Meet Kelly Kroger, CEO of fashion retailer C&A for the Mexican market consisting of 80 stores, 4000 employees offering a full range of products for Women’s, Men’s & Kid’s divisions with annual sales of $350M USD as well as Retail Finance JV with Bradesco Bank. Women advocate and mom of two teenagers.
Who is Kelly Kroger? Define yourself
If you are familiar with the USA, you´ll understand me when I say I´m a quintessential Midwesterner. A down to earth person, with a strong work ethic who lives true to their values.
How were you as a kid?
I was a good kid, one who excelled at school and rarely got into trouble. I loved music, reading and playing kick-the-can with the neighborhood kids on summer nights. However, I was also very shy which meant my social circle was (and still is) quite small but I always dreamed big in terms of my future career.
“I have learned that goals are not met overnight but take time and require persistence and consistent dedication”
You hold a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) Finance general at University of Minnesota - Carlson School of Management and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Minnesota - Carlson School of Management. Why did you choose those courses of study?
My parents were both teachers, I have great admiration for them and all teachers, but I knew first-hand how difficult it was to solvent the family budget on a teacher’s salary. I was quite talented in mathematics and my mother encouraged me from a young age to go into business which led me to study Finance in college. Later I had the opportunity to study an MBA with a marketing emphasis to round out my education in all areas of business.
You started your career in the regional bank of Minnesota in the USA, later at Intel in the USA, In 1999 you arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico for working at Motorola as the financial planning manager, why did you decide to leave your country and move to Mexico without speaking Spanish?
The Midwest was a great place to grow up, but I dreamed of moving somewhere I considered more exciting, with more spice so to speak. When I was young that was New York City but after a semester abroad in Mexico I fell in love with the warmness of Latin culture. When the opportunity arose to move to Guadalajara to work for Motorola, I jumped at the opportunity even though my Spanish was very basic. I studied Spanish formally when I moved to Guadalajara because it was important to me to be able to communicate effectively in the local language. I didn´t expect everyone around me to facilitate my lack of knowledge and speak to me in English.
After some time in ON semiconductor (Motorola) the site where you were, closed, then you took a long break of 7 years to raise your daughter, after that, you work for Brown-Forman, how was the process to get back to the corporate the world after the big pause and how did you jump from the beverage industry to fashion in C&A?
My mother went back to work when I was 5 so I know first-hand what it´s like to be the only kid in the classroom whose Mother can´t attend school events. It was a priority to me as a Mother to be at home when my children were young. When the plant closed my daughter was 1 year old and 2 years later my son was born, in the end I took 7 years off from my career.
I have to admit the transition back to the corporate world was a humbling experience. Despite my education and experience and having left the workforce as a Plant controller, it was difficult to find a company that was interested in hiring me, especially at that level. After a long search I took an Administrative Director position at a family-owned company which served as a gateway back into working for international companies, first for Brown-Forman and currently for C&A.
One of the things that I enjoyed about working in the Finance function is that you have flexibility to change industries and after doing that several times I developed the ability to quickly understand a new industry. I entered C&A Mexico as CFO and 9 months later I was promoted to CEO.
“One of the biggest challenges that women face is that they assume a larger amount of household tasks and responsibility for child rearing. This means they have less time and energy to focus on their careers and face competing priorities for their time much more than their male counterparts”
I know C&A donates money to Global Fund for Women for protecting the human rights of women, and you have created mentoring and training programs that address topics such as leadership in the middle and upper management. Can you tell us more about these initiatives?
C&A´s corporate foundation works with change makers to fundamentally transform the fashion industry. One of their focus areas is gender justice. The foundation works with women rights groups to promote women´s voice, leadership and capacities to exercise their rights. C&A as a global brand is a signer of the UN´s Women Empowerment Principles.
With respect to C&A Mexico, diversity and inclusion are one of our key values. We have implemented a 2-yr leadership program for Sr. Managers and have identified high potential women in our company and provided them with additional opportunities for mentorship and coaching to work towards gender parity in our talent pipeline. We have also created recruiting processes that ensure both male and female candidates are included in selection processes.
You have labored in Mexico and the USA, what are the biggest differences between both countries in the way of working, the profile of employees, etc.?
Based on my experience, one of the biggest differences is that Mexican organizations tend to be more hierarchical than their counterparts in the USA. In Mexico, decisions are often taken at a relatively high level in the organization which can create silos and slows the speed of decision-making. In the USA, lower levels of the organization are more frequently empowered to make decisions within their area of responsibility. This also leads to a higher level of leadership and decision-making abilities in middle-management.
One other cultural difference I would mention is that employees in the USA frequently and openly challenge their peers and higher-ups in the organization, engaging in active debate as part of the decision-making process. In Mexico, this does not happen naturally. It takes time and deliberate and consistent actions to create a work culture where employees feel safe sharing their opinions, without specifically being asked for them, and especially when they are not in agreement with their direct manager.
“It´s important to learn how to say no, or not now, outsource other things and realize some things are ok simply being good enough. Unfortunately, the reality is that women will need to sacrifice some aspects of their lives if they aspire to reach the highest level of business or their chosen field”
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the years?
My biggest lesson has been to trust in myself and my abilities. I have learned that goals are not met overnight but take time and require persistence and consistent dedication.
You have a very successful career, what´s the recipe for your success?
I don´t give up very easily! I focus on the what and not so much on the how. I set an objective for myself and if one strategy doesn´t work, I pivot and try another, and another, and another until I accomplish my goal.
What does a normal workday look like for you?
In retail our work weeks are front-end loaded, so Monday and Tuesday are usually long days reviewing prior week´s result and defining actions to implement before the weekend. I try and utilize Thursday and Friday for visiting stores, more strategic thinking and reading and preparing for the next week.
In terms of my workdays, I am usually up by 6 am to ensure my kids are up, ready and out the door for school (pre-covid) and in the office by 8:30. C&A Mexico, and retail in general, is a fast pace business and the days can be long but go by very fast. After work I like to do Bikram yoga at least 4x a week which helps me to relax and disconnect before arriving at home.
“Earlier on in my career I overcame challenges by working hard, demonstrating my abilities, quantifying my results and networking to build valuable professional relationships”
What do you love most about your job as a CEO? & what is the most difficult part?
What I enjoy most about the role of CEO is the ability to evoke real change, both in the business as well as in the organization. I have worked, along with my very capable management team, to successfully grow the business, provide the Mexican consumer with a quality product at a reasonable price, increase our focus on sustainability and transform the culture of our organization into a value-based meritocracy.
What many people don´t realize is that it is a lonely job. Although you work with your management team and the organization as a whole, you are always the boss. Knowing that the jobs of 4000 employees depend on my business strategy and my ability to lead its successful execution, is a great responsibility, one which I take very seriously.
What is one strategy that has helped you to grow in your professional ladder?
I am a very curious person and business fascinates me. So, when I enter a company, I always spend time to understand the overall business and how the parts fit together. I do this by asking lots of questions of my colleagues in all areas of the company about their work as well as taking every opportunity to visit manufacturing plants, distribution centers, stores and company locations in other cities and countries.
I think in order to be a top finance professional you have to have a full understanding of the business (and industry) in which you work. This allows you to interpret the financials, provide valuable insights and be a strategic partner in achieving company goals. This is what allowed me to shift from a CFO role into a CEO role within C&A Mexico.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that women in senior management face? What would you suggest addressing this?
I think the challenge is simply getting to the senior management level. One of the biggest challenges that women face is that they assume a larger amount of household tasks and responsibility for child rearing. This means they have less time and energy to focus on their careers and face competing priorities for their time much more than their male counterparts.
Companies can support women, especially through the 5 or so years before their children are school age, by offering more flexible options that allow women to utilize tools such as home office, job-sharing, employer sponsored day care to navigate that period. In Mexico, 6 out of every 10 women exit the workforce when they have children. That translates to an incredible loss of talent for companies and the economy in general.
I also want to say that this is not a challenge that can be solved by companies alone. It is also important to have support at home. Demands of the home and children need to be shared or outsourced so that women have a reasonable workload between both office and the home.
“Learn to identify and create opportunities and take advantage of them, you never know where they will lead you”
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m the CEO of C&A Mexico and a single mother to two teenage children so I don´t always get a lot of spare time. However, I generally use my spare time to disconnect with work and recharge my batteries. I still love reading, do yoga, spend time with friends and relax.
Many authors say women can and must strive to have everything – a shining career, a blossoming family life and a perfectly balanced lifestyle all at once, others point out that– then women are placing unrealistic expectations on themselves if they believe they can have it all, you are a single mom with two children, so according to your experience, what do you think about these statements?
I do believe that we place unrealistic expectations on women and we shouldn´t have to sacrifice sleep, exercise, personal time or interests to have a career.
I am divorced and have two kids who live with me, so the balancing act is challenging at times. I am an extremely practical woman because I have to be. It´s important to learn how to say no, or not now, outsource other things and realize some things are ok simply being “good enough”. Unfortunately, the reality is that women will need to sacrifice some aspects of their lives if they aspire to reach the highest level of business or their chosen field.
I often tell young women that work/life balance is not a daily nor weekly concept. It is achieved over a lifetime. Between college and marriage I focused heavily on my career, when I had children I focused many years on them and now that they´re older and more independent I can juggle being a CEO and a mom and finally I dream of reaching retirement when I can focus on me!
What are your plans for the future?
I will continue to pursue professional growth as a CEO and a transformational leader. I constantly strive to learn and acquire new skills and look for opportunities to utilize them. I do have a dream at some point of applying my experience to my own business, one that would allow me to split my time between the USA and Mexico.
There is still the glass ceiling for women in the world: Fewer opportunities, jobs underpaid just for that fact of being a woman, etc. Have you experimented with the glass ceiling? If yes, what are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
Yes, I have faced challenges where I felt opportunities were denied to me because of my gender and have experienced the gender pay gap. Earlier on in my career I overcame them by working hard, demonstrating my abilities, quantifying my results and networking to build valuable professional relationships. At my current level, I am fortunate that I can choose who I work for to a great extent. I choose to work for companies, like C&A, that have strong values and are committed to diversity.
What tips, can you give to young girls who want to work in the fashion industry as you?
Play the long game. Early on in your career it is important to focus on learning and acquiring knowledge and experience that will help you achieve longer-term career goals, rather than the highest paying position.
Build relationships, it is important to build professional relationships with people in different industries, functions, companies etc. Looking back, I can see how my professional network was a component in every job I´ve obtained.
Career paths are very dynamic. For as much as you might try and plan out your future, the reality will likely be very different. Learn to identify and create opportunities and take advantage of them, you never know where they will lead you. After all I started out as a financial analyst in a bank in Minnesota and now, I am the CEO of a fashion retailer in Mexico!
I think in your position, many people may have the wrong idea of who you are, and what do you (professionally), with this idea in mind, what is being Kelly and what´s not?
As the CEO of a fashion retailer I´m sure people think I spend most of my time on reviewing the design of collections and in fashion shows when in reality those activities are part of our CMO´s role. My time is generally split between managing the business real time, defining strategic vision for the company and the organizational culture and labor climate.
Who is the woman you admire the most and why?
It’s hard for me to mention just one. I admire women who have overcome adversity to achieve great things. Strong women who are successful in roles not traditionally defined as “woman roles”.
But to name a name, Oprah Winfrey is someone I greatly admire and more recently I have been admiring Angela Merkel for her leadership during the COVID pandemic.
Name: Kelly Kroger
Sector: Fashion Retail
Company: C&A México
Social media: https://mx.linkedin.com/in/kelly-kroger-a1387915