In this episode:

Wendy Liebmann, WSL’s CEO and Chief Shopper, talks to Helena Foulkes, current board member of Costco & Harry’s, former president of CVS Pharmacy and CEO and Board Member of the Hudson’s Bay Company, amongst other roles.

They discuss:

  • Her reflections on the pandemic: What she has learned about retail, leadership and the future.
  • How and why the power dynamic shifted from manufacturer to retailer to technology — and now to consumers.
  • The lasting effects of the pandemic. (It’s not technology.)
  • The power of community, and the role retail.
  • How companies can prosper in times of paradox and complexity.
  • The big opportunity in the consumerization of healthcare.
  • What makes for future retail winners and losers (a clue: people and innovation, not AI).

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Watch the video episode:

Wendy 00:09

Hi everyone, I'm Wendy Liebmann. I'm the CEO and chief shopper at WSL Strategic Retail, and this is Future Shop. Now most of you who listen to this podcast know that I usually then ramble on a bit about innovators disruptors and iconoclasts. But I'm gonna break that rule today because my guest today is actually the person the first external, non WSL person who ever came on this podcast. I'm going to get weepy Helena, right at the beginning of the pandemic. My guest today is Helena Foulkes. Hello, Helena.

Helena 00:46

Hi, Wendy, great to see you.

Wendy 00:48

You too. It's really great to see you. To this day, it is the most downloaded podcast in three, four years. Most of you will probably know her from CVS pharmacy where she was and her last gig there, the president of CVS Pharmacy, and was responsible for many things, including getting out of cigarettes, getting out of tobacco, a lot of the social and community initiatives beyond all the health care, very involved in Extra Care, so many of you will know her from that life. She then went to the luxury retail space at Hudson, the Hudson's Bay Company, owners of then of Saks and Hudson's Bay out of Canada and other global retailers, where she reorganized to take it private with great success. She is hand has been on the board of the Home Depot. She is currently on the board of Costco and other illustrious retail companies and involved with Harvard and their Board of Overseers. So a pretty extraordinary repertoire for, I’m glad to say, friend of mine. So it's wonderful to have you back.

Helena 02:02

Thank you, Wendy. I really appreciate it. Love seeing you. And yes, the first time we did this, we're all hunkered down in our bedrooms. I feel like so at least now we're seeing each other and seeing all of you.

Wendy 02:14

So I'm going to actually ask you the first question I asked you, then, where are you? How are you? And how is your family? Because that was the question we were asking everybody in the spring of 2020.

Helena 02:27

Oh, that's so nice. Well, I'm back in Providence, Rhode Island, which makes me very, very happy. This is where I was born and raised. I left for a little bit to run Hudson's Bay. And then in COVID, I was somewhere else. And so I'm back home, which is amazing. I live three blocks down the street from my father, who's 86. And that makes me very happy. He popped by for lunch today. So I consider myself very lucky. And we're all doing well, Bill and I have been married 35 years now this summer. Our oldest daughter is getting married in June. And our other three kids are all doing great. So good. Thanks.

Wendy 03:04

Well, I think of your father often. And I actually use him as an example, even though I've never actually met him. Because on that podcast, we talked about the fact that your father then 82 had was learning how to buy his groceries online, how to use digital in many other ways. And that to me, was very transformative. So I do think about him a lot now with this extraordinary career that have and continue to have have had and continue to have your view of retail. If you look back over the last five years, 10 years, what are the what are the things that you think have fundamentally changed in retail and what hasn't?

Helena 03:52

Yeah, I love that. Well, I was I might even go back even further. So I joined CVS in 1992. Right out of business school. And I don't know if I ever told you this Wendy, but my first job included an assignment where every Friday, I called the top 10 consumer packaged goods companies, Procter & Gamble, Johnson and Johnson, L'Oréal, so on and so forth. And I said, tell me how much you shipped to us last week, because that shipment from them to us was a proxy for how much we sold. And, and we were just rolling out POS terminals. And I literally sound like I'm 100 years old when I say this, but just imagine that was 1992. I was thinking about how much the world has changed in this short time. And in many ways, I think of it as four chapters. The first was the power of the consumer packaged goods companies, because they really did have all the power. The second was the power of the retailer, because in many ways, then that power dynamic shifted to us with all the data that we had, the insights that we could bring, I think the third evolution of it was the power of tech. because so much then got caught up in, in tech and social. And I think we're now on a wave that I would say the power of the consumer, which in many ways feels great to me, that's what the world should be. But this is a consumer who's, who is fully in charge and navigating as he or she wishes. And but I think all of it still feels, in many ways, like the rate of change is faster than ever. And just when you start to think you know what you're doing, it changes again, honestly, that's why I always loved retail. But it's an exciting time, I think, to be in the business.

Wendy 05:44

Yeah, it's so interesting, because that reminds me of conversations you and I would have, which was very much about being in the shoppers shoes. And of course, our passion, as you know, is always about following the shopper. And I absolutely agree on that one, you know, with everything that's happened to the consumer as shopper, even now increasingly, the patient, you know, that that need to, or determination to take control of what they can in their lives. I think that's become a really powerful mantra for all of us to pay attention to as we as we move forward. When I was thinking when you were talking about you would call the big CPGs. I was thinking that a great way to end every week, what's going on, tell me what's going on. Because as you talk about shipping, right, you also get to know what's going on in the companies, which is really an interesting way to stay connected.

Helena 06:41

That's interesting. I've been reading a political book right now. And I read a little section about Tip O'Neill, very famous speaker of the US House. And he used to start calling his staff at six in the morning. And he would say to them, what are you hearing? And I love that, because it's really like, Okay, you're close to the action, tell me what's going on. We're all looking for that, because that's ultimately how we serve people more effectively.

Wendy 07:05

So when you think about COVID, and there we are four years ago, in the midst of it, is it as big a disrupter as we thought it was what have we already forgotten and all of that?

Helena 07:18

At the moment, I think we all felt like maybe retail’s dead. And I mean, at the moment, the grocery stores were important. And certain retailers were doing well. Home Depot, anything related to your home was a great place to be. But I remember having conversations where people literally thought we would never go into stores again, because now we'd all been introduced to doing everything from home. And fast forward. I think one of the things that's emerged, even more globally than retail is the power of community. And that and the joy we all get from touching and feeling and being with each other and experiencing senses. And so I think that it's really interesting and fun for me to see retail emerging, and consumers coming back. And at the same time, I think that we're still under a lot of pressure in terms of how we find and retain the best possible store associates to serve those customers, because people's lives still feel upended. And there's a lot of stress going on in the world. And so I I'm never out and about without seeing signs up that say Help Wanted.

Wendy 08:32

That comment you made before about what this fourth era that we're in or epoch or whatever we want to call it. That rejiggering. I just had an email from a client, colleague friend, who said, You know what, I've just decided to give it up and take a little time four years later, with my family while I can and and I said to her is that because she said, You know, I wasn't willing to walk away during the pandemic. I didn't think that was right, I needed to support my teams, I need to support my company. But she said, now I think things are in better order. And I think it's time for me to take a little time. So I thought that was really interesting. Because as I think about that for years, and measure it or listen again to our podcast four years ago, it really strikes me as you know, so much we've gone through so much. And it looks like it's a normal day out there. But so much has changed underneath all that and the way people are feeling and shopping. You made a comment to me then. And it really related to the work that you were doing at Saks because you had a data breach at the time. And you said you can change a culture in a crisis. And now as you look across everything from different types of retail to educational institutions to government. Do you still believe that?

Helena 10:01

I think it's, I think that it's very hard to change culture, when people perceive things to be going well, there's no call to action. And, and I always, I always, when I'm mentoring young people, I always talk about the fact that my personal periods of greatest learning and growth were in my hardest moments. That's when you really learn about yourself about your team. And I think because of that, that forced pressure, it's a huge opportunity at that moment for leaders to really re examine where they're going and, and rethink their culture. And, and and everything I've ever done. I think my biggest learning is the power of culture. You know, you mentioned cigarettes before. And people will often ask me, So what did you learn from I learned so many things from that experience. But probably the biggest unexpected element of that was that our organization realized it could take risks and come out on the other side, we've been pretty safe up until then. And we had taken a big risk, and it had worked.

Wendy 11:09

I do think about that a lot. Because I think about that moment, not just talking to you, and I'm going to do what I did, then it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, right. And requote Dickens, which upset me terribly when, I said it twice at that moment, and still do. But but it is that ability, I think, to stay engaged with our organizations, and that you talked a lot, then about the agility, the speed to react, the speed to respond. And I think about that today, after we've gotten through the exhaustion of supply chain issues and healthcare issues, you know, on the front lines, vaccinating everybody, and yet we still have these, as you said, hard to find people who want to stay with us be with us. How do we build organizations in that? So I think about that, and I think about a lot in your board work at Costco not to put you on the spot. But that's certainly an organization that seems to take incredibly good care of its people and has built an amazing culture around that. Is that are there others that you see in that space who have who have done that?

Helena 12:18

Yeah, I will pause for a moment on Costco. It's the it's the reason that I was so excited to join the board. And it reminded really reminded me in many ways of, of my early days at CVS in the sense that the founder spirit was still very much present. The new CEO who just became CEO, couple months ago, started 40 years ago as a forklift driver. I mean, how amazing is that, that he is now sitting at the top of this organization, but there's a humbleness, there's a desire to give every penny back to the consumer to the extent we can to drive long term loyalty, and a real belief that our associates are our power. And so making sure that we're an attractive place to come work, but mostly to stay is really important. And I do think other retailers and other companies do it. I think Home Depot does an amazing job at that. And I think that Harry's is a company, I'm on the board of the razor company, and and I look at the spirit of those two founders and the culture that they're building. So I think there there are amazing examples. I also think that one of the elements of post COVID that we're all navigating is this work from home environment, where we have the gift of flexibility and freedom. And yet, we've lost some of that connectedness and the opportunity to mentor young people. And I'm still trying to figure that out as I work with various companies.

Wendy 13:57

I think that's really true. I mean, I see that with our diverse client base. And I laugh because our our mutual friend who Norm De Greve, who has gone off to be CMO at General Motors. I remember at one point at CVS, him saying, Well, we're going to have pizza Wednesdays because that will get people back into the office. I said they're coming back for a pizza. And he said, “Well, it is Rhode Island, you know”, and I'm like, okay, okay, but I mean, that ability to connect with people, and engage and talk over the proverbial pizza or water cooler. I think you're right, that is still very much unfinished business as we as we move forward.

Helena 14:36

And when I think about my first decade at CVS, let's say the lion's share of what I learned was in the between moments, it wasn't being in the meeting. It was running into someone in the hallway or getting pulled into an office and so I worry that our next gen is not getting that opportunity to learn from all the great leaders who exists in each of these companies.

Wendy 15:01

yeah, yeah, the pendulum always swings. So it'll be interesting to see when you know, we're at the barricade saying we want to be back together, amongst other reasons to be at the barricades, but that's another conversation. Helena, the other thing we talked about, and you've alluded to it here is really leadership. And you've now had this opportunity to be engaged in lots of different organizations, as I said, educational board work on staff, making major changes to organizations like Hudson's Bay Company or a CVS, what have you learned in that space? And for people, not just for the CEO level, but for the rest of us as we get along? But how do we how do we have to lead in these coming years?

Helena 15:49

I always go back to something I learned probably 15 years ago, when the and and every organization, I joined, I use this, this little matrix that's in my head, and it starts with the power of purpose, you know, why are we here? What makes us excited, it could be globally as a company, or it could be a particular department or assignment, but really what unites us in a purpose. The next thing I love to explore with teams is the the paradox and complexity that exists in everything we do. And what I mean by that is, what are the things that excite us what worries us, and instead of, of teaching ourselves to live in an either or world to try to find new creative solutions out of that tension. And and I think my biggest successes have been working with amazing teams that can do that, because they're really listening qualities of leadership. But that that way of approaching it, I think really applies. Another element of it is something I call returning authority, which is being really clear on the things that I must do as a leader and the things that others can do and returning authority. Definitely the definition of that is something I'm unwilling or unable to do. I found one, for example, when I started at Hudson's Bay, what I found out of the gate is everyone was coming to me to make decisions. And it was really quite exciting, actually. But I realized I was spending my day making decisions other people should be making and not doing the things that I needed to be doing. And so I really started to have a conversation with every first person about I'm happy to brainstorm with you. But ultimately, this feels like the kind of decision you should be making, which is different than what I should be doing. And so having good language for how you want to interact as leaders, I think is really important. But being very, very clear on what's going to make you really proud at the end of the day, is I think the most important quality of leadership.

Wendy 17:48

COVID didn't change that at all. I mean, that's a fundamental that, you know, you learn as you go and yes, COVID exacerbated so many elements of leadership, and how do we respond quickly? And how do we make sure everybody was okay, and all of those things. Having lived in New York City for certainly almost a lifetime, I think about you know, the September 11, I think about other crises that we've had, and many of us around the world, if we have lived long enough, have had and to your point about, you know, you can change your culture, you can be a better leader and a crisis, but hopefully it won't only be in a crisis. So the other thing I think about is winners and losers in the in the retail space, I think of industries, I think of healthcare, which you've got had a lot of expertise. How do you think about healthcare moving forward, and and that industry at large, whether it's retail or other areas,

Helena 18:46

I mean, the thing that, to me in the last decades has been the most exciting element of healthcare is the consumerization of health care. The fact that you talked at the beginning, Wendy and I, this is something I've always learned from you have the power of getting in someone's shoes, and really walking around with them. And I think healthcare is is aspiring to that. And a lot of the really great innovations that have emerged are ones that have put more power in the hands of those consumers. One of the boards that I'm on is a company called PMPediatrics, we own urgent care clinics for children around the country. And you know, during COVID, one of the things that happened was, parents now do have more flexibility, but kids still get sick, and but the parents want to be in control. And we have the same dynamic of really having to make sure we're taking good care of the providers in these spaces. The thing about healthcare that is always more complicated, however, is that pay are dynamic. So it's not a simple line between the consumer and the provider. It's where does the payer fit in? And I think sometimes startups forget to anticipate that payer dynamic, and really think about where it can be helpful, and where there's still uncertainty, I'll give you an example. There's so many exciting companies emerging in the mental health phase state of this country, a massive need everywhere I go for mental health services. And yet we have an insurance industry today, that isn't quite sure how it wants to deal with mental health services. Because if they open Pandora's Box and pay for everything, where do they go with that? How do they get an ROI? I don't think that's the right thing for us in the end as a country, but I think that makes it complicated for both those entrepreneurs in their behavioral health space. And also for consumers as they're navigating. That's the kind of uncertainty that that smart people will figure out how to navigate, and ultimately, really create a service for consumers that will be make their lives better. And that's what has always intrigued me about retail is just the power to really lift someone up in the right moment.

Wendy 21:06

It's interesting, you say that, too, because we've gotten more and more involved in women's wellness and that space. And one of those, you know, in June 6, we have a symposium in New York City where we're talking about the future of health and from a consumer point of view from a shopper what a shoppers really want. And one of the speakers is somebody that we've gotten to know pretty well, company called HerMD, which is founded by two sisters, and one is an OBGYN, Somi Javaid. And one of the things they've learned along the way as they open up women's wellness clinics and and built that out is the challenges of dealing with the you know, the medical and health system and the payer system. And I've just watched that through their eyes as they're growing this extraordinary business. And, you know, you think it should be simple, right? I could just walk down that aisle and CVS and buy whatever I need. But the truth is, when I need care, it's not quite so simple.

Helena 22:05

I mean, even to still look at the core pharmacy space. You know, there have been so many disruptors, and you'll read stories about them and say, Oh, Mark Cuban's company that makes so much sense or whoever it is. And yet, as a consumer, when you try to use some of those services, you realize, oh, they're experiencing that same pain point of the insurer as the ultimate disruptor in the middle of the system. And that is, that never feels right, as a consumer, but you do need a champion for the consumer to in that sector.

Wendy 22:38

yeah, the time the pharmacist has to spend in on the phone or on the computer, trying to figure out if you're covered or not, is quite extraordinary. You've also lived in the luxury space. And and as you look around at that point, you said three, four years ago, you said I think there will be there should just be one luxury retailer. What's your view on luxury retail now, whether it's fashion, or beauty or anything else in the luxury space?

Helena 23:06

Yeah, I think that luxury is going through a hard moment, right now, a lot of the big brands are really eager to go direct to consumer, and not use those retailers as an intermediary. The big box luxury retailers have struggled, I think to find their point of differentiation. And so I still do think there will be only one big, big luxury retailer. But I will also say I just had an experience this weekend, going in of Saks men's store in Beverly Hills, and I had an outstanding experience. I had a salesperson who was so passionate about his job, I loved his job, I loved making my family member feel really handsome for a big event that's coming up. And it it was a reminder that they these are people who are making the difference every day and you know, supporting them and finding ways to keep developing them is exciting. But I think that's a sector that is going to still really evolve pretty dramatically in the next five years. Because there's a shakeout coming and I just don't know what it will look like. In beauty. I think it's interesting in the luxury beauty. I think it's also really interesting. I mean, I think beauty has evolved a lot. And I love going into, you know, masstige kind of beauty stores. I look at, you know, CVS, Allum, Maly Bernstein who's running now Bluemercury, and I think they're doing really interesting things I had. I had a personal experience this winter where I really needed some help. And I had incredible service in a Bluemercury store. And that may, you know made me buy much more than I intended to when I walked in. And the investment, they're making it online and connecting online with physical. So that's all very exciting. And the other thing, I think that's just so cool that's happening right now is young people who are have an entrepreneurial spirit that I think is 10 times what existed 30 years ago, when I was coming out of business school. And I meet so many, often women in their 30s, who are starting really great, beauty related businesses that are really solving an unmet need. And they have a lot of opportunities, whether they decide to go direct to consumer, or through retail. So that's why I think all of this is more uncertain than ever, but very exciting.

Wendy 25:51

Yeah, it reminds me of, you know, growing up in Australia, and really, the way to get ahead as a young woman was really to do it yourself to start your own business, because the patriarchy, excuse me for being political. But I will, as always, the patriarchy was just like, whatever. So that was, you know, that you just let's put on a show. Let's get started. So I find that really exciting in so many businesses, health, beauty, food and beverage fashion home, you know, so many things, which are exciting. Did I mention that in the beginning that Helena had run a year ago for Governor of Rhode Island? Well, how did retail set you up for that? What did you learn out of that experience?

Helena 26:34

It was an amazing experience. I loved it. And actually what I what I've said to many people since then, is that it wasn't my first time of not, not not winning or not getting what I wanted. And I think all those other experiences made me stronger, and made me realize, and this is, for me a very important lesson that sometimes you go for something and you don't get what you want. But what you find is that another door opens, and it's an unexpected door, but a door you sit you feel very grateful for. And that's really what my experience has been, I actually won on election day. But I had lost the early voting. So in total, I ended up losing by 3300 votes. And, and the thing that I learned, which is really not not so inconsistent with everything I've learned at retail is the power of listening, the power of listening to the folks that you want to serve, I always got my best ideas when I was at CVS, going to the front line watching pharmacy techs, talking to pharmacists, talking to store associates about the work that we were creating for them from corporate, and what we could do to serve them better. And I found that I really started hitting my stride in my race for election, when I was able to get out of my COVID screen and get in front of people and listen, and they made me better. So it was a very exciting experience. And for me, it has really forced me to think about the impact that I want to have in this next chapter of my life and how I can do more to help the people of Rhode Island.

Wendy 28:12

And I think that goes back a lot to what you got even as a leader, it talks about you know, the purpose, you know, the culture you can bring, where you can have an impact. How do you bring people together? And I think that's the that's why I was curious, it sounded very familiar when you started talking about, you know, your approach to retail. And I thought, well, that sounds like maybe that's how you'd take that into another field. You know, it is retail politics, right? It's what you say it's, it says, shaking hands and knocking on doors and saying hello to babies and all of those things, which is it's the personal things that I think we when we got locked away, we we have to remember about all of those, the power, the power of the person and the walking in people's shoes, which make it so so extraordinary, whatever, whatever business we're in. So greater sense of satisfaction and the retail roles you've you've had to date. What what what do you see as your greatest achievement I'm watching or thinking about next.

Helena 29:17

My two greatest senses of satisfaction have been number one, the people that mentored me and supported me and the spirit that that created me to pass it on and to mentor and support others and I'm super proud you mentioned Norm De Greve, who's now at GM but there's I feel like I have all these children who are now working in amazing places and I'm really really proud of them. And I'm I have people who are always reminding me about some conversation they had with me and how I help them. That's my greatest source of pride. And the other one is is I always tell people, one of the things I learned about myself is that I loved being an entrepreneur in a big company. And for me, it was all always about consumer innovation. You know, the thing you and I would spend time on Wendy, you know, really watching and listening, and then figuring out what you could do to serve customers more effectively. And so those two things, people leadership and consumer innovation are enduring qualities. I can't imagine we'll be doing this podcast and for years, and they won't matter. It's just exciting to see how they come to life.

Wendy 30:32

That's a wonderful sort of ending framework, because I do think we do run off and look at things and think everything is the, you know, the next bright, shiny object. So what's next for you anything to be revealed?

Helena 30:47

Yeah, I'm loving all my board work. And I am still thinking about a way to serve Rhode Islanders in a bigger way. And I'm spending a lot of time in education in the state of Rhode Island, which, which has huge opportunities to be, you know, really more focused on our children on the housing and homelessness crisis. I'm, I'm I learn every day. And I think that there's a lot of opportunity. I think when people wake up in the morning, they don't think about whether they're Democrats or Republicans, they think about how do they want life to be better for their families. And so I'm working on figuring out how I can be helpful to people who are living here,

Wendy 31:28

you had mentioned the power of retail, and I think the power of the store on the corner, whether it's a physical or digital store, to take care of people in their families, at whatever level, whoever you are. I think that's the biggest opportunity in the future. So we seem to be aligned. I really appreciate this, I must say, going back and listening to that original podcast and realizing you were the first official guest was like, Oh, wow, that's and it still holds up. I think it's episode three. So just get everybody have another listen, because there's a lot of great work here. A lot of great thinking. So anyway, Helena, I can't thank you enough for this, I appreciate your time.

Helena 32:10

I just I just want to say, Wendy, that you have been a source of inspiration for many of us, in the retail sector, taught us a lot allowed me personally, to have more freedom to think about the consumer to think more boldly. And I really, really admire your passion for the industry and how much you care about all of us in this space. So thank you for that.

Wendy 32:36

Well, thank you that is that is most kind. And as always, you're going to get me weeping again. Thank you for your time, we will definitely see you in the future. And you have framed up what that future should look like.

What a joy, it was to have Helena Foulkes here again, four years later. It is a pretty stunning opportunity, I would say to benchmark where we have gone and where we have come. I think the things that Helena said that were most powerful were really that the the opportunities or the the the ability to lead. Those things haven't changed in the last four years. Those are things that are grounded in engaging, and without people being willing to listen, being empathetic, and and staying close to the people you serve, whether it's in a retail space, or consumer packaged goods, space, or even in a political space. And I think that's one of the things that we've always known. It's no big surprise if we stop and think about it for a minute. And that's really what the future of retail will look like, as we remember not only who we serve, in terms of the people who spend money with us, but the people who work with us as well. So, innovation around any of those spaces will win for you in the future. Thanks for joining me. See you in the future.

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