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Chief Asset Protection Advocate: The Industry Leadership of RILA’s Lisa LaBruno

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lisa LaBruno, Esq. is the senior executive vice president for retail operations at the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) where she is responsible for driving the association’s asset protection, supply chain, e-commerce, and corporate social responsibility offerings on behalf of member retailers. Prior to joining RILA in 2010, she served as in-house counsel at The Home Depot where she supported the asset protection team enterprise-wide, in-house counsel at the Archdiocese of Newark (NJ), assistant county prosecutor, and private practice. She is also on the board of directors for the Loss Prevention Foundation. LPM first interviewed LaBruno in the March–April 2015 edition “From Leading Her Team in Technical Fouls to Leading RILA’s Asset Protection Efforts.”

TERRY SULLIVAN: In the magazine’s interview with you in 2015, you gave a detailed look at your high school and college experience that eventually led to law school and a stint as a prosecutor. How has your legal background influenced your professional career with RILA and the asset protection industry?

LISA LABRUNO: Having a legal mindset helps tremendously in my work with our member AP teams. There’s legal risk associated with many of the responsibilities on which AP teams execute, and those same responsibilities are the focus of our committee discussions, surveys, and projects. Understanding the legal implications helps me ensure our work product can help our member companies mitigate those risks. For example, during COVID, I was able to pretty quickly interpret local and state mandates and facilitate discussions among our AP committees regarding compliance with those mandates. Also, my past experience as a prosecutor comes in handy when I meet with district attorneys and attorneys general to discuss retail theft and violence. Having walked in their shoes, I can relate to them, understand their challenges, and “talk their talk.” I always make it a point to let DAs and AGs know that I was a prosecutor because I think it gives me instant credibility. The same is true with local, state, and federal law enforcement. The fact that I was once “on their team” makes forging relationships with them easier.

TERRY: How have things changed today for prosecutors from when you were in that role?

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LISA: That’s hard for me to say since I left the prosecutor’s office twenty-four years ago. I interact with a lot of prosecutors, and I hear them talk about the same challenges I faced then—overworked, underpaid, undervalued, under-resourced. I have so much respect for career prosecutors as they sacrificed a lot to make a difference in communities, to advocate for crime victims, and to ensure justice is done. They should be commended.

At the RILA Asset Protection Conference in April 2022, LaBruno moderated a discussion with Kwame Raoul (left), the Attorney General of Illinois, on the subject of ORC and his state’s efforts to prosecute criminal organizations.

I’m grateful for the cooperation we’ve been recently receiving from prosecutors and attorneys general across the country to address retail theft and violence in stores. In June, RILA in partnership with the National District Attorney Association (NDAA) held an industry-first Retailer-DA Retail Theft Roundtable in Minneapolis. Members of RILA’s AP Leaders Council and Crimes Against Business Committee along with DAs from across the country—including Manhattan, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, Albuquerque, San Diego, and Oakland just to name a few—convened over two days to educate each other, interact, and problem solve. I was so impressed with the DAs’ willingness to learn from the retailers in the room, listen to their concerns, and discuss creative options for addressing this growing problem. I’m optimistic about the progress we’re making both on the operational and legislative front.

TERRY: Remind us how you came to work at The Home Depot.

LISA: I became disenchanted with working at the prosecutor’s office because I went there with certain expectations around the impact I could have in prosecuting impaired drivers, and those expectations weren’t met. Plus, I felt like I wasn’t making enough money. So I left there in 1998 for an in-house job at the Archdiocese of Newark. It was around that same time that the priest sex scandal broke, and I just wasn’t cut out for that work. I heard from a close friend of mine who was working in the legal department at The Home Depot when they were looking for an in-house attorney who had experience as a prosecutor to support the company’s asset protection and corporate security organizations.

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My interview was scheduled for September 12, 2001. But after 9/11, flights were grounded, and my interview was pushed to the next week. I was petrified to get on a plane, and I thought about canceling the interview. In the end, I mustered up the courage to fly to Atlanta and ended up getting the offer. Shoutout to Keith Aubele—since I’d be supporting the AP organization, I interviewed with Keith who was the VP of loss prevention and who had to sign off on me getting the offer. To this day, I appreciate him for giving me the opportunity to work at The Home Depot.

Taking the offer was one of the more difficult personal decisions I’ve made. I’d spent all but three years of my life in New Jersey, and I’d be leaving my parents—I was especially close to my mom—and other family and friends. But I was really intrigued by the opportunity to do criminal work—which was and still is my passion—for a large and respected company and get paid well for it. Also, the New York-New Jersey area was reeling from the tragic events of 9/11, and I was ready for a change of environment. It helped that two of my brothers lived in the Atlanta area, so I packed my bags and moved to Atlanta.

TERRY: When you moved to The Home Depot, it was your first exposure to retail loss prevention. Talk about your time at The Home Depot and how it impacted your career.

LISA: The Home Depot was a turning point for me for many reasons. First, I was fulfilled. I loved living in Atlanta, loved my job, and the people. I got to see my brothers and their families on a regular basis. I had work-life balance. And on top of all that I got Home Depot stock! Second, I was able to learn the world of retail and retail asset protection, which set the stage for me landing at RILA.

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I had the privilege of working alongside an amazing AP team that was managed by exceptional leaders in Marvin Ellison and Mike Lamb, both of whom had a significant impact on me and my career. Marvin was the reason I was able to move back to New Jersey and keep my job at The Home Depot. After only about two years in Atlanta, I needed to move back to New Jersey and desperately wanted to stay with the company. When I approached my general counsel about working in a district office, he said he was okay with it if Marvin was. Marvin gave the green light, and I will be forever grateful to him for understanding my need to put family first.

After Marvin moved to another role in the company, Mike Lamb assumed the role of VP of LP. Mike and I worked very well together. He taught me a lot about retail AP and played a huge role in preparing me for my role at RILA. One of the many things I appreciated about Mike was his keen understanding of and respect for the legal implications associated with the work his team did and his commitment to mitigating those risks. He never saw me as an obstacle. (Or at least he never told me to my face that I was one.) But he saw me as a partner who was looking out for his and his team’s best interests. His outward support of me trickled down through his entire team. They weren’t always happy with what I had to say, but they respected it and acted on it most of the time. Best of all, we laughed A LOT! I’ll always look back fondly on those years and on the AP team there. They were a class act.

TERRY: That brings us to RILA. How did that opportunity come about?

LISA: Moving back to New Jersey was not without risk. A new general counsel came in and eliminated all the field legal positions with the exception of California. I was offered the opportunity to move back to Atlanta, which would have been the right career move for me. But, my husband couldn’t leave his job and my daughter Livy was five years old and the apple of my parents’ eyes. I couldn’t bear the thought of taking her away from my mom. So, I made the intensely personal and painstaking decision to leave The Home Depot. And, I left having no job to go to!

I had worked at The Home Depot with a man by the name of Kent Knutson who was the head of government relations. We worked closely on organized retail crime (ORC) legislation that we were pushing at the time. The Home Depot was a RILA member and Kent was closely connected to RILA President Sandy Kennedy. After I left The Home Depot, Kent called me and told me that RILA was looking for a VP of loss prevention after Paul Jones left RILA for eBay. Kent wanted me to interview for the role. I didn’t even know what RILA was! He said that having me work on behalf of all retailers would be better than nothing. He put in a good word for me with Sandy, so I went to DC for the interview. RILA offered me the job, but wanted me to move to DC, which I was unwilling to do. I felt like if I wasn’t going to move to Atlanta for a job and place I knew and loved, I certainly wasn’t going to move to a job and place I didn’t know. So, we parted ways while RILA continued their search for a local candidate. A couple of months later, they called me and offered me the job again, but this time they were allowing me to stay in New Jersey. I jumped at the offer. The scariest time in my career was being unemployed. And, ironically, my husband lost his job during that time, so we were both unemployed with a five-year-old! But, it all worked out in the end.

Lisa says the most important role she plays in life and the one that gives her the greatest joy is being Livy’s mom.

TERRY: It’s ironic that your position at RILA allowed you to continue to work with Mike Lamb, right?

LISA: Yes. And, I leaned on Mike hard in the early days. I knew no one in the retail AP industry outside of The Home Depot, and the industry was not shy about expressing their skepticism about an attorney being able to do the job. Plus, I had my own personal insecurities about being the first female in the role and being in an industry that was predominantly comprised of men. We’ve made progress over the past twelve years, but still have lots of work to do on that front.

Mike was my advocate to the industry. He was, and still is, one of the most respected AP leaders in the industry. He introduced me to his peers at other retailers and to other key players in the industry. He spoke up in support of me. And he was the first chair of RILA’s Asset Protection Leaders Council (APLC). With Mike in my corner, I had credibility that I would not have otherwise had in those early days. He unequivocally played a role in my success. And, I hope he knows how much I appreciate him for that. If he didn’t before he read this, he knows now!

TERRY: That’s another example of the value of developing relationships.

LISA: I firmly believe in the power of relationships. Keith, Marvin, Mike, Kent—I wouldn’t be in this role but for them. Relationships take time and effort. Even professional relationships need to be constantly nurtured. I believe that if I put time into the professional relationships that matter to me, I’ll get a return on my investment. And the return is priceless—the gift of friendship, loyalty, and support. I spend a ton of time in my role at RILA building relationships. It’s those relationships that help make RILA, me, and our AP community successful. But, even more importantly, the friendships I’ve formed throughout the industry fuel me.

TERRY: I can certainly relate to that. As you know, I wouldn’t be at the Loss Prevention Foundation (LPF) today if it wasn’t for you, Lisa. You pulled me aside at the 2017 RILA Retail Asset Protection Conference. I was looking for my next job after leaving Lowe’s, and Gene Smith was retiring from the LPF. You asked me if I’d be interested in working at the Foundation. I had no clue about the position before you mentioned it.

LISA: In some respects, I view my personal and professional relationships the same. If I’m vested in a relationship, I’m going to try my best to help you when you need me. It’s icing on the cake when I know—like was the case with you—that I can confidently endorse you.

The best part about my job is the people. RILA. Our retail ops team. Our AP community. All are people who are grounded, trustworthy, hard working, and really smart. I learned early on in my career to surround myself with people who are smarter than me. Those people are easy to find in the retail AP industry, and I owe a lot of my success to them. They make me look good.

TERRY: Looking back over the last twelve years with RILA, how has your position evolved?

LISA: When I started at RILA, my title was vice president of loss prevention and legal affairs. I had insisted that “legal affairs” be in my title even though I wouldn’t be doing legal work. Without it, I felt like I was walking away from my legal career, which I had worked so hard at, paid a lot of money for, and was really proud of. I guess I thought the title would help me hang on to my identity as a lawyer. As I became more secure in my role and as my responsibilities expanded, I didn’t need “legal” in my title anymore to feel valued and have self-worth.

Today, as the senior EVP of retail operations, I oversee a broad range of areas including supply chain, e-commerce, corporate social responsibility, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more. I’ve taken on more of a strategic role.

TERRY: That covers a lot of territory.

LISA: Fortunately, I have an amazing team. Jess Dankert (VP of supply chain) manages our supply chain and e-commerce offerings, and Erin Hiatt (VP of corporate social responsibility) manages the work in that space. They are rockstars and the future of RILA. Our members are in good hands for the foreseeable future.

TERRY: How has your job evolved from a content focus perspective?

LISA: It’s amazing. Three years ago, I rarely presented to our member CEOs about our asset protection work. Today, it’s rare that I don’t present to the CEOs. The fact that our work in the AP space has the attention of our CEOs reflects the criticality of the AP function at our member companies. ORC, the rise in in-store violence, civil unrest, active shooter, COVID protocols, workplace safety—all are priority issues for CEOs. The role is just bigger than ever before—not just for me, but for all the AP professionals throughout the industry. Someone asked me the other day what inspires me about my job and I replied, “Retail AP professionals save lives.” I have no doubt that through relentless collaboration among our community over these chaotic last two years, lives have been saved. I don’t remember feeling that so strongly twelve years ago when I started at RILA.

LaBruno is seen here addressing attendees at the opening session of the 2022 RILA Asset Protection Conference in Orlando.

TERRY: Early in your career at RILA, you were a key player in starting the APLC, which has become a key cohort in the industry. Talk about how the APLC has evolved and the role it plays today.

LISA: When I came to RILA, it was immediately apparent to me that there were a lot of really smart and collaborative people in the AP industry, particularly at that top level. I had the idea to form a group of AP pyramid heads to help identify priorities and guide our work. Once Mike agreed to be the APLC chair, I knew it would take off.

The first two people I asked to participate were Monica Mullins, who was VP of AP at Walmart, and Libby Rabun, the VP of LP at AutoZone. I needed some strong female support among the sea of men! Some other early participants included industry legends like Brad Brekke, Paul Stone, Claude Verville, Stan Welch, and Dennis Wamsley. Initially, the group served as a vehicle for benchmarking on an ad hoc basis. Today, the composition of the group has certainly changed as has their cadence.

The APLC meets monthly, holds several in-person meetings annually, conducts groundbreaking research. For example, the APLC along with Professor Adrian Beck were the brains behind the Total Retail Loss typology that has been adopted across the industry. The APLC participates in important public policy advocacy, drives important initiatives, shares best practices, and problem-solves together. The group has really gelled. They are like a family in their give and take. They rely on each other more today than ever.

That collaborative approach to our work starts at the top with our leadership team—Paul Jaeckle, the VP of AP at Meijer, and Meredith Plaxco, the VP of LP at PetSmart. And, of course, the APLC strategic partners—Zebra Technologies, Intel, the Loss Prevention Foundation, and ALTO, who play a vital role in our work and our collective success.

TERRY: How do you view your role in the industry, not just with RILA, but, for example, joining the LP Foundation board of directors?

LISA: I see those two roles as different. In my role at RILA, I see myself as a convenor, a facilitator. In my role at the foundation, I try to serve as an adviser, as a contributor. You do the facilitation and the convening, right? You’re leading the foundation work. I’m here to provide counsel and support when you need it.

TERRY: How important is innovation to success for AP teams in your opinion?

LISA: Innovation is a big word. Traditionally, we see “innovation” as the technology piece. It goes without saying that for AP teams to be successful, they’ve got to be on the hunt for emerging technology solutions. I like to look at “innovation” more broadly; that is, we’ve got to be on an endless quest to think innovatively.

For example, body-worn cameras (BWC) have been around a long time; it’s not a new technology. Historically, US retailers have been reluctant to use body-worn cameras, in part out of fear of non-compliant behavior by AP associates being captured on video. Recently, a UK grocer shared with the APLC compelling data that showed their use of BWCs led to a significant decrease in violence against store employees. A healthy debate around the risks versus benefits followed among the APLC members. At the RILA Retail AP Conference last April, Seth Hughes, the VP of AP at REI and a member of RILA’s APLC, shared REI’s plans to pilot the use of BWCs as a direct result of what he heard on the APLC call and despite the risks of which he is well-aware. That’s innovative thinking. That’s what it takes to tackle some of the toughest challenges the industry is facing today.

TERRY: Safety always sells to the C-suite. If that technology can de-escalate a situation and keep employees safe, it might win out.

LISA: I agree. Retail safety has really evolved. Sure, we still talk among our Workplace Safety Committee about sprains and strains, safe lifting techniques, and spills. But we’re also talking a lot about employees being shot, stabbed, pepper-sprayed, or punched by criminal actors who will stop at nothing to steal product. The scenarios that are playing out in stores today take “workplace safety” to a whole new level. The cliché “desperate times call for desperate measures” may very well lead to more retailers leveraging BWCs. Time will tell.

JACK TRLICA: You’ve talked about how the APLC has helped their companies to plan and respond to the challenges we’ve faced over the past couple of years. Looking toward the next three to five years, what specific challenges do you see that our industry is going to have to face and come to grips with?

LISA: At the risk of sounding dramatic, I think the ongoing divisiveness in our country, the growing problems within our nation’s criminal justice system, and the proliferation of online marketplaces and the ease with which stolen product is sold on those platforms will continue to impact AP. We’re making tremendous progress working collaboratively with law enforcement to turn the tide here, but the commitment from the marketplaces just isn’t there—it’s all talk and no action so far. Policymakers and law enforcement are going to have to compel marketplaces to change their behavior, because they are not going to do it voluntarily. Twelve years ago, eBay began collaborating with the retail community, and they deserve credit for that. But they are unfortunately the exception and not the rule.

TERRY: How do you see the roles of law enforcement, prosecutors, legislation, and government relations coming together today?

LISA: That’s a big question. Both federal and state INFORM legislation is progressing very well. I think that will have somewhat of an impact, particularly on making the online marketplaces have more accountability because it will force a measure of transparency. I think that the attorneys general task forces will have a significant impact. I love what HSI (Homeland Security Investigations) is doing with their ORC program. We just finished a fantastic meeting cohosted by RILA and the National District Attorneys Association, where DAs from across the country and RILA member retailers spent two days focused on addressing the intersection of theft and violence, habitual theft offenders, and ORC. It just goes back to my earlier point, that the conversation is so different today, and the stakeholders involved in those conversations are so much broader than it was years ago, I think everybody’s starting to own up to their respective responsibility to address this problem.

TERRY: You’ve been quite the advocate on getting that message out there. And your voice is being heard for sure.

LISA: Well, it’s not just my voice. There used to be a time when retailers didn’t want to talk about crime in their stores because they thought it would scare customers. But now you see Home Depot, CVS, and other retailers boldly getting out there and talking about it. First, making clear this isn’t petty shoplifting— its organized, insidious, and increasingly violent. And not just talking about ORC in terms of the dollars at stake but talking about the violence employees are facing—that is way more important than dollars and cents. Once our members started talking about it, that gave us permission to talk about it a little bit more strongly. I really think it is the media campaign, frankly, that’s occurred over the last year to two. I have to give credit to Jason Brewer from RILA for leading that campaign, and Michael Hanson for leading the federal INFORM campaign. Ben Dugan from CVS and Scott Glenn and Mike Combs from The Home Depot have put themselves out there and really done a fantastic job explaining the issue. State retail associations are getting more active and assertively explaining the problem locally. I firmly believe that, finally, we can talk about this publicly, and we’re holding stakeholders accountable publicly. And that spurs action.

JACK: I think people look at you as being one of the most visible, important leaders in our community. And I know you don’t want to take ownership of that. But hopefully you see that you are playing a very significant role in our industry and have embraced that role. How do you respond the that?

LISA: Well, the first thing I’ll say is thank you for that acknowledgment. This is going to sound corny, but I was raised to be humble. My parents were very humble people, and it’s uncomfortable for me to accept that I am “one of the most important” of anything or to take credit for our work. I wouldn’t be successful, RILA wouldn’t be successful in this space without the contribution and thought leadership of our member AP community. They make me look smarter than I am quite frankly. That said, I recognize that my position carries with it responsibilities that no one else in the industry has. I don’t take that lightly, and I feel privileged to serve the retail industry in my capacity at RILA.

An avid sports fan, LaBruno excelled at basketball in high school but gave up opportunities to play in college to attend Penn State University and later Seton Hall Law School.

TERRY: Let’s go full circle back to that 2015 interview. You were asked about your legacy, and you talked about two things—being a good mother and impacting people’s lives. How would you respond to that question today?

LISA: Those are two things I still strive for every day. The most important role I play in life and the one that gives me the greatest joy is being Livy’s mom. I always tell her that “mom” is my favorite word. She’s heading off to college in August, and I hope and pray that I’ve equipped her with the tools she’ll need to succeed on her own. I feel like I’ve done my best. I had a great role model in my own mother. My mom passed away last year and her legacy as a selfless, committed, loving mother to me and my five siblings lives on. I hope one day Livy feels about me the way I feel about my mom.

I try to impact people’s lives in a positive way, especially young people who seem to be particularly vulnerable these days. Every year, I speak to a group of high school students about trauma and forgiveness. If my message resonates with just one kid and helps him or her overcome challenges, then I feel good about the impact I’m having on people.

This story was originally published as a part of LPM’s Summer 2022 Issue. 

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