Maryellen Torres

A.J. Wright

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It's quite a shift to go from marketing a Midwestern big-box grocery-store chain to an urban fashion-retail chain known for its bargain-basement prices.

But those who've worked with Maryellen Torres, VP-marketing at A.J. Wright, say she's more than up to the challenge. Colleagues consider her a facile thinker with a firm handle on consumer trends, especially when it comes to targeting and winning loyalty from price-conscious shoppers.

After all, there's no tougher retail category than grocery, an operationally heavy category where profit margins are thinner than tomato skins.

"She's a quick thinker with energy to spare," says Murray Stranks, senior director-strategy at Watt International, Toronto, a branding and retail design agency. Mr. Stranks worked closely with Ms. Torres on Meijer's new store prototype. "That's a very powerful combination in anybody, let alone a woman in the grocery-store industry, which is pretty well dominated by men."

A.J. Wright is a far less male-dominated environment, especially since Carol Meyrowitz was named CEO of the chain's parent company, TJX Cos., in August 2005.

Ms. Torres, 42, joined the 130-store discount retail chain last July after spending four years at Meijer, where she helped create the retailer's brand and corporate-development departments as the chain beefed up marketing to solidify its position against Wal-Mart Stores.

A.J. Wright is nowhere near the dreaded saturation plateau facing other retailers, especially compared with its parent company's better-known T.J. Maxx (821 stores) and Marshalls (748 stores). Combined, the two chains had sales of nearly $12 billion in fiscal 2008.

That puts A.J. Wright in a unique position to grow. In fact, it could end up the biggest retail brand within the parent company's stable. Like other discount chains, A.J. Wright is faring well in a tough economic environment. In fact, TJX executives have repeatedly told analysts and investors that A.J. Wright, which had sales of $633 million in fiscal 2008, could potentially grow to 1,000 stores.

Ms. Torres will certainly need her overabundance of energy to manage that kind of growth.

"She understands intuitively the connection between a brand and every expression of business, from its stores to the way someone answers a phone to what your trucks on the road look like," Mr. Stranks says. "She is solidly grounded in research, but she has an intuitive sense that supports it. ... Many retail organizations are dominated by tacticians and don't understand the impact of that project on the larger brand and larger expression of the brand."
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