INTOUCH – managers abroad

Claire Eeles, VP/general manager, Restoration Hardware-Trade,
San Francisco

What prompted you to seek work out of New Zealand?
One of the most valuable experiences I had in working with Fletcher Challenge in the 1990s, was the opportunity to visit many global best practice companies. From that time, I’ve been attracted to the dynamism, scale and challenge of the best US companies. So it was great personal challenge to be selected to lead Restoration Hardware’s newest strategic business unit.

What is your current role?
Restoration Hardware is one of North America’s leading purveyors of premium home furnishings, with 100 stores in addition to significant online and catalogue businesses. I lead Restoration Hardware-Trade – launched last year and focused on providing tailored products and services to the hospitality, commercial and residential developer segments. I head team of sales and operational people based across the US and Canada, and travel almost every week.
I spend the rest of my time working to leverage our multi-channel retailing capabilities to quickly build brand new business.

How does it fit into your career path?
My skills, experience and interests lie in building businesses, challenging the status quo and being innovative – so my current role really fits well with that. It also gives me the chance to combine my years of building-industry experience with retail experience gained from working with The Warehouse Group. Ultimately, I would like to be the North American leader of New Zealand entity, so the international business development experience, market understanding, business cultural insights and business connections I’m developing in my current role play well into that.

What are its main challenges?
These are around building brand new business, fast, in huge market without negatively impacting our core businesses and brand. We have to be creative and work more collaboratively across all our teams to do more with less, especially as the US downturn impacts our business. In big market like the US, it’s easy to focus too broadly and spread your efforts too thinly. It’s constant challenge for my sales team to have laser-like focus on the ‘white space’ we’re going after. Another key challenge is around educating our core business about totally different B2B business model.

What are the learnings you will take from it?
I’ve never learned as much as in the past two years. Learnings include: the power of truly aligned culture and dedicated, talented people; the need to be extremely focused on what you’re trying to do; that lack of time or money is no excuse not to deliver amazing things; that leader’s job is not to motivate their team – you need to build team of the very best, self-motivated people who can run fast and focus, keeping the team heading in the right direction; the incredible value of brand and the importance of keeping it pure; the power of online and catalogue retailing.

How do you view New Zealand from where you stand now?
I’m incredibly proud to be New Zealander. For the size of our country, we have more than our fair share of fantastic innovative businesses and great brands. The main difference between great New Zealand businesses and excellent North American businesses is often just one of scale.

What sort of ongoing contribution can you make to New Zealand’s economic/social welfare?
For the past year, I’ve been part of the NZ Trade & Enterprise’s North American Beachheads programme that provides local mentors for New Zealand businesses wanting presence in the US and Canada. It keeps me connected while leveraging my North American experiences to help Kiwi companies. Long term, I’d love to work for New Zealand entity that is focused on the North American market or be on advisory boards of New Zealand companies wanting to do business here.

What would induce/encourage you to return?
At this stage, I think I have the best of both worlds – I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world (Vancouver), my office is in one of the most vibrant cities in North America (San Francisco), I get to travel to lots of interesting places and have traditional bach on Waiheke Island that I visit each year.

What advice would you give young executives contemplating career stretch offshore?
Definitely sell the fact that you’re New Zealander. And don’t be intimidated by the 200 Harvard and Stanford MBA graduates you might be competing with. You are likely to have had more practical experience. Brands are important. Identify the companies that have great brand power in the market you’d like to join, research and cold call them with your distinct New Zealand resume.

Claire Eeles is member of KEA, New Zealand’s global talent community,
www.keanewzealand.com

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