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Saks Fifth Avenue Asset Protection: The Evolution of Rosamaria Sostilio

In 2014, Rosamaria Sostilio was named senior vice president of asset protection for Hudson’s Bay Company after 25 years in various loss prevention roles with Saks Fifth Avenue. She began her career on the sales floor at Bloomingdale’s in Boston before moving into loss prevention as a detective. She joined Saks Fifth Avenue as a store LP manager before moving into a corporate role. Sostilio has been active in the National Retail Federation and recently took over as chair of their LP advisory council. This interview was conducted shortly after Sostilio’s promotion. 

EDITOR: It’s been many years since the magazine last featured you and Saks. Much has changed. Tell us about the new company that exists today.

SOSTILIO: The new company is an amazing organization. Saks is now owned by Hudson’s Bay Company. The three banners operated by HBC are Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Hudson’s Bay. I’m so delighted about getting to know the HBC team and the extraordinary heritage of the company. The explorers for HBC were those that essentially discovered Canada. Lord & Taylor, of course, is one of the oldest department stores in the United States, and Saks Fifth Avenue has its own heritage.

- Digital Partner -

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EDITOR: Is Hudson’s Bay Company the predominant owner?

SOSTILIO: Yes. Hudson’s Bay Company is the parent company that each banner is operating under.

EDITOR: That doesn’t mean that you will move to Canada, does it?

SOSTILIO: I’ll continue to live in New York, but will have the pleasure of visiting Canada often. We have stores across Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so I’ll have a great opportunity to explore the country. I have a whole new awareness of Canada and the Canadian culture, and I love it. It’s very exciting.

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EDITOR: Has the integrated company been established long enough for you to know what your loss prevention organization will look like?

SOSTILIO: When I took this job, I immediately did a compare and contrast of the organizations, looking at the entire LP group and determining how to best structure the team. By January I had my synergies aligned and my go-forward team in place. In early February 2013, I was able to bring the three corporate banners together in New York. We got to know each other and set our new direction. We’re an asset protection division now, which includes traditional LP and retail shortage control under one banner. We’ve taken the best components of all three teams and developed one unified program. From a people and a program standpoint, the division is fully integrated.

EDITOR: How do you personally manage your time and presence between the different entities?

SOSTILIO: I’m very hands-on. The people part of this business is my favorite part. Developing teams is what I really love to do. It’s my passion. The whole organization has teleconferencing capabilities, so I feel like I can be in Canada at a moment’s notice. I’m really getting to know my asset protection team, but I’m getting to know all the store people as well. I take care of the corporate team, but I also try very hard to stay in touch with what’s going on in the field.

- Digital Partner -

EDITOR: Have you established specific key objectives and accountabilities for asset protection?

SOSTILIO: Absolutely. We’re adding more accountability to the process. I want to make sure that everyone understands that we own the process and we own the results. Accountability and teamwork are really the two primary pillars that we’re focusing on.

EDITOR: From a financial standpoint, is the key objective shrink performance?

SOSTILIO: As we move into omni-channel retailing, unit integrity is as important as shortage control. We’re on a cost stock ledger, so we take cost inventory, which makes it even more important to know where the units are. We’re getting involved in unit integrity and omni-channel, and leading the way with that in the organization.

EDITOR: Over the years, you and the Saks organization have had a reputation of low turnover and high associate involvement in LP initiatives. I would imagine that remains a key objective of yours. How do you accomplish that and why do people want to stay?

SOSTILIO: I think it’s important that everyone feels that they belong and everyone has a voice. It’s important for me to have diversity and to reinforce that every opinion matters. I don’t make decisions in a silo. I like hearing everyone’s input and opinion and make my decisions accordingly.

I look for people who are engaged and committed, which are two separate things. You can be engaged and not committed, or committed and not engaged. I look for both and work hard with the team to achieve that.

We have a spirit committee that develops suggestions on how to recognize team members and an appreciation day to celebrate successes. We are a team. We do things together. I’m right there with them on programs, situations, and investigations. And when things get dicey, as they sometimes do, I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, which I think they appreciate.

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EDITOR: Speak about where you are today with training and people development, and the commitments that you have in place.

SOSTILIO: Training is the strength within the organization. We have programs for associates as soon as they come on board. We have a recognition program for top talent that gives specific direction to help prepare for future management positions.

We also have a succession and recognition program for top talent that provides exposure to corporate projects and the opportunity to work with corporate teams. It takes associates beyond the store level, giving them a better understanding of corporate and organizational agility, business acumen, and other important competencies that they will need to move forward. Training is a passion for me, and I’m looking forward to creating more programs now that I have more people with more ideas on the team.

Our asset protection managers need to understand the business and work with the teams in the stores. They work side-by-side with the general managers, supporting business initiatives within the organization. Whatever the company is moving toward, we are there for support. We have a strong role within the organization and are looked at as go-to people.

EDITOR: What are the priorities of an asset protection manager in a store? Is it shortage, apprehending shoplifters, investigating employee theft? You mentioned that they’re considered a business leader in the store. Is that where you start in terms of their priorities?

SOSTILIO: They develop a strategic plan with their general manager. Together they analyze the shortage results and put together key measurable initiatives. Once finalized, they work within that plan all year long and, course-correct as necessary. Functional direction comes from the corporate asset protection team, but they work day-to-day with operations and the general manager to meet the various needs of the local stores.

EDITOR: What technology initiatives do you have in place currently or are thinking about putting in place?

SOSTILIO: We have a strong remote-viewing program. From the corporate offices, I can remote view all of the stores.

EDITOR: What is the predominant goal of the remote monitoring that’s in place today?

SOSTILIO: The asset protection team can use it in many different ways. We can use it to help the stores from an internal investigations standpoint. We can marry up POS transactions with video. We don’t use it as much right now for shoplifting. That’s still handled locally in the store. But we have the ability to use it however needed. We can monitor parades or disturbances. Whatever is happening, we have viewing capabilities on the streets and in the parking lots.

EDITOR: There’s talk about emerging retail trends, such as mobile POS, omni-channel, and smart technologies. How are you responding to those developments?

SOSTILIO: The company is exploring all of those channels. Omni-channel is important in this organization. We need to be able to ensure that merchandise is fulfilled for customers through every channel possible. It should be seamless for the customers with whatever channel is used. The asset protection division is right there with the rest of the corporate team working on solutions to those challenges.

EDITOR: One of the issues that has received significant notoriety since we last interviewed you is organized retail crime. Years ago you were putting ORC initiatives in place. Where are you today specifically within the Saks organization, and how does that apply to the Canadian stores?

SOSTILIO: As we all know, organized retail crime doesn’t have boundaries. We’re still aggressively trying to attack it. We’re working closely with the NRF [National Retail Foundation], lobbying to get stricter laws and distinguishing it from shoplifting. ORC is at a higher level than shoplifting, so we’re working on it on many different fronts. The asset protection team is involved in legislative committees and work closely with the NRF, working with the stores and local, state, and federal authorities trying to break up these rings. We’ve had some successes. We have to take a holistic approach. There isn’t one easy answer, and there isn’t one easy way to attack it.

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EDITOR: What do you think is key to your approach to ORC incidents?

SOSTILIO: Part of our overall success is that everyone is cross-trained. Although I have specialists, we take steps to ensure that the regionals and the store teams have diverse training. They work to understand the business in its entirety, and I don’t have silos within my functional area. When we strategize, it’s about sitting at a table and working together. This is really key for us.

EDITOR: In terms of your personal management style, beliefs, or how you attack shrinkage, how would you say you’re different today than you were twelve years ago?

SOSTILIO: I’m definitely a lot more patient. I’m calmer than I used to be, which I think just comes with age. But a lot of my core values have stayed the same. My love of people and watching people develop and grow has always been one of my passions. Mentoring teams is really what I love every single day. I love developing strategies and watching the success and execution of the strategies. I’m still doing that today.

My approach is a bit more global today. I’m not as tactical as I was because my job has evolved. I definitely have more long-term vision. At that time I was more of an executor. I can still execute when I need to, but my day-to-day job is a much more strategic and long-term focused. In this new role, having to develop a vision and a strategy for the three banners, I’m using those skills a lot more. But my core values haven’t changed. I’m still the same person. I lead with my heart. I think I always have.

EDITOR: As you look across the LP profession, we still have lots of things that we can do better. If you could snap your finger and make some changes, what might be some of those changes?

SOSTILIO: As a profession, the business is defined by the organization and its needs. It’s not something that you can say you would apply the same way across the board. There are unique aspects to it. To be successful, you have to understand what your company really needs. You can’t just apply generalities. I think that’s what makes our industry unique. Retail is so vast and so different. Teams are called by the same names, but if you really dig in, things can be handled differently. You really have to understand the culture of each company and then what their needs are.

EDITOR: You are a female LP executive at a premier retailer. The reality is that even today you are still an exception. What are your views of women and diversity in asset protection?

SOSTILIO: Diversity is defined in so many different ways. I like people with diverse backgrounds on my team. I have a woman on my asset protection team who runs investigations and is a former prosecutor. I have a woman on my team who is a CPA. I have a gentleman on my team who is getting his masters in technology. I try to bring in people with all different types of backgrounds. I can teach anyone the fundamentals of asset protection and how it fits into our team and into our company. That’s easy for me to do. I’ve been doing it for 25 years.

I want people who think differently than I think. I like to be challenged. I focus on diversity in thought, and that’s very important. There are still challenges for women in asset protection. There are people who still don’t want to take you seriously. That’s something that I’ve always had to overcome. I dig my heels in deeper and just move forward. I don’t focus on negativity. I surround myself with people who are positive. You need to have faith in yourself.

I try to help everyone—not just women. I try to help and mentor. I love to do that. I’m very involved with NRF’s Women in LP group, and I really support that organization. Joan Manson does a fantastic job running that group. I encourage women to take advantage of what’s out there. It’s still difficult being a woman in LP, but you just have to deal with it.

EDITOR: Speaking of the NRF, you’ve been involved for a long time and are now the chairperson of their LP committee. Tell us how you see yourself in that role over the next few years.

SOSTILIO: The NRF is clearly a very important organization for the industry. I think every person in retail should take advantage of the NRF and what the organization offers. I’m really proud to be in that position. Being voted into that position by my peers was an incredible honor.

I remember 25 years ago when I went to my first meeting. We were in Atlanta, and I think I was one of three women who were in attendance. I remember my eyes were just as wide as saucers. Having evolved and grown, I’ve seen how the organization has changed and developed. As I walked on stage last year to accept my nomination, it was a very proud moment for me.

I’m hoping that I can continue to inspire and work with the loss prevention community. I want to understand what individuals in the loss prevention and asset protection industry need and help organizations get there. The NRF is an incredible organization. They just have so many resources available, and they’re working to change the conference. The board members are now really much more involved in the content and allowing the NRF to do what they do best, which is planning and delivering a great conference experience. I encourage everyone in the loss prevention community to take advantage of all that the NRF has to offer.

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EDITOR: You’ve been a key industry leader for a long time. What’s next for Rosamaria Sostilio?

SOSTILIO: I’m never happy with the status quo. I always challenge myself and my team to do better. We reinvent ourselves constantly. I think a lot of it has to do with the environment, what’s going on in the world, and what we’re facing. That’s going to be important to our company, and we’re going to continue to tweak and hone our program to be the best in the industry. My goal is to always be best-in-class. I have to get to know my talent. I have to continue to advance our asset protection programs. There’s a lot out there to do, and I’m really looking forward to it. Every day that I come to work I feel like I’m starting a new job again. I’m really happy that after 25 years, I can’t wait to get up in the morning and come to work. I’m terrible at taking vacations because I really enjoy being here. Hopefully, it will continue to stay this much fun.

EDITOR: I can hear it in your voice.

SOSTILIO: I’m not just saying it. I have a passion for what I do. I work in midtown Manhattan. It doesn’t get more exciting than that. I’m surrounded by amazing people. I’m getting to know different executives in the organization. It’s all new to me, but the management team in the company is great and very supportive. Of course, I think my own team is the best team in the company. They’re amazing.

EDITOR: Who has been instrumental in helping mold you and your career?

SOSTILIO: I take a lesson from everyone that I meet—people that I like and people that I don’t like. I try to take every interaction as a learning interaction. It’s not all wonderful. Sometimes you meet and work with people that you really don’t like. For me, even that is a learning experience. I’ve had great bosses throughout my career, but more than that, I try to really pay attention. I’m very present when I’m meeting and interacting with people. There’s a take-away from every interaction I’ve had. It’s really all about the people. I love what I do, and I feel blessed that I’ve had the opportunity to do what I like to do. This doesn’t feel like work to me.

EDITOR: It comes through loud and clear. I suspect you’ll say the same thing in another decade as well. Thank you for speaking with us.

This article was originally published in 2014 and was updated in January 2016. 

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