Her name is Linda. At least that’s what Suzanne Sutter, president of Things Remembered Inc., calls her.
Linda is 42 years old, always busy and has a family that is very important to her. She works in an office, owns a computer, contributes to her favorite charity every year and has plenty of disposable income. In 2000, Linda spent nearly $276 million on personalized gifts like clocks, crystal and picture frames at Things Remembered. Chances are, one of these items is sitting on your desk or hanging on your wall.
Obviously, “Linda” isn’t one woman. She represents the average customer at Things Remembered. She’s an aggregate profile Sutter assembled from more than 400,000 customers analyzed by her company. But Things Remembered’s $276 million in annual sales isn’t just derived from “Linda” and women like her. The chain of stores, located in 800 malls nationwide, also caters to younger women, usually brides-to-be, and a consistent business customer base.
Both of those markets are just as carefully scrutinized as “Linda,” thanks to the changes Sutter made after she took over at the personalized gift store chain in 1997.
Sutter targeted her customer, found her spending patterns and learned to market to her. Likewise, she identified the younger female and business customers and sent them the right catalogs, developed the gifts they want to buy and dispensed with the products no one wanted. Every purchase, made from the kiosks to the mall storefronts, is digitally logged with key customer demographic information.
This precise market knowledge has helped Sutter increase sales by 25 percent over the past four years and more than double the company’s profits. So it comes as no surprise that Things Remembered is the engraved sterling silver apple of parent company Cole National Corp.’s eye, and its top performer.
“Suzanne is a very strong leader,” says Larry Pollock, Cole National’s president and chief operating officer. “I think there’s great opportunity for Things Remembered to continue to focus on the customer and understand their needs through more focused merchandising and marketing, which Suzanne has in her strategic plan.”
Sutter has been with Cole National for 24 years, since earning her master’s degree in organizational behavior from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. Joining Things Remembered seemed to be a stroke of fate.
“I grew up in malls when I was a kid,” she says. “I was a mall rat. I love to shop and I love malls, but I love the pace and the energy of retailing.”
A native of Zionsville, Ind., Sutter’s first job was at Long’s Drug Store, a small neighborhood shop near her home. There she learned the importance of remembering her customers and making them feel special.
“Even when I was 15, I would have regular customers,” she says. “They would come in and I would be reaching for whatever they wanted because I knew already, and they got such a kick out of that because it made it such a fun place to visit.”
Sutter realized, even before Things Remembered existed, that relationships sell.
“If you build a relationship with a customer, it’s more powerful than any marketing program because people buy from people,” she says. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s retail or direct selling, people buy from people. Every customer wants to be treated as an individual, as a person, and to be remembered.”
She’s held on to those teen-age lessons as president of a multi-hundred million dollar corporate division. Just visit her at Things Remembered’s Highland Heights headquarters and witness the personal touch. An assistant doesn’t lead you to her office; she comes out to the lobby to greet you.
At the meeting, she might comment on what you’re wearing if it’s too bland, too conservative; she notices things like that. Adding style is one of the first changes she made to the Things Remembered stores when she took over. She brightened them up, made them more inviting. The company’s target market — women like “Linda” — had found the stores too dark and serious, Sutter says.
“It was green, it was brown, it was very appealing to men, but my customer is a woman,” she says.
Sutter is usually clad in bright colors. On a sunny but cold morning in early December, she wore a thick, bright purple coat. Her short, wispy, blond hair and bright blue eyes added to the kaleidoscopic effect.
Usually serious and intense in conversation, Sutter packs two hours worth of information into a half-hour meeting. But at times, her corporate veneer disappears and a disarming laugh rolls from her mouth.
“Gift-giving is always last minute, but guys are the worst, right?” she laughs. “I’ve had grooms that have shown up on the day of the wedding with no gifts for their groomsmen and said, ‘I’m desperate.’ I’m not talking one groom, I’m talking lots of grooms.”
Sutter climbed the corporate ladder quickly at Cole National after joining at age 27 as a human resources officer and working her way up by proving to Cole’s top management that not only could she handle more responsibility, she understood business.
“I have kind of an unusual background for a president in that I came out of organizational behavior,” she says. “My graduate training is in organizational behavior and managing change. Case Western Reserve has such a tremendous graduate program in organizational behavior. But what I learned in graduate school about the whole process of diagnosing the need for change, how to facilitate change, how to help people cope with change, has been extremely valuable because that’s what you do every day in business.”
After a brief stint working for The Limited in college, Sutter was hired as a recruiter for Picker Instruments, which changed hands from Marconi Medical Systems and then Phillips Medical Systems.
While at Picker in 1975, Sutter enrolled in Weatherhead’s Master’s of Organizational Development program. It was the program’s first year, prompting much excitement on campus and in the city and even spawning a nickname: The MOD Squad. It was there Sutter met Eric Neilsen, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated professor leading the course, and a man who would be the catalyst for her rise to the top.
“The biggest thing I noticed about Suzanne was her extraordinary amount of energy,” Neilsen says. “She was one of the youngest people in the program, so she did not have a great deal of experience at that time. But her level of intensity and her willingness just to be out front was what stood amount immediately.”
The 25-year-old Sutter did stand out in the group of 15 men and 11 women, most of whom were at least a decade older. A neophyte human resources recruiter, she was among a diverse group that included the assistant superintendent of the Ashtabula Docks, the head the laundry systems for Metropolitan Hospitals and the manager of the contact lens section at the Cleveland Clinic.
“The program is very humanistic-oriented,” Neilsen says. “We come from the old school, where the ideal of an organization is to maximize productivity and human fulfillment. In the 1970s in Cleveland, we still had very strong authoritarian-run organizations with a lot of hierarchy. (At Case), we were in the business of promoting things like participation, self-responsibility, candor, relating to other people as equals, taking the positive side and assuming everyone in the organization has something to offer and is concerned for its welfare.”
The people management skills she learned from Neilsen, coupled with a graduate degree from the nation’s top organizational behavior program, helped Sutter land a human resources position at Cole National in 1977. Cole was in a rapid growth period, with the growing popularity of vision care in union and labor contracts. The market was estimated at $3.5 billion and Cole, through its expanding Cole Vision stores, was trying to grab as much market share as it could.
Cleveland’s good-old-boy mentality and the mounting corporate pressure at Cole National didn’t crush the idealism Sutter had built within the ivy-covered brick walls of Case Western. On the contrary, she changed the company.
“If there’s one thing I learned in that program it’s that an organization is all about people,” Sutter says. “If you can figure out how to unlock the success of people, you can cause your company to be more successful. I learned a lot with how to help people understand their strengths, understand their developmental issues and how to cause them to be more successful.”
In the late 1970s, Cole National was expanding beyond its infrastructure. Cracks appeared. The right employees weren’t hired for the right positions, and managers didn’t have time to communicate with their superiors about the direction of the company.
Sutter wasted no time putting systems in place for finding the right workers and managing employees.
“At that point, the company was not very sophisticated,” says Nancy Rodeno, a former human resources colleague of Sutter’s at Cole National and now director of management and organizational development at The Sherwin-Williams Co. “They didn’t have the systems. Suzanne was way ahead of her time as a human resource executive in those days in that she understood that human resources had to be linked to the business strategy and the implementation of the mission of the business.
“And in the ’90s, that turned out to be the new thing.”
The management at Cole National, which was still a family business in many ways, was surprisingly open to the changes spurred by Sutter. Rodeno says she and Sutter were always included in strategic planning meetings — even early on, Cole’s leaders could see how human resources would be the key to realizing their vision.
“We were business-minded people with a human resource side rather than human resource people that didn’t know a lot about business,” Rodeno says. “It was just the most natural thing that human resources was the focal point of getting it done.”
Sutter became chief human resources officer in 1984, a general manager in 1991 and president of Cole Gift Centers in 1995, which was Things Remembered’s sister company until 1997.
“I think it was pretty clear that Suzanne was going to be a leader at some point,” Rodeno says. “She saw herself in an operating role, and at some point she felt that she had the skills to be given a shot at it.”
Sutter rose to the top not just on skills and education, but also on a tireless work ethic. Like most top executives, she expects long hours from herself as well as from her employees.
“Suzanne was a major workaholic when I worked with her,” Rodeno says. “She’s just real high-energy, very achievement-oriented, very people-oriented. She’s just a dynamo.”
Neilsen, who asked Sutter to speak to his graduate class after her ascent at Cole, says he, too, has heard about the demands Sutter puts on herself and her employees.
“On one hand, Suzanne works you to death,” he says. “But on the other hand, she really teaches people a hell of a lot. They work for her for two or three years, they come out exhausted, but they feel like they’ve been equipped to be their own HR managers.”
Sutter says she does push her people to be the best, but there are rewards. She flies the top 60 Things Remembered managers into Cleveland to “wine them and dine them and treat them like kings and queens for two days,” she says. The top six regional sales managers are awarded a trip with their spouse, usually to a tropical locale, to thank them for superior performance.
“If you’re going to celebrate occasions and you’re going to celebrate life’s special moments, you better celebrate your people,” Sutter says.
After the closing of Cole Gift Centers, Sutter launched her market research campaign. It was a bold, expensive first step for the new leader, but it increased revenue by $50 million for the company and boosted profits.
“I tried to understand what our customers liked about our stores and what our customers didn’t like about our stores,” Sutter says. “We own the niche, there’s no other company that does what we do on a national scale. Sales had been flat for several years, so I needed to understand why.”
Sutter traveled to Things Remembered stores around the country to talk to managers. She put together store manager focus groups and asked them the same kinds of questions she asked customers. What did they think about the company? If they were in charge, what they would do differently?
“Because they interact with the customer so much, they had a lot of rich information,” Sutter says. “I spent the first year aggressively understanding what our people thought and what our customers thought. From there, I began to reshape how to build a new and improved brand.”
It was common knowledge that the average customer at Things Remembered was a woman, but no one really knew who she was. Her age was vague. Was it the brides, or was grandma the main shopper? There were a lot of business gifts sold, but who was buying them? Men? Women? Do people buy just for holidays, or were weddings the big draw? Sutter found the answers to all these questions and then some.
As Linda’s picture came into focus, Sutter started to buy targeted customer lists. Human resources officers and small business owners received the business catalog; brides-to-be received the wedding catalog at least 90 days before the big event. Things Remembered went from sending out no catalogs to sending out 5 million this year.
“You have to invest money to make money,” Sutter says. “But we really felt that because of the nature of our business, we didn’t have a well thought out marketing strategy to build relationships with our customers. If you create new products, the only way you can tell them about the new products is you have to send them a catalog.
“You’ve got to communicate with them because we wanted to build repeat business.”
The stores were aggressively computerized and the company began to compile a formidable consumer database. That database was empty in 1998; today, there are more than 10 million names, addresses and other bits of key marketing information that are impossible to put a dollar value on.
Targeted marketing wasn’t the only way Sutter created more repeat business. She upgraded product quality based on market research, which showed customers were willing to pay more for products with lasting sentimental value. As she puts it, “You don’t see a personalized gift at a garage sale.”
“Personalization makes the gift more meaningful, more emotional, and the recipient understands the special care that went into selecting and personalizing the gift,” says Cole president Larry Pollock, a veteran of retailers J.B. Robinson Jewelers, HomePlace and Zale Corp. “I think that’s what makes Things Remembered so unique.”
To keep products fresh, Sutter makes yearly sojourns to Germany, Paris and Milan to unearth retail trends to bring back to the States and onto the shelves of Things Remembered.
“We interpret those trends by designing and developing our own product,” Sutter says. “We also engage outside consultants to really help us with color, fabrication, etc., so that we can really make sure we’re staying on the leading edge. By going to Europe, usually they’re at least one to two years out.
“By the time it gets to the United States, it’s already happening. So, you need to be more out in front of it.”
A smile revealing nearly luminous perfect teeth emerges when Sutter talks about Things Remembered’s Web site.
“We are probably one of the few Web sites in Cleveland that actually makes money,” she chuckles. “The first year, we started out with very little advertising, we did about $1 million the first year we launched it and it’s grown pretty dramatically. We’ll do in excess of $10 million on our Web site next year.”
Things Remembered’s top e-commerce officer, Dennis A. Benvenuto, vice president of Direct Channel, says the company’s site is a rare e-commerce success because the systems were place long before the Web orders started rolling in.
“I think we went about it in the right fashion,” he says. “We actually had years of experience with our back end and filling orders to our customers as well as to our stores. We had the fulfillment model pretty well nailed, and that’s including returns, which is where a lot of people struggle.”
The site’s front end was introduced conservatively, in Web terms. Millions of dollars weren’t spent on marketing, and didn’t need to be due to Things Remembered strong brand name.
Sutter’s smile grows when she talks about her recent online partnership with 1-800-Flowers. The Internet-based florist offers 24 Things Remembered gifts on its site and through its 800 number. More products will be added in the future.
“We have two more very significant partnerships that we’re working on now,” she says. “They’re much larger than 1-800-Flowers that we’ll be announcing (in 2002). We have been amazed at the number of calls from companies that want to partner with us.”
Sutter’s spacious cream-colored office is lined by a sprawling, dark cherry-finish bookshelf. Among the books are Things Remembered products presented to her as awards and gifts from employees, colleagues and organizations thanking her for her work for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, where she serves on the board of trustees.
Among these personalized gifts, her most cherished is a photo framed in crystal of blind jazz troubadour Diane Schuur and Sutter taken during a dedication ceremony for the Cole Eye Institute in 1999.
“I had a chance to spend some time with her afterwards because I am a huge fan,” Sutter says. “It just really captured the moment. I’ve got a lot of awards and things like that, but what are really meaningful are the memories and moments.”
When you stop by a Things Remembered store this month to pick up a silver-plated heart-shaped box for your wife or girlfriend or a mahogany clock for your boyfriend or husband, don’t be surprised if the salesperson already knows your name, family members’ names and your last purchase.
Sutter knows you better than you think. How to reach: Things Remembered, (440) 473-2000 or www.thingsremembered.com
Morgan Lewis Jr. is senior reporter at SBN Magazine.