Today’s career interview is with Alison Loehnis, President of Net-A-Porter.

How does a person get to such a powerful position? What sacrifices do you have to make along the way? What does it mean, exactly, to direct a company with 250 employees?
Alison answers all of our questions below…

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York City, Manhattan, on the West Side. And I went to Rhode Island for college–I went to Brown.

What did you study at Brown?
I studied art history and I was really art mad, I always thought I would go work in the art business. The year that I graduated, the market was completely dead, so I thought I would always keep art as a hobby, but I should look at other things from a career standpoint. I came back to New York and was here up until 13 years ago.

And what did your parents do?
My mom was in advertising, forever. She actually influenced my early career.

She was on the account management side. Her last role, which she was in for many years, was running this prestige beauty division for Procter and Gamble advertising at Grey.

My father was always in the fragrance business. When I was growing up, he was running the North American Yves Saint Laurent fragrance business. I have photos of him on the beach with long sideburns shooting for Rive Guache, it’s pretty amazing.

He also ran the fragrance business for Mary McFadden, he worked in skincare, then went to Escada, and then he set out on his own, really helping brands diversify into beauty business and creating licensing and all sorts of things. Very entrepreneurial, and all around the beauty business.

Do you have siblings as well?
Yes, I have a younger sister, who now lives in San Francisco as a teacher.

Do you get to see her often?
It’s so hard, especially with the 8-hour time difference, and because she’s a teacher she can’t speak on the phone during the day. So we have to make appointments to speak, but we’re very close and we try to have a reunion during the summer with our kids.

When you were growing up what was your dream job?
It’s funny. When I was really young, really really young, my favorite thing was to go into my grandmother’s bedroom and pull open the top drawer of her dresser and she had this mountain of costume jewelry and it was like a girl’s dream.

And I had this purse that I loved, it was this red and yellow with a yellow pearl on it and I would put that on and wear thousands of necklaces. That was my favorite pastime.

But my dad who was in the fragrance business, was running this business for Mary McFadden who was a designer, and I used to think that that was the most glamorous job. I was like 8. I used to have pictures of her on my desk and I would do drawings. And he was going to a meeting with her and I asked him if he could give her some of these drawings. So I would do sketches, I did a cover of Vogue Magazine for her, spelled Vuge.

I wanted to spend time with the people with the magic markers, and they were on another floor. I wanted to be part of their world.

So what was your first job?
The theme that runs throughout my whole career is looking for this perfect balance of business and creativity. So I knew when I was in school, I studied art history, but my summers — whereas I had lots of friends who worked in investment banking — I thought this is my only chance to explore what I want to do and I could take some chances.

So every summer of college, I worked at the Ralph Lauren store in East Hampton. And I loved it. It was a store that got a lot of attention, it was the “country” store. I was on commission. I loved selling. It was funny because at that point it never occurred to me that I would have a career in retail. I just thought that it was this thing that I loved to do on the side.

Did you jump into fashion then after school?
When I graduated, I looked at all different industries. I looked at magazine publishing, and I did a Condé Nast interview along with so many other people. I looked into the Bloomingdales training program and I tried advertising. I think for me I always had this exposure to advertising, so it probably seemed like a great idea. You are creating this balance because you have to come up with a creative concept or creative execution of a strategic idea to sell products.

So I went to work for Saatchi & Saatchi here in New York, as an Assistant Account Executive in 1992, which was terrific. I worked on General Mills cereals and General Mills at that time was one of the biggest billing accounts, so it was a really spoiled job. I had an office, a secretary; it was really great. And it taught me a lot.

Did you feel prepared for that world after having studied art?
Brown was phenomenal but I didn’t come out with a pre-professional training so at Saatchi & Saatchi I learned how to conduct a meeting, how to deal with clients, how to do conference call reports and all these things.

I spent a year at Saatchi, and while I loved it and was so appreciative and worked with really smart people, I wanted to spend time with the people with the magic markers, and they were on another floor. I wanted to be part of their world.

So from there I started exploring again so many options that I had looked at previously, and I went to work for Hachette Filipacchi [magazine publishers] in corporate communications and that was a great experience.

There were about 33 titles at the time, the business was also launching its custom publishing unit, which was such a new concept. They had this sort of AOL early social media strategy. It was great. I was also responsible for trying to get press on the various titles. So working with the editors to pitching stories, getting publishing coverage, newspaper coverage, etc.

But you ended up working in film for a bit. How did that come about?
So on the side, I also was really interested, extra curricularly, in the film business, and I had a couple friends who were working for agents in LA. I wondered what was that role like, it seemed so interesting to me.

So I started working on the side, for free, for different kinds of production companies writing coverage–basically writing up synopsis of scripts that you would give to the development executives. [They typically read these to get a feel for the project] I felt really honored that they were letting me do this. It was only later in my life that I realized that you could get paid for it. But at the time, it was a symbiotic relationship.

One of the magazines that was in the Hachette portfolio was Premiere Magazine, and the woman who was the editor there was hired by Disney to set up a motion picture office in New York. I had worked with her and she asked me if I wanted to come along with her as her assistant. And I did. It was great because I don’t think she knew that I had this film interest base on the side.

I went to Disney, I started as her assistant and then became the creative executive within a year. Our task was really mining the New York East Coast creative community and coming up with projects and developing them into features. So we met with journalists, playwrights, authors, and we developed a few films [including The Insider and Coyote Ugly] which was great.

It was super, it was a very fun job, and again it meant coming up with a concept that you have to sell in to the studio. And my boss had a straight line in the Disney business so we actually could get things through really quickly.

What came next?
So after about three and a half years, I started to think about what was next. The logical next step would be to move to Los Angeles. I just started thinking about what was going on and meanwhile the Internet bubble was heaving in the background.

I had a call from a guy who started a digital agency working with entertainment, lifestyle and fashion businesses, working on the web build and digital strategy. And he was really eager to have someone come on board with studio experience. So I made the jump into dot-com.

At that stage, the bubble was at its peak. The company was called KPE; it doesn’t exist anymore. I worked on business development and account management. I was working with clients and developing their web strategies. Hearst International was a client here, the UK counterpart was then called National Magazines—they were clients. We did a big project with Unilever and iVillage; we did a pitch for the Ralph Lauren business.

It was really fun and I found myself finding an increasing number of UK based clients. And again it was coming up with strategies, creative concepts to then execute.

How would you explain what a business development job really is?
In that role, it’s getting new clients. So I was working with existing stable clients and then I was also working on pitches to bringing new business. So business growth.

When did you transition over to London from New York?

While I was in college I had spent 6 months living in Florence, and loved the experience living abroad and always thought that someday if I could live abroad again it would amazing.

At that time, KPE had that tiny London office with some clients, and after three years I put my hand up and said, “Okay do you think I can go over and help the London office?”. My boss at the time was great and said, “Okay you can go for 6 months, that’s it. You’re coming back.”

I was a diehard New Yorker, and none of my friends believed that I was actually going until I had my going away party. I got on the airplane literally 13 years ago, stuck my stuff in storage, and moved.

I kept working with magazine companies and did some pitches for the fashion businesses, and after about 2 months I got the call saying, “We’re going to close the London office, will you come back?” and I said, “Thank you so much but no, I’m going to stay.”
The guy running the London office said he would buy up the business and that I should stay.

So I stayed on for a few months, and then I had the realization that I would really like to go work brand side, and working with clients was terrific and it diversified my experience but I really wanted to work for a brand.

Then I went to work for LVMH on Thomas Pink [a men’s shirting company] specifically, originally running sales and then running sales and marketing globally. It was a great experience, tons of international experience: opening stores in China Turkey, Thailand, US, working on branding, going to a dot-com business. And it was lovely to be part of the group.

I had been a customer, and I loved all my jobs; I love selling, I love focusing on the customer, I love focusing on the brand and the whole consumer proposition. And my dream was one day, if I could also work across all of these disciplines on a product that I was seriously passionate about, that would be amazing.

So how did your job at Net-A-Porter come about?
I spent 5 years and a bit at Thomas Pink. I was on maternity leave, getting ready to get back to work, and I had a call from a headhunter who I knew and said, “Alison what are you doing?” and I said, “I just had a baby, just doing that.” She said why don’t you, you know, come in and have a coffee. And we had a meeting and asked if anything opened up at Net-A-Porter what would I think. I basically bit her hand off with excitement, I was like “yes!”

I had been a customer, and I loved all my jobs; I love selling, I love focusing on the customer, I love focusing on the brand and the whole consumer proposition. And my dream was one day, if I could also work across all of these disciplines on a product that I was seriously passionate about, that would be amazing.

She very kindly arranged a meeting with Natalie and me, and they created a role for me, which was Vice-President of sales and marketing. That was 7 years ago.

So what did you do in that role?
I was overseeing all the customer touch-points other than the buy. So it was marketing and PR and brand and content, and the sales teams and customer care, and the creative. And two and a half years ago I became President.

I would always joke when I first joined that when I had my first child, Net-A-Porter was my window to the outside fashion world. During naptime, the first thing I would do was go to Net-A-Porter, without fail. I had memories of working at KPE and having the Daily Candy email announcing Net-A-Porter. I remember it and being so incredibly excited.

And what is your responsibility as President of the company?
So, beyond the Profit & Loss [financial] responsibility for the business, I’m responsible for the strategic direction of the business, and our growth. Strategic Direction is the best way to sum it up.

How do you go about working on that?
It’s really a combination of things. We are blessed with a lot of data, which is vital to decision making, but a lot of fantastic idea generation is the result of amazing teamwork and brainstorming. We look at the market and trends and we always go to our customers – they are a great source of information and inspiration and everything we do is for them.

How has the company changed since you started?
There’s been so much change. We turned 14 yesterday, but the business has really retained quite a bit of its entrepreneurial spirit.

The Manhattan office is now three and a half years old. We opened in Hong Kong. We introduced beauty. We translated our sites, and of course we launched our print magazine. There’s been so much happening.

For me, it’s such a joy to come to the US too, because it’s coming home. But if you go to any of our offices around the world, they look identical; so if you were on a videoconference you actually wouldn’t even know where the person is you’re talking to. They have the same chandeliers, chairs, everything.

Why is that?
Natalie Massenet has always had a clear and wonderful vision of what a fantastic company should look like. The open floor plan and clear glass walled meeting rooms allow for transparency amongst the teams. We don’t like to distinguish ourselves as six different offices but rather one global team – you could be video conferencing between London and New York or Hong Kong and the backgrounds are almost indistinguishable.

It seems like throughout your career a lot of your work has been in more corporate environments. Is that something you enjoy and feel you thrive in?
Net-A-Porter when I joined, when I compare the business 7 years ago to the size we are now, it actually didn’t feel very big. And I would never describe our business as very corporate.

I feel I’m pretty adaptable, so I’m quite happy. What’s great about my work now is I can work in very small teams and we have small teams around the business so you can feel like you’re in a small organization within something that’s a bit larger.

Do you wish that you had gone to business school?
I don’t. I’m sure I would have had a great time, but I don’t regret not going. For me the best experience I’ve had is working across a number of different industries and in couple different countries now, getting great international exposure, and that has been my business school. I would never nearly suggest that I know everything, and I’m still growing and still learning and as long as you’re in your career and you still feel stretched in the right ways, that’s so gratifying. I’ve had great mentors as well.

Is there someone in particular that you feel has been a really strong influence on your career?
In my Net-A-Porter history, Natalie has been incredibly inspiring and motivating and such a super role model, not just for me but also for women everywhere.

Prior to Net-A-Porter, my mentor at LVMH was the man that hired me called Francois Steiner. He was a great boss and has become a good friend. He really took a chance on me, hiring me for a sales director role within a brand coming from this digital agency, coming from magazines, coming from advertising. It wasn’t obvious. He is the one who really saw this certain narrative in my CV as it was then and thought, I’m going to take a chance on you.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten?
I think the advice goes back from even earlier. I went a girls school in New York for 12 years, it was a small school called Chapin. We had this phenomenal headmistress and the one thing that she said in first grade was, “Women and girls you can do anything. One day there will be a woman president. You can do anything.”

If you set your mind to it, you can do anything. It’s embodying so much confidence and so much belief.

We definitely have the parents who put the kids to bed and have a glass of wine and are shopping, around 8:30-9pm.

What’s an average day for you?
Lots of team, brand and budget meetings, creative concepts, bringing new things to market.

We [recently] launched this section on the site called Net-A-Sporter. We’ve identified that there’s a sort of a gap in the athletic wear market. And for our women and our customers who spend so much time looking at beauty and fashion and want to look terrific and style is important, they want an opportunity to look stylish while they’re working out.

So for example, a typical day would be sitting talking about what is this concept, what is it going to look like, having the buyers share with me what their vision is, the editorial team coming to the table and saying this is what we’re going to do. We spend a lot of time talking about content, talking about technology and social. So I think the short answer is no two days are the same. The constant is we’re always thinking about the customer. We’re always technology focused, always product-focused and content-focused. We’re always trying to figure out how we can get better.

Everything moves so quickly now, has strategy and planning become more difficult when trying to keep up with the pace of fashion & technology?
I think that you can have an overall arch ambition and you just have to be nimble. Technology is amazing but it also can be onerous and as soon as something new launches we don’t always jump on board. With all these new platforms launching we have to think what’s the right and what’s wrong for our customer, where is she going go?

So yes, you can do a certain amount of planning, you can do financial forecasting, the potential that you see for the business, but the execution certainly evolves.

Who makes up the members of your team?
So within Net-A-Porter world we’re just under about 250 people. Our group has the three brands: us, The Outnet and Mr Porter, and we do share some resources like HR and IT.

On my team, I have our editor-in-chief, Lucy Yeomans, who is terrific. She is responsible for Porter Magazine and The Edit, and she has Jenny Dickinson, the Senior Editor of The Edit. On the marketing side, I have Lisa Bridgett who is overseeing all the sales and marketing functions globally. I have on the buying side, Ben Matthews and Sasha Sorkin, who are overseeing the buying team. And I have the head of e-commerce Agnieszka Kij who is responsible for the site and accessing new technology and what can we be doing better. Then I have David Olsen, based here in the US, who runs our beauty business.

Within the team, they’re all incredibly talented. They work very well together. It all starts with the product, but the question is really how do you bring that product to the customer. How do we make her fall in love with it through content? How do we make sure that we’re showing her the product in the clearest way possible through the site, and what kind of technology can make that happen, and what kind of brands are we bringing on board, what kind of platforms are we using?

It’s a lot to be thinking about constantly…
Yeah, but it’s great. The business is so energizing. I usually describe myself as pretty energetic but the business I think is infused with [the same energy.]

How closely are you involved with working with the other brands?
Day-to-day not very often. I was involved with the launch of The Outnet in terms of branding; I was very involved with launching Mr Porter, which was definitely a career highlight.

I have a very close working relationship with Ian Tansley, who runs Mr Porter and with Stephanie Phair who runs The Outnet. We make sure the teams are collaborating in the right way. I’m Net-A-Porter focused but I always have this group in mind.

Can you explain your relationship to Natalie and how you work together? What are the differences in your roles and how it influences the work that you do?
I have a great working relationship with Natalie. She is so inspiring and if you ever get stuck on an idea, she is a fountain of ideas, a fountain of energy. She is the perfect person to brainstorm at all times.

Natalie is responsible for the whole group and is working across all three of the brands and looking at other opportunities for us as well, whereas I’m tasked with Net-A-Porter.

What do you think the biggest challenge of your job is?
I’d say the challenge, which is an addressable challenge, is focus. As a business, we love opportunity and tend to go for it. And there is so much opportunity out there and the notion of knowing that you can’t do everything at once can be super frustrating. And also wanting to bring these things to market quickly enough.

What do you enjoy the most?
I’d say the people: my team and the people I get to work with. One, it’s the team that makes it all happen. And two, it’s just a delight to spend time with them, and I feel like the idea generation is phenomenal.

As your role has changed within the company and become a bit more of a public one, how has that impacted the way that you work?
I think in terms of the way I work, it’s enabled me, it’s forced me to take a step away from the detail, which certainly was a challenge at the beginning because I love the detail, and anyone who works with me would smile if they heard me say that.

You’ve worked in the UK and in New York. What are the biggest differences between working between the two?
It’s funny, I think the differences are fewer that they were when I moved originally.
I think the pace. New York always felt a bit more hectic. I think that being in London there’s much more of an international lens. You looked at things on a more global scale. But I think that’s changed too.

Do you think that there are systems within the fashion industry that feel not up to speed with the way everything is moving?
I think one of the things we’ve been pretty vocal about is that the fashion cycle doesn’t always make sense. There’s this idea, coming back to the customer, that it’s really hard in most places for women. If you wanted to buy a summer dress right now you would have a problem.

This is why for us, in our proposition, we want to give women a buy now, wear now option. Of course you’re going to have a customer who’s interested in a coat right now and that’s terrific because we have that for her, but equally we also have vacation stuff all year round. It’s also speaking to a global customer base

Have you seen any really interesting patterns in the way that people are shopping?
The things that I always find fascinating are the hours to which people are shopping. We have screens in our office with Google Earth, and every time there’s an order it shows up. We don’t see who is purchasing but we see the city and the product.

It’s great because I get in the office in the morning and I will see earrings being sold in California and I work out the time that it was purchased and I’m thinking wow, and I’m wondering why, and what was she doing. We definitely have the parents who put the kids to bed and have a glass of wine and are shopping, around 8:30-9pm.

Has working in e-commerce changed the way you shop for yourself?
Absolutely. I do almost all of my shopping online and working at NET-A-PORTER has raised my expectations of service; now that I know what it takes to offer world class service I don’t take it for granted but it’s something I expect every time I shop.

How do you balance work and family?
I think that balance is essential. For me, it’s essential to my being happy and performing and everything else. I am very very close to my family.

I do travel, but I think I travel smart in that I have very intense trips to get a huge amount done. Then when I get home, I have two small children, the important thing is that I’m there for them and that we get quality time together. And I’m here for all the important things. I’m very lucky because I live right near my office, so that certainly helps.

I get so much satisfaction out of my work and I’m so energized, I think that also has a really nice effect on me as a mother. And I think that I am so satisfied as a mother that that also helps me tremendously in my work.

How do you disconnect from work?
I think turning off is very important, during vacations, at night, on the weekends. I do exercise, I love running and I do Pilates when I can. For me the number one way to turn off is spending time with my kids, so if we’re building Lego, playing scrabble, and we go to the country a lot which is great. It’s an instant way to disconnect.

What would your advice be to people who want to be running great businesses one day?
I’d say make sure you love what you’re doing. I’m always floored when I meet young women who know exactly what they want to do. So if you do know exactly what you want to do, it’s important to think about at what your trajectory is going be.

But also looking at different experiences and trying different things. The one piece of advice that I always give people is if you know what you want to do and it’s not what you’re doing right now, go for it. Just because your CV might say one thing, there’s no reason why you can’t go for something else. I think sometimes taking a path that isn’t a straight path but a windy path where you get your experience in a few different places, is great.

And don’t be afraid to ask questions – just going out there and just absorbing lots and lots of experiences and trying to get as much under your belt as possible.

What do you look for in someone that you’re hiring or someone you want to work with? What are the key qualities that you’re searching for?
Beyond the disciplinary skills, which go without saying, they don’t necessarily need to come from a fashion or luxury background. In terms of personal qualities, it’s energy, people who are idea generators, people who love the customer, who are fanatical about the business, and who are lovely to work with. We are surrounded by people who work really hard but also have a sense of humor, and it’s a delight to be around.

What is your dream for your career?
I’d say continue to be really happy and fulfilled.

Check out other career posts:

Nicolas Ouchenir,Calligrapher
Ann-Sofie Johansson, Design Director, H&M
Tim Goodman, Art Director
Jennifer Vitagliano, Restaurateur
Kristy Hurt, Human Resources Consultant