In 1999, when Julie Gardner joined Kohl's Department Stores as senior VP-marketing, Kohl's had fewer than 260 stores and operated and advertised quietly as a regional brand based out of Menomonee Falls, Wis.
|Julie Gardner, senior VP-marketing, Kohl's Department Stores
Today, Kohl's is a $13.5 billion retailer with 741 stores and continues to gain share from unexpected places. In a crowded retail landscape, Ms. Gardner is credited with evolving Kohl's Corp.'s department store chain from a strictly promotional and sales-driven marketing strategy. The 2006 Kohl's strikes a delicate balance between driving customer traffic (mostly women aged 25-54) and building a national brand with a contemporary, fashionable edge that still screams value, especially as other value brands (i.e., Wal-Mart and Target) head upscale.
Kohl's didn't make Ms. Gardner available for comment, citing a strict policy prohibiting executive profiles, but former and current colleagues note her unassuming, humble approach.
"I don't think I've ever seen her not smile, but on the other hand, she's no Pollyanna," says Alan Kalter, chairman of Doner, Southfield, Mich., who worked with Ms. Gardner during her 14-year stint at Eckerd Corp. "Looking from the outside, I'm impressed with the consistency of what the Kohl's brand is about, how they've managed to keep the brand very fresh. That brand has been on a trajectory, but she's kept the communication of that brand fresh."
Frank Newman, former chairman-CEO of Eckerd, says he promoted Ms. Gardner to the top marketing position at the drugstore chain because of her ability to combine tactical advertising with a long-term brand strategy.
"Julie was always able to combine the two, so you not only got the short-term results but made gains toward the larger strategic picture," he says.
Mr. Newman credits Ms. Gardner's management style: "She has this very ready laugh, which is infectious and can defuse the most intense situations."
Mary Gerzema, U.S. president of Universal McCann, Kohl's long-standing media agency, credits Ms. Gardner's team-building approach as well as her brand-building prowess.
"She is very dialed into her product and helping to evolve Kohl's from a traditional retailer into a consumer-centric retailer," says Ms. Gerzema, another 2006 Woman to Watch.