If you want to become the Country Manager of Costco you have to work your way up. And that means starting at the bottom. "I won't give jobs away," states Louise Wendling, current semi-retired Country Manager of Costco. "We do not go outside to fill positions; if we can't find that skillset among our employees, then we have failed."
There goes my application for her job.
If you take care of sales everything else falls into place
In fact, that is one of the many great advantages to working at Costco, a membership-only warehouse retailer that offers a wide selection of merchandise. Clearly the anomoly among low priced merchandise retailers, Costco pays their employees very well (entry level is above minimum wage), offers a full benefits package to all employees (full and part time) and encourages growth and promotion of its employees within the organization. Many employees, even those approaching retirement age, have spent their entire career at Costco. And, for the most part, everyone starts at the bottom, whether you have a MBA or not.
Take care of your employees and they will take care of your business
So what does it mean to be the Country Manager of Costco? "It means nothing," declares Louise. In fact, she had no title on her business card, and I get the distinct impression she is embarrased by the attention. "The title was not important to me; it's the work we do and the people who work with us that matter. I wanted to bring those around me up with me. When you walk into a Costco it isn't me you see, it's the cashiers and stockers. They have a tremendous influence on your experience at Costco."
But being Country Manager does have its duties and responsibilities, namely: focusing on sales, being results driven, taking care of members and focusing on what Costco stands for, which is "offering quality merchandise at the lowest possible cost and do it all by taking the high road and taking care of employees along the way," Louise elaborates. When pressed she sums up her role in one phrase. "It essentially means I run the place."
Titles are not important; goals are important
Louise got her start at Costco when a former boss at The Bay asked her to join Price Club. She originally said no, but was later convinced about Price Club's merits, and she became one of three initial founders that launched Price Club, which merged with Coscto in 1993.
Promotions are not a goal, they are a result
"I love to work," exclaims Louise. "Work is a part of life, it is not separate," she adds. "As working women, and mothers, you have to be decisive and not feel guilty. I gave up my personal life to focus on my priorities: my work and my children. You can't live a life that is torn otherwise you won't be happy." But her early jobs were not always easy. Working her way up the ladder at the Hudson Bay Company often meant doing things she had never done before, yet she always accepted the challenge. "You have to believe in yourself. Trying something new, and challenging yourself, is a rewarding way of furthering your career."
Louise continued to rise in the Hudson's Bay Company ranks, despite the fact that people told her she was a quite literally a bad mother for leaving her childres to go to work each day. "You can't spend your time revisiting old decisions. I think I made the right decisions by my children. And they supported me," reveals Louise. In fact, they were quite happy with the arrangement; it never bothered them.
Although she had a nanny to help raise her three children, Louise still put family first. "While at the Hudson Bay Company I turned down positions that involved travel, and it didn't affect my career negatively," she adds. "I had no clue what I was doing at HBC when I first started. In fact, my first order was wrong; I ordered 2x as much product as I needed." Instead of letting this get the best of her she organized a competition among her team to see who could sell most of the product, which turned into a competition between branches. And guess what? They sold out. From this she learned two key lessons: how to build and motivate a team, and how to drive business.
You have to believe in yourself
She still managed to find time to coach hockey, soccer, swimming and diving for her kids. And, she's never had a cleaning lady (still doesn't!). "All my children had to stand on their own," she reveals. She now spends time with not only her own children, but her 13 grandchildren as well.
Don't do it all yourself; inspire your team and let them help
"The lessons of family life are the lessons of business," Louise enthuses, "and vice versa. You learn how to respect people, you learn to be goal oriented and you must be motivated. But most importantly you need a team to be successful." Teams and teamwork are the key components of Louise's business philosophy; she talks about teams often in our interview and gives credit often to her hard-working team. "You must inspire the people who work for you. Don't do everything yourself, let them do something and feel the reward and gratification," she declares.
In 2012 Louise was named CEO of the Year by the Ottawa Business Journal, and for a woman who doesn't put much value in titles, how did that award make her feel? "It proved it's not about me, but rather about my ability to inspire people, motivate and excite them - all of which makes them want to work harder, do better, sell more." And as the semi-retired country manager, Louise not only runs Coscto, she is also heavily involved in "Journeys"; a program focused on helping female employees at Costco build their career within the organization, and re-integrate upon their return from maternity leave.
"There are two responsibilities women have in our organization," Louise states:
- You have a responsibility to yourself: to manage your career, try new things, think out of the box. People will notice you because of this.
- You have a responsibility to those under you: if you see a star in the organization it's your responsibility to guide them and to mentor them.
Respect is earned; it comes from your employees
"Respect is earned," Louise declares at the end of our interview. "It doesn't come from titles, gender or race. It comes from your employees."