Deep Dive with Julie Bernard

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This is a podcast episode titled, Deep Dive with Julie Bernard. The summary for this episode is: <p>Today on The Daily Bolster, Matt welcomes Julie Bernard, who is a career e-commerce and marketing leader, board member, and now, a fractional executive.&nbsp;</p><p>Throughout Julie’s career, her focus has been on merging data-driven decisions with human connection. Tune in as she shares about her career journey and the leaders who empowered her to grow. </p>
Getting started at Saks Fifth Avenue
04:06 MIN
Spotting great talent
01:41 MIN
Spotting great talent
01:41 MIN
Making the move to Macy's
03:57 MIN
Embracing mobile as it emerged in the marketplace
02:50 MIN
The through line of Julie's career
02:03 MIN
Operating as a fractional executive
02:12 MIN
Advising around digital transformation
01:22 MIN
The benefits of working fractionally
01:58 MIN

Speaker 1: Welcome to The Daily Bolster. Each day, we welcome transformational executives to share their real- world experiences and practical advice about scaling yourself, your team, and your business.

Matt Blumberg: Welcome to The Daily Bolster. I'm Matt Blumberg, co- founder and CEO of Bolster, and I'm here today with my friend, Julie Bernard. Julie and I served on a board together a bunch of years ago under what I would describe as very trying circumstances, and frequently great professional friendships are forged under the circumstances like that. Julie is a career Ecommerce exec and CMO. She has worked at some amazing retailers like Saks and Macy's, which we'll talk about in a few minutes. She is now an independent board member, advisor, and fractional CXO. Julie, good to see you.

Julie Bernard: Hi, Matt. Great to be here. Thank you.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah, so it's Friday, and on Friday, we do the deep dive episodes, and I was so interested to learn some things about your background that I didn't know when I was doing some prep for this, which is that you really started your career at Saks, and you started it kind of on the buyer side of things.

Julie Bernard: Yeah.

Matt Blumberg: So you worked a lot of years at Saks, buyer, and then moving into what looked like sort of a technology data systems.

Julie Bernard: Yeah.

Matt Blumberg: I'd love to just start there with, what was the world of being a retail buyer in the mid-'90s like, and kind of what are the couple of key things that you took from that into the rest of your career, and how did you make that transition to go from that into the sort of data and technology world?

Julie Bernard: It's so funny that you mentioned Saks and that you went that far back. I often do tell people, I say, " I feel like I was formed during my professional career, was formed during my experience at Saks Fifth Avenue." I am going to take a moment though to say how I landed at Saks because it's a part of this journey.

Matt Blumberg: Okay.

Julie Bernard: I went to a college, I was studying whatever I was studying, liberal arts college, small New England School, and I was on the... I'm going to law school track, and I'm going to be an attorney, yet not because I wanted to be an attorney, because I wanted to perhaps work in policy, public policy, social policy, welfare policy, and also, my dream was to be the presidential speechwriter, and my friends always tell the story that you would never find a picture of me back in the day before digital in college with a beer in my hand at a fraternity party because I was worried about that future career in D. C. as a presidential speechwriter. It's spring before I'm graduating, I'm a senior, and I had been working at Saks Fifth Avenue in one of their small stores in Southampton, Long Island as my summer job throughout college, and it was also at Christmas, they would let me work. At Easter, they would let me work just to make money because I was paying for school. I was in the lunchroom, the break room with the store manager of that store, and I said, " Oh my gosh, I'm exhausted by college. I don't want to go to law school in the fall." I had one of these moments, and it's one of my first moments of impact where he said, " So don't go yet. Just defer it a year," and I said, " What do I do? I have to make money, I have debt." You have all these moments of the frenetic energy of a 21- year- old. And he said, " Well, you've been working here for the past four summers. You would easily be accepted to the Saks Fifth Avenue training program." So I applied to Saks, Macy's, and Bloomingdale's, and I got the offer back from Macy's first, 17,500 a year, then I got the Bloomingdale's offer, 18,500 a year, and then I got the Saks offer, and it was 25,500 a year. Sold.

Matt Blumberg: Sold.

Julie Bernard: And it was literally how I started, and on a journey that I accepted... Strictly, it was meant to be a year or two until I figured out what I was doing, and it ended up being an amazing 14- year journey with advocacy from people in that business, that saw talent and strengthened me that I had not yet recognized, and I was fortunate that these people would bring things to me and say, " Hey, there's this problem we're having. Do you want to attack it?," and I'd say, " I have no experience in, as an example, warehouse management systems and relocating distribution centers," and the chief operating officer said, " But you have a way to connect the dots between seemingly disparate pieces of information faster than most of the people around us, and we'd love for you to go with this team, assess the situation, and come back and be a part of the recommendations of what you saw and what you think is going wrong." And it was in that experience where I remember thinking literally, " I know nothing about this," and he's looked at me in the eye and he said, " Just say yes. Just say yes, you can do it." My entire 14 years, rather than go through the nonlinear and how I went from merchant to then into planning, and then into, was there was always something, and I would have someone come to me and say, " We believe you have the ability to help us work this through." So we stood up the first merchandise planning function. It was very early in those days in the retail industry. We had Deloitte as a partner recommending it, and it was, "Okay. Will you be one of these merchandise planners?" All right, I guess. I know nothing about that either. Remember, I was going to be a speechwriter. I wasn't focusing on economics, and so some of those different things, but it was really through these moments of people recognizing early talent in me that I didn't necessarily see that I would just say yes and figure it out from there.

Matt Blumberg: So we could almost stop this episode now because anyone who's listening to this is a CEO or a CXO, and your ability, not you as the 21- year- old, but your ability as an executive to not just be able to spot talent, but to do it that granularly, but also with that level of application, right? Like, " I know XYZ person, and I'm going to break down the competencies that they have, and then think about how they could be leveraged, and how the person could grow," that's the mark of a great executive.

Julie Bernard: Yeah.

Matt Blumberg: So you were fortunate that you had some of those that were above you at Saks. That's great.

Julie Bernard: And they were modeling that behavior, and they were also giving me the freedom to problem- solve.

Matt Blumberg: Right.

Julie Bernard: So often, we're great as executives of having a bit of a narrative about empowering our people and all of those different things. Unfortunately, too often, I think we can all, for honest, say that we don't always see that in truth, and I try to learn from those lessons, and many over time, to focus on the outcome that we're trying to achieve because there are many pathways that can get us to that place and let the teams that I spend a lot of time really forming with those skills, with those talents, with that creative thinking, the intellectual horsepower, the curiosity quotient. Those are really the things I'm always looking for. They will figure out how to get there. And it may not be the path I might have ideated, it may not be the path that would've been more natural for me in my own problem- solving experience, yet, that doesn't matter, if we're very clear on the objective, if we're very clear on that desired outcome.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah. All right. So you moved from Saks to Macy's. Presumably, they were offering you more than$ 18,500 or $17,500.

Julie Bernard: Exactly.

Matt Blumberg: And then you were at Macy's for eight years, and that's when I met you and you were running strategy, loyalty, credit marketing, data science...

Julie Bernard: Bunch of things.

Matt Blumberg: All kinds of things there. What was the sort of the essence of that step in the journey, or those steps?

Julie Bernard: Yeah, I actually worked in management consulting for a little window of time in between there. I had mentioned we were working a lot with Deloitte. There were some partners from Deloitte starting a boutique consultancy. They invited me to join them on their journey, and I joined them, and Macy's was our first client. So I worked with Macy's in a consulting capacity for about a year, and at the time, and this will get into then, the work that I was doing there, some of it, and it's dated, so I don't feel it's any more proprietary. We used to talk about it on stage all the time, but we were there when Macy's still had seven divisions, and then also Ecommerce separate and private development separate, and all of these different things, private brand. They had acquired the May Company, they had gone from 17 nameplates to one national Macy's.

Matt Blumberg: Wow.

Julie Bernard: And we were there for effectively an organizational structure charter, if you will, statement of work. I remember meeting with a bunch of senior executives, and I said, " It's a shame that you have us here, spending all this money for org structure because you know the answer, you know you need to consolidate this. This does not work on thousand different reasons we don't need to get into." I said, " Yet, there are so many other amazing things you could be doing in this business that I feel you're overlooking because of the power play, frankly, in marketing of who gets to place media." Right? At the time, they used to spend close to a billion and a half, if not, more in media, so it's really an org structure, power struggle, kind of a conversation were happening. And I was challenged by one of the people in the room, and they said, " Well, give us an example of something you think we're missing." And I said, " Okay." Well, again, I was consulting. I said, " You have a database with 55 million individuals, 44 million households, and you already have your online and offline data harmonized into a single record, a single understanding of that consumer's behavior, browsing and purchase and all the different dimensions that go into that, well ahead of anyone else doing this." This was 2007. " You deserve enormous credit for that, yet you're doing it to optimize your direct communications, mostly exclusively for direct mail and email, and yet, you're sending two billion pieces of direct mail a year and four billion emails to that file." And it was actually only 17 million in the unit file at the time, and I said, " So you're bombarding the American public with direct communications. You have a statistics team modeling something." I don't know what they're modeling to optimize anything because you're sending almost full file multiple times a week. Imagine if you stepped back from that, and really thought about those data and the insights that could truly be gleaned from them to impact the business in far more strategic and tactical ways throughout the whole organization. And that was how I joined Macy's, was to come incubate and build this capability of extracting these insights from marketing, which were the easy use cases, but also merchandising, loyalty, and lots of different things, Ecommerce, store dynamics, and that was really the beginning of that journey. I was employee one of that unit, and we grew it to hundreds.

Matt Blumberg: Well, I mean, the title like customer strategy is so interesting for a retailer, right? If you think about Saks, when you started there, there was not much customer strategy, right? They might've had a card, but they probably didn't know anything else about any of their customers. Maybe they had some sort of elite club for the people that they-

Julie Bernard: Yeah.

Matt Blumberg: But data is the... It became, in those years, the currency.

Julie Bernard: Yeah.

Matt Blumberg: And when you got all the data, it makes sense now, the breadth of things that you ran there.

Julie Bernard: Yeah. What's interesting though, Matt, I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because in my own career, I've almost become known for that period of time, data- driven everything. I could tell a stat and tell a story around a stat, and a whole bunch of different things, all day long, and there's a lot of that, yet, I feel we've gone too far into some of that narrative around the data and the insights, and we're forgetting the human essence piece of how we feel when we experience brands, when we experience their products, when we experience their services, when we interact with them. And I am on a mission, in my new stage of my career, to bring back the feeling, to bring back the human in all of the analytics that we're doing, and to not forget even... They've thinking about, " What is the insight?" Yet, whatever action I'm taking, that it's not only in service of revenue, growth, efficiency, whatever the thing might be, yet is grounded in the experience we're helping people have. And of course, I want it to be an uplifting one, and I then go back to my Saks days, and I give the Saks leadership at the time, Phil Miller, Rosemary Bravo, all these people, so much credit for it, and then all of the brands, because you mentioned... We've talked about, I started as a merchant. That is about feeling. If I'm going to spend$ 3, 000 for something or$ 6, 000 for something, the feeling has to transcend the product and the price, because it's how you made me feel when I wore this, when I had this handbag, when I wore this shoe with the gown, whatever the story might be. It's how you made me feel, and I'm on a mission to bring back the feeling to the data analytics that these exercises we go through so that we don't forget that point. At the end of the day, we're communicating with and engaging with a human, and I just want to make sure we don't lose sight of that.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah. And it does almost feel full circle, so that's interesting.

Julie Bernard: Yeah.

Matt Blumberg: All right, so let's move. Let's keep walking our way through. So from Saks to Verve. So you got yourself into the mobile space. Talk about that a little bit, because Macy's didn't do it very much with mobile, right? I mean, presumably, you had-

Julie Bernard: A little bit. I mean, look, to their credit, they were trying. It was also early, right? I mean, the iPhone was only introduced when I joined Macy's, so I'm going to give them a little bit of credit for the timing of when that breakthrough happened. And even back in those days, we were thinking, " Is it mobile app?" " Is it mobile web? What does even mobile mean?"

Matt Blumberg: Right, right. What does it mean? Yeah.

Julie Bernard: Yeah. So there was a lot of confusion, I would say, even outside of that context. Well, I often think about this because you think about your life almost in chapters, and I could be kind of, " There was my retail chapter, and then there was something else," but more recently, I've decided that kind of like Picasso, and he had periods, there was a Blue Period, and Cubist Period, and Surrealism, and Rose Period or whatever, that the first period of my life, if you will, I like to call it the human period, because I feel so many of the lessons I learned were about that human, were about strategic thinking, and the human feeling, and whether it was in retail or frankly, the human moments that executives shared with me that have stayed with me for my whole career, for how they coached me, nurtured me, developed me. I feel like then, when I went to Verve, I transitioned into this new chapter. I don't know what to call this one yet. I sometimes wonder, " Is it the enablement era, the pragmatic P& L enablement era?" There's something there where it was now, all of these experiences we've been wanting to create, " How can we execute in meaningful ways?," and there was a lot of technology in that. And so while Verve was a technology platform, it launched me into the next period of my career, which has been lots of different technology platforms. So that was advertising technology focused on mobile, which was great, then there was MarTech. I have had Fintech, I've had RetailTech, and so it really became this period of all of this technology and immersing myself in these... Both proven, so machine learning, computer vision, and some of these things are quite mature and proven, artificial intelligence technologies as an example, and, of course then, we have generative AI and large language models and all the emergent and modern technologies, yet, technology and still not losing sight of the fact that it's the enablement layer. It's not the thing in and of itself, yet it enables all of these other things. And so as you grow in your career and you have far more P& L responsibility and you start to frame those experiences for mostly for- profit businesses, for- profit kind of tying those two together, and really thinking about it through that execution layer, the role that technology can play and delivering those experiences.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah. So when you think back across all these experiences, what do you think of as kind of the through line? Is it more on the data side? Is it more about emotional human connections? Is it a little bit both? Is it something else that's an abstraction on top of both of them?

It's probably a merging of both, because I do like to ground myself in facts. I'm a lifelong learner. In fact, just this week I learned a new word and I love it so much because it captures me. It's a Japanese word. I don't don't know if I'm pronouncing it correctly, so I might embarrass myself. I think it's tsundoku, tsundoku. It's the idea that you have a lot of books, but they sit on a shelf, and I am completely that person, piles of hundreds of books that I have purchased over time with the intent to read. They just sit there because I never get around to them, yet, there's something about it that I thought was interesting or someone referenced it, and so one of my New Year's resolutions is to start attacking that pile of books. I like facts, I love learning, I love information, yet I don't like things to be so black and white. I am very comfortable living in a world of gray because I think-

Matt Blumberg: That's good because the world is gray.

Julie Bernard: It is gray, and so that's where the human piece comes in, where I try to remember the context for the facts. If I were to say there's a through line, I'm passionate about the role of context. Context matters so much in the interpretation of everything around us, and I try to look back on, and there were so many moments in my career where it was the context of that moment that helped me make whatever the decision is. Are there things I would do differently? Of course, because now I have new information, I have new life experience, but I'm okay with it because of the context of that moment.

Matt Blumberg: So in your new world, you are doing some fractional executive work. That's fine, but you're doing a lot of advisory work and you're on a couple of boards as an independent director. How do you bring that through line to the board and advisory work?

Julie Bernard: That has been an interesting transition for me. So I joined the Authority Brands board in March of 2020 and-

Matt Blumberg: That was a busy month.

Julie Bernard: It was a transition for me because I'm such an activator, I'm such a doer myself. The achiever wants to solve some problems. I see that, " What do we need to get done, and let's go solve this together." It's a different role. I'm really empowering the team and supporting the team, offering the sounding board ideas, ideate a little bit, and it was a new role for me, and I was very fortunate with the Authority Brands opportunity to have a CEO who really... We just had really easy, great conversations, both the original CEO and the current CEO of that business, and really, a lot of opportunity also to coach and mentor other members of that executive team and to help them think things through, which because I like to do that myself, which I always like to say, " So what does something mean, and what do we do with it?" It has been a nice transition, yet you have to really remember the role that you're playing in supporting them versus you trying to execute. So that was definitely a muscle that had to be a worked. It was different for me.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah, and I mean, that is one of the things that new board members or first time board members have to get good at, is really...

Julie Bernard: Yeah.

Matt Blumberg: And actually, I think it's one of the reasons that being on a board is a lot of fun. It's not actually your problem, it's the company's problem.

Julie Bernard: Yeah.

Matt Blumberg: You don't have to at all.

Julie Bernard: You know what's interesting though? I also love winning, though, I'm not going to lie, competitive. I make it sound like, " Oh, it's all like hugs and kisses all the time." I do like to win. There's no question about that, and so this particular business and the team I'm thinking about in particular has had some really amazing accomplishments in the past three or four years, and so I kind of get a thrill from that as well.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah.

Julie Bernard: Seeing that happen, it's exciting.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah. How often are you... I mean, again, if you look backwards at your career, it's so much about digital transformation, digital transformation, mobile transformation. How much of the advisory work you do is around that, or is the world just sort of past that now, and you're now looking forward as opposed to trying to pull older brands forward?

Julie Bernard: Definitely looking forward, and I have also found that that marries my spirit better. I've always been one when people say, " But we tried that before," or, " We did this once." That's exhausting.

Matt Blumberg: Right.

Julie Bernard: Stop it. Stop it. Stop doing that. I just want to say that to people all the time. It doesn't serve you, and maybe the strategy was great, but you executed poorly. Maybe the context was wrong. Maybe it was a great idea at the wrong time, all the different things, and so let's just stay in the moment we're in and move forward. And I think of it less about digital transformation and more about building. So what are we building, and why, and what do we need to do to build it? I try not to just follow formulas and playbooks. I think that might be something that differentiates me from others who have a structure and a particular framework that they come in with, yet, I really like to assess things and information for their uniqueness, and craft solutions that are uniquely appropriate for that particular business, that founder, that entrepreneur, that CEO.

Matt Blumberg: All right. Last question for you, talk about your work as a fractional executive. What do you love about working in that capacity and what do you not love about working in that capacity?

Julie Bernard: First and foremost, I love the freedom and the independence. It is, for me, framed through a new chapter in my life, back to my chapters in my book, about priorities. I don't mind sharing, I'm someone who has had cancer twice. I take care of my mom, participating in parent care, both my dad and my mom, and there's a certain freedom that's needed and flexibility that you don't get even... I've had a lot of great companies, but it's not the same. The type of flexibility they give you is not the same as the fractional piece.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah.

Julie Bernard: So I have my priorities in place there to take care of them first, my family first, and certainly making sure I'm attending to my own needs. So all of this has been great. I also like having multiples in different categories because it keeps my mind fresh, it keeps me current. What I would say though, the tough part is, there are things I can't do. I had one client, I love to tell this story, and we were doing a bunch of work, but one of the outputs was going to be a new website. There were a couple of things in particular I just cannot do. I'm not a backend developer, and I'm not a graphic designer, and in particular, I'm not a motion graphic designer, which is what we wanted for our homepage experience. I remember speaking to the CEO and founder, and he said, " But so- and- so who introduced us said you do everything," and I said, " Okay, well, that's lovely that he said I do everything," yet, I don't actually do everything. And having to source talent has been difficult, so I've learned through that process that you really have to think about that ecosystem and that network of other people who can bring the strengths and skills that you need to round yourself out for things that may not be your personal superpowers. So that has been difficult, but now, I'm four years in, and so I have my baseball team, but people that play first in outfield and all the different things, so it took a while to solve.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah. I mean, I think that encapsulates the pluses and the minuses of fractional work, but more and more people are doing it, and you're a great example of that.

Julie Bernard: Yeah.

Matt Blumberg: So I think we should wrap it there. Julie Bernard, you are an extraordinary executive, such a great range of experience over your career, and I really appreciate you sharing your insights with us today.

Julie Bernard: Thank you so much. I appreciate it, Matt. Thank you.


Today on The Daily Bolster, Matt welcomes Julie Bernard, who is a career e-commerce and marketing leader, board member, and now, a fractional executive. 

Throughout Julie’s career, her focus has been on merging data-driven decisions with human connection. Tune in as she shares about her career journey and the leaders who empowered her to grow.