someone like you leading the teams, you’re just all about them and supporting them and in the spirit of pivots, really wanted to pivot into a topic, which I know we’re looking forward to touching on today and a topic that’s near and dear you and me.
And we have spoken about it a few times, really in this retail environment, talking about retail and mental health and the resources that are somewhat available to those struggling in our industry. And thinking back on 2020, that’s no doubt tested us all, and as this year is still full of uncertainty with some glimmers of hope around the corner, I feel not often do you get to openly talk about mental health and the retail space and how we can better support our teams.
So, I would love to hear your take on what things the industry you think can maybe be doing better to support the health of their employees. And why do you think retail mental health is so important to talk about right now?
Allison O’Connor: [00:09:52] Sure. I mean, I think we believe at Mitchell Gold that we’re a modern maverick company, so we should be looking at new breakthrough ways to support our people going through difficult times.
I think serving our customers certainly with world-class brand experience should certainly be built upon serving our employees with a world-class employee experience that not only looks deeply at mental and emotional health and welfare, but at the same time, deeply invest in the issues and actions required through our DEI, which is really around diversity, equality and inclusion at work, we can’t build a healthy business committed to a healthy home without a healthy team in our own house. And that’s really how we’re focused on, each and every one of our employees. I think as we’ve talked about mental health concerns in the US is quite different than what I experienced in Australia. In Australia, one seeks any kind of psychological help, similar to, if you had a sore throat or, had broken a limb or whatever it may be. And I think here in the States, we just haven’t quite caught up with the need first and foremost, to have a healthy mind, a healthy heart.
And so, for us at MGBW we’re working on a number of initiatives that we’ll be announcing over the coming months to really lean in and more significantly support our employees to ensure that, they are healthy themselves.
Meghan Houle: [00:11:33] I can’t wait to hear more about that, when the time comes. I know you spearhead a lot of these programs you’re so passionate about it. And so am I spending so many years in the retail industry and at a very young age, I will tell you. And I think, we’ve talked about this before too, but maybe for years, it was just the way that you manage through retail was through that burnout mentality that you just dealt with, the demands coming in.
And that was just the way it is. How do you feel like we can change that perception of what it is like to work in retail and make a point that you can have a healthy balance too. Do you think it’s a responsibility of companies, brands, leaders? How do you think we can make that work?
Allison O’Connor: [00:12:13] I definitely think it, takes a village, but first and foremost, I think it starts with, the brand and the leaders that are supporting their employees.
We believe that nothing is more important than family and home at MGBW and sometimes that’s difficult you’re wanting to, reach sales results, you’ve got deadlines that you need to meet, but I can honestly say, for my team, it’s really encouraging them to stop and reflect and ensure that they’re not missing any important milestone.
I spent most of my career, as you said, just grinding through, right? A working parent, that was torn many days as to do I turn right for work or do I turn left for my family? And I never wanted to be that kind of leader. I always wanted our employees to put their family first and themselves first.
And through that, having a much more productive workforce. So, I can only say, and I know there are so many other leaders out there that feel the same way that I am, that business by business, we need to set the example to create a work-life balance that meets the needs of the employees and meets the needs of the business.
But I truly believe that you can have it all. I think you just have to, you have to lead with intent.
Meghan Houle: [00:13:39] I feel like so many people are going to take that message and be like, okay, I can do this. And before we go to break, a yes or no question, we’ll put you on the spot and leave a little teaser. So yes or no, do you think the industry does enough right now to support their hardworking teams and especially all that we’re facing with a pandemic and looking into the future?
Allison O’Connor: [00:13:59] No.
Meghan Houle: [00:14:00] And with that, we will pick this up after the break.
Okay, Allison, before the break you said no. Where do you see the opportunity to build on existing resources to add to employees struggling maybe not knowing what options are out there?
Allison O’Connor: [00:14:29] Well, I think for us, it’s really leaning into our health network. We’re part of a large health network that has a lot of opportunities within it to support folks, whether that’s EAP support, whether that is healthy living support.
So, we’ve gathered with our counterparts within the health organization that we’re a part of, to understand each and every touch point that we can create for our employees to ultimately be able to serve them in a lot more meaningful way as it relates not only to mental health, but healthy living as well.
I think that when you’re in retail, you’re on your feet X number of hours a day, you’re on your computer, you’re on your phone, you’re standing up, working in a factory, building furniture. There’s a lot of things that we can be doing as far as training as far as coaching, as far as, creating healthy menus, the list goes on and on. As an example, we, have cafe Lulu. Lulu, who was Mitchell and Bob’s wonderful dog, but we provide healthy, breakfast and lunch for all of our employees in our North Carolina facility. And I think those are just one ways where you can start knowing that somebody has the choice to be able to have a healthy breakfast followed by a healthy lunch, that’s one way, but the other ways are really around those support times that you can have, free of charge within your insurance program, that really helps to support when you obviously need that professional guidance.
Meghan Houle: [00:16:18] Yeah. I remember us chatting about a lot that you do offer and I think even some daycare support, right? Which is so amazing , is there a wellness, like fitness facility there too? I want to come and work.
Allison O’Connor: [00:16:31] You know I think, healthy employees, healthy business. Prior to COVID right in our three facilities, we have a small wellness health workout center. Obviously due to COVID those unfortunately have temporarily been closed. But in addition to that, we have a full time RN that is available for any of our employees in North Carolina to come in and do any kind of testing, we do lab work. We send out lab work. She’s there, RN Laura, she’s amazing to really help folks navigate any kind of possible illness or a health concern that’s going on. So, thankfully we’ve been able to keep her and she is so actively important to us as we’re navigating COVID.
In addition to that we have had a five store learning center for our employee’s children, unfortunately, up until April of 2020, we did have to close it along with our factory and have made the difficult decision that we will not be reopening it until we feel that it is a a hundred percent safe environment for our most precious folks to come back to.
But we do have every intention of reopening it. Again when you think about the difficulties that we’re faced with around childcare today to know that you can bring your children to work, that they’re being enriched through these programs that we’re offering, and then obviously picking your children up at the end of the evening, makes a big difference for those that we can help in this way.
Meghan Houle: [00:18:07] Absolutely. I feel like through LinkedIn and your website, you’re going to start getting a lot of applications.
Oh, that’s amazing. Wow.
Allison O’Connor: [00:18:18] We have a lot of open positions. I’m just going to put a little plug in there. So, please go to mgbwhome.com and go to the career section, because I know there are so many talented people out there today that are looking for work, and they’re looking to align with brands such as ours, that really put their employees first and foremost.
So, please for any of you that are looking, we do have positions open across many departments and also across the country in our wonderful signature stores.
Meghan Houle: [00:18:51] For all the partnerships that you have out there, I mean, I know, you have such a wonderful network in the industry. Are you working on any future projects or collaborations coming up with other brands or people maybe to bring more light into the conversation around retail and mental health?
Allison O’Connor: [00:19:07] Well, what I would say is I was really inspired by an organization in Australia, a nonprofit called Are You Okay? You can go online and see it, areyouokay.com.au . Sheridan, the iconic brand that I worked for participated in this “Are You Okay?” day in Australia and the five and a half years that I spent there each year, it built momentum into thousands of employees across our network.
And so for me, it’s really about thinking, how could we, bring something similar to the US and collaborate as you say, with many other retailers, who’ve got a much larger network of employees out there to focus on the simple question, “are you okay?”. So, they’ve really inspired me. Whether we end up working with them directly, or in fact we start something else within the retail sector, those are all things that are happening behind the scenes right now. So, just as soon as we’ve got more solidified plans, I’m happy to come back on and share with you so that we can get the word out there. But, you know, there is the simple question that doesn’t necessarily need a day to highlight it, but that is, looking to your right and looking to your left and asking a colleague the simple question, are you okay?
Meghan Houle: [00:20:30] I love that. Oh my gosh. I’d try to think how many times in a break room, if somebody said that to me, I’d start breaking down or at least like to know someone cares! Other than being thrusted out on the sales floor and kind of just deal with it, no matter what you have going on. In what way have you seen the retail working environments change since the pandemic?
And do you see the future of our demanding schedules changing for teams?
Allison O’Connor: [00:20:54] Well, I think it’s changed a lot. The cycle of closing, reopening have to then reclose stores, combined with the pain of furlough or, being laid off, alongside being in the frontline with customers has really created a cycle of anxiety I think for retail employees. I think that we would be doing ourselves such a disservice if we didn’t think that that’s truly what was happening. Our employees at Mitchell Gold Bob Williams, they are on the frontline serving customers each and every day. But I think a few things are a bit of a silver lining, which is, our stores are not open the hours that they were open prior to the shutdown so that, when you’re working 11-6, that’s very different than coming in and opening a store at 9:30 or 10.
And potentially working to eight or nine o’clock at night. Now, obviously they’re not working those hours, but just having time to get up in the morning, having time to meditate or exercise, or spend time with your children or help them with their schoolwork before you go off to work.
And then knowing that you’re leaving a store give or take call at 6:15, 6:30 at night, creates the opportunity to get home, to put children to bed, to again, potentially exercise to do something just for yourself. So, I think that COVID has helped to reshape what’s required of retailers relative to the hours that stores are open.
I think also we’ve all become experts in virtual design services, at least how it relates to us at Mitchell Gold. We’ve been given permission to be in our customer’s home in a very personal way. Whether that’s through Zoom or Teams or FaceTime, and it’s created this wonderful more rich experience and relationship with customers than I think we had before. Before COVID , we were in customers’ homes all the time. We were doing design work, we were doing installation, but this has taken it to a new level. I think where conversations start with, how are you, a bit of a pause more than just the transactional nature of retail. So, I think that those, relationships and, the way that we approach design has changed for the foreseeable future, I don’t see us sort of quote, going back. Somebody right asked me on the retail team, do I see us quote, going back? And I said, I’m not, I’m not quite sure I understood what she meant, right? So, she was asking the question, are we going to have, yeah. Are we going to have to work long hours? Are we going to do this or that? And I think, it’s really given us, great pause to understand the importance of having balance for our employees so they can ultimately serve our customers.
Meghan Houle: [00:23:54] Yeah, wow, music to my ears. I mean, remembering the days you get up, you’re working the nine shift, someone calls out, you’re doing a double, you have to get up the next day and close and open and it becomes a vicious cycle. So, how amazing is it? You have to come in at 11, be able to do what you need to do for your team and your family.
Have a night to eat dinner with your kids or whatever there is. And it seems like such a beautiful balance and really, you have such incredible retention in the team and in your brand. I can absolutely see why. Now and looking for the future, I’m hoping maybe some talented listeners will be contacting you and applying, interviewing, and and it’ll be new, talented people coming into the company.
And you have any words of advice for those listening, looking for support and not feeling like they’re getting what they need from their current company. What would you tell them to do?
Allison O’Connor: [00:24:46] I think if you’re in a situation where your, company isn’t supporting you, or unfortunately you’re in between jobs, there’s websites like opencounseling.com or a number of other places where you can go and literally type in, what if I can’t afford therapy?
I think you have to start there, hopefully, you’ve got access either through your phone or your computer to just type that in. Up comes a number of different websites will allow you free or low cost counseling to really support you through this difficult time. I say to people all the time, let’s really bring our mental health concerns to the forefront. Let’s not hide them in the shadow. And so, it’s as easy as, going online, just taking that first step, just connecting with another human being that isn’t a family member, that can speak to you openly and freely about what your concerns are is the first step.
Meghan Houle: [00:25:50] No, I agree, and it’s, time to address it and support our people and have it be okay not to be okay.
Allison O’Connor: [00:25:59] That’s right. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world today that doesn’t wake up with some, some level of anxiety.
Meghan Houle: [00:26:08] Yeah, absolutely. Well, this has been such a fabulous conversation and talking about how listeners can find you and keep the retail and mental health conversations going, what would be the best way to reach out?
Allison O’Connor: [00:26:23] Well, there’s a lot of different ways. First and foremost, I’ll give you my email address. People say, Allison, why do you do that? I really do want to hear from people.
So, my address at Mitchell Gold is email@example.com (O-C-O-N-N-O-R) . So, if you are out there and actively looking for work, you can also go to our website, which is http://www.mgbwhome.com we really want to hear from you if you’re looking for positions in manufacturing, if you’re looking for positions in marketing, if you’re looking for positions in our stores, we’ve also launched a virtual design network.
So, we are actively hiring interior designers to work for us around the States which is really exciting. So, all of this information is on our website, but don’t hesitate if you also are in a position where you’re in the mental health field and you’re listening to this podcast, please reach out so that we can continue to build our network of support for our employees at Mitchell Gold, Bob Williams.
Meghan Houle: [00:27:34] Thank you for sharing that valuable information. And as Allison said, do not be afraid to reach out. It’s something I talk about all the time in this podcast. Be fearless, reach out to CEOs. They want to hear from you, Allison wants to hear your stories and I can’t wait to have you back on maybe to talk about more things that you’re putting out into the universe around this topic.
And I really, really appreciate you being here with us today. Thanks so much for sharing your insight with us on this topic,
as I was saying, but also all that you’re doing and I really look forward to keeping an eye on you and the future and stay tuned for more incredible stories to all of our listeners.
Thanks so much, Allison.
Allison O’Connor: [00:28:10] Thank you so much. Have a great day.
Meghan Houle: [00:28:12] You too.
FC Podcasts: [00:28:15] Pivot with Purpose with host Megan Houle is a Fashion Concert production, and part of the FC podcast network. It is produced and directed by Phil AKA Corinne and a special thank you to Spencer Powell for our theme music, learn more at pivotwithpurposepodcast.com and be sure to follow us on Instagram @pivotwithpurpose_podcast.