The accidental retail career man
Job not only viable, but lucrative, fulfilling
Mike Chuback is one of many people who find themselves in an “accidental career,” as many in the retail sector call it. He never imagined himself building a 25-year career with the same retailer, yet that’s where he finds himself today.
Today Chuback is the vice-president of services at home electronics retailer Future Shop Ltd.’s Vancouver head office, overseeing the technicians, installations and staff training for the company’s chain of stores across Canada.
But he started out selling computers as a sales associate on the floor at the company’s second store in Richmond, B.C., in 1983.
Chuback had just finished his education in what would be the equivalent of today’s IT degree, then known as computer services, and was trying to decide where to look for work.
“I was reaching that point where you’ve got to pay your student loans and it was time to get a job of some kind and I ended up landing in retail,” says Chuback.
“I didn’t ever expect myself to end up there.”
Like many students, he didn’t associate going into retail with long-term career success but acknowledges now how mistaken that was.
Post-secondary graduates in all areas of business have been climbing the retail ladder for years and the best and brightest can earn upwards of half a million dollars a year as a chief executive officer of a large chain retailer, says national retail recruitment consultant Brenda Dumont.
“It is probably the one industry that dogmatically sticks to a ‘ground-up, promote-from-within’ mentality,” says Dumont. “We’ve been called the accidental career, but there have been some marvellous stories.”
Wynne Powell, who just won the retail industry equivalent of an Oscar — the Henry Singer Award, to be handed out in October — got his start as a cashier at a London Drugs retail outlet. He’s now the company’s CEO.
“The potential is literally limitless,” says Dumont. “People start out needing some money when they’re going to university and become engaged in the whole retail process.”
Chuback moved from sales associate in computers to various positions on the sales floor and then became assistant manager at a Vancouver store before store manager in Abbotsford.
He soon headed to Alberta to oversee the opening of several new stores in Calgary and Edmonton before taking a new position as district manager in Ontario, then regional manager for the Maritimes and eventually director of operations for Ontario.
After spending his time in the trenches, his career pathway in retail was clear.
He was promoted to regional vicepresident for Western Canada by 2005 and most recently moved up the ladder again into his current role as VP of services.
“It’s been quite an exciting ride when I think about how much technology and retail has changed,” says Chuback. “I think it has especially changed in the last four or five years and that really came from the U.S.”
Big U.S. retailers such as Wal-Mart “saw the need for the right leaders in retail” to help the companies grow and solidify market dominance, he says.
At the same time, the notion of what retail encompasses is broadening in scope, says Dumont.
It includes supply chain and distribution, inventory control, marketing, finance, operations, administration, merchandising, human resources and many other fields and industries.
The promote-from-within attitude prevalent in retail exists for a reason, she says.
Understanding a company’s inner workings and having front-line experience is an invaluable asset when you make it to the top.
Lynda Brochu puts her front-line experience to the test every day in her current role as senior vice president of personal and commercial product management with BMO Financial Group in Toronto.
“I did almost every single job there is in the branches,” says Brochu. “I think it’s critical because in every industry you have to stand at that counter and look at customers, so the more experience you have dealing with people … the more you understand this is a people business.”
What began in 1974 as a teller job evolved into supervisory and assistant manager roles before moving into commercial banking and eventually into her current role.
Banks have moved to a much more customer-centric, retail strategy in recent years partially because they realize that many of the rules that apply in more traditional retailing certainly apply to the business of banking.
“It’s a relationship business,” says Brochu.
“Banking is really a personal thing (and) you’ve got to be able to trust who’s giving you that service.”
Chuback hopes to lead by example. At a time when labour is scarce, he’s trying to raise awareness among young graduates that not only is a career in retail viable, it can be highly lucrative and fulfilling if you’re willing to put in the effort.
“The opportunity doesn’t end, it just keeps growing,” he says. “The idea is understanding the vision and writing yourself into that story.”