EDITORS NOTE: Generic zyban online Melissa Mitchell, CFI, is director of loss prevention at LifeWay Christian Stores. She joined the company in 2001 after holding various LP roles at Service Merchandise, Cato, Roses Stores, Revco Drug, and TJ Maxx. Mitchell is a longtime member of the National Retail Federation loss prevention advisory council and recently joined the editorial board of LP Magazine. She also serves on the International Association of Interviewers advisory board and sits on the LP memorial fund committee for the LP Foundation.
EDITOR: Five years ago we profiled LifeWay Christian Stores and talked to you about loss prevention in this unique retail environment [see Thou Shall Not Steal May-June 2010]. This interview will focus instead on your career over the past thirty years. So lets start back in high school. Did you imagine then that you would have a career in loss prevention?
MITCHELL: No. I grew up in Portland, New York, which is a rural farming community in western New York. We had a small farm growing Concord grapes for jelly. There was a small locally owned grocery store and not much else, so I had no idea of what loss prevention was. My concept for what I wanted to do was centered around my dad. I would work next to him in the grape vineyard, and as he talked about the things he had wanted to be when he was growing up, like a state trooper or a pilot, those became the things that I wanted to be. So, no, I did not have a career in loss prevention in my mind until I fell into it.
EDITOR: After high school you joined the Air Force. What led you to that decision?
MITCHELL: The majority of my family, including cousins and uncles going back several generations, served in the military. It was just what you did. My dad was in the Marine Corps during WWII. He would talk about the great debt that you have to this country and that you dont understand what it is we have in this country until you have been elsewhere. Military service was never framed up as an expectation; rather it was talked about as an honor to be able to serve. Serving in the military was typically thought of more as an option for males in those days, but my dad was very consistent about encouraging me not to see anything as a limitation. He would say, You could be an astronaut. I would ask, Well, are there girl astronauts? Hed say, Even better, you could be the first. So nothing seemed impossible.
Another factor that led me to the Air Force was that I had attended a private military academy for the last three years of high school. I was in the first class of full-time female cadets in this historic, previously all-male military school. It had just opened up to women, and I was really fortunate to get a scholarship. When I graduated high school, I attended SUNY Fredonia. After one year I missed the military atmosphere, so I went into the Air Force.
EDITOR: Did you do anything in the Air Force that prepared you for a career in loss prevention?
MITCHELL: I think that there are many leadership traits that you develop in the military that translate very well into loss prevention. When I went into the military, it was only about 8 percent female with the vast majority being administrative assistants or nurses. I initially went in to be a translator. I was going to go to the Language Institute in San Diego for two years, which coming from western New York sounded pretty good. But while I was in basic training, Congress redefined what constituted a combat position, opening up additional jobs to females that had previously been out of reach. There was an intentional push to get female recruits with a demonstrated history of leadership into these positions immediately.
Based on my attendance at the military academy, I was asked to change jobs and train to be an aerospace physiological training instructor, which is training pilots and crews in the physiological aspects of high-altitude flying. It was a huge culture change for pilots and crews to see a female instructor, as well as for the instructors in the unit. The result was a lot of conflict in the first two years. There were certainly some people who wanted to see me fail, but that forced me to constantly up my game. When a door was closed in my face, it trained me to find another way into the room. It was made clear to me early on at my first base that the playing field was set for my defeat, and there was nobody on my team but me. It taught me how to succeed on my own when I needed to and to deal with conflict, even while living in the same barracks with some of the people I was having conflict with. Since the longest class we taught lasted three days, I realized that I could not have a big impact on the attitude of the individuals coming through our facility for training. Instead, I decided to affect change by having a positive influence on the individuals in my unit. To do that, I had to acclimate to the existing culture so that I could best understand what type of leadership would be the mosteffective.
That is exactly what we do in loss prevention every day. We constantly rework and up our game in order to succeed. We find a way to get into the room so that we can have a voice. We create change through positive influence. We are adaptable as leaders due to the often-changing environment.
EDITOR: How did you get into LP after leaving the Air Force?
MITCHELL: About a day after leaving the Air Force, I realized that you cant really teach aerospace physiology as a civilian. Its not a skill that is used outside of the military. So I just went through ads in the newspaper and ended up getting an interview at Belk-Leggett. The loss prevention manager there looked at the application and said, You have no LP experience. But I made my plea. Listen, if the military can teach me to be an aerospace physiology instructor, I am confident you can teach me to do this. I talked her into giving me a shot, which was a relief because I was thinking I was about to be living in my car. I was there for about six months as a store detective.
EDITOR: Talk about some of the firsts that happened for you as a store detective, like the first time you apprehended a shoplifter by yourself.
MITCHELL: I thought my heart was going to fall right out of my chest. I knew this woman had taken a sweater and had put it in her bag. I saw her come in, pick it up, and put it in the bag. I literally had not lost eye contact, but I was scared to death because just by virtue of stopping someone, youre making an accusation about someones integrity, and I anticipated a strong reaction to that. I was wrong about her potential concern for her integrityshe was a professional with a string of arrestsbut right on target in terms of the strong reaction to being stopped.
EDITOR: How did you get promoted above store detective?
MITCHELL: It was literally luck. I left Leggett and went to work for TJ Maxx. The regional LP manager, Audrey Edwards, was doing store visits. I was new, so she took some time to get to know me. She asked about my background. I told her about my short time at Leggett and my military experience. She asked me what I did in the military, and I told her I taught aerospace physiology. She said, Youre underemployed. You need to get a resumetogether.
A couple days later, my boss called me in and told me that Audrey had submitted my name as a candidate for a DLPM-in-training position. A few days later I went to the corporate office and sat down with the VP of LP, Bill Titus, for an interview. He looked at my resume and said, Youre the least qualified person that Ive interviewed for this position. Tell me why I should even consider you. I figured I had nothing to lose, that all I could do was give him a bold comeback because, really, he was right. I wasnt going to say that, but he was right. I said, Heres the deal. The Air Force wanted female recruits who could make it in what they knew would be difficult waters. They were right; it wasnt easy. They selected me because I made it in the first class of female cadets in an all-male military academy, and that wasnt easy. I succeeded in those environments for a reason. I think its really about being adaptable, teachable, and having leadership skills. Youre going to make a decision for this job based on the factors that you see, and not all of them fit neatly onto that application and that resume. If you dont hire me for this position, fair enough, but Im betting that youre going to spend money flying me back up here in six months when you start rethinking it. I gave it my best shot, and sure enough, he gave me a chance.
EDITOR: And from there you went where?
MITCHELL: After about three years with TJ Maxx, I went to Revco Drug, Roses Stores, and Cato, all in regional LP manager positions over a ten-year span. When I had my youngest son, I decided to leave the workforce and stay home with him.
EDITOR: But obviously you came back.
MITCHELL: When I was ready to reenter the workforce, we were living in Nashville, so I looked for opportunities locally. Service Merchandise was headquartered in Nashville, so I applied there. I thought, What would put me over the top besides experience? Having never been in a Service Merchandise store before, I decided it would be good to go in with some knowledge of their business. So I visited every store in a 100-mile radius. I just walked in, walked around, looked them over, and took some notes. When I sat down in an interview with the VP of LP, Jeff Cochran, he asked, Are you familiar with our stores? I said, Well, I visited all the stores in a 100-mile radius. He literally put my resume down and asked, What? Youre kidding. Name those stores. I had the list and named them off. He later told me the interview was over right then. He felt that if I was willing to invest in their company before I had the job, I would invest as an employee. I worked for them until they went out of business.
EDITOR: So in the span of about fourteen years, you worked for six different companies. When you see that on a resume today, do you get nervous about someone with that many jobs, or do you think, Well, thats what I did?
MITCHELL: It depends on the specific situation. For me, being in several different companies gave me a very broad range of retail experiencespecialty, drug store, big box, jewelry, and apparel. It also gave me an opportunity to learn to adapt to many different corporate cultures and find solutions to a variety of problems from many different vantage points tailored to the business I was in at the time. All of that is experience that I draw from in resolving issues and facing challenges, and I think it has been an advantage for me.
EDITOR: Did you ever think that LP wasnt the career for you?
MITCHELL: No. I remember thinking during the first few months of being in loss prevention that, like any job, there are going to be parts you love and parts you hate. I kept waiting for the part that I hated. Loss prevention was literally the biggest stroke of luck anyone could have had.
EDITOR: You joined LifeWay in 2001 and became a director. What is your favorite part of the job?
MITCHELL: I love the interaction with people, whether its at the corporate office, in our stores, or at LP conferences. Some of the greatest learning opportunities of my professional life have been at LP conferences, just listening to and interacting with peers. I love to pick their brains. I normally have a list of questions I want to ask as many people as I can at LP conferences and events. What are you guys doing about this issue? What do you see when you look at this? What do you think is the next big thing coming down the pipe? What do you think is old news? Im fascinated by everybodys individual take on questions like these. These are also the same questions I ask our associates because they have frontline insight into issues that can be so different than the perspective we have at the corporate level.
EDITOR: Over the years, what have you seen change in lossprevention?
MITCHELL: The job today is much more broad and deep than it was thirty years ago. We are less reactionary and more preventative in my opinion. I think we have a platform to influence direction and decisions on many levels of the overall business.
The advancement of technology has created amazing opportunities, both good and bad. We have data available at our fingertips today that we could not have imagined in 1985, but at the same time the technology that gives us that benefit can also be used to do damage on a greater scale than was possible before. As an industry we have had to develop the skills to identify exposures resulting from the rapidly developing technology world, as well as learn to anticipate what might be coming in order to protect the assets of our companies.
Additionally, the scope of what we do has changed. Where our responsibility in the past might have been limited to a defined list of LP responsibilities, in order to be effective today, we must have an in-depth knowledge of all components of the business. We are business partners with a special expertise in loss prevention. I think that shift is a reflection of our business partners having a greater understanding of our skill set as well as those in the LP industry constantly upping their game.
EDITOR: You think that the industry is no longer about catching the bad guy?
MITCHELL: I think it is about executing at all levels, which will no doubt always include catching the bad guy. Our real contribution has changed to be centered on helping to move the whole business forward, as opposed to just addressing the singular issue of shrink.
EDITOR: Why do you think LP professionals jobs havechanged?
MITCHELL: Any business that has survived over time has had to change with the changing world around it. As
LP professionals, we are no different. In order to survive, we have had to change to meet the needs of our customersour employees, our stores, and our business partners. We have had to leverage our ability to solve problems across the business and become more agile to allow us to meet the ever-changing needs of the customer. I think our job has expanded because retail executives have come to realize that we have a skill set thats transferrable to all segments of the business, built on leadership, problem solving, business acumen, and a strong desire to help the overall business succeed.
EDITOR: What are some of the traits of good bosses that youve had?
MITCHELL: I have been really fortunate in that I have had great bosses. The first person that comes to mind is Max Arenas at Cato. He shared something with me that I thought was incredibly profound. I was running up against a brick wall with a key business partner. I kept trying different approaches, but I just couldnt get a foot in the door. I was at the end of my rope, and I was starting to talk myself into thinking it was just a lost cause. I finally called Max and expressed my frustration with the situation. He told me to think of myself as the owner of a loss prevention consulting business. Now, you are having a problem interacting with a client; a customer that represents one-third of your business. How do you like them now? Great point. What would I do if it was my business? Would I really ditch a third of my customer base because they were hard to deal with? No. I would absolutely find a way to make it work. That completely changed my approach going forward. I thought that was a fantastic way to look at it.
EDITOR: Are there other mentors who come to mind?
MITCHELL: I already mentioned Audrey Edwards. She was a great influence to me both professionally and personally. Early in my career, when I had my first apartment, she stopped by and noticed that I was on a ground floor unit with no security that backed up to a wooded area. Coming from a small farming community, it never occurred to me to be concerned. She increased my living allowance and made me move into a different unit that would be safe for a single woman living alone.
Alan Tague at Gander Mountain is someone else whos been a major influence. As we have talked about the different paths our careers could take over the years, Alan pointed out to me that you can have a big LP career by being in the senior slot at a huge company or by being in a mid-size company, but having influence on the industry by taking on leadership roles sitting on advisory councils like the NRF, IAI, LP Magazine, and others.
I also make an intentional effort to gain perspective on my own program by inviting my peers, like Alan, to do a store walk with me when we are at conferences, and I will do one with them. We have a good group of senior LP executives here in Nashville who are great about collaborating with each other. Joe Hardman from Cracker Barrel and I speak often to get each others opinion or work on a common issue. He has regularly invited other LP executives in to speak to his LP team, which I think is a great way to expand their view of the LP industry. Steve Scott from Tractor Supply is someone else in Nashville I can count on.
Cheryl Blake at Verisk has been an example for me of someone who is constantly moving forward in her career in different ways. I recall her presenting at the 2000 NRF conference on telephone interviewing. I remember sitting in that session thinking, This is crazy; nobody is going to confess on the phone. But I was expecting with my youngest son at the time, and when I had to stop traveling, I tried interviewing by telephone. And it worked. She had to know when she agreed to teach that class that lots of folks were going to have the same reaction I did initially, but she stepped up and showed leadership in this area for our industry. She has gone on to be a great example of the possibilities beyond a traditional LP career by blazing a new path as a solutionprovider.
By far the best advice I ever got though was from my dad, who told me that as I tried new things, I might decide at some point that it was not what I wanted or thought it would be, and there was no shame in walking away. He went on to say that some of the things I wanted to do were going to be extremely challenging, and people might try to discourage me. So while it is okay to walk away, nobody gets to run away.
EDITOR: You are a woman in the loss prevention industry. Why is it we dont have more women in this business at your level?
MITCHELL: I never think of myself as a female LP executive, I just think of myself as an LP executive. I dont separate one from the other. I cant tell anyone how to succeed as a female in loss prevention because I only know how to succeed as a person. Part of succeeding in roles in the military was to understand that we were all soldiers with a common goal. Focusing on the differences between us like gender seemed to give that negative argument credibility, so I focused on our common goalsinstead.
Also, it never occurred to me that I didnt get an invitation to have a seat at the table. I always just assumed my invitation was lost in the mail. So I pulled up a chair anyway. I did not think in terms of being intentionally excluded. I sat right down, and nobody in the room saidno.
A big part of whatever success I have had was learning that I was going to fall down a lot on the way to wherever it was I wanted to be. Some people look at a long road and think, There are ten barriers between me and my goal and feel overwhelmed. I look at it and think, Ten? Excellent. I was thinking it would be twenty. If its not a really bumpy road, it makes me think maybe Im on the wrong road.
EDITOR: For years you have been involved in the NRF LP steering committee. What initiatives have been special for you in your involvement with that organization?
MITCHELL: Im chair of the awards committee, and probably the two things that are nearest and dearest to my heart is the ring of excellence, which you are a recipient of, Mr. Lee, and the volunteers in action video presentation. One of the best days I will have each year is the day that we make the call to the new ring of excellence recipient. We try to set it up so that they dont know why were calling so that we can surprise them with the award. I wish I had recorded peoples responses because it has been fascinating. These individuals, who are regarded as titans of our industry, are usually speechless, a bit unnerved, and choked up.
The ring of excellence is a great chance for us to honor people who have shaped the industry, who have provided opportunities for the rest of us by virtue of their accomplishments. I view the ring of excellence winners contributions as the steps that I was able to walk up to get to the goal I wanted. Their hard work helped to create the industry I enjoy today, and I am grateful to the NRF for providing the chance to thank them publicly by way of the NRF ring of excellence award each year.
EDITOR: Tell us about the volunteers in action program.
MITCHELL: The idea was really the brainchild of Mike Keenan, who said that we ought to have an award for people who go above and beyond in the interest of helping others. I completely agreed and thought that a PowerPoint set to music would be a great way to showcase these activities. This developed into the NRF volunteers in action video presentation that you see at the NRF LP conference each year. I could have never imagined the stories we would be privileged to tell. The things that individuals in the LP community have accomplished for the good of others are truly astonishing. The leaders who have provided an LP team approach to raising funds for the homeless, reading to kids, painting rundown schools, or sprucing up local parks have truly leveraged their teams for the greater good. The consistency with which they all tell me that they dont do it to be recognized is predictable. The depth of the willingness to give of their time and resources is incredible. [To read more about volunteers in action, see LP Professionals Giving Back in the May-June 2012 edition or on the LPportal.comwebsite.]
EDITOR: Thank you, Melissa, for sharing your day with us and sharing your thoughts with our readers. We look forward to seeing you in Long Beach, California, at the NRF conference inJune.
In order to be effective today, we must have an in-depth knowledge of all components of the business. We are business partners with a special expertise in loss prevention.
I think that shift is a reflection of our business partners having a greater understanding of our skill set as well as those in the LP industry constantly upping their game.
For me, being in several different companies gave me a very broad range of retail experience specialty, drug store, big box, jewelry, and apparel. It also gave me an opportunity to learn to adapt to many different corporate cultures and find solutions to a variety of problems from many different vantage points tailored to the business I was in at the time.
I never think of myself as a femaleLP executive, I just think of myself as an LP executive. I dont separate one from the other. I cant tell anyone how to succeed as a female in loss prevention because I only know how to succeed as a person. Part of succeeding in roles in the military was to understand that we were all soldiers with a common goal.
The ring of excellence is a greatchance for us to honor people who have shaped the industry, who have provided opportunities for the rest of us by virtue of their accomplishments. I view the ring of excellence winners contributions as the steps that I was able to walk up to get to the goal I wanted.