Lisa LaBruno serves as the senior vice president of retail operations for the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA). LaBruno spoke with LP Magazine Executive Editor James Lee in 2015 about her intriguing career journey to date and future plans.
EDITOR: Let’s start with your current job. As senior vice president of retail operations at the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), what are your responsibilities?
EDITOR: Which of those occupies the most time?
LABRUNO: I would say it’s a close race between AP and supply chain for two distinctly different reasons. With supply chain, I’m still learning and building new relationships. I’m doing a lot of outreach, trying to earn credibility in that part of the industry, doing a lot of reading, understanding, and expanding the offering. Whereas with asset protection, it’s more developing substantive content and maintaining relationships that I’ve had for a number of years.
EDITOR: Most of the people in the LP/asset protection industry know you because of your position at RILA. They may not, however, know your back story that brought you here, which I think is fascinating. Let’s talk about where you are from and your early career.
LABRUNO: I’m from the beautiful part of New Jersey, Morris County, which is about 40 minutes directly west of New York City.
EDITOR: I understand you were a good student and good athlete in high school.
LABRUNO: I would say I was a hard workergood grades didn’t come naturally to me. And I was never satisfied with my athletic performance.
EDITOR: You played basketball.
LABRUNO: Yes, and softball and soccer. But basketball was my love, and still is.
EDITOR: Did you play in college?
LABRUNO: I thought about it. I did some college visits at some smaller schools, but decided to go to Penn State instead.
EDITOR: Had you at that point decided that law was what you were going to study?
LABRUNO: I had no idea. I majored in psychology, but wasn’t sure where to go with it until the fall of my senior year. I had two older brothers who were practicing law at the time. They were good guys, seemed to have good heads on their shoulders. So I figured, “Eh, if it’s good enough for them and it makes Mom and Dad proud, why not just pursue the same career?” It had nothing to do with a love of the law.
EDITOR: Where did you get your law degree?
LABRUNO: Seton Hall Law School.
EDITOR: Where did you start your law career?
LABRUNO: The summer of my second year in law school, I was offered an internship at a large and prestigious, at the time, law firm in New Jersey. They had a monster internship program with probably 20 budding lawyers. They paid us good money for the summer and wined and dined us. Then at the end of the summer, you either get an offer, or you don’t. I got the offer and went to work for the law firm after graduation.
EDITOR: How long did you stay there?
LABRUNO: Not long, frankly. It’s a bit of a story, but with an interesting twist.
EDITOR: Tell us.
LABRUNO: Working in a big, prestigious law firm pays great money, but it is basically a sweat shop. You sit in the library for 14 or more hours a day. For someone who was the youngest of six kids, there wasn’t a whole lot of money from Mom and Dad to pay for college. So I had undergraduate loans to pay, and the money was good. I had every intention to stay, even though I had developed a love of criminal law in law school and wanted to be a prosecutor. I had a brother who was an assistant district attorney at the time. I knew that they didn’t make a lot of money compared to what the big law firm paid. Then came the twist.
EDITOR: What was that?
LABRUNO: About two years into my time with the law firm, I had an accident. In 1993, I was hit by a car as a pedestrian. I spent the next six months in and out of the hospital undergoing seventeen surgeries on my legs. Throughout that year, the firm was awesome to me. When I went back to work a year later, I went back to working the same14-hour days. My accident had put life in perspective for me, and the big law firm wasn’t working for me anymore. So I remember this like it was yesterday I walked into the managing partner’s office, who by the way was just a wonderful guy. He would have given me as many years as I needed to rehab and kept my job open. I went in and said, “I quit.” He asked, “Where are you going?” “I don’t know. I don’t have a job.” He said, “Lisa, you can quit, but you need to have a job first.” I said, “No, I’m quitting.” Not much later, I ended up at the Hudson County prosecutor’s office working as an assistant prosecutor in my dream job.
EDITOR: How long did you work as a prosecutor?
LABRUNO: Not very long; maybe three years. The problem was it was a very different county from Morris County where I was from. Hudson County is Jersey City, Hoboken, Bayonne. It’s a city. I thought going there I could prosecute drunk drivers and hit and runs, that sort of thing. Little did I know I’d be conflicted out of all that stuff because of my accident. I quickly realized I wasn’t going to change the world in Hudson County.
A job opened up at the Archdiocese of Newark as an in-house attorney. I figured, “A good Catholic girl. Go work for the Archdiocese.” So I did that. But not long after I got there, the church sex scandal broke. I still had the prosecutor inside me, so I quickly became disenchanted. About that same time 9/11 happened, and I just wanted out.
EDITOR: What happened next?
LABRUNO: A job opened up at Home Depot headquarters in Atlanta. They were looking for a former prosecutor to work in-house. It was criminal law, good money, and away from the New York area. So I relocated to Atlanta.
EDITOR: What were your responsibilities at Home Depot?
LABRUNO: Initially, it was to support the asset protection group enterprise wide. I was doing all their policy drafting and legal training. When they made a bad stop or otherwise exposed the company to legal action, I figured all that out from a legal perspective. Then it expanded to legal advice on all the ORC investigations. Then they added the corporate security group who was doing all the C-suite, high-level executive protection. Then it expanded to supporting retail operations.
EDITOR: Was this your first exposure to retail loss prevention?
LABRUNO: First exposure.
EDITOR: And at some point you moved back to New Jersey while still working for Home Depot?
LABRUNO: I did. I got engaged to my husband. He was a police chief in New Jersey at the time, so he couldn’t relocate. I went to my general counsel and said, “I either quit or you let me move back to Jersey.” He let me move, and I stayed with Home Depot for another seven years or so.
EDITOR: What happened at that point?
LABRUNO: A new general counsel came in and closed the legal field offices. They offered me a wonderful package to go back to Atlanta, and I really wanted to do it. But at that point, our daughter was five, my parents were getting older, and my husband had retired and was in a new job. So I thought, “Between my parents and my daughter and my husband, I’m going to have to turn this down.” And I did.
EDITOR: How did you end up at RILA?
LABRUNO: While at Home Depot, I developed a strong working relationship with their vice president of government relations. I think he figured if I wasn’t going to work for Home Depot, he wanted me to work on behalf of Home Depot. He knew Sandy Kennedy at RILA and opened the door for me by getting my name in front of her. But initially, Sandy wanted the person to be in DC, which I understood. And for the same reasons I wouldn’t relocate to Atlanta, I wasn’t interested in relocating to DC. So RILA pursued other options, and I assumed it wasn’t going to happen. A couple months later, they called me back and said, “If you still want the job, we’ll let you stay in Jersey.”
EDITOR: Shortly after you arrived at RILA to take the asset protection role, you had your first LP/asset protection conference. At that point, how much exposure had you had to the LP industry?
LABRUNO: I had Mike Lamb in my corner. That’s about it. But that was huge. But exposure to the larger asset protection industry, little to none. I remember hiding in the bathroom stall at that first RILA conference because I was so overwhelmed. It was pretty stressful.
EDITOR: When was that?
LABRUNO: Spring of 2010.
EDITOR: But you quickly got your feet on the ground and established yourself in the industry. How has your perception of asset protection professionals changed since you’ve been in this position?
LABRUNO: I was surprised to find that many of the asset protection executives were a lot like Mike. I was pleasantly surprised to find that most asset protection executives are exceptional. I’m continuously impressed by their professionalism, their thoughtfulness, their thought leadership. And they were mostly receptive to me being in the position. It took some time for them to understand what I brought to the table, but I think being able to attach myself to Mike did me a world of good and made the transition a bit easier. I also sought out like-minded people. Monica Mullins was a huge supporter of mine. And Libby Rabun. With theirs and others support, I was able to start the Asset Protection Leaders Council (APLC) with a small group of really solid people.
EDITOR: Before that, there was only the LP steering committee. Why did you feel that it was important to create the Asset Protection Leaders Council?
LABRUNO: I thought it was important because there was an untapped resource. The RILA conference committee has the job of developing the conference program, which obviously is important. They got together once a year in person, didn’t do a lot of benchmarking, and didn’t drive substantive initiatives that could have a significant impact on their business and the industry.
Some of us wanted to figure out how to get the pyramid heads more involved; how to focus on global strategic issues like operational shrink, leadership, and emerging technology, and perhaps tap into academia as a resource. It was that untapped resource that I saw and wanted a way to leverage it.
EDITOR: How many people are in that group today, and what are the criteria for joining?
LABRUNO: There are about 40 executives on the Asset Protection Leaders Council. You have to be a member of RILA, and you have to be an Asset Protection pyramid head for the most part.
EDITOR: How often do you get together?
LABRUNO: Three to four times a year, we have meetings that revolve around really smart agendas. We also get together on an ad hoc basis when significant things happen, like the civil unrest in and around Ferguson, Missouri, racial profiling in New York City, or the Ebola situation. We’ll have
conference calls to talk through what everybody’s doing and share experiences. That’s one of the great things about this asset protection group. They’re willing to share leading practices, what they’re doingeven when Mike was at Home Depot and Claude at Lowe’s. That’s pretty special. I hope one day the Supply Chain Leaders Council and Omni-Channel Leaders Council will be like that, but it takes time. I think you need to build trust; you need to build a mutual respect.
EDITOR: I think most people would agree that you’ve made great strides in expanding the educational content of the RILA conference over the past few years. What things are still challenges for you, or what would you like to do better?
LABRUNO: The exhibit hall at the conference presents a unique challenge. Our solution provider partners are important to our overall success, not just from a financial perspective, but from a thought-leadership perspective as well. I always challenge myself and the rest of the RILA team to come up with ideas to keep the solution providers engaged. It’s not about keeping them happy. It’s about keeping them engaged, finding ways for them to contribute thought leadership, for them to make an impact. Figuring out a way to get the attending retailers to really connect with the exhibitors in the hall, to make a conscious effort to talk with every exhibitor, to understand their product or service, to give them the time really owed them by virtue of their financial contribution. Solution providers are in a tough spot. Many of them feel compelled to attend all of the industry conferences. I don’t want them to come to our conference because they have to; I want them to come to the RILA conference because they want to, because they get something out of it, because they feel good about being there.
I like that some retailers bring teams and divide and conquer the sessions and the exhibit hall. Then they come back and download with each other. “What’d you see that was innovative, fresh, emerging? What new technologies did you see?” I wish more retailers would do that. Now, that requires them to bring teams, which not everyone can do because of budget. But I wish that we, RILA, could find a way to make retailers want to go into that exhibit hall for something other than cocktails and to not just walk by a vendor and grab a card, but to appreciate the contribution that the solution providers make to the conference.
EDITOR: RILA is not restrictive at all to the vendors as far as participating in presentations and sitting in all the sessions.
LABRUNO: They are welcome and, in fact, encouraged to attend everything. As far as presenting, we only have two restrictions. First, they have to be exhibiting or sponsoring at the RILA conference, and second, they have to co-present with a retailer. What that does is helps ensure that other retailers will attend the session because they want to hear what success another retailer has had because of the vendor instead of thinking it might be just a sales pitch if there was no retailer presenting. From the vendor’s perspective, it increases the chance that someone will walk out of the session and say, “I need to talk to that vendor.”
EDITOR: Apart from the conferences, what are some challenges that you still have on your plate?
LABRUNO: I think my biggest challenge is continuously finding people to engage in volunteerism. All of our meetings and committees are essentially volunteer work. It’s time away from their day job. How do we persuade them that it’s worth the investment of their time? How do we convince these very busy executives that they will have good takeaways to bring back to their organizations, but at the same time contributing to the industry? I’m not sure I always get that message across very well and need to find better ways to do that.
I also continue to be disappointed by the lack of diversity in the industry, particularly at the executive level. Seems like we’ve been talking about it a long time. I bring it up often. It’s not just at my [RILA] meetings. It’s at other industry events. I don’t have all the answers on how to resolve it, but I do think it’s something that we need to continue to address.
EDITOR: Let me go full circle back to your personal life and ask you about your daughter. I know that your daughter seems to be modeling herself after her mom in her drive to be a basketball player. How has that affected your life?
LABRUNO: I could talk forever about Livy and the joy she brings to my life. But candidly, I’m more proud of what a compassionate kid she is. I was just telling somebody that the other day I found her shoveling our next door neighbor’s driveway. Nobody prompted her to do it. She did it because they’re elderly. And when we were at the grocery store the other day, she saw an old man walking with a cane, and said, “Mom. We should help him into the grocery store,” and we did. She makes me a better person.
EDITOR: She’s how old?
LABRUNO: Ten. Of course, the fact that she loves playing basketball really excites me. It’s hysterical to watch her play because she’s as competitive on one hand as she is compassionate on the other. I was a decent basketball player, but the only record I broke was the most technicals in a season. She’s the only person who stands a chance of breaking that record. I coach her, and I’ve told refs before games, “Watch out for number 24,” which was my number in high school. “And if she needs a technical, give her a technical.” As soon as the foul is called, the hands go up, the jaw goes down, and the eyes get big at the ref.
EDITOR: Do you sense you have a basketball player or another lawyer?
LABRUNO: Both. [Laughter.]
EDITOR: Last question. What legacy do you want to leave in your life?
LABRUNO: Two things come to mind. First, I want to be a great mom. I want to raise my child to have a strong moral fiber, a strong faith, and just be a good soul. If I can be the kind of mom that my mom is to me, that’s the biggest accomplishment I can achieve.
Second, I want to have an impact–not on an industry. I want to have an impact on people. I want people to think highly of me and respect me. I don’t worry too much about my legacy in terms of what work product I leave behind in the industry. I want to leave behind something significant with the people I live and work with.
EDITOR: Well, I think you are succeeding in that.
Editors Note: Visit this page for an updated list of RILAs Asset Protection Council members.
This article was originally published in 2015 and was updated February 17, 2016.