In the kitchen with Williams Sonoma’s Janet Hayes

By Janet Reilly

From the moment Chuck Williams opened the first Williams Sonoma store near the historic plaza in Sonoma in 1956, introducing Bay Area cooks to Le Creuset cookware, Fini balsamic vinegar and mandolines, the brand has been synonymous with high-quality products and impeccable customer service.Though the core values of the company have remained intact for 60 years, much has changed since those early days. Williams’ kitchen shop on the square has morphed into a publicly-traded, multi-billion-dollar retail powerhouse, including Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids and West Elm brands, to name a few.

At the helm of the Williams Sonoma brand is Janet Hayes, a veteran retail pro who joined Williams-Sonoma, Inc. more than a decade ago, serving as president of Pottery Barn Kids and Pottery Barn Teen before being tapped for the top spot at Williams Sonoma in 2013.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I met Hayes in the Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen in their waterfront headquarters. Hayes, dressed in jeans and a chic black top, greeted me with a firm handshake and warm smile. It’s immediately clear that this a woman who loves what she does and does it well. 

 With a fresh batch of cookies in the oven, Hayes and I talked shop:   

Her desire to take the brand to new heights (and new customers!), why she thinks brick-and-mortar retail won’t become extinct anytime soon and her advice to young women climbing the corporate ladder.

 Here we are, in this beautiful Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen, which begs the question, “Do you cook?” I used to cook – a lot – but ever since I got this job, my husband decided cooking was going to be his passion and he almost doesn’t allow me in the kitchen anymore.

Well, you can always come in here and cook. I come in this kitchen and eat! I try to taste everything that goes through here that’s going to hit our shelves in the stores. I don’t want any food out there that I can say, “Oh, that doesn’t taste good.”

How did you get your start in retail? On my 16th birthday, I got my driver’s license and my mom said, “And what job will you get to go with that?” That’s the day I began my career in retail. I was a sales associate on the floor at Macy’s and the Emporium, back in the day … and I have never come off the retail floor, one way or another.

What is it you love about the industry? I study people when they shop. I love how people interact with products – with brands, actually. I love brands that take good care of themselves.

What do you mean when you say, “Brands that take good care of themselves?” Well, brands that believe in the power of what they can bring to somebody’s life.  For instance, I worked at the Gap when the “Swing” commercials were on. They knew who they were and they were so strong about it. “We’re quality basics and we’re gonna bring in a little style with those basics.” That, to me, is strong branding. It’s very similar to this brand—a strong brand who knows what it stands for and where it’s going.

You started at Williams-Sonoma, Inc. in 2007. What was your first job here? I was recruited to run Pottery Barn retail. I did that for about a year and then ran Pottery Barn Kids and Teen for five years. It was wonderful, helping develop the baby business and grow the teen business pretty significantly.

And, from there you rose through the ranks. Yes, one day my boss asked me to stop by her office on my way home. When we met, she said, “I want you to think about running the Williams Sonoma brand.” My first reaction was “no, no, no.”  And she said, “Why wouldn’t you?” I responded, “I think you need somebody who really knows the kitchen industry.” She said: “I don’t. You have a whole team that knows the kitchen industry here in this building. We just need a leader with a great vision.” I went home and slept on it, and when I woke up said “yes, yes, yes. I want to do it.” That was five years ago.

What’s a typical day like for you? I wake up in the morning and read the numbers as quickly as I can. Within the first hour of waking up, I’ll probably have five or six emails from people out in the field telling me about what they’re seeing, keeping me connected with what’s going on out there. I work out every day to get my head on straight and think about my to-do list. Driving in, I make sure I’m talking to somebody—typically, it’s somebody in the retail organization. Once I get to my office, I’m a slave to my calendar, which will have a different function or topic on it every hour. So, I pretty much go hour to hour in meetings about creative marketing, about emails, about product launches, about collaborations.  I mean it can really vary, day to day. There’s nothing typical about my day, except they go really fast!

Williams Sonoma has been around more than 60 years, when Chuck Williams opened his first store in Sonoma. To what do you attribute the longevity of the brand? Focus. Commitment. Vision. And those three words have been carried on by numerous people throughout the history of the brand. Chuck was with us for some time and I give him a lot of credit for the focus, having an edited point of view and always believing in service. There are so many stories about the experience he created delivering incredible service—like the time someone came into his shop and he was trying to tell them how to do a recipe and “You know what, I’ll just come to your house and help you tonight.”

If you believe what you read, brick and mortar retail is a dying industry. What do you think? I’ve never been more excited for brick and mortar because we’ve all been pushed to re-evaluate what happens inside our stores and turn it into an experience. We do free cooking classes. On the weekend, we have paid classes. You can bring in a group of 10 or 12 girlfriends and take private cooking classes. Any store today has to offer more than just a pick-up-off-the-shelf shopping experience.

What percentage of your business is done online? We don’t disclose that by brand publicly, but as a company, it’s over 50 percent. And we’re positioned to keep that growing. Direct to consumer is an incredibly important part of our growth going forward.

What is the most effective way to reach your customers in this era of information overload? That is changing so fast. If you asked that question six months ago, the answer wouldn’t be the same as it is today. We have a very active blog—actually one of the largest, if not the most widely read, un-syndicated blogs in the country, which is incredible. Our email database is very active. Our customers consume what we give them and we’re working on driving more content in our emails. Maybe a year ago, we would have just sent you an email about a product, but today we’re sending you an email about that product—but putting recipes in there and tips of how to care for it.  The more content we give, the better the engagement becomes.

I see you’re doing a lot of interesting partnerships with people like Aerin Lauder, and celebrity chefs Thomas Keller, Dominique Crenn and others. I love the idea of collaborations and I’m a student of other collaborations, even outside of our brand. What we look for is someone we can really work with, build new things with and who has a great reach of a customer base we may not be in touch with. Aerin Lauder is a great example of a true collaborator. She loves to entertain. We love to entertain. Let’s put her knowledge and taste level with our customer and we knew we were going to have a home run.

 How has the customer changed since you started in retail? They’re definitely more educated because of all the content they’re consuming and they are more demanding of value. And that doesn’t mean a low price, it means a great price for what they’re buying.

 What is the most challenging aspect of your job? We have 240 stores, over 5,000 employees, and so making sure we all have the same vision and the same priorities as far as the customer is concerned is a challenge every day. Every day.

What is it about you and your leadership style that makes you a good fit here? 

I hope it’s just mutual respect. I have so much respect for this brand. It has such a warm place in people’s mind when you say “Williams Sonoma.” They’ll say, “Oh, I used to shop there with my mom and now I shop there” or “I love Christmastime when I can go in there and get the Peppermint Bark.” It’s just a beautiful brand that assists people with their lives and creates such warm memories. As far as my leadership style, I’m fast. I like to move fast, talk fast and get things done. And, this brand has so much room to grow, that it just fits with my style. I wake up every day with so many things to do.

Williams Sonoma has a female CEO [Laura Alber], and more than 50 percent of the positions, VP and above, are held by women. Half your board of directors are women—that’s more than double the national average. How does that affect the company’s culture? I think it’s what makes the culture successful here.  We believe in coming to work your true self every day, no matter if you’re male, female, it doesn’t matter. You’re valued for what you give. You’re valued for your performance. You’re valued for your opinion. There’s not one time I have ever felt anything other than responsible for my own success and it feels like nothing stands in your way here—nothing.

What advice would you give to young women climbing the corporate ladder?  Keep climbing. Make sure you’re clear on what you need. Ask for advice. Don’t ever feel like you can’t say what you need to say. If you feel like that, you’re probably not working in the right place. Look for a company that matches your values. I’ve made that mistake twice in my life and I didn’t know it until I had gone through it.

The Nob Hill Gazette is all about philanthropy. I know corporate philanthropy is important to you personally as well as to the company. Tell me about that. Our primary partnership, focus and passion is our relationship with Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry campaign. We’ve been working with them for seven years now. Their mission is to eliminate childhood hunger through three programs: the school lunch and school breakfast programs to make sure kids get the food they need so they can focus on learning; second, they teach the families in the community how to shop and cook on a budget; and third, they connect the schools to the money and the funding that is rightfully theirs. We have done more than 55 million meals, so we’ve raised $5.5 million to date. One in five children in the United States was going hungry and we’ve moved that to one in six. And with our momentum and targeted approach, Share Our Strength’s CEO, Billy Shore, thinks he can see the end in sight. He can see that we can change this for good.

Clearly, yours is a stressful job! What do you like to do for fun? We’re building a house up in Napa, which has been a really nice distraction for me.  And, right now I’m just enjoying being with my kids. They’re at an age where they bring me a lot of joy. Traveling with them is my favorite thing. I want to take them to Washington, DC, next. And my favorite trip I’ve ever taken them on was to London and to Paris. So we go everywhere. They were born traveling.

The Lightning Round:

I’m happiest when…I’m with my extended family.

My biggest regret…not having the courage to do something.

If I had a magic wand, I would…eliminate childhood hunger.

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