Written by Sandra Knisely Barnidge (Journalism, MA’13, ’09)
Photos by Andy Manis
Three School of Human Ecology Retailing and Consumer Affairs in Business alumnae offer advice and inspiration to the next generation of retail entrepreneurs.
Retailers nationwide are struggling to find talented executives to navigate a rapidly changing moment in the industry, and the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology is uniquely positioned to help.
Since 2018, undergraduate demand for the Consumer Behavior & Marketplace Studies major (formerly Retailing) has soared, making it one of the top three most rapidly growing majors across campus, behind only data science and computer science. Additionally, University of Wisconsin still ranks as the top producer of Fortune 500 CEOs, according to the latest survey by Kittleman Research, putting SoHE at the forefront of both student interest and industry need.
But what does it really take to become a successful leader in today’s complex retail environment? It’s a question most students think to ask in the classroom, but there’s another valuable source of information on the topic: SoHE alumni.
“Leadership can be learned,” says Linda L. Ahlers (Retailing ’72). “It wasn’t innate to me, but over the years I realized there are principles to it.” She—along with fellow SoHE alumnae Lorna Nagler and Suzy DeWolf—recently sat down with human ecology students to share some of their advice for building both a career and a meaningful life in retail.
“We’re fortunate to have an extensive network of successful SoHE female alumni who have remained connected to campus in various ways throughout their careers,” says Soyeon Shim, Elizabeth Holloway Schar Dean.
“These three business leaders in particular, who also happen to sit on the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association Board of Directors, are very inspiring role models, not only for students asking how but also why they should pursue corporate careers in retail.”
Lesson 1: Navigate change with creativity
Ahlers’ interest in business started early while working at her father’s farm supply store in rural Wisconsin. At UW–Madison, she was drawn to retailing because of its blend of creativity and logic. After graduating, she went to work at Target Corporation in Minneapolis, where her boss would make a point of taking the team to art museums during business trips. “Art was a way to fuel our creativity and to inspire our hunger to find it in products,” she says.
Ahlers rose through the ranks at Target Corporation, becoming president of Marshall Field’s in 1996. “Marshall Field’s had lost its way when I first came on,” she says. “The strategy was to reset it to once again be the best store in town.” The brand became profitable under Ahlers, thanks to her creative approach to problem-solving and willingness to embrace change.
“We think change happens so quick but most changes happen slowly over time and some event pushes it over the edge,” Ahlers says. “If you feel the push, you can capitalize on it. Change isn’t something to be afraid of. Retail thrives on change.”
By the time she retired in 2004, Ahlers had learned one lesson above all as a leader: “Be authentic—people see it, and it creates trust.”
The day after her last at Marshall Field’s, Ahlers hopped on a plane to Honolulu and spent the next eighteen years in Hawaii, where she was active on local arts and theater boards. “Art has the ability to transform lives and connect us,” she says. “It can be an outlet, provide a sense of self and accomplishment, and is a great way to address various social problems.”
Ahlers eventually returned to Wisconsin, and she now lives near Waupaca. She’s a watercolor painter, in addition to her philanthropy and involvement on various UW and SoHE boards.
Lesson 2: Foster a healthy culture to help talent thrive
Lorna Nagler (Retailing ’78) was a Badger from birth. Her parents and grandfather were UW–Madison alumni, and every year they drove over from the Milwaukee area to attend Homecoming and other events. There was never a question of where Nagler would attend college—or what would be her major.
“I always knew what I wanted to do,” she says. “My mom was an artist and my dad was a local businessman and politician. I had that blend of people skills and creativity. People think retail is running a store at the mall, but it’s a microcosm of everything.”
Nagler started her career as a buyer for a specialty store in Chicago, and her office was close to the selling floor. “I’d hang out at lunch with the salespeople, and I could hear the customers talking about what they wanted,” she says.
Those early lessons stuck with her as her career evolved into executive positions at Kmart and eventually president of Lane Bryant and Catherine’s Stores, Christopher & Banks, and Bealls. She made a point of staying close to all levels of her team and listening regularly to those who worked closely with customers.
“I’m most proud of the teams I’ve built—the people part is the single most important thing in business,” Nagler says.
“I had a nose for talent and getting everyone on team aligned.” Nagler also paid special attention to quieter voices who in the past had been overlooked or unheard by management. “Women often needed more help shining light on their accomplishments,” she says. “There’s a lot of smart thinking you miss when you don’t listen.”
After retiring from Florida-based Bealls, Nagler stayed on the coast and joined the boards of Hibbett Sports and ULTA Beauty, where she is now chair of the Board of Directors. Despite the dominance of e-commerce across the retail industry, Nagler has found that customers still want in-person experiences for certain types of products. “Customers don’t need to go into a store to get their beauty products, but they go because they still crave that unique in-store experience to try new products and interact with beauty experts,” she says.
“As complex as retail has become it still comes back to those basics. I learned from listening to your customers and surrounding yourself with talented passionate team members.”
Lesson 3: Build a sense of purpose alongside profit
Suzy DeWolf (Consumer Affairs in Business, ’94) grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but wanted to attend a Big 10 university that wasn’t just down the road from her hometown. She chose UW–Madison and then went even farther afield by studying abroad at the London School of Economics and the University of London, an experience she calls “life changing.” After her travels, DeWolf became an intern at a public-relations firm in Madison, which led to a full-time job in Milwaukee after graduating.
All the while, back in Iowa, her parents were busy growing their small distribution company, Lil’ Drug Store Products. DeWolf always thought she’d return to Iowa “someday,” but that vague possibility became a concrete reality in 2000 when her father was diagnosed with cancer. DeWolf and her husband, Chris DeWolf, moved back with their three children to help run her parents’ business.
“Our thinking was that, at a minimum, we would learn the business so we could help the family in the event of my father’s passing,” she says. “At a maximum, we would stay and make a life out of it. We eventually purchased the business in 2005, prior to my father’s passing, and the rest is history.”
The DeWolfs immediately got to work expanding Lil’ Drug Store into a North American company with products available in more than 180,000 retail spaces. But both Suzy and Chris say that when they wake up in the morning, they aren’t motivated by the prospect of selling more products for a couple of bucks.
“In a nutshell, I want to make a difference and to leave the world a better place,” Suzy says. From the beginning of their tenure at Lil’ Drug Store, the DeWolfs have incorporated philanthropy and community engagement into their business operations. Through their corporate giving initiatives and their family office, FourFold Ventures, the DeWolfs have given more than $16 million to 120 organizations and causes, mostly in the Cedar Rapids area.
Their largest projects include the Dennis & Donna Oldorf Hospice House of Mercy in Hiawatha, Iowa, which is named in honor of Suzy’s parents and addresses the regional need for high-quality, compassionate, end-of-life care. Additionally, the Chris & Suzy DeWolf Family Innovation Center for Aging and Dementia is set to open in 2023 and will be a hub for discovering, testing, and evaluating best practices in aging and dementia to help those living with dementia and chronic conditions to live their lives with purpose.
The DeWolfs are also especially interested in supporting arts and culture-related projects, along with initiatives to support at-risk youth in Iowa. They were closely involved in tree replanting after the Midwest derecho in 2020, which destroyed 669,000 mature trees, or roughly 70 percent of the urban tree canopy in Cedar Rapids.
Suzy strongly encourages other business students and leaders to incorporate philanthropy into their personal and corporate values.
“Take a step back and ask yourself what you are truly passionate about or what keeps you awake at night,” DeWolf says. “Once you discover your passion, look for the need and embrace it! But don’t be afraid to chart your own course. Strategize, get creative, and find your own unique way to give.”
Day of the Badger 2023
During Day of the Badger on March 28–29, 2023, Suzy Oldorf DeWolf ’94 was instrumental in the School of Human Ecology raising more than $60,000 to support today’s students. Because more than 150 people gave to Human Ecology, Suzy generously contributed a challenge gift of $25,000. This support from Suzy and other alumni and friends will help ensure that students have the resources and tools they need to succeed.