Editor’s Note: Kelly Fairchild has worked with retail technology for several years and is a new contributor to the magazine. In this article, she interviews Sara Mays, VP of loss prevention at Barnes and Noble (Mays shown at right).
Often in loss prevention, it takes some digging to find the diversity in the industry. However, there are a few trailblazers that have set the path for what some might call an atypical candidate for a role in loss prevention. Sara Mays is one of them. Sara is the VP of Loss Prevention of Stores & Training at Barnes & Noble, where she has spent 24 years of her career. I was able to ask her some questions about what lead her to the LP life, her motivations and further insight on both her personal and professional career.
FAIRCHILD: How did you get into retail/loss prevention?
MAYS: After graduating in December, timing was not ideal [to find a job]. After a few months, I saw an ad and applied for a visible security officer at the Macy’s they were building near me, now here I am, many years later.
FAIRCHILD: Did you go to college?
MAYS: I graduated from a small school in Georgia with a BS Degree in Physical Education. My early mentors were teachers, so I wanted to mimic their leadership skills.
FAIRCHILD: What do you like about working in retail?
MAYS: The people I’ve met are amazing and their life experiences are so varied. I also make it a habit to always spend time with booksellers, no matter where I travel. I’ve met the thousands of people who are truly brilliant and work in retail because they love books.
FAIRCHILD: What are some of your favorite books?
MAYS: Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers is a great read for parents and professionals. I love Patrick Lencioni’s books, but my favorite is Three Signs of a Miserable Job. I also like Matthew Kelly’s Dream Manager. Both books are about giving the people on the front lines support so that they can do amazing things.
FAIRCHILD: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
MAYS: I’d be teaching. I think the greatest professions are all tied to teaching and support. I’m passionate about both of those things.
FAIRCHILD: Do you think that loss prevention has blended into other areas of retail over the years?
MAYS: Yes. I think we do a much better job these days at ensuring our management teams see the correlation between sales, profit and shrink. Whenever we run any large promotions, our partners are constantly looking to us for operational and analytical support. They do this through procedural or exception-based reports, which is something that wasn’t done a few years ago.
FAIRCHILD: Do you find it harder for women in to make it in loss prevention?
MAYS: I don’t think it’s any different than any other industry that’s dominated by a specific gender. You can always find common points of reference to establish partnerships. Although sometimes you have to look harder with certain people than with others.
FAIRCHILD: What drives you?
MAYS: Helping our stores and my team reach their goals along with eliminating obstacles so they can focus on supporting our customers both internally and externally.
FAIRCHILD: What is a typical week like for you?
MAYS: Mondays are filled with calls and meetings, which are great for ensuring we’re aligned on company and department objectives. Tuesday through Thursday I usually travel to high-risk, high-turnover markets with our regional LP directors. Friday I’m usually back in the office.
FAIRCHILD: Do you have a morning routine?
MAYS: Yes, I’m up early to stretch and do a quick skim of my emails to look for anything significant. After that, I check the news and I’m out the door.
FAIRCHILD: Are you married or have a family?
MAYS: Yes, I’ve been married to my partner of 20 years whom I met when I came to New York City. We have a 16-year-old son whose goal is to become a commercial pilot. He’s been flying since he was 11 and recently flew solo. When I read Gladwell’s Outliers years ago, I knew I had to do everything in my power to allow him to find and follow his bliss.
FAIRCHILD: Do you find it hard to juggle both home and work?
MAYS: My family has always been supportive so I’ve been truly blessed to not have the struggles that many people do. I’ve always made significant family obligations a priority. I always place them on my calendar early to avoid as many conflicts as I can. If something unexpected comes up, I always ask myself if my son will remember if I missed the event. If the answer is yes, then I don’t miss it. When it comes down to it, my bosses aren’t going to remember that I missed a meeting, but my son will always remember if I miss something important to him. Therefore, I refuse to allow that to happen.
FAIRCHILD: Do you have any role models or mentors?
MAYS: I’ve had many over the years that I’ve been drawn to for a specific strength that I would like to learn.I believe that mentors shouldn’t be limited by title, but should be identified when you recognize an area that you want to enhance your own life. After seeing Cheryl Blake present at a meeting once, I was blown away. I wanted to learn how to facilitate a meeting with that level of passion and professionalism. Another mentor of mine was a store manager at Barnes & Noble, Sam Turner. Sam retired after 30 years then returned to his home country of Sierra Leone to start an educational foundation. Sam inspired me to start Strokes for Strokes.
FAIRCHILD: Can you tell me more about Strokes for Strokes?
MAYS: Strokes for Strokes was founded by myself and fellow booksellers who wanted to make a difference after one of our managers lost a young child in a drowning accident. It is a charitable organization that ensures 100 percent of donations are directed to children’s swim lessons. In partnership with the Houston Katy YMCA, Strokes for Strokes provides swimming scholarships for children in need. Over the past four years, we have provided swimming scholarships for close to 300 children in the Katy, TX, community. Our golf events occur annually after our national district manager conference so our partners from all over the country have a chance to participate.
FAIRCHILD: What do you do in your free time?
MAYS: I catch up with family and friends as much as I can. I spend time with my son when I can since 16-year olds aren’t usually keen on hanging out with their parents. I also watch golf and play whenever I can.
FAIRCHILD: What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen being in loss prevention?
MAYS: There are so many! However, I think the employee that gave her friend a bag of merchandise in exchange for a puppy is at the top of the list.
FAIRCHILD: Where do you see the future of loss prevention going?
MAYS: I certainly see added value in looking beyond our shrink goals as well as in a multitude of financial areas. I think we can enhance our support of our operational partners by developing a deeper understanding of processes and using our leadership skills to drive execution.
FAIRCHILD: What’s the best future invention or technology that you wish you had in LP or the retail world?
MAYS: I’ve thought for many years that a virtual salesperson is a way to drive sales and reduce shrink. It would allow our employees to be in more than one place at a time to assist customers.
FAIRCHILD: What’s the most challenging part of loss prevention?
MAYS: Handling safety situations that involve our booksellers and customers is always challenging. We always say that we can replace our inventory and money, but we can’t replace our people.
FAIRCHILD: What is something that you believed for a long time to be true until you found out you were wrong?
MAYS: My son could give you a long list, but as an optimist I always believed you could teach anyone almost anything. What I’ve learned recently is that people either have an authentic desire to learn or they don’t. You can’t force knowledge on someone.
FAIRCHILD: When you hear the word success, who comes to mind?
MAYS: Many people come to mind. The look of joy on someone’s face when they have accomplished one of their goals, that defines it for me. Success can be found throughout our journey, if we take the time to recognize it in others and in ourselves.
FAIRCHILD: Do you have any advice for anyone or women specifically looking to get into loss prevention?
MAYS: You must seek opportunities in your current role to constantly grow your skills. Any opportunity to problem solve is a chance to grown professionally and personally. You can enhance your value with your internal customers by connecting their goals to shrink and profit. Always learn from your peers, store staff and especially in the most difficult situations.