EDITOR’S NOTE: Our annual magazine editorial board meeting was held in Philadelphia on October 10-12, 2018. The three-day event was colocated with our friends from the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), who held their fall Asset Protection Leaders Council meeting as well as the Loss Prevention Foundation’s yearly board of directors meeting.
As part of the magazine portion of the meetings that was themed “Getting to Know You,” we were fortunate to hear a panel of veteran asset protection executives discuss their careers and views on the industry. The panel included Mike Lamb, LPC, vice president of asset protection for The Kroger Co.; Cathy Langley, LPC, senior director of asset protection for Rite Aid; and Mark Stinde, MBA, LPC, vice president of asset protection for 7-Eleven. Serving as moderator was Kevin Lynch, LPC, executive director of business development for Tyco Retail Solutions.
Following are excerpts from the panel discussion. We wish to thank the panelists for sharing their thoughts and viewpoints with our attendees. We are also sincerely grateful to the 150 or more retail executives and solution providers who made time in their busy schedules to participate in this event. Thanks especially to the companies who sponsored the event and made the annual meeting possible.
MODERATOR: Let’s begin with how you started in loss prevention and some highlights of your career.
LAMB: I started in LP quite by accident, really. I was going to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1979, and my cousin helped me find a part-time job with Millers Department Store. So my entry into retail was being the guy putting the price stickers on the Lancôme and Estée Lauder merchandise. A few months into that job, someone approached me about working in security. I asked, “What’s that?” and “Does it pay more than I’m making now?” Well, it did, so I started my retail security career with Millers and worked there until I moved to Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta in 1987. Then I went to Home Depot in 1999, Walmart in 2014, and now I’ve been at Kroger for about eighteen months.
MODERATOR: How about you, Cathy?
LANGLEY: I actually first applied for a job in Rite Aid’s warehouse when I was seventeen. I grew up on a farm, wasn’t afraid of hard work, and needed money to go to business school. The manager of the security department called me about a clerk position. At the end of our conversation, she asked if I’d come in for an interview. I borrowed my mother’s wool suit in June and did the interview with the director of personnel and the manager of security, so I started as a file clerk in the security department. I worked full time during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school and did a co-op through my senior year. I then worked full time including Saturdays for a while until I went to business school. Eventually, I went from file clerk to restitution coordinator handling all civil restitution work. Then I became office manager over the corporate LP staff, corporate director of LP, director of analytics, and about seven years ago, senior director of asset protection.
MODERATOR: Mark, you grew up in the LP industry with some great brands—Mervyns, Toys”R”Us, Home Depot, Sears, Circuit City, and now 7-Eleven. But I know that you had a burning desire to get a college degree. Tell us about what motivated you at this point in your career to invest in education.
STINDE: I’ve been head of asset protection at 7-Eleven now for about eight years. Around my third year in, the company selected key leaders in the organization to attend a leadership event at West Point University. We had to submit our resumes to be shared with everyone who was going to the event. When I saw the resumes for these folks who were my peers, there were undergraduate degrees from the Naval Academy and West Point, graduate degrees from Dartmouth and Kellogg. Yet there I was never having completed my bachelor’s degree. I remember that very day I called my wife and told her I wanted to finish my degree, at forty-nine years old, no less.
When I started researching how to get started, I came across something online that said, “Why get a bachelor’s degree when you can get your MBA?” So after researching several universities in Dallas-Forth Worth, I applied for the EMBA program at SMU (Southern Methodist University), and I was accepted into the program. We made a family decision to sell our home in the suburbs and move into the heart of Dallas near both my office and the campus. For twenty-two months, I put my nose down, managed a very demanding job, and was able to balance work, family, and school to complete the program. It was tough on me and my family but certainly one of my proudest accomplishments.
MODERATOR: Over the course of your career, would you highlight people who have made a profound effect on your life and helped you get to where you are today?
LAMB: Over the years, I’ve tried to model the behaviors of leaders that I believe exhibit expertise in leadership. I’ve probably learned as much from the bad ones as I have the good ones. I’ve been fortunate to work for a lot of good ones. One of those is Frank Blake at Home Depot. Frank had this saying that it’s the responsibility of leaders to absorb the complexity of retailing up in the C-suite and push simplicity down to the stores. In 2007 when he took the reins at Home Depot, the company was struggling. He had a maniacal focus on the stores, and a human and personal touch that really translated across that organization. Frank would handwrite a note—even to someone in the lowest level of the organization—recognizing someone who had gone out of their way to do something that impacted the operations or the culture of the business. Yet he was unwavering during times when he had to make unpopular decisions. I think he materially changed the course and direction for that company, making it one of today’s truly outstanding organizations.
MODERATOR: What do you mean by “absorb the complexity and push simplicity down to the stores?”
LAMB: I’m a firm believer that what’s simple gets done. We run a complex business in retailing that has a lot of moving parts. Whether it’s managing the shrink with your AP teams, managing in-stock or service, or your ability to leverage technology or data, if you make it complicated for the store, it won’t get done. Someone I worked with at Home Depot coined a phrase, “Having a simple plan doesn’t make you a simple leader.” I think the retailers that are getting ahead of the game are the ones that are digesting the complexity and pushing down a program that’s easy to understand and implement for everyone on the sales floor. Now that’s easy to say but hard to do.
MODERATOR: Cathy, you work for a longtime stalwart in our industry, Bob Oberosler. It is well known that you are his number-one person and he trusts you implicitly. Talk about working with Bob and others who have influenced your career.
LANGLEY: Working for Bob has been amazing. When he came to Rite Aid, he was very focused on leveraging data analytics and had a lot of great ideas. We were able to work together really well and move very quickly.
In general, throughout my career, I’ve had leaders who have seen something in me before I’ve seen it in myself, and this is a trait I’ve always tried to emulate. To this day, I feel I am good at spotting talent. I’ve also been fortunate to have leaders who have rewarded me for doing more than what is expected.
MODERATOR: How has that affected your management style, and what are some of your pet peeves that you find in people that you manage?
LANGLEY: I’d say that I’ve grown more as a leader in the past ten years than I had in the previous twenty. I’ve become much more patient and transparent. There are still a few things that frustrate me, and one of them is when people are not willing to give it their all. I also struggle when people are not accepting of other’s viewpoints. We’re not all the same, but if we all join together and have the same mission, we can move forward in a much better way.
MODERATOR: Mark, as I mentioned, you’ve been involved in several different genres of retailing from DIY to consumer electronics to department store. Now you’re in the convenience world. What are some of the common traits that contribute to success across those categories?
STINDE: I was fortunate enough for Jim and Jack to spend some time with me after about a year and a half at 7-Eleven. I read an article that they published some years ago around the common denominators for successful loss prevention organizations. There were several tenets discussed. One was that data can help drive decisions. Second, a strategy that fits in the organization you came from may not fit in the organization you’re going to. While components of it may, you can’t just plug and play.
Also, success almost always comes down to people. It’s so much easier to get things done if you’ve got great people who are committed to the job. When you have people committed to what you’re trying to get done, you’re not trying to manage the nonsense with people who are not committed and standing in the way. I think that’s key. Just as Mike said, you have to figure out what the organization is trying to get done and figure out the best way to support it. You can’t be bigger than what the company strategy is. You must figure out how to work within it. And I’ve tried to apply that in every place that I’ve been.
MODERATOR: Mark has already talked about getting his MBA. All three of you have LPC behind your names, and all of you are involved in the Loss Prevention Foundation. Talk about why you are involved in promoting certification in our industry.
LAMB: What’s the old cliché? Knowledge is power. I went through the LPC process a few years ago, and I know what a personal benefit it was for me in broadening my horizons. I can’t speak for the room, but when you get to a point where you think you’ve learned it all, you’re probably kidding yourself.
Advancing our industry through education and empowerment via certification, to me, provides extraordinary leverage. I believe it’s notable that the foundation is moving in the direction in which the business is moving—be it total retail loss or deescalating bad behavior. If you look at the retail change curve, it’s simply phenomenal. If you consider what we were focused on three to five years ago versus today, it’s materially changed and will continue to change. It’s key that the foundation keep up with that change. Why? Because it empowers the men and women in this room to not just be leaders in asset protections but also leaders in their companies. For me, that’s the secret sauce.
MODERATOR: On a separate note, I was one of the first solution providers to get their LPC certification. Tell us the benefit that you see of solution providers getting certified.
LAMB: To me, the more a solution provider knows about how my business operates and how it functions as an industry, the better equipped you are to have a more compelling value proposition when you come see me. The learnings from the foundation coursework and certification broadens a solution provider’s knowledge of what’s important to retailers and makes them better partners.
MODERATOR: Let’s talk a bit about the interactions between retailers and solution providers. What are things that contribute to a good partnership and things that do not?
LANGLEY: From my perspective, it’s critical to work with provider partners who are good listeners. Integrity and honesty are absolutely key. And it’s also important to come to the table with solutions.
LAMB: I would have to say that you know going into any significant project with a solution provider that it won’t be seamless, that there will be hiccups—things that neither we nor the solution provider anticipated. And that’s okay. To me, what separates the really great ones from the goods ones is that they’re really quick to react to that, particularly if it’s on their side of the fence. That allows you to get past whatever pain point that is and continue the project.
The other thing that resonates with me is solution providers that sell me something and then they’re gone. I want a partner who will stick with me even if I’m not continuing to spend money, who continue to ask if the solution is still working for me.
STINDE: Let me follow up to that by telling a story. As you know, I left loss prevention for a while and went into the safety business. There were two gentlemen from Tyco who reached out to me, not to sell me something, but to see how my family and I were doing. These were guys who cared about me not because I was spending a dollar with them because at the time I wasn’t.
I’ve also had people spend time with me because they are in a new role; maybe they’ve moved from one company to another or from retail to the vendor side. They come tell me what they do, and we talk about my business needs. But at the end of the day, we say, “You know, there’s really not an opportunity here for you. If there is, let’s get back in touch and talk about it.” But that time spent has built a rapport that can pay off down the road. I am a big believer that it is important to dig your well before you’re thirsty.
MODERATOR: Mark, let’s stay with you for a second. You’re in a genre of retailing that has always been susceptible to violent crime. And violent crime is up in America. How does that aspect of your job weigh on you personally?
STINDE: With over 10,000 stores in the US and Canada, we have incidents in the stores. For those of you that have been associated with the safety world, you likely understand the Heinrich’s triangle theory. The bottom of the triangle starts with potential risks and graduates in risk to the top of the triangle. For example, 300,000 potential risks relate to 3,000 near misses, and those relate to thirty lost-time injuries, ultimately relating to the potential for a severe if not fatal incident at the top of the triangle.
When I get a call in the middle of the night from one of my people, I know it’s generally because something has happened. Our focus is to mitigate incidents by investing in technology and other solutions to minimize incidents, partnering with law enforcement, and learning from industry best practices. It matters a great deal to me that we minimize the number of incidents, so it doesn’t result in a severe incident at the top of Heinrich’s triangle.
MODERATOR: Mike, what keeps you up at night?
LAMB: I think there has to be an extraordinary sensitivity to safety. I had the misfortune at one company of attending a funeral for an asset protection person who lost his life. That will sober you quickly on the reality of the need to err on the side of caution with every policy you script relative to the detention of shoplifters or whatever potentially puts your people in harm’s way. At the end of the day, retail is insignificant if it means someone has to sacrifice their life over merchandise.
MODERATOR: Speaking of shoplifting, it seems that as an industry we continue to debate whether or not to detain shoplifters. What is your position on that question?
LAMB: I worked for one company where year-on-year, we kept growing the number of shoplifting apprehensions. While you might pat yourself on the back and say, “Look how good we are at this,” there are two problems with that. One, we were too easy to target, and secondarily and most importantly, it wasn’t affecting the shrink performance. So we shifted the scales more toward prevention versus apprehension. At the same time, I do think organizations, both large or small who have asset protection teams, must train those teams to apprehend shoplifters with an emphasis on safety.
MODERATOR: We talk a lot about the evolution of loss prevention and the things that we were doing five or ten years ago versus what we’re doing today. Can you identify something that you or your successor will be doing in five years that you’re not doing today?
LAMB: I think your question is a good one and almost impossible to answer. With the way we’re digitizing retailing and the way in which the consumer wants to shop, you want to be ahead of it—invent the future instead of trying to predict it. The most immediate issues for me are at the frontend. I envision a world with possibly no cashiers in less than three years. It’s already out there with Amazon Go. We have an enormous challenge and opportunity to use technology to better leverage people, not only today but as things change down the road. Mobile pay, scan-and-go, self-checkout have changed the artistry of theft too. The notion of the five principles to detain a shoplifter can be thrown out the window.
STINDE: We heard earlier today Professor Adrian Beck talk about his research on self-checkouts. We’ve done some small tests with self-checkout, but we’re going to skip over self-checkout and go right to mobile scan-and-pay. As LP practitioners, many would say that’s completely ridiculous, and yet the operations team is trying to figure this out. Our job is to support the learning process, do our best at educating them on the risks, and figuring out the best ways to mitigate losses. But that’s just one example. To Mike’s point, tomorrow it’ll be something else.
MODERATOR: That dovetails into a question about how the skillsets of LP professionals may change in the future. Do you need an IT person, a lawyer, a data scientist on your staff?
LAMB: I don’t know if you need them on your team, but you need them at your side, and they need us at their side. We have to be tied into how the corporation is digitizing the business because there will be decisions made where shrink isn’t necessarily even in the discussion. If that’s the case, then you find yourself chasing the problem versus addressing it on the front end.
STINDE: I have someone over my analytics team who’s a CPA. Her experience has been in inventory control, accounting with some loss prevention background, but she takes the lead as it relates to analytics. Even though the team is dedicated to asset protection, it’s interesting how often they support other functions in the organization when information is needed because of the quality of the work they do.
LANGLEY: We’ve taken a similar approach at times. The last analyst that we hired had no retail or AP experience. This analyst has a finance degree, and we benefit from having a new team member who analyzes data from a different perspective.
MODERATOR: Looking back over your careers, what is a highlight and maybe any regret you’ve had?
LANGLEY: The highlight of my career has been watching people from my team grow and get rewarded with promotions and new opportunities. Anytime I can help somebody develop their career, it’s a huge win for me. On the other side, I think I could have done a better job of displaying humility early on in my career. It’s a lesson that I really try to emphasize, especially with emerging talent.
STINDE: Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s great to see someone I’ve worked with over my career, who, hopefully, I had a little influence in their lives. That’s why I’m committed to my network. I try to stay in touch. I have an hour-and-fifteen-minute drive each way to and from work. I try to catch my East Coast colleagues on the way in and the West Coast folks on the way back just to see how they’re doing and give them advice or vent to them when I’ve had a bad day. What a great industry we have that allows us to form such meaningful relationships over time.
I could spend hours talking about things where I’ve missed opportunities. I think the big thing is when you lose, don’t lose the lesson, then get up the next day and try to go figure it out.
LAMB: This has been such a rewarding career for me both professionally and financially. As I mentioned, I kind of stumbled into this forty years ago, and I’m still here because I have such a passion for the work and the people in the industry. I think we have the most difficult job in retail. When you’re out there to try to solve the forensics of shrink that is ever changing, it’s the most demanding job in the industry. And that’s why I have such a passion for it.
As far as regrets, I’ve had more than my share of ups and downs. But even when I’ve had major disappointments, I’m proud of how I’ve bounced back. You have to maintain a never-quit attitude and an insatiable desire to deliver results. If you do, then when you look back, you’ll have no regrets because you’ll know you did the best you could.