Liz Rodbell's first summer job, at the age of 16, was a sales associate position at Albert Steiger Co., a department store in Springfield, Mass. Forty-one years later, that shop is long gone, but Rodbell has climbed the retail ladder to become the president of Hudson's Bay, the first time an American woman has held that plum position at the centuries-old Canadian icon.
On a Tuesday afternoon in July, I meet Rodbell in the Platinum Suite at The Room, the Bay's luxury women's-wear destination in downtown Toronto.
Sitting on a plush grey couch in an azure Jason Wu sheath dress, black Saint Laurent heels and bold tortoiseshell Céline eyeglasses, she is a splash of energy and colour in an otherwise neutral space.
Rodbell officially made her debut as the company's new president (her position also includes overseeing Lord & Taylor in the U.S.) in February, taking the reins from Bonnie Brooks. It's the logical next step for the 57-year-old, who has spent her entire career in fashion. After graduating from New York's Wood Tobé-Coburn School with an associate degree in merchandising, she became a dress buyer at Lord & Taylor in 1985. Over the past three decades, she has risen steadily in the company, becoming divisional merchandise manager, general merchandise manager, executive vice-president of merchandising and, in 2012, chief merchant.
"I am a woman on the move," Rodbell quips, nevertheless defining both her career history and her new international lifestyle. Married, with two teenaged daughters (her husband, Mitchell, is a dress designer), she remains based in Manhattan, where she lives with her family on the Upper East Side. How does she oversee a venerable Canadian retail chain from the other side of the border? On average, Rodbell says, she travels to Canada three times a month. When she's in Toronto, she always stays very near the flagship Hudson's Bay store on Queen Street, most often at either the Ritz-Carlton or Trump hotels. "I am all about the service," she says, laughing. "I have two children to take care of at home. When I come here, I like to enjoy the city, go out to restaurants, socialize with suppliers."
"I am so focused on business when I'm here," she continues, adding that she has taken time out to explore all aspects of Canada's biggest city, including its restaurants (she cites Sotto Sotto, Mistura and Momofuku as local favourites and, after our interview, heads off to The Chase for dinner), its culture ("I want an excuse to take some of my team through the Art Gallery of Ontario"), even a Leafs game. During the next company conference, Rodbell plans to lead buyers and store managers from both Hudson's Bay and Lord & Taylor – about 500 people – on a field trip to watch the Blue Jays play. "I can just see us all with our [Hudson's Bay] stripes, walking together and taking over a section," she enthuses, pumping her arms as if power walking to the Rogers Centre.
At the same time, she has also been travelling across the country, making forays to Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. "I certainly need to be out in the field because I feel like I need that experience, both seeing our own stores and how we're interfacing with our customers, but also the competitive landscape and where the opportunities are," she says.
Last summer, Rodbell and her husband immersed themselves even more deeply in the Canadian landscape, taking an extended trip across Quebec and Ontario. "We started in Quebec City," she recalls. "We came by train to Montreal, we did Ottawa, we came here [to Toronto], we did the Shaw Festival [in Niagara-on-the-Lake]. And as I've taken on this role, I'm seeing Canada in a different way than I did in the last two and a half years."
When it was announced that Rodbell would become the company's president, chairman and chief executive officer Richard Baker said that her appointment would "build upon the company's momentum and [strengthen] the customer experience." Over her 30 years in the business, Rodbell says, the biggest industry change has been an increased focus on digital retailing and marketing, a development Hudson's Bay has attempted to get on top of by providing seamless online shopping, creating a dynamic bridal registry and communicating the brand's story to both consumers and its own staff (on the last front, Rodbell and her team write an internal blog for store associates).
She also insists, however, that the social aspect of retail remains extremely important.
"Part of shopping today is social," she says. "It's about making [the in-store experience] more than 'I need.' " Among her coming initiatives to this end are the opening of an Oliver & Bonacini restaurant at the Stephen Street location in Calgary and creating a private patio garden for wedding-dress shoppers in the seventh-floor Kleinfeld space at the flagship in Toronto.
"It's a very fashionable crowd here," Rodbell says of Canadians. "And those are the kind of things that make a difference."
This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Globe Style Advisor. To download the magazine's free iPad app, visit tgam.ca/styleadvisor.