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Women in Business Q&A: Paula Schneider, CEO, American Apparel

25/11/2015 18:36 GMT | Updated 25/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Paula Schneider was named CEO of American Apparel, Inc. in December 2014. She is a senior executive with extensive worldwide experience and diversified product expertise. Ms. Schneider has demonstrated success for global brand expansion and has a proven track record in improving operational efficiencies, creating inspirational product offerings, creating and executing brand strategies and increasing EBITDA. She has served as president or as a senior officer at a number of retail and apparel companies, including The Warnaco Group, Inc., Gores Group, BCBG Max Azria, and Laundry by Shelli Segal. Paula belongs to the Women's Association of Venture and Equity, and has served on the corporate board of directors at J Mendel and Big Strike.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at American Apparel?

I grew up in fashion. In my mid-twenties I started an independent company representing clothing designers. BCBG Max Azria was one of my first clients and I sold their first dress and went on to become the President of Sales. I've held senior executive positions not only at BCBG Max Azria, but also at Laundry by Shelli Segal and Warnaco Swimwear Group. At BCBG Max Azria, I helped steer the company to growth and pioneered the young contemporary clothing brand, and at Warnaco Swimwear Group, I aided in a corporate restructuring. I am bringing all of this experience and the best practices from my past to evaluate processes and procedures. American Apparel is an incredible and iconic brand, and there is tremendous opportunity to grow.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your short tenure at American Apparel?

The creativity and passion at American Apparel is unbelievable. It is exciting to work with such a creative group of people. The challenge is to harness this passion and put some structure in place to move the business forward.

Under my leadership, the team has already made many improvements. We've enhanced the company's budgeting system to reflect a disciplined, structured, "bottom-up" approach, which creates accountability within each department. By appointing a new vice president of planning and forecasting, and re-staffing the team to support this important function, we are able to more carefully predict which styles will be produced and the timing of deliveries to align with our overall financial plan.

We've reinvigorated our creative direction by re-hiring a very talented Director of Branding, Benno Russell, an 11-year veteran who returned to the company solely because it is under new leadership. Benno originated the innovative look of all American Apparel's sub-brands, social campaigns, catalogs, ads, retail design, signage, and the general standards still used in many of our advertising, promotional, and outdoor aesthetics. Some of his most notable contributions include the tagline "sweatshop-free" and the "cities" graphic pattern, which now resides in the MoMA Design collection.

In addition, we've improved conditions for employees. For the first time in American Apparel history, we are offering employees three days of paid sick leave, four paid holidays, a 401(k) Plan and affordable healthcare.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

The fashion and retail industry is constantly evolving. It is important to be flexible and adapt. Another key is to understand your strengths and weakness. What do you do well naturally? If you are a manager, what does each of your team members do well? When people work in areas that they are good at they often get more personal satisfaction and, in turn, more ROI for the company. By understanding your team's strengths and weaknesses, you can build stronger teams with members who have the skills where others are lacking.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?

To be fearless and never give up. My father encouraged me to believe that I could achieve anything; if I worked hard there would be no barriers. I've succeeded in some very challenging work environments. For example, private equity is still a place dominated by men, and when I was at The Gores group, I became the first CEO of one of their portfolio companies. It was because of my fearlessness and confidence that this was possible.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

Right now, I don't. We are in the middle of a turnaround and that requires a lot of late nights and early mornings. Everyone here works really hard. There is a lot to do, but we have a game plan and we are doing what is necessary to succeed. It's not easy to find the time, but I always make an effort to carve out time to spend with my family. We all make an effort to create time for each other. It is a team effort.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

Business is generally dominated by men, so it is important for women to remember the value that they bring. Women bring a different perspective and having women in leadership roles provides a balanced point of view. Every leader has a different style, but the bottom line is about creating a healthy and happy work environment and helping your company to grow.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I have been fortunate to have some amazing mentors throughout my career. It is very important to learn from others who have gone before you, to be open to advice and to be receptive to constructive feedback. One of my greatest mentors was Angela Ahrendts who is now Senior Vice President of Retail and Online Stores at Apple Inc. and former CEO of Burberry. Angela was my boss when I was at Laundry by Shelli Segal, a former division of Liz Claiborne Inc. Angela's management style was very much like a mentor. She would provide guidance when asked, but was not overbearing. She was there if you needed her, but gave you the autonomy to grow.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

That's easy: Hilary Clinton because I'd love to see a woman president, and, of course my mentor, Angela Ahrendts.

What do you want American Apparel to accomplish in the next year?

I recently presented my forward-looking strategic plan to the board. The first priority is to build strong business fundamentals to achieve long-term success. The most important thing that we can do for our employees right now is improve the financial health of American Apparel. Product is king and we are working hard to make sure we are creating the highest-quality and best-fitting products out there. To do so, we are strengthening the company's budgeting system and operational efficiency, re-invigorating the company's creative direction and design, and improving conditions for employees. This is a big job and an important company. We are working to save North America's largest apparel manufacturer.