Minnesota State business graduate helped take Target to $40 billion and becomes international expert on trends
Photo by Kris Kathmann
In 1975, Mankato State Robyn Niichel looked like most other students walking across Stadium Road to their parked automobiles. Not much stood out. She hailed from small-town rural Minnesota—even attending a one-room schoolhouse for one year. Only a few years before had she begun controlling her stuttering.
She soon enrolled in an international business policy course, blossomed, and through her professor learned of an MSU exchange program with the University of London, Birkbeck College. The experience in London changed her life—and would yours.
Seventeen years later, she became vice president of Minnesota-based Target Corporation and began playing a pivotal role in pushing the upscale discounter from $3 billion regionally to $40 billion nationally in only ten years. Now no longer with Target Corporation, Robyn Waters is an internationally recognized trends and trends analysis expert (visit her website). She has authored two books: The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape and The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next. Additionally, she has chatted up trends with Tom Peters, provided saying No. 110 on Starbucks coffee cups, and is a sought-after keynote speaker and hired gun visionary. As for southern Minnesota, on occasion, she addresses Minnesota State business students and visits her uncle in lower North Mankato.
Thanks to that MSU professor, what happened in London? “I met people from all around the world,” said Waters. “It was as if someone had pushed a magic button—and suddenly I was in a new world.”
You grew up in rural Minnesota and learned your ABC’s, in part, in a one-room schoolhouse. What lessons learned there benefit you today?
I learned about teamwork and multi-tasking while watching a teacher teach six grades at once. When I was in the sixth grade, the sixth graders helped the second graders with their numbers and the fifth graders helped the third graders with spelling. For the teacher, it must have been like juggling a lot of balls. Everyone was involved in everything. It was a wonderful lesson. At that school, we knew everyone and their families. That was very different from the corporate world I would end up in. We moved from Plymouth to rural Corcoran when I was in fifth grade. It was a major transition. I was at the one-room schoolhouse one year before going to a rural high school. My Rockford High senior class had 52 students.
People I’ve interviewed who attended a rural school often say they later tried taking that type of close-knit environment and putting it into place at their business.
Interesting. I think because of growing up in such a small town, I wanted to see the world and to strike out on my own. I chose working for big corporations. However, within that big corporation, as my job got bigger—referring to Target—I’d say I ran my department much like my teacher did in the one-room schoolhouse. I aligned the people in my department in teams. For instance, if someone was a textile designer, they might design prints and patterns for placemats one day and children’s onesies the next. I wanted people to get the full breadth of experience.
My father was self-employed as a homebuilder and my mother was an interior decorator/designer. They worked together. My father was an entrepreneur and built custom homes on speculation. I saw hard work modeled every day and creativity in the way my mother designed and decorated.
I lived in 21 different brand-new homes in 22 years. My dad would buy thirty acres, for instance, and build custom colonial homes one at a time on two-acre plots. As we moved into the first one, he’d start building a second. Potential buyers would walk in that second home, for example, see an empty home with no curtains, furniture, paint or carpeting, and couldn’t envision what it would look like. Then they would come to our home—that my mother had decorated beautifully—to discuss buying the spec home, and would end up wanting to buy ours. So we were constantly moving into a new house. Most kids have chores like taking out the garbage. My chore one day might be taking five boxes before school over to the new house.
Also, we always lived where Dad built his homes. I learned the importance of good customer service and of doing a good job the first time around. Living and working in the neighborhoods where my dad built put us in constant close proximity to clients. They always knew where to find us if there was a problem.
I imagine it would have been difficult being in a home, liking it, and having to constantly move.
But it gave me a sense of adventure. I was always involved with something new, beautiful, and fresh. Moving so much taught me that people could create their own beauty and surroundings. Each house was unique. That gave me an openness to seeing the world differently.
Everything was always new.
I loved I could help make the house look the way I wanted. There is something magical to a child about walking into what was going to be their new bedroom and being part of the design process, such as helping to decide on the wall color, curtains, carpeting, and where to put furniture. It probably helped train my eye in terms of style, decor and aesthetics, and caused me to be hyper-aware of my surroundings.
That was quite an education.
It certainly was, although that’s not what I set out to do or become. It worked out to my favor, though.
What did you set out to become?
In college, I was very focused. I wanted to be a grain buyer for the futures market for a food company like Cargill. I figured the world would always need food. The futures market was aligned with being able to spot trends and determining where they might be going. I was always very drawn to that.
Why choose Minnesota State after graduating from high school in 1971?
I wanted to be away from home, but not too far. Financially, MSU was what my parents could afford. I worked for my spending money. Also, MSU had a good reputation, and Mankato was halfway to Iowa, where my father grew up. During summers growing up, I had visited my cousins in Mankato. My uncle still lives in North Mankato.
Did anyone at MSU make a special impression on you?
I had a business professor from India that taught International Business Policy. He had started a program for business school seniors to study at the University of London, Birkbeck College. It was a grand adventure. It was my first exposure to global anything before anyone was talking about global markets or business. That professor was a very good teacher. After three months in London, I had a taste for the big city. I met people from all around the world. It was as if someone had pushed a magic button—and suddenly I was in a new world.
Take me through your career path after MSU.
My first job was with Donaldson’s Department Store in Minneapolis. In my three years there, they had three different store presidents. I was a small fish in a small pond. I loved retail. But, quite frankly, I wanted to make a lot of money. I had read in a business magazine that if you really want to be successful, as a young person out of college, you should expect to make three career moves the first ten years. When the headhunter called with an opportunity to interview for a high-end department store in Jackson, Mississippi, I jumped at the opportunity. It was a chance to be a very big fish in a very small pond. The position I eventually accepted was director of fashion, special events, and public relations. At age 24, I had two women reporting to me—one my mother’s age.
You were a Yankee woman in Mississippi. Were you prepared?
I didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into, but had confidence I was good at retail. Because of opportunities I’d had at Donaldson’s, I knew some things I could do right away to take the company to the next level. I don’t think I was overly confident, but secure, knowing I could make a difference. I walked too fast, and talked too fast, but I also learned really fast. I could tell a million stories about living in Mississippi.
All right. I’d been at the company less than six months, and we were opening a new store in the Delta. I was responsible for planning all the grand opening events. We had a giant balloon release, parties, and celebrities. All the executives were sent to merchandise the store the week before it opened. Hotel rooms in the area were limited, so we were assigned roommates. I shared a room with Ginny Rae, a beautiful Southern belle with hair to her waist. She wore a Rolex watch and carried a Louis Vuitton handbag. I thought she was absolutely amazing. When we walked into our Holiday Inn room with our overnight bags, Ginny Rae said, “Well, Sugah, which bed would you prefer?” I said she could have either. So she opened up her satchel, took out a handgun, and said, “How about since I have one of these, I’ll take the bed by the door.” She tucked the handgun under her pillow. I slept in the bed close to the wall and didn’t get up all night.
Then you went to Boston.
After three years in Mississippi, ending in 1982, I developed criteria to help me choose where to interview for my next position. I wanted to be north of the Mason-Dixon line, in a city half a million or greater, and in a store with designer fashions. Boston fit the qualifications. My first week there was July Fourth. Thousands of people were there for Arthur Fiedler, the Boston Pops, and fireworks. I was wandering around by myself feeling very lonely and wondering what had I done. I had been very safe and secure in Mississippi and had taken a risk.
What in Boston added to your personal growth?
The man running Jordan Marsh, Elliot Stone, was a premier merchant similar to the old generation of retailers. I learned a lot about merchandising from him. In retail, you don’t want markdowns—that means the product didn’t sell. But at a buyers’ meeting once, Elliot Stone said markdowns were all right. That’s how you learn, he said. He said you just make sure the markdown racks were the best looking racks on the floor. If you’re going to take a markdown, learn something from it. In his book, it was all right to make mistakes.
In business today, the tolerance for risk taking isn’t high because everything has become a process. You are told you must do everything a certain way, stay within boundaries, and there isn’t much room for creativity. A sense of freedom existed at Jordan Marsh.
While in Boston, you were laid off.
Yes, after ten phenomenal years in retailing from 1982-92. These were the golden years of retail that included the birth of designer fashion. I was the men’s fashion director and had my first opportunities to travel to Italy and London to learn international designer markets. I was exposed to a much larger world than I could have ever imagined.
Then came a Friday in November. Five of us from our division were at a store in New Hampshire. In those days, you would work the floor, merchandise the racks, meet the customers, help at the sales desk, and learn your new product. We were called into the store manager’s office, where the store manager put the receiver on the cradle, pressed the speakerphone button, and left. Our company president at the time came on line and effectively laid-off all of corporate headquarters. We were being merged with A&S in Brooklyn. We were offered the opportunity to go through a peer evaluation to compete for our jobs, but had to be willing to move to New York. We were informed of a generous severance package and more details would be forthcoming on Monday at corporate headquarters. I went through a weekend of total disbelief.
But Target wanted you.
Yes, but I was a department store snob. I liked high fashion. The real reason I accepted the opportunity to interview with Target was that it was in Minneapolis on Mother’s Day weekend and I hadn’t seen my mom in months. Target was a small regional discounter then. But after the interview, I really wanted to work for them. They were doing things differently and offered a unique vision making a lot of sense to me.
Back then Target was doing only $3 billion.
Wal-Mart was ten times and Kmart three times larger. Target was not the likely bet. Yet I came back inspired. It was an excellent opportunity at great pay. But it was also a big leap of faith.
How was Target able to go from $3 billion to $40 billion when you left in 2002?
It had a clear sense of mission, a vision driven both top-down and bottom-up. Bob Ulrich was the chairman. The formula was a platform I called a three-legged stool—the company would be trend right, customer-focused, and design-driven. We were one of the first companies after Ikea to consciously use design to create exclusive, trend-right, differentiated product. Design was a tool to adapt a trend into something meaningful for customers. It was a brilliant, unique formula.
Could you give an example?
Take the tabletop area in Target—basic dinnerware. Crate and Barrel had come onto the scene and was doing this array of dinnerware at prices more than three times higher than Target. One holiday season, we had gold, terracotta charger plates the same year they had them, but at one-third the price. These weren’t knock-offs. They were our own fine-quality designs created exclusively for Target customers. Our mission was to have the same fashion and trend as the specialty stores and at the same time.
Wall Street saw our competition as Wal-Mart and Kmart—other discounters. But internally, we saw it as The Gap, Banana Republic, Crate and Barrel, Pier One, Dayton’s. In essence, we became the upscale discounter—a paradox. Back then, discount retailers, in general, had not-so-clean floors, poor lighting, and the merchandise was piled high on a table. The chairman of Target mandated clean aisles, great lighting, and easy-to-navigate floors. He felt a woman with a shopping cart should be able to navigate the racks easily. It was a revolution in discount retailing.
Looking at your years with Target, what one thing do you point to that makes you feel good about your time there?
The talented design that I brought to the company. I hired well over a hundred designers. (Many more have been hired since.) I hired an incredibly diverse group of talented people to turn ideas into product. I created the product design department at Target.
When you say product design, you are including what?
Everything from housewares to children’s clothing, dog dishes, garage storage and organization, and light switch plates for children’s playrooms. Over my last two years, Super Target became part of the strategy. We even tracked and translated food trends for Target customers.
Why leave in 2002?
I’d been there ten years. To be really honest, it wasn’t fun anymore. The company was fifteen times bigger than when I’d started. Multiple layers of management had made it much harder to be creative and entrepreneurial. As I fought hard for my team, I created some waves. In 2002, Six Sigma came into the company. Honestly, I couldn’t work under those kinds of restraints—actually, I could have, but I wouldn’t have been authentic.
I had turned 50 and been in retail almost 30 years. When stopping to think about it, I realized I potentially had half my life ahead of me. It seemed a good time to reinvent myself. I had some ideas that went against the grain of what many believed to be the formula for success. I had some important things I wanted to share, based on my experience. That’s when I wrote The Trendmaster’s Guide.
I’ve heard you draw inspiration from biographies you read.
Yes. I have been greatly inspired by other creative, brave people. One of my favorites is Gertrude Bell, the Desert Queen. She was very smart, and brought up in Victorian England when women had few rights. She went to Oxford to study and on to Persia and Arabia where she served in the Foreign Service. She became very knowledgeable about desert tribes, learned regional dialects, unearthed archaeological treasures, and wrote historical society papers. She traveled by camel and loved adventure and became friends with Lawrence of Arabia. After WW1, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East, and was, at the time, the British Empire’s most powerful woman.
Sounds like a Renaissance woman.
A Renaissance woman, and a bit of a rebel. A different kind of thinker. I love her sense of spirit, courage, and adventure. I believe you can learn a lot about the future by looking at the past. That’s possibly the ultimate paradox.
Is anything ever really new?
No, and my answer to that question got me my first job in retailing. I had a situation in which I’d tried several times to be hired for a local department store training program. Personnel kept losing my application because of the spelling of my maiden name (Niichel). I eventually wrote a letter to the store president to protest the treatment I had received. I told him they were running their personnel department poorly, explained what had happened, and suggested that if the company treated customers the way they were treating prospective employees, it wouldn’t be too long before they didn’t have any customers. He invited me downtown for a one-on-one interview. There was no job at the time because the training program had been filled, so this was really just a meet and greet. During our time together, he asked me that question: Is anything ever really new? We had a lively discussion about fashion and trends, during which I told him that while newness and freshness exists in the marketplace, you can usually look back to the past and find some indicator of where the concept came from.
Define being authentic?
I believe authenticity is making choices based on your values. It’s being really honest and in touch with your feelings. It’s important to not put on airs, and to be very open to new ideas and ways of looking at things. It’s really all about being true to your own heart and not about being what someone else thinks you should be.
Several people I’ve interviewed over the years also seek authenticity. However, a problem arises sometimes when their authenticity clashes with company culture. How do you handle those situations?
Several times, as I climbed the corporate ladder, I challenged things. Mostly that had to do with personnel practices, such as how raises were distributed and figured for the creatives in my staff area, where results weren’t always determined by a financial. I went to bat for my team many times and I learned to stand up for my values. Sometimes that can get you into trouble. I learned to persevere. Initially in my career, I wanted to follow the expectations set by the company, but ultimately I became a “respective rebel” while challenging practices I thought were antiquated. I learned to fly ‘under the radar’ to get things done, but always operated within the rules.
From your first book: Compare a trend spotter to a trendsetter.
I’m going to add Trendmaster to that. A trend spotter sees what’s happening—they are usually up to the minute. A trendsetter adapts the trend personally and becomes an icon for what’s new and hip—they live for the Next Big Thing. A Trendmaster tracks and translates trends into sales and profit. Translation is the key. A Trendmaster looks inside customer hearts and minds to determine what’s important, not just what’s next.
The idea that trends should be more about what is important rather than what is next is the cornerstone of my “Trend from the Inside Out” philosophy. That philosophy landed me on Starbucks coffee cups around the world as author’s quote #110, in between Herbie Hancock and Alice Hoffman.
Tell us some trends going on right now.
One macrotrend I write about is luxurious commodities, which involves taking something basic and making it special, like Starbucks coffee. Commodities sell based on price. A luxurious commodity creates a reason to buy—it delivers something special, a small indulgence, and rationalizes paying a bit more for it. It’s a differentiation tool when you’re selling something similar to your competitors.
Another trend is extreme relaxation. We work hard and play hard, so how do we relax hard? We are all very stressed. Anything to help a customer rest easy and deliver piece of mind has the potential to deliver additional profits. Peace of mind is the new gold standard these days.
Also, I’m very much aligned with the green movement. Green is not a fad. Sustainability is about doing more with less and having less waste. I don’t think there could be anything better for our economy or country right now than sustainability issues and taking care of the environment. There are many ways to look at it, from saving electricity and packaging waste to saving time and energy efficiency.
In The Trendmaster’s Guide, you go from A to Z with ideas helping people get a jump on what the customer wants next. Could you review a couple of those ideas for our readers? Start with “A.”
“A” is for antennae, which refers to awareness and not living with blinders on. It’s about being open-minded and open to creativity. “B” is for big picture. While you’re looking at the various trend indicators, you need to step back and find the big picture that matters to your customer. “C” is for connect the dots. It’s about connecting those little indicators and putting them together in a way to deliver a bigger picture that makes sense for the customer—in a way that addresses their wants and needs.
When speaking at MSU, what do you tell students?
I say it’s not the degree you earn, but what you do with it. I talk about courage, risk taking and creativity. I tell them not to lose their voice or soul when they get into the corporate world—that they need to have the courage to stand up for themselves and do things differently. Yes, they need to learn how to work within the system, but also to think outside the box—and that’s a paradox. I say to find something they love because they’re probably going to be doing it for a long time. You can’t be good at something unless you’re passionate about it.
CONNECT: You have written that the art of following intuition and instinct has all been forgotten in today’s corporate environment. Why? Also, can you give an example of a person following their instinct and succeeding?
WATERS: Business is run very much for Wall Street investors concerned about quarterly or yearly financial statements. Many corporate decisions are not made for the long-term best interest of the brand or customer. One person following his instincts was Howard Schultz, who founded Starbucks. Back then, Maxwell House and Folger’s were the best-selling brands and the restaurant rate for a cup of coffee was fifty cents. Why would anyone pay two dollars? Starbucks wasn’t about coffee; it was about the experience you had consuming it. If you had tried selling his business to venture capitalists back then, they would have laughed you out the door. Yet he had vision.
On page one of his business plan, he said he wanted to create a profit in a benevolent manner. Something inside of him wanted to do good and make money. I write a lot about social capitalism—that you can do good and make money. That sense came from his heart, not from a business book or course he took in college.
CONNECT: Management guru Tom Peters called you his hero. Why?
WATERS: I think he liked my spunk. I met him at a skunk camp, which is a place where thought leaders go to brainstorm. I worked for a very cool company, Target, which was on Peters’ radar in terms of a company doing many things right. At one point, Tom Peters had a brand, and the brand I.D. was a red exclamation point. He casually said to me at a business meeting, “What could you do with this exclamation point as a brand icon?”
I asked my design team to think of all the cool things they could do with it. We put all the designs together in a red presentation folder and sent them to him. He flipped out. Later, he came to Minneapolis for a seminar, took me to dinner, and we chatted. I consider him a mentor in terms of thought leadership—not that we talk on a regular basis or anything. But he’s always inspired me in terms of the way he talks and thinks. It was nice having him say those things.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU: ROBYN WATERS
Born: Plymouth, Minnesota.
Husband: Gary Springer.
Education: Rockford High School ‘71; Mankato State ‘75, with a dual major—business administration/marketing, and textile and clothing fashion merchandising.