How I Landed My Dream Job

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Catherine Tooke – Director of Planning at Coach – tells AQUAretail how she managed her career to achieve the executive position she’s in today…

When did you first find out about merchandising as a career?

I found out about merchandising as a career after I did an internship in investment banking. Although I loved the idea of trading stocks, and the maths side of it – I wasn’t interested in the product. A friend of mine who had done some research into fashion herself, mentioned allocation and merchandising, and once I looked into it, I knew it was the right career path for me!

Talk us through your career–to-date…

After the banking internship I thought it was best to get some retail experience on my CV before applying for head office roles, so I worked on the shop floor at LK Bennett for six months. It was hard work, but taught me a lot about how stores worked, and I still use that experience today when planning for stores and understanding Clearance events etc.

After that I landed a job at Karen Millen as a Allocator and MAA. It was very manual – all our allocations were done on Excel, and I spoke to the DC on a daily basis.  After that I moved to Marks and Spencer as an Assistant Merchandiser. I wanted some blue chip buying and planning experience, and M&S was a great place for it. I learned so much about how factories work, production planning and product development. It was amazing, and I’ll never forget the years I spent there. Also I met one of my now best friends there, who introduced me to my husband, and she was a bridesmaid, so a lot of my life has been influenced from working there!

When I left M&S, I did a short stint at Crew Clothing which was a great learning in terms of understanding how a small and growing business worked. They were going through a period of huge change, and it was interesting to see first-hand how all of the departments fit together, like Finance, Logistics, Marketing – something I hadn’t had much insight to previously.  

From there – the lovely Mary at AQUAretail found me a fantastic job at Ralph Lauren, in their European Outlet business. I really felt like this has been the most valuable part of my career to date. Their attention to detail, management training and skills and collaboration between departments is unrivalled, and allowed me to really understand how a retail business should work. While I was there, I was promoted from Planner (Merchandiser) to Director and managed a variety of departments including Accessories, Home, Menswear and Womenswear.

I have recently moved to be Director of Planning for full price stores at Coach Europe. I’m loving my new role – lots of scope for expansion, and a different perspective from outlet stores. But all that experience in so many different roles helps me every day in my job.

What valuable lessons did you learn in the first few years?

The customer is always right! If you don’t understand that straightaway when working for retail you’re not going to get very far. Also – always push the boundaries – if someone says information is not available, or it’s not the way things get done – see how far you can go. Often you will find the information or ability is there somewhere, and it’s always worth having!

Do you think it’s important to work for brands that are similar, so your CV tells a story?

To an extent. I think a good breadth of knowledge is good – in terms of selection/product development is useful, but as you start to understand what you like and what you’re good at, it is probably a good thing to maintain a story as people can understand your progression and experience more easily.

What are your thoughts about the merits of working for a large structured company versus a smaller more design-led premium one?

I think it depends on what stage of your career you are at, and also what type of company. Sometimes you can find both worlds in one company – for example at Coach and Ralph Lauren – Europe was a very different type of business from New York, small companies with lots of room for growth, but with the support of a fantastic and established Brand and business behind it.

Do you think that the product you work on matters when it comes to your development as a merchandiser?

I think it matters that you care about it, and that you’re interested. Theoretically, as long as you understand the end use, and the customer, you could apply the same planning principles to most items, but the passion behind the product is what will drive you to make the best decisions, because you’re interested in it, so you think about it in a clearer and more detailed way.

How important is networking and relationship-building in this industry?

Very important! It’s important to build bridges, keep in contact with bosses and friends from previous retailers. Retail is a small world, and a little goes a long way. Everywhere I go, I come across people who know people from old employees, or who I have worked with previously. It’s fantastic because it means you never feel like a newbie in a new job – and there are lots of shared best practises!

As a manager, how have you developed and how would you like to be described?

I think my biggest development as a manager took place at Ralph Lauren – they provided a wonderful training program there for managers, and it really allowed to grow and develop as a manager. I think I would like to be described as a manager who thought about their line reports individually and according to their personal development – rather than managing everyone in the same way. I hope I would be described as capable and connected to my team!

Do you have any advice to jobseekers, such as how to get your CV to the right hiring manager, or using a style of recruitment consultant and how it reflects on you?

I would say to try and build a relationship with one or two good consultants, who understand you, your personality and your capability so you can be matched to the right job. Try and keep in touch with them for future moves as well – they’ll be better placed to find you a future role, rather than someone new who doesn’t know you. Don’t sign up with too many agencies – it means your CV could get sent to too many people and you could look a bit desperate. You want to look consistent and considered.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Good question – I hope still to be at Coach and to have progressed as much as we’re hoping that Coach Europe will!

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