Making LP a Talent Destination for Retail Careers

EDITOR’S NOTE: Monica Mullins is the vice president of asset protection and safety for Walmart Stores U.S. She oversees more than 9,000 corporate and field-level AP associates who are responsible for execution of AP and safety programs in 3,804 retail locations. Prior to her current role, Mullins was the VP of asset protection, safety, and compliance for the company’s logistics division.

Before joining Walmart thirteen years ago, she was a risk control manager at ShopKo Stores and, prior to that, served as the assistant regional director of a non-profit agency that provided residential and vocational services to individuals with developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, and mental illness.

In addition to her corporate duties, Mullins is a board member of the Loss Prevention Foundation, a member of the LP Magazine editorial board, and vice-chair of the Retail Industry Leaders Association’s (RILA) Asset Protection Leaders Council.

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EDITOR: How do you view your role as the leader of Walmart’s U.S. asset protection and safety efforts?

MULLINS: My role is to provide the AP and safety team with the overall strategy and mission of the organization and how that aligns with Walmart’s mission. As a team it’s our responsibility to drive execution of processes related to shrink, accident reduction, and security; support operations and merchandising in driving sales and profitability; and participate in developing the next generation of talent for Walmart. Additionally, we have to approach the business strategically, look to the future and what the organization needs to do or how we need to change to stay relevant to the changing needs of the business. I have a terrific and talented group of men and women in the AP and safety organization who consistently deliver results and who play an important role in the organization.

EDITOR: Do you see your role as different from other retailers because of the size of Walmart?

MULLINS: Our size adds complexities and responsibilities, but there are similarities with colleagues in the industry regardless of the size of their business or LP team structure. Becoming more involved with the LP Foundation and RILA, where I met LP executives like Mike Lamb for The Home Depot, Brad Brekke from Target, Libby Rabun from AutoZone, and others in similar roles, it became more apparent to me how much we have in common. I try to stay tuned in to the LP executives at the smaller retailers, especially the specialty stores, because there is a great deal we can learn from them. RILA and the LP Foundation provide a good avenue to do that. We have a good partnership with several other retailers with whom we do benchmarking. That’s invaluable.

EDITOR: Tell us about your organizational structure and give us a picture of the breadth of your internal responsibility.

MULLINS: I oversee the Asset Protection and Safety Division for Walmart Stores U.S., which includes our field team and the support functions based out of our home office. The field team is approximately 400 associates at market, region, division, and business-unit levels. At store level, most stores, depending on location and format, may have an asset protection coordinator, who is a member of the store management team, and asset protection associates. Additionally, we have safety managers and directors who also support field AP and operations.

Within the home office, there are a number of different support functions including the merchandise protection and operations support; systems and analysis; the AP recovery and restitution team; facilities safety and security; event safety and security; AP health and wellness; and AP investigations.

EDITOR: Is there a particular initiative that is something that you spend time on because of its importance or because you enjoy it?

MULLINS: There are several ways to answer that question. First, what’s most important to Bill Simon, president and CEO of Walmart Stores U.S., is most important to me.

EDITOR: That’s a good answer.

MULLINS: We have great support from our executive leadership team. I’ve been in this position since 2007, and we are closely aligned with the business mission. We have to spend time on those things that matter most and will have the greatest impact, although it’s easy to get distracted given the nature of the business. I look at our AP and safety organization and ask, “How does our organization help Walmart achieve its mission?” We develop our business plan to reflect that. Everything we do has to support the greater good.

EDITOR: Give us an example.

MULLINS: It’s important to Bill and the operating division to have an acceptable performance in shrink. It’s important that we reduce our accidents and provide a safe working and shopping environment. These are two of the big “go-gets” for us.

One of the others is talent development. Bill has said that if you’re not developing your people, you’re not doing your job. One of my priorities is to ensure we are developing our AP associates to get them ready for their “next step,” whether that’s in operations, asset protection, or any other function.

EDITOR: How do you convince people at the lower levels that there are career opportunities both inside and outside of AP at Walmart?

MULLINS: We do that by sharing other associate’s stories—those associates who spent time in asset protection and were promoted into operations, logistics, merchandising, finance, or whatever area it might be. Every time someone is promoted into or out of AP, we send an announcement out to the field. I think we have to continue to recognize the importance of communication.

Additionally, we talk about it. During evaluations, one-on-ones, traveling together, I always ask “What’s next? What would you like to do in your career?” Since being in a leadership role in asset protection, I’ve told the team that I want AP to be a talent destination for the company. I believe we have an enormously talented group. My message to our AP associates has been that if you limit yourself to AP, you’re limiting your career.

Years ago loss prevention, and retail for that matter, was very vertical. The typical career path was to move up or promote within your functional area. I think that’s changing. We encourage our people to think bigger and broader. As Walmart grows, we encourage other divisions to look at our AP associates as their need for talent grows.

EDITOR: Why do you think of AP as a “talent destination?”

MULLINS: AP is one of the most diverse organizations in terms of how much the people know about “the box.” They know inventory management; they have a good grasp of HR; they’re great investigators; they know more about operations than they sometimes give themselves credit for; and they understand merchandising. They may not be HR professionals or professional merchants at the time, but being a generalist in these areas makes them attractive.

Also, AP professionals tend to be great at delivering results. They know how to plan, organize, and get things done. Then, as they grow in their roles and as their roles become more complex, we challenge them to move away from being the “doer” to being the idea developer, being more strategic in their thought process, thinking more globally. We challenge them to be the ones who are developing the AP and safety strategy for their region, division, or business unit.

On the other hand, I don’t want to discourage the person who says, “I love AP and this is what I want to do.” Then, our challenge is to see how we can continue to keep that person engaged and excited about AP and help them develop the skills necessary to grow within the organization. We work closely with our training and development department to look at how we build the competencies and leadership skills that our AP people need to become future AP leaders.

EDITOR: If I were a young person with little or no AP experience and just heard what you said, I would ask, “What credentials do you want from me? How do I become a candidate for a position on the Walmart AP team?”

MULLINS: We’re finding that young people looking to get into retail asset protection do really well at the entry-level, store-level AP coordinator positions. It’s a great entry point, not only to AP, but to retail. They don’t have to have an AP background. It is helpful, but not required. On the other hand, a market-level AP management position requires some supervisory experience. People going into that role need to have managed people at some point.

While neither of those positions requires a college degree, is a college degree advantageous? Absolutely. Not only in AP, but in general. It gives you that extra advantage over somebody who does not. However, we also understand that a lot of men and women are supporting families, caring for elderly parents, or are single parents and do not have the resources to complete a traditional four-year degree program. I think that’s where the Foundation’s LP certification programs are a great opportunity.

Another great approach is the online degree. Many of my associates have gone back to school online and have had great experiences and success.

But I will say again that it is great to have the LP Foundation’s LPC and LPQ programs available for people for whom a four-year degree is not practical or affordable. We need to provide educational opportunities for people who have a desire to excel and to do more, but who can’t swing the four-year degree. In fact, Walmart recently began a program for our associates that allows them to get college credit for the work they do in stores that can be applied toward an online degree from our university partner.

EDITOR: Apart from experience, what do you look for?

MULLINS: Generally, I’m looking for men and women who are enthusiastic, enjoy a challenge, and demonstrate leadership capacity. I’m interested in people, for example, with internal audit, business management, or safety and compliance-related backgrounds. But basically, I’m looking at the person first, the experience second.

EDITOR: If you go back twenty or thirty years, most LP professionals understood that to make a name for themselves and get promoted, they needed to become adept at investigations or demonstrate an ability to catch shoplifters. How do you explain to a young person today that there is more to LP than just catching shoplifters?

MULLINS: We have to do a better job explaining what our job is all about. It would be great if we could have an interested candidate spend a day in the life of an asset protection or safety professional at Walmart.

Catching shoplifters and focusing on shrink are obviously very important. However, at least at Walmart, AP has evolved significantly. Our people must be able to organize and plan, have at least an elementary understanding of retail compliance issues, understand how to prevent accidents, and how to build a safety culture in which people take more ownership for their behavior at work. They have to understand how to navigate through a crisis, whether man-made or a natural disaster. AP is often called upon to help intervene and respond to these types of occurrences. And they have to understand how to manage and develop people.

That is why we’re looking at less-traditional avenues for recruiting. While we continue to value people with criminal justice backgrounds, we’re also interested in people with undergraduate business degrees, security backgrounds, emergency management and safety degrees, as well as MBAs. We’ve also had good success with men and women coming out of the military.

Just as we do not minimize a traditional law enforcement background, we are looking for people with diverse backgrounds because the job itself has become more diverse. Give me a person who has great leadership capacity, we can teach them asset protection through LPQ and LPC and on-the-job training. We have thousands of years of experience in AP within Walmart. We can teach them AP.

EDITOR: If I’m a young person, where do I go to find out about these opportunities and how does Walmart market these opportunities?

MULLINS: In recent years, we have become involved with recruiting programs and external events that are more outside of our organization. For example, we are involved with the International Organization for Black Security Executives (IOBSE), and we’ve done some recruiting with the Loss Prevention Foundation. We’re getting more integrated with other organizations across the country, including the retail organizations.

I am also working with the recruiting team that’s dedicated to asset protection. We’re working together to look for candidates with more diverse backgrounds. Walmart recruits from major colleges and universities across the country. But we always want to hear from other schools that have students with interesting and diverse backgrounds and work experience.

EDITOR: Over the past eighteen months, you have broadened your personal work within the loss prevention community as a leader of some of those outreach initiatives. How can the leadership of today’s major retailers become more active in attracting young, new, and different talent to the AP field?

MULLINS: I’d love to be able to go on the road with colleagues from the industry to visit universities and talk with students about the opportunities in retail AP. One challenge for all of us is time, and so we need to use other approaches. We need to take advantage of technology, such as recruiting via webinars or live video, and figure out how to use social media more effectively.

I believe that I have an obligation to go out and find up-and-coming talent for Walmart and, of course, to develop the talent within the organization. For leaders of the retail LP industry, there is an obligation to do things together to attract talent to our field. At LP Foundation meetings and through RILA and FMI events, there is less sense of competition among our companies. This gives us the opportunity to be more open in sharing ideas and unified in this common effort.

EDITOR: I know that you and other senior LP executives will be participating in the upcoming Asset Protection Leadership Committee session at RILA. Could you talk about that committee and some of its initiatives?

MULLINS: One of the things we are looking at is talent development and recruiting; how we attract more people into the retail LP and safety field. We’re also looking at shrink management and inventory management processes, at how we can share best practices, using the expertise of the organizations that are around the table. Initially, there was concern that what happens at the big-box retailers is not necessarily what happens at some of the smaller retailers. I think we’ve done a good job ensuring that, when we’re brainstorming and sharing experiences, we are inclusive and representing the entire industry.

We are not motivated by wanting to solve a Walmart-specific or Home Depot-specific problems. Rather, we want to afford our colleagues a venue to get together, look at how we can further advance the LP profession, discuss retail industry issues, and share best practices. We are also careful about not taking on too much and staying true to the desires expressed by industry leaders in the latest survey. In particular, they were interested in sharing best practices with regard to shrink management and talent development. It’s interesting to be a part of this grassroots process.

EDITOR: You have mentioned that you didn’t wake up one morning as a young woman and say, “I want to be an AP executive in the retail industry.” Tell us about your career.

MULLINS: As an undergrad, I majored in secondary education. But when I graduated, I decided I did not want to be “stuck” in the classroom. I already had some exposure to health and human services and social work. My mother worked for many years in social services and human services, and family members were in that field as well. That led me to become involved in the mental health field. I worked for several years in human services with children and adults with developmental disabilities, mental illness, and traumatic brain injury. I joined a non-profit organization that provided group home and apartment-living programs for people who had come out of state mental health institutions. It was a wonderful experience.

After eight or nine years, I was ready to explore other opportunities. I heard about a graduate program in occupational safety and health and completed my master’s degree in safety at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie. I envisioned staying in the healthcare environment and was interested in compliance and licensing.

As it turned out, I went into retail and started in the field with ShopKo Stores as a risk control manager. A few years later, I had the opportunity to join Walmart and did so in 1998 as a risk control manager. In 2002 I went to our logistics division as the director of loss prevention, safety, and compliance and was promoted to vice president in 2005. Two years later, I was invited to interview for this job, vice president of AP and safety for Walmart Stores U.S. I came into this role in June of 2007.

EDITOR: In your early years at Walmart, were there individuals who were instrumental in helping or mentoring you?

MULLINS: Walmart has a great environment in that regard. People want you to be successful. Along the way, various colleagues recognized that I had more to give or a learning curve to climb or they would challenge me to step out of my comfort zone. While I did not see myself here in this current role, as the company grew I was encouraged to take on additional responsibilities and look for opportunities that would give me a broader view of the business. Going into logistics was one of the best experiences I’ve had because I learned a lot about that side of the business as well as about LP. I also learned about what I needed to do differently in leading. My team taught me a great deal.

What I love about Walmart is that there are so many supportive people who surround you. We want one another to be successful. I never go it alone, and that’s what I want my team to recognize. If you build these relationships and if you have the skill of collaborating and building business partnerships, you learn so much more.

EDITOR: We can hear your passion and commitment. Fifteen years from now, how will your colleagues and team members talk about you as a mentor?

MULLINS: I try to do for them what my mentors did for me—listen and provide counsel and candid feedback. I don’t have all the answers, but think I have a listening ear. I’m willing to share…formally and informally…the good experiences that I’ve had that helped push me forward in my career as well as the mistakes I’ve made.

EDITOR: Like what?

MULLINS: Not to get too distraught when things don’t go your way or when you feel like you’ve failed. It’s never as bad as what we think it is and it’s important to keep it all in proper perspective. It’s okay to stumble every once in a while. It keeps you humble, and I think humility is important as we grow as leaders, which is a never-ending process. It’s important to learn from the mistakes you’ve made, and to recognize the signs when you might need to take a step back and refocus.

I don’t have all of the answers and most people who I mentor recognize that it’s more of a dialog, a discussion, a sharing of experiences and ideas between one another.

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