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WomanOf the Month 4-06: Laura Young, Director Sales & Marketing, Brighton Accessories
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Early on Laura Young seized the day, whether building leadership skills, seeking out mentors, or forging connections. Today Young is director of sales and marketing for Brighton Accessories, a division of Leegin Creative Leather Products based in City of Industry, CA. If Brighton’s belts, handbags, small leather goods, jewelry, eyewear, footwear, and other items seem ubiquitous—despite being sold only in smaller specialty and Brighton stores—it’s due to Young’s and her sales force’s efforts. But the locale that first provided a forum for her energy was her alma mater, Southern Methodist University.

“The other night, my husband and I were talking about how much SMU had given me, not just in terms of my education, but also in leadership,apostrophe Young says. While there, she served on the Student Foundation, a fundraising arm for the university’s development office; was vice president of her sorority; president of her class; and spoke at her graduation, among many other activities. Upon graduation, she became the youngest alumni to join the board of directors of the alumni association. “My experience at SMU was truly amazing and it really laid the groundwork for my confidence and leadership interest,apostrophe she says.

When asked if “networkingapostrophe was the technique she learned she notes it’s not a term she favors. “I really think of it more as making connections,apostrophe she says. “I love people—I was intrigued by what people did.apostrophe

Young also learned from failure. One of her most instructive experiences emerged from a disappointment in high school, when she didn’t make the cheerleading squad one year. “I realized you have to earn what you want and you can’t expect to get it. You have to do your homework and be prepared for what you do. The founder of Brighton, Jerry Kohl, has been a big inspiration on that front for me as well,apostrophe she says.

After college, Young worked for Ginnie Johansen Designs, which was run by the father of one of her SMU sorority sisters, who also worked there. She specialized in market research and became vice president of sales and marketing over a 10-year stint while helping the company grow from below $1 million in annual sales to $20 million.

In about 1991 Jerry Kohl approached her about joining his company, which at that time specialized in belts for men and had only recently added ladies’ belts. Out of the 37 sales force, only two were women, and he wanted to build up the distribution and sales base of the women’s line. Young’s children were aged two and four at the time and she agreed to work part-time (this didn’t last too long, of course). Her message to the sales force was, “Show up, and show em.apostrophe The men’s products were well-constructed and the women’s line was high-quality and well-priced as well. She enforced discipline upon the sales force: They were to visit three stores a week showing the lines twice. She taught them about women’s clothes, what was in fashion, how to show the belts, how to display them, and other techniques to help the storeowners as well. By midnight each Saturday the sales force were to send her an e-mail sales report. The result? From May 1991 to December 1991 the number of stores selling the women’s line had risen from 300 to 1,200. Revenues had risen from $200,000 to $1,750,000. Every single Sunday the reports were published and managers and Kohl received a copy. The next year she continued the strategy to even better effect, and revenues from the women’s belts rose from 1992 to 2000 to $3 million.

Young’s concept for the women’s brand soon expanded to handbags, jewelry and shoes, because she knew belts wouldn’t provide the largest business to build the brand. Brighton held onto its philosophy of only selling to small stores, eschewing large department stores. Its salesmen and saleswomen work full-time for Brighton and are in the stores constantly, according to Young, cheerleading, helping the owners, making an inventory of products, etc. “We don’t buy anything stock,apostrophe notes Young. “All our products are sketched by hand by our own designers and then that design is carved on a piece of wood.apostrophe The company frequently takes members of its sales force abroad to view production facilities (some facilities remain in the U.S.) and help them be more knowledgeable while connecting with one another.

Young is married to her high school sweetheart and their mutual support has helped them raise their children and succeed at very busy jobs that have required commuting and lots of travel at various times. Currently, Young commutes to L.A. from her home in Tyler, Texas. The key is to love what you do, she notes. “My job is my life, and I love it,apostrophe she says. “I’m with my kids a lot. For instance, when I took some of our sales personnel on a recent trip to China, my daughter Caroline went with me, and it was a great experience for her. We’ve been able to take wonderful holidays together also. And my children are very independent as a result of my career.apostrophe

When she considers what makes Brighton successful, Young notes that it’s the people who are the “secret sauce.apostrophe

For more info about Brighton, go to www.brighton.com.