Toast chief executive Suzie de Rohan Willner describes how vision and purpose have made her the leader she is today
In this month’s episode of Be Inspired Stories, Suzie de Rohan Willner, chief executive of slow fashion retailer and artisan connoisseur brand Toast, recalls her journey from the French countryside, to the floors of some of Europe’s top department stores, to her dream leadership role.
“I started off with no intention of doing anything in retail. I married an artist and had two children. I had no skills – I went to university and studied French literature,” she explains of her life before her career began.
Living with her family in the Var in France with little income, de Rohan Willner landed herself a role as a receptionist for outdoor retailer Timberland out of pure necessity. What she most enjoyed, however, was the international environment, meeting new people and applying herself across the business – and her hard work was recognised.
Given the opportunity to be trained in merchandising on a one-week crash course in the US, de Rohan Willner immediately found herself in a whirlwind career that hasn’t slowed down.
At Timberland, she was sent around the country to visit the brand’s concessions in French department store chain Galeries Lafeyette to figure out what was working – and more importantly, what wasn’t.
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She continued her career with brands such as Levi’s and Puma, where she was director of global merchandising retail and the head of its international headquarters in London. De Rohan Willner the sought out her first CEO role at Fitflop in 2011, before joining Toast in 2015.
It is in a role where de Rohan Willner has really found her place, with an “insatiable hunger” to build great teams who share her vision.
“If you are striving for money and money alone, it is soul-destroying,” she says, noting her career lows as those times when she found herself working with colleagues who put profit before people and purpose.
De Rohan Willner believes vision, purpose and leadership go hand in hand. Each year, she creates a “vision board” with her daughters to set out their goals and formulate a work/life balance for the “different hats” they each wear.
This understanding of who you are as a leader, follower, wife, husband, father, mother, son or daughter will, in turn, create authenticity, and de Rohan Willner says: “Money will follow if you are authentic.”