Wal-Mart Stores wanted her to start a product development division. Ms. Watts, like Wal-Mart, had always been primarily a buyer and seller of other people's brands. And she had spent her career on the upscale end of retailing. But she decided to at least consider the proposal.
"I spent the day in Bentonville," she says, "and I just fell in love." The relationship clearly has worked for both Ms. Watts and Wal-Mart.
From scratch, she developed a 150-person product development team that helped create such Wal-Mart house brands as Mary Kate and Ashley apparel and cosmetics, and adapt for the U.S. the George brand acquired in 1999.
Her work last year earned Ms. Watts, 44, a promotion to exec VP-merchandising. She added buying and merchandising for home and apparel lines to her product development duties and became one of the most powerful women at Wal-Mart-or anywhere else in retailing.
"Claire has already had a great impact on the apparel and home areas," says Mike Duke, president of the Wal-Mart Stores Division. "Claire possesses a great combination of skills in style and fashion as well as tremendous people leadership abilities."
Ms. Watts' background helped her "understand that the customer is always right, that financials run the business, that performance is what ultimately buyers are concerned with," she says.
"We've learned they have to be fully integrated," she says. After two years in product development, she helped start a process called "the Big 3," in which for one initiative a month, all the marketing, merchandising and product development people jointly agree on an integrated program. For instance, for Valentine's Day, Wal-Mart developed a common color palette and icon for its signs, packaging and products, she says, "and our customers have really responded to it."
As an outsider to the legendary Wal-Mart culture, and a woman in a company beset by well-publicized sex-discrimination litigation, Ms. Watts says she's never felt like an outsider or held back. "I think Wal-Mart is a great place for women to work, and isolated complaints don't change that fact," she says, adding that the performance-driven culture drives fairness, too.