Live & Learn: Caryn Lerner

The Holt Renfrew fashion mogul on finding your passion, leadership and the retail biz.

Born Sept. 17, 1957, in Dallas • CEO and president of Holt Renfrew & Co. • Avid tennis player and pianist

So many kids today are under pressure to have mapped out where they’re going to be in 20 or 30 years. I didn’t have a clue. I was ambitious, and continue to be very ambitious, but I stay focused on trying to impact and influence what’s within my responsibilities. It’s rewarded me very well.

I am a big believer in people finding their passion, finding something they really love. If you don’t love what you do, it can be pretty ugly and very difficult. Some people know right at the start, and for some people it takes longer, and that’s okay.

Bloomingdale’s took me on as temporary Christmas help in November 1981. There was no guarantee of a job after Christmas, but it was a way to make some money and stay out of trouble.

They invited me to stay after that. It was the life of a dog. I never saw the selling floor; I was assigned to a buying office, so I lived in the stockroom. But there was something about the people, the pace, that wonderful cocktail we call retail that really clicked for me.

In the United States, the maternity leaves are six or eight weeks. After I had my second child I decided to stay home for a couple of months, which is sort of unheard of in the States. I tried to schedule my son’s play dates as if they were strategy meetings, and organize dinners as if they were board meetings. I quickly realized that the best contributions I would make to my family would come not from being a full-time mom, but fulfilling some things I needed to make me whole in the professional world.

I was recruited by Barry Diller to join QVC. This was a business still very much in its infancy — there were only two retailers using television airspace as the selling floor. It brought a lot of wonderful, crazy egos and skill sets together, from hosts of television programs to retailers. It was a very fast-paced environment that encouraged a lot of risk-taking, and nobody had the answers.

I had ideas about Holt Renfrew coming in, but in crafting the vision that we look toward, we worked as a team. To have everybody be a part of crafting what our vision is — what we dream about — I think is quite critical.

Companies depend on their leaders to make the tough decisions, to keep the business propelled toward the vision and making progress. You need to have passion. You need to be confident, even when you hit a speed bump. You need to have a sensitivity to people, but also be decisive and tough.

I was fortunate. I had a very strong and talented team of people in place at Holt Renfrew. It was a combination of my experience and the company that enabled me to hit the ground and have so much impact and influence on the business as quickly as I’ve been able to.

I’ve been a partner with my life’s destiny, and not tried to control it too much. When something unexpected comes, like a call from Barry Diller, or a call from Holt Renfrew to move to Canada, it’s not, hey, that’s not on my map. It’s like, let’s talk.

Retail isn’t a Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five job. It’s holidays, it’s weekends, it’s late nights, it’s early mornings. I love doing that, but I don’t get a lot of time for myself. Other than keeping piano and tennis very close to me, I really try to dedicate all my free time to my kids. Now that they’re getting older, I’m starting to get some more interests.

In school, I was a competitive and nationally ranked tennis player. I was the first girl to make the boys’ varsity tennis team at my high school in Rochester, N.Y. At the athletic banquet that year I got called up by the coach of the team and he handed me two white plaster tennis balls, and said I had earned my balls. I’ll never forget that. I still have them.

My father is the kind of guy who would look at a report card of straight As and say, “How come there are no A-pluses?” He always pushed me in a very positive way, and to never be content. He’s a great adviser and counsellor still to this day, and he’s instilled a very strong desire and passion to try to be the best I can be in everything I do.

Exclusivity is not just having something that nobody else has. It’s much bigger than that, because brands today are everywhere. Even the luxury brands aren’t that exclusive anymore.

Best advice? Remember to leave the house without your ego and with your sense of humour every day. I’m not sure I do that every day, but I try very hard to.