Every so often Trish Mueller pulls out an old coffee mug to remind herself just how important it is to continue to renovate and reinvent brands. The mug reads, "I'm a part of the team rebuilding Wards." Wards is shorthand for Montgomery Ward, once one of the largest retailers in the U.S. The department store chain went out of business in 2001, after nearly 130 years, and survives today as an online-only business.
Still, Wards was a good training ground, said Shelley Rubin, now VP-advertising at Big Lots and a former colleague of Ms. Mueller. "It was boot camp. You learned a lot about discipline. Strategy is all well and good, but if you can't get it done, it doesn't matter," she said of working at Wards. "A lot of people failed quickly there, so you had to be on top of your game to succeed."
It was the fast turnover that first attracted Ms. Mueller to the retailer. She knew early on that she wanted to go into retail -- her grandfather worked at Sears, while uncles worked at Wards and JCPenney -- but when she interviewed, she encountered plenty of old, white men. Wards was known for a faster turnover in the leadership ranks, so she made a bet it would be easier to move up. And she was right.
After a stint as a store manager, Ms. Mueller was tapped to join the corporate-marketing department. "I must have given my opinion one time too many, and our CEO said you need to come up here and work in marketing and help us fix this, so I did," she said. "I was very vocal about everything and our store managers at Home Depot are the same way, which is why I love them."
Ms. Mueller was tapped as Home Depot's chief marketer in February. She's also worked at ShopNBC, as part of the team that developed that brand, and at Sports Authority, where she was senior VP-marketing and advertising. In her new gig, Ms. Mueller said she's focused on finding the best way to speak to customers. That's a more complex challenge today coming out of the recession, during which Home Depot, like others, emphasized low prices.
"The No. 1 brand built on price is waffling badly. It's concerning," she said. "It makes you ask yourself whether you can really stand for that in the long run. I don't think you ever buy loyalty with price -- you buy it with true value."
As Ms. Mueller contemplates Home Depot's next move, she does have an ace up her sleeve. Her husband works on HomeDepot.com and the pair often bounce ideas off of each other, she said. It's a partnership that 's been successful both personally and professionally, since their days at Montgomery Ward, where Ms. Rubin takes credit for helping things along. The pair have worked together ever since.