Alumni Spotlight: Stacey Widlitz
From NYU Stern to Founder of SW Retail Advisors, CNBC Contributor and On-Air Analyst
Jessica Wasserman, Managing Editor
The holiday season is a time for family, friends, holiday parties, and good cheer. For Stacey Widlitz, President of SW Retail Advisors Inc., it is busy season. Widlitz and her staff pound the pavement, endure the crowds of shoppers, and gather on-the-ground market intelligence for a number of global retailers.
SW Retail Advisors Inc. is a consulting firm that combines traditional equity research with on-the-ground market research in both the United States and Europe. Widlitz provides clients with a global competitive analysis of the apparel, luxury, footwear, department store, athleisure, discount and grocery space. She also gathers global proprietary data on promotions, conversion rates and traffic, which is unique in the marketplace. Being her own boss has many professional advantages. Widlitz emphasized that she is now able to provide positive and negative critiques based on her research and marketplace trends, without the worry of those conflicts of interest seen at other financial institutions.
While Widlitz always knew that she would become an entrepreneur, her career path took her down a more traditional road after graduating from the Leonard N. Stern School of Business. Widlitz covered consumer equities for 10 years at investment banks and institutions like UBS, SG Cowen, Fulcrum Partners, and Pali Capital. Widlitz stated, “As an equity research professional there are many facets to the job, however, I found being on the ground in stores was where I was most effective and where my best ideas were born.”
Working for large institutions left her with little time for ground work. Widlitz further explained, “Grass roots research has always been my niche and has differentiated me from 30-plus peers analyzing the same space. The inspiration for SW Retail Advisors was to take my ‘store hunting’ skills and reverse engineer retail research on an international scale. What does that mean? The ideas or “the a-ha” moments actually happen while you are on the ground in stores. That is the best starting point; sitting behind the computer crunching numbers comes after.”
Widlitz’s idea to venture out on her own was a result of personal circumstances. While on her honeymoon with her British (London-based) husband, she found out that the US-based investment firm she worked for went belly up. There was no more debate between Widlitz and her husband as to who would be relocating. Widlitz moved to London. After moving to London, Widlitz considered her career options. She wanted more control over her destiny, future, and P&L statement. Widlitz noticed distinct changes in the retail environment and marketplace. Large retailers were expanding overseas in pursuit of additional growth. She found her opportunity. In 2011, she launched SW Retail Advisors Inc. In 5 years SW Retail Advisors has gone from an “a-ha” moment standing in the middle of an Abercrombie store in London to the go-to research solution for global retail investors.
Building a business came with new challenges and opportunities. Widlitz had to become her own salesperson. While at other financial institutions, she would work with sales teams. Now she juggles research and sales activities. Widlitz mentioned that in an environment of tight research budgets she has to communicate to institutional investors as to why diverting money away from the traditional equity research side will be a profitable decision for them. Widlitz had to focus on delivering value above what is found in traditional sale-side products and services. She also found that she needed to be effective in her sales pitch because as the common saying goes, “you don’t get a second chance at first impressions.”
Although sales in an important aspect of running a business, at the end of the day it is about performance. Performance is what keeps your clients coming back.
Widlitz planted those seeds for top-notch, high-quality performance while attending business school. Prior to attending business school, Widlitz obtained a degree in political science from Tulane University. She went on to work in the fashion retail industry after finishing school.
For Widlitz, Stern was a transformational experience. Compared to her peers who had finance, consulting, and engineering backgrounds, she felt she had a little catching up to do. She recalls practically “living” in some of her professors’ offices. Widlitz remembers Professor Aswath Damodaran spending significant amounts of time with students, like herself, explaining course principles in a way that was understandable. He encouraged his students to succeed.
Another aspect of business school that was very important to Widlitz was group work. She spent a good amount of time figuring out how to work with different personalities and backgrounds. In addition, she had to develop a strong understanding of the value she brought to her teams. She learned that a good approach to team work was to divide and conquer. “There is a reason each of your classmates were accepted to Stern,” emphasized. “Your job is to find that reason and use it most effectively.”
Other defining experiences for Widlitz came when it was time to choose an offer. While she had varying job offers, she decided to take the one that was for the “unsexy” sector because she enjoyed the person she interviewed with. Widlitz advises, “Choose wisely who you work with. Working with and learning from the right people, is more valuable in the long run than working in the right sector. People can influence your career path and the opportunities that come your way.”
Widlitz has taken advantage of many opportunities that have come her way including the opportunity to contribute on-air for CNBC. For the past seven years, she has embraced the role of CNBC retail analyst contributor. “To be able to have 30 seconds to get your point across and be in front of a camera, it is the greatest training for life. CNBC anchors do their homework and no topic is off limits to them. You have to think on your feet and be able to switch gears and go with the flow,” Widlitz explains. As an on-air contributor, she has experienced contentious live debates. Contributors have to develop the ability to respond in a respectful, calm manner and get their points across. Being a commentator and contributor on CNBC is not about showing people how much you know. It is about picking the points that matter and communicating those to CNBC’s audience.
For Widlitz, media and social media is a great way to connect with those clients and non-clients in the industry. It is a great way to get your name out there. It is a way to bring a conversation to light that may help you get business. If you have something to say that is thought-provoking, the media likes to hear it. According to Widlitz, the key is to use it wisely and effectively.
Over the past seven years, Widlitz found a way to combine her education, experience, skill, and passion into a leading retail research consultancy. Stacey’s continuous efforts to advance retail research has provided her with some keen insight for retail executives, “It is time companies start thinking out-of-the-box when hiring new people in the C-suite. As companies become global and e-commerce continues to disrupt the old business model, new skillsets are required. You cannot truly embrace change unless your c-suite reflects similar change in both behavior and thinking.”