Today, Kathryn Bufano begins her term as CEO of Bon-Ton Stores, a regional department store company based in York, Pennsylvania and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The former president and chief merchandising officer with Belk Stores, Bufano will become the 52nd female CEO in the Fortune 1000 — bringing the overall percentage to an all-time high of 5%. Fortune talked with Bufano about her career, her goals for Bon-Ton and her advice for women in retail who are just starting out.
What career aspirations did you have in college?
I wanted to be a teacher. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, but I loved to shop. I am originally from Chicago and I was in a store one day and I asked my mom how it all gets organized and comes to be. She said it had to do with merchandising and buying ,so from that point forward I changed my major and knew that I wanted to get into the retail business. I really enjoyed how things came together and how things were organized and how this magic of merchandising comes to be.
What were some early lessons in your career?
The department store industry has been under challenge and revolution throughout my whole entire career. I grew up in Chicago and if you were to say to me growing up that I would spend half my career in New York, I would have said no way. Lord & Taylor was not in the Chicago area, but they had a woman regional vice president at the time who was really very inspirational. I joined Lord & Taylor because they were opening up a lot of stores and they asked me to join their training program in New York City. So the big lesson was not to be afraid to be a change agent personally and professionally and your career will blossom. If I didn’t take that big step of moving to New York, I would have had a totally different trajectory.
How did that female executive convince you to make the leap?
Even though I was an assistant department manager at the time, I interviewed with her. She was very specific and wanted to know what my career aspirations were. She was quite inspirational and she was the only female SVP at Lord & Taylor at the time. For us starting out it was an exciting journey working with her.
How do you imagine the CEO role at Bon-Ton differing from the CMO role you held at Belk?
One of the big big differences of how retail has evolved is that it has become very cross-functional and focused on teamwork. At Belk, because it is a family-focused company, is that it is cross-functional and collaborative and I plan on using those skills that I honed at Belk when I move to Bon-Ton.
What are your challenges moving forward?
At Bon-Ton, we have challenges. We need to improve the business. There is no mistaken journey about that. We have to understand the short term, but part of the joy is understanding the long term focus and how we are going to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace. I have spent my whole life in the department store business and what has been successful for me is to quickly identify some short-term wins that we can execute on so we can have a much improved Christmas season. That always galvanizes the team.
What are your thoughts on the weak retail environment right now?
Business is not as robust, but Bon Ton in the second quarter was pretty good in terms. There are a lot of variables. I don’t know how back to school is going to shape up. You just have to do your best work when the environment is requiring and we are really going to have to get our heads together and make sure that we can execute toward Christmas. We had a really tough weather situation last Christmas, so I think there is some exciting upside opportunity. People are shopping more online and we need to make sure that we maximize the brick and online omnichannel experience going into Christmas.
Who are some of your role models?
I love to read biographies of very successful women. I enjoyed Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Right now, I am reading Clare Booth Luce’s biography, she became the first woman ambassador. How she propelled herself in a time when women really didn’t excel is really fascinating.
How did you react when you learned you’d be the 52nd women CEO in the Fortune 1000?
I heard there weren’t a lot of women CEOs, but when I heard that number of 52 out of 1000, I was surprised by that. There are a lot of women business leaders and many of them run small businesses. I think it is just a matter of time before that number will grow. I am proud and excited for the opportunity to run a public company, but there is also a lot of private companies and small businesses that have a lot of women in leadership.
What advice do you give to young women who aspire to be chief executives?
I always say chart your own career path and have a vision. I always aspired to get to the next step. I always tried to function at the next level and add value and make sure I was the go-to person at whatever level. Women have to make sure that they are organized in their personal life and business life and take risks. You have to have confidence in yourself to make mistakes to learn and grow. If you play it safe all the time, you are not going to maximize your potential.
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Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify that Bon-Ton stores is headquartered in two states.