Marybeth Cornwell: Executive Influencer

Marybeth CornwellIf you have ever been in a Walmart, a Sam’s Club, or a Lowe’s Home Improvement store, you’ve probably seen Marybeth Cornwell’s influence. As Walmart’s Senior Vice President/GMM Ladieswear, Intimates, Jewelry & Accessories, Marybeth is responsible for sales and profitability of the multi-billion dollar ladieswear apparel business at Walmart. She is also on the Board of Directors of The Walmart FoundationSoNA, the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas and Hope Cancer Resources.

A member of the President’s Global Council of Women Leaders, Marybeth has had an amazing career in marketing and merchandising. I am thrilled that a woman who has been so successful in the corporate world is willing to share her knowledge here on Nerdy Chicks Rule!  Thank you for joining us today, Marybeth!

1.       You’ve held Vice President or Sr. Vice President positions at Walmart, Sam’s Club, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Lexington Furniture, and Hanesbrands, Inc. Can you attribute your success in marketing and merchandising to particular skills or talents?

In all these roles, I have had the opportunity to work with products that directly impact customers in their everyday lives.  I think I have a knack for seeing through a consumer’s eyes regarding product design, color & trend, product assortment, display, and packaging.  I adore shopping :), so I get to do professionally (with a very large checkbook) what I love to do in my personal time!

I don’t think I would have been as successful working with a product that is more abstract, like financial services.    I would, however, enjoy being a researcher.  It’s close to the consumer and I am so nosy.  🙂

2.      Speaking of consumers, whether they know it or not, most of our readers have seen your influence in the products offered by major retailers like Lowe’s and Walmart. What are the challenges you face when trying to select products for your company to sell?

Well I never thought of it that way but, thank you, that makes me very happy.  I love to see my products in use.  (Apparel merchants especially love to crowd-watch and report sightings of their products back to their teams.)

Anyway, as a merchant or product manager, you must have the ability to set your personal preferences aside in order to maximize sales by giving your customer what they want and need – for a great value.  Since retailers are closer to the customer than suppliers (who sell through us and can only see their sales numbers) we spend a lot of time representing our customers wants and needs to the manufacturing community.

3.      I toured your alma mater, Wake Forest University, with my son this year and was so impressed with the academic atmosphere. Which college experiences best prepared you for entering the business world?

Hands down, it was the combination of small class size (I had one TA teach a class, and that was only a lab – in undergrad through business school) and leadership opportunities at Wake.  The school is the perfect size – large enough to offer the resources of a major institution, but small enough to allow a student to be a leader.  I was the Pan-Hellenic President, a founder of the Volunteer Service Corps, active in student government and more.  This was great preparation for business.

4.      I can see why! I understand you have always been a voracious reader. How has that helped you excel?

Marybeth CornwellI think I am supposed to say something esoteric like “well, I taught myself Mandarin” or some such.  But no, I think reading (I prefer almost exclusively fiction) allows me to completely enter another world and relax.  Reading gives my brain time to breathe and fiction, in particular, expands my creativity.

A side benefit is connecting with colleagues who are also bookworms.  One of my key suppliers has a CEO who is a first rate bibliophile and we always start our meetings discussing our latest reads.


5.    Actually, I love that you equate needing to relax with reading! As a Senior Vice President of the world’s largest retailer, you must have an outstanding work ethic. Can you share any work habits that have helped your career?

Well I got started early – I’ve had a job since I was 15 and had to apply for a special work permit.  I worked every weekend through high school, full time in summers, and throughout college and grad school.

I think I have been late to work less than a handful of times and I’ve never been a clock watcher.  I am willing to put in the hours I need for my team to be successful but I still have an active personal life.  In my current role I arrive at work just after 7am and leave after 6pm.  Then there is travel (domestic and international), commuting, our monthly Saturday Morning Meeting, etc.  What I love is that no day is ever the same, and the pace is invigorating.

That said, most people are surprised to know that I rarely take work or reading home and I am passionate about taking every single minute of vacation time.
6.     It sounds like you’re able to combine hard work with fun in your career. So can you share something you like to do that might be considered a tiny bit nerdy, but is actually really fun? 

I love designing a good spreadsheet whether for work or personal use.  I was famously horrible at math until I learned Excel in grad school back in the early 90’s…oooh…each cell is like its own little calculator!  Serious geek territory.  I could finally “see” the math and I was hooked.

Maybe there’s hope for me in math! I love these answers. Thank you, Marybeth. I also want to thank your lifelong friend, Nerdy Chick Nancy Kennedy, for introducing you to us.

Marybeth has agreed to come back in October to talk about being a Breast Cancer Survivor, so keep a lookout for that upcoming post.