Meg Lustman is a doyen of retail. She's worked for some of the biggest brands on the British high street - from Karen Millen to John Lewis, Warehouse to Hobbs - but says her first 'big break' in the sector came from studying languages at university.
‘I joined the workforce in the early nineties when every company had huge European expansion plans,' she says. 'I got a job with retail group Sears, which wanted to have 20% of its business out of Europe within five years. I wasn’t senior – but I could speak French and Spanish, and that catapulted me to the top of the talent pool.’
Sears sent Lustman to Spain, and she opened the first Adams childrenwear store out there. 'That opened up a world of opportunity for me,’ she says.
She worked at Sears for the best part of a decade. When the group was bought by Sir Philip Green in 1999, she joined the Oasis-to-Karen Millen retail conglomerate Mosaic, which was then reborn as Aurora Fashions. She became managing director of Warehouse in 2009, buying director of fashion at John Lewis in 2013, then was parachuted into struggling womenswear brand Hobbs as CEO a year later.
‘Hobbs had completely lost its confidence and had confused its customers,’ says Lustman. ‘In its attempt to become "more fashionable", it had changed 84% of its range in just one season, which wasn’t the smartest move. I had to help Hobbs go back to basics, focus on what it was good at and become much more customer-centric.’
While Lustman’s turnaround efforts have yielded results at Hobbs, which made a £1.4m profit on a turnover of £104.4m in the year to last January, media speculation is rife that its owner 3i is looking to offload the chain, with an asking price of around £80m.
Lustman won’t confirm or deny the rumours but does concede that ‘when a business is owned by private equity, it’s effectively always up for sale.’
‘3i has owned Hobbs for 13 years, which is a long time in the world of private equity,’ she adds.
Lustman is used to media scrutiny. ‘Female leaders are given a tough time. Just look at the terrible treatment of [ex Thomas Cook boss] Harriet Green. It's always about how we look, how we speak. We’re constantly judged. It’s unconscious but it’s uncomfortable. It still isn’t clear what society expects of female leaders.’
She advises other women to be bold and take chances – but to set their own pace. ‘I always wanted to have children so, when it finally happened, I restructured my career around them. After my daughter was born in 1997, I went back to work two days a week. Then when my son arrived, I was made redundant and became a stay-at-home mum.'
Lustman didn’t plan to go back to work. But then came a call from her ex-boss. ‘He said, "You’ll be a terrible mother of teenage children – you’re so driven and ambitious; your children will end up becoming your project." He was right. I could have ended up becoming the worst sort of pushy mum.’
So Lustman went back to work part-time, and only returned full time when her youngest turned 13. ‘A career break might stall your career but it won’t harm it. Most of us are going to be working until we’re 100; my view is that if there are 10 or 15 years where I’m not progressing at the same speed as my male counterparts, I can live with that.’
‘I can’t pretend it has been straightforward,’ she adds. ‘You make compromises and you’re constantly juggling. I’ve invested in a lot of support, from my cleaner to my PA. And our nanny is still with us. I call her my wife. She helps me be the person I want to be.’
'Ultimately, we have to stop thinking we must "have it all". It’s a dream we were sold. It’s impossible. It’s bonkers.’
Meg Lustman was a guest speaker at MT's Inspiring Women conference in Edinburgh this month. Check out our upcoming events here.