A Minute With WIRLC Board Member Laura Hnatow

By: Melissa Campanelli

Welcome to our latest installment of “A Minute With …,” where we ask our board members a few questions about work and life. This week we chatted with Laura Hnatow, director of marketing and e-commerce for Sea Bags, a Portland, Maine-based manufacturer and retailer of handcrafted tote bags and accessories from recycled sails. Prior to her newest adventure at Sea Bags, Laura was the e-commerce channel manager for cross-channel merchant Cuddledown, and also spent over 10 years at L.L.Bean in roles that included international marketing, advertising and e-commerce.

Inner Circle: What are some of the leadership lessons you’ve learned during the course of your career?
Laura Hnatow: When I was younger, I used to try to do everything myself. As I got wiser and exposed to more, I realized that success is tied to how easily you can let go and guide other people. Empowering my team members and then recognizing them for the collective efforts and results that we all accomplished with the help of each team member is simple, but requires discipline. All of the effective leaders that I’ve had the honor to follow have done that successfully.

IC: Can you talk about something you may have failed at, but learned from as well?
LH: Well, I can’t think of a bigger fail than having your website go down on Cyber Monday. And that happened to me. There was really nothing my team or I could have done to avoid it, and the only thing we did was spend countless hours watching and waiting until the wee hours of the morning when our team in California got the site back online. What I learned from the experience was how to deal with partners after a real tragic service interruption.

What we needed to do was figure out how to move forward, but yet create some type of remediation for our situation. Contracts are written so that there can’t be any financial reimbursement in these types of outages, but I focused on getting some value adds from the provider going forward — free project work and enhancements. Our relationship was even stronger following this issue and we became their go-to client for references, beta tests and other opportunities. To this day, I’m very friendly with the CEO of this company and his comments were: “Laura understands what it means to be a real partner, and lives that in all of her interactions with me and my company.”

IC: What’s your strategy for hiring?
LH: I don’t do anything unusual. I’m fairly consistent about having thorough (read: long) interviews, asking questions that run all over the place, from “What book are you reading?” to “What was your biggest disappointment in your career thus far?” If someone doesn’t answer the second question with what they learned, then I really question their ability to grow. I also like to give people assignments. For example, if it’s a design position, I have them design an email. If it’s a social media position, I’ll ask them to craft some posts and maybe even design a campaign. I also like to ask people to critique my website. It takes a brave candidate to make recommendations to change something, and I like that.

IC: What career advice can you give our members?
LH: Nurture your network. My career success has been a combination of hard work and the quality relationships that I have with people I’ve met along the way. When I’ve helped someone else out, they’ve inevitably always returned the favor. And doing this authentically is the key. People always know when you’re not genuine.

IC: Can you name any mentors you have in the retail industry?
LH: I have lots of mentors — and they probably don’t even realize that I consider them as such. Having worked at L.L.Bean for more than 10 years, the number of talented and smart people I worked for there is too numerous to list, but I’m currently working for some of them in my role at Sea Bags. Zane Shatzer was my first boss at L.L.Bean, and he continues to be someone I turn to for career and life advice to this day. I also consider Russ Gaitskill, the former CEO of Garnet Hill, among my mentors and good friends. He’s been a great sounding board for me. And Cindy Marshall of Shine Strategy (and Women in Retail Leadership Circle board member), also a former boss, continues to be a great role model that I seek out.

IC: Is there a book, blog or podcast that you turn to for inspiration?
LH: I love the Social Media Marketing Podcast as well as John Lee Dumas’ Entrepreneur On Fire. Both are full of ideas and free tools and tips that anyone can integrate into their business. The entrepreneurship lessons on Dumas’ show are both great leadership lessons and motivation for continuing to learn and innovate in your career, and they usually come from some of the top business leaders out there. Plus the book recommendations on that show will keep my Audible account locked and loaded for years to come.

IC: What are your hobbies?
LH: I love to run, and when I can’t run I try to do some yoga. So exercise in general is a big part of my life when I can fit it in with my kids’ busy schedules. In addition to that, I’m a huge textiles enthusiast. I collect fabric (hoard might be a better term for it) and eventually sew things. That’s why I love working at Sea Bags; I get to listen to the hum of sewing machines all day with the seagulls as a backdrop. Pretty inspiring.

IC: What’s your favorite vacation spot?
LH: I live in Vacationland with my husband and kids, so my favorite vacation spot is with them, on our boat “MiKo” floating off the Maine coast. The sights and sounds of the Maine coastline and islands are all I need to recharge for another week of magical marketing and Sea Bag making.

IC: If you weren’t working in the retail industry, what would you be doing?
LH: I’d probably be in design, so likely still retail. I love to sew and do surface design with textiles. My dream is to be a skilled enough seamstress to be on “Project Runway.” I have some practice to do first before Tim Gunn calls my number.

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