Retail Design Luminaries
September 27, 2017
Outstanding individuals who have demonstrated unparalleled creative excellence, exemplary professional leadership and unwavering personal commitment to the retail design industry—that is the definition of a Retail Design Luminary. It is an award of perseverance, passion and achievement. Please join us in congratulating the 2017 class: Vicky Leavitt, Bevan Bloemendaal and Paul Lechleiter.
CEO, North America Consumer & Retail Brand Experience
Since childhood, Vicky Leavitt has challenged the status quo. The word “no” for her was an opportunity to ask “why” and then to be a champion for change. Whether it was being too young for a lifeguard job at the local YMCA or challenging a brand to think bigger and break down the walls of what they have done before, Leavitt has always been a maverick.
With a bachelor’s degree in human genetics and a simultaneous master of arts in communication from the University of Michigan, Leavitt’s educational background is not what some might consider a traditional path into the retail world. Despite a planned career in medicine, when The Procter & Gamble Co. (P&G) presented an exceptional job opportunity upon graduation, Leavitt decided it certainly “couldn’t hurt” to get the experience. That became a pivotal first step in her career journey, a path where there has always been the common threads of customer advocacy, challenging the status quo and driving transformation and growth—for retailers or brands.
Leavitt was born in Germany and grew up in Michigan. Her ability to lead, push boundaries and achieve measurable results has taken her all over the world and created an extensive résumé. Why? Because the bosses and management teams she worked with kept calling her to join them in the next venture. They needed results and knew Leavitt would help take each business and client where they needed to go.
“I credit the opportunities to live and work in various parts of the world and the passionate, talented people I have worked with for serving as a constant source of inspiration,” Leavitt says.
While at P&G, Leavitt gained experience in brand management, and this is where the importance of being a “customer evangelist” took root. She provided strategic direction for big-name products, measuring success through share growth and record shipments. With a relocation to New York, her track record in brand management led her to Kraft General Foods, where she took on more senior management roles.
This experience ultimately led to leadership roles within Omnicom Group, including a focus on business development. There, she helped successfully reposition and launch one of the first integrated marketing agencies.
Next, the opportunity to work in a merger and acquisitions start-up called Lighthouse presented itself; her first “shopping job.” As a member of the founding team, she helped spearhead the purchase of 17 firms and build the company to an enterprise with 1,200 employees and 39 offices—all under two years. As they began making acquisitions in Europe (including FITCH), she was charged with opening the Lighthouse European operations in London, where she lived for 17 years.
Leavitt later returned to the Midwest to work with FITCH and help integrate the North American operations. She transformed the business to become the top-performing, fastest-growing region for this global design firm. This success led to another M&A role, and then the assignment of restructuring the FITCH Middle East operations.
Today as CEO, North America consumer and retail brand experience for Interbrand, she has joined together the previously separate teams and offices of Interbrand’s consumer and retail businesses, operationally and physically. Under Leavitt’s leadership, these teams have come together with a new, single joint offer of creating iconic brand experiences that transform the way people engage, shop and buy.
With each company and the myriad customers—from luxury brands like Hugo Boss and Dolce & Gabbana to automotive clients and companies such as Target, Buffalo Wild Wings and Pier 1 Imports—Leavitt has been asked to bring her unstoppable passion, global point of view and expertise to transform experiences and, ultimately, grow brands and businesses.
This visionary with a 30-plus-year track record of delivering results knows that for brands to continue to succeed it will require change. “We have to challenge everything and think bigger,” Leavitt says. “Those who will succeed will be the brands willing to tear down the walls (literally and figuratively in their organizations), dream big and have passion for their vision. We need more compelling experiences; we need to give people reasons to go experience joy. We need to find the right balance of high tech and high touch to surprise and delight them.”
Vice President, Global Environments & Creative Services
The Timberland Co.
My inspiration is fueled by almost everything,” describes Bevan Bloemendaal, vice president of global environments and creative services at The Timberland Co. “Whether it is nature and watching how light and wind interact with natural elements and humans, traveling the world to witness the similarities and nuances of cultures and people, or the simplicity of human interaction—all of this impacts the design process, how you approach storytelling, and how to create an overall experience that touches all of the human senses.”
Bloemendaal and his team work to enhance the Timberland experience—how the products support human interaction and a connection to the world around us, whether in the city or in the country.
Growing up a preacher’s son on a farm in the Midwest, Bloemendaal has always had a love of family and community, and a deep respect for others and nature. As vice president, global environments and creative services for The Timberland Co., he has spent the last 18 years working with an organization that upholds those same values.
Bloemendaal’s childhood was full of music and creativity. He had a passion for creative arts and spent his time designing environments out of hay or building an out-of-the-norm tree house. He had a musical family and still relishes the power of music to tell stories and evoke emotions.
“Music became an important part of my life, and as a vocalist, pianist and organist, it was incredibly rewarding creating emotional tensions through varied lyrics and genres of music,” he says. “For me, it was the ultimate form of storytelling, which I have used my entire career to ensure the consumer is being provided a ‘story/experience’ through all the disciplines I now have the pleasure of working with.”
He traveled Europe during college as a vocalist, which introduced him to a global perspective. But he soon realized he needed a more stable employment opportunity. Looking to the future, he used this as way to fulfill his dream of leaving the farm and heading to New York City.
Bloemendaal’s path to success in the retail industry began in a grassroots fashion as a sales associate with the Kinney Shoe Corp. After a rigorous training program, he rose through the ranks—sales manager, district manager then associate creative director—learning the ropes along the way. He worked with brands such as Kinney, Champs, Foot Locker, Lady Foot Locker, Kids Foot Locker and Susie’s Casuals, to name a few. Before he even realized it, he had spent 21 years in the industry and living in New York; he was exactly where he wanted to be.
Sometimes, the best opportunities present themselves when you least expect it. Bloemendaal received a call from a recruiter regarding a position with a company in New Hampshire. His first thought was that there was no way he was leaving the city and going back to the country. It wasn’t until the company’s name was revealed that he knew he had to go. It was Timberland, and all of his training and years in the footwear and apparel industry had been preparing him for this position.
While Bloemendaal started with Timberland as the director of visual merchandising, he quickly was asked by the COO to tackle a bigger challenge: managing seven departments. It was the beginning of a transformation to what has now become an internal agency that consists of three global disciplines: Environments Group, Creative Group and Account Services Group. With the retail world constantly changing, it allows the company to react in a frictionless way. “The role of myself and my teams is to continuously innovate, surprise and delight the consumer in this quickly changing digital/retail landscape through environment design, visual merchandising, advertising, graphic design, digital design and storytelling, always exceeding expectations with execution,” he explains.
The team is innovating across platforms and exploring new ways to engage customers. In Philadelphia, they recently launched the first Tree Lab. “This has been an exciting opportunity to push ourselves into the risk of thinking differently,” Bloemendaal describes. They have reduced the SKU count in the store by more than 67 percent and are focusing on a story called “Streetology” for a six- to eight-week timeframe. They are examining the science and knowledge of the city streets and how Timberland supports that through its technology and style.
In addition, a new integrated store design was launched in China and Malaysia, with a presentation that explores human connection and the theater of the environment through the introduction of a “social hub” in the front window area of the stores. Bloemendaal also is excited about the next new store opening in Stanford, Calif., which features updated design elements throughout with the Boot Room being an important
When it comes to the future of retail, Bloemendaal doesn’t even try to predict what will happen in this quickly evolving industry. But what he knows is that brick-and-mortar solutions need to provide an experience that can’t be replicated online. “Up to 78 percent of Millennials prefer to spend on experiences rather than product, so it’s a wonderful time of innovation and thinking differently,” Bloemendaal says. “Product relevance will continue to be king, but consumers are not interested in transactional retail any longer, and are asking for it to be more unique and personalized. These factors have created this opportunity for a new wave of retail to happen—making it fun, shareable, but most of all memorable.”
Winning numerous honors and awards throughout the years, Bloemendaal has been humbled by each one and is grateful to have had the opportunity to work with so many amazing people along the way. He is particularly grateful for Leon Banister, who he credits for first believing in him and starting him on this journey. He also is thankful for his husband, Tony, who has provided him the ultimate support in all things.
As he continues his journey, he maintains perspective with a quote by Maya Angelou: “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Chief Creative Officer
FRCH Design Worldwide
As one of nine kids, Paul Lechleiter learned at a young age that it is important to find your voice quickly if you want to be heard. Lechleiter and his siblings were part of what he jokingly refers to as a “merry band of neighborhood thugs” who were always out and about in their Louisville, Ky., neighborhood playing, pretending, creating forts and having fun.
“Every day, I got out of bed and thought about what we would come up with today,” Lechleiter reflects. “It was a ‘seek, find and make it up as you go’ mentality. It was all about imagination and pretend. In the retail world, that still happens now; we are always thinking about how we can you use imagination to motivate people.”
In addition to those childhood days spent exploring his imagination, Lechleiter’s proficient drawing skills were evident early on. This skill gave him a level of confidence, just another way he was finding his voice.
This passion for art led him to the University of Cincinnati College of Design Architecture Art and Planning. While he thought he was going to be an amazing artist, the next Rembrandt perhaps, he realized that path may not be the most profitable. It was during a studio class taught by a team from Macy’s (then Federated Department Stores) that he became enamored with retail design. “Retail is about something new and different every day,” Lechleiter says. “For my thesis, I did an urban mall that was pretty badass. I still love that project today.”
Upon graduation, Lechleiter moved to Los Angeles and started at The May Company Department Stores. “We were working 18 hours a day, so I learned 10 years of ‘stuff’ in three years,” Lechleiter says. “There was a boss and nobody between us, so it was a learn-on-the-fly situation and I made so many mistakes. It was a great self-taught retail experience that helped me get so far ahead, so fast. It was rough, hard and infuriating, but I am so lucky to have learned so much so quickly—and it was crazy fun to be in Los Angeles in the ’80s.”
From there, Lechleiter went to Cole Martinez Curtis and an office on the beach. He credits this job experience for honing his creativity. While there, he focused on department stores and used his confidence and strong voice to get ahead.
“I have never been timid, some might say I am slightly bullish,” Lechleiter says. “I can be aggressive and have an opinion, so this helped me chart my own path and gain leadership opportunities.”
So, at 26 years old, he was leading design projects. Once again, he was taking advantage of this opportunity to learn, rolling up his sleeves and digging in to gain more valuable hands-on experience. He was also taking advantage of networking opportunities and meeting people, while gaining inspiration from all that Los Angeles had to offer. Lechleiter believes these first positions provided a solid foundation for his career, important moments that are key to his overall success.
The Midwest called him home to a position with FITCH in Columbus, Ohio, immersing him in the realm of specialty stores. This was a whole new learning experience at a company that was strategic with a different thought process—a collaborative environment with a varied group of people with a real diversity of thinking. “That type of diversity is what I thrive on now,” Lechleiter says.
While he had a steady track record of working with established companies, he also took the opportunity during his time at FITCH to freelance for a few years when Japan was exploding with development. “I spent several months in Tokyo. We really pushed the boundaries of creativity. It was nuts. It was about how extreme you could make something,” he recalls.
As he looked to the future, an opportunity at FRCH Design Worldwide had him thinking about his long-term goals. In typical fashion, he was aggressive and made himself heard. “I went in and said ‘I want to be a partner. I want this to be my last place of employment,’” he says. And he has been at FRCH for the last 20 years.
As the chief creative officer of FRCH, he is the creative leader of the company, championing strategic and creative excellence throughout FRCH as well as advancing the creative culture, talent and processes across the firm. Lechleiter is extremely hands-on in his approach and pushes for inspired cross-studio and cross-discipline collaboration in order to provide clients with creative diversity and business-savvy solutions.
For Lechleiter, retail is a place where people can get lost, escape from their daily lives. “A store is a store is a store unless we can create a really different experience, something with an unexpected twist and ‘wow’ factor,” he explains. He references the impact of a great hotel experience or the randomness of perusing an antique store as sources of inspiration. “The core simplicity of great design is not about big budgets, it’s about being innovative and creative,” he adds. Creating places that offer a sense of discovery and surprise, an experience that energizes, grabs the customer’s heart and connects with people is what he wants his team to deliver.
He is grateful for the opportunities that the retail world has afforded him. “I have been all over the world, and as a global citizen, it has given me the opportunity to see and understand what the world is, to see its commonalities, differences and embrace the humanity,” Lechleiter says. “This leads to more creativity and a better connection with customers. It is so inspiring, and few industries can give you these experiences and opportunities. This career path provides variety and a frenzy that feeds who I am.”
With more than 30 years in the industry, his voice is only getting louder as he talks about the future of retail and the need to create places and experiences that teach, connect and challenge people. You can be sure he will be bullish in this pursuit. As he says, “That’s the cool part, going where you’ve never been.”
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