Betsy McLaughlin





President and Chief Executive Officer of Hot Topic, Inc.

Born Elizabeth M. McLaughlin, c. 1962, in California; daughter of Bob (a salesperson) and Karin (a homemaker) McLaughlin. Education: Attended the University of California, Irvine.

Addresses:

Home —Manhattan Beach, CA. Office —Hot Topic, Inc., 18305 E. San Jose Ave., City of Industry, CA 91748.

Career

Began retail career in selling men's suits in a California department store, late 1970s; held merchandising and buyer's positions with Millers Outpost and Broadway department stores; vice–president of store operations, Hot Topic, Inc., 1993–95, head of merchandising, 1996–99, president after 1999, chief executive officer, 2000—.

Sidelights

Betsy McLaughlin runs Hot Topic, the chain of alternative clothing stores that became one of the surprise retail success stories of the 1990s. McLaughlin was also instrumental in launching a new division, Torrid, which features plus–size teen fashions. The chief executive officer helped promote the daring new Torrid retail concept personally, noting her own struggles to find fashionable gear as a full–figured woman. "It's about style, not about size," McLaughlin told Time 's Dody Tsiantar.

Born in the early 1960s, McLaughlin grew up in Orange County, California, and earned straight A's at Costa Mesa's Estancia High. She began her career in retail while studying economics at the University of California's Irvine campus. As her father, Bob, a sales veteran, recalled in an interview with People, his daughter was a natural at selling men's suits in a local department store. "She'd get one guy in and sell to him," he told the magazine, "and then he'd come back with his whole football team!" After graduating, McLaughlin worked in merchandising for a West Coast mall clothier, Millers Outpost, and went on to the department–store chain Broadway. She began at Hot Topic in 1993, when the California–based company was just a few years old.

McLaughlin was hired as vice–president of store operations at Hot Topic, and oversaw its rapid expansion over the rest of the decade. Hot Topic lured young shoppers into its funkily designed emporiums by selling a range of daring gear, from band T–shirts to skull rings to unisex vinyl wear. It carried its own products as well as those from more outré vendors such as Lip Service, which usually refused to deal with chain stores but made an exception for Hot Topic. The mall–based retailer, noted Fortune 's Kimberly L. Allers, quickly attained phenomenal sales numbers by "following the pulse of the alternative teen demographic more closely than most any other big company. For years, angst–ridden teens sought their edgy wares in urban hotbeds of pseudo–subversive underground culture" like Greenwich Village in New York City or Belmont Avenue in Chicago, Allers noted. "Hot Topic has taken that antiestablishment vibe and put it in, of all places, the suburban mall."

McLaughlin was promoted to head of merchandising at Hot Topic in 1996, and was named company president in 1999; a year later she took over the chief executive officer position. As the company grew to some 400–plus stores, she made certain that it still retained its reputation for seeking out and bringing cutting–edge merchandise to its mall addresses with a turnaround time that was unprecedented in the retail sector. The company encouraged its buyers and other employees to delve into field research personally, and even reimbursed the cost of a concert ticket if an employee attended a show and submitted a report on the band or new clothing trends spotted in the crowd. McLaughlin also utilized the company's Internet site, which was launched in 1997 and proved a profit–maker almost from the start. "We can put a message out on our Web site and ask if our customers have heard of a particular band," she told WWD writer Kristin Young. "The next day, we get hundreds, if not thousands, of responses from every area of the country saying what they think about the band. It's that kind of information flow that's so valuable."

That kind of customer feedback was crucial in launching Hot Topic's new division, Torrid, in 2001. At every Hot Topic store, suggestion cards sat near the cash register, and when the company tested size–15 vinyl jeans in the stores, the messages began arriving on McLaughlin's desk with the same plea. "Customers started writing in, saying, 'I see you have this one item; why can't you have more?'" she said in the interview with People. "We realized this customer didn't have anywhere to go." McLaughlin recalled her own difficult experiences finding fun clothes as a size–14 teen, and realized that there was an untapped market of more than 50 percent of American women who wore a size 14 and up. Plus–size clothing had become a hot, new apparel category in recent years, but no other retailer was offering heavier teens the same stylish, curve–accentuating fashions that dominated standard–size junior styles.

The first Torrid store opened at the Brea Mall in Orange County in April of 2001. It carried its own Torrid line of clothes, plus sizes 12 to 26 from other vendors. That and the Torrid stores that followed were overnight sensations, McLaughlin recalled. "Some people thought we had staged customers," she told People, "because when they went into a store, they saw a mom or daughter screaming with joy or crying." The chain quickly expanded to more than three dozen across the United States, and helped make Hot Topic one of the most impressive retail stocks on Wall Street. The company's stock price rose 33 percent between 2001 and 2002, and in 2003 the company posted sales of $546 million across 494 stores, making it one of the highest sales–per–square–foot performers in the industry. It was No. 47 on Fortune magazine's list of the 100 fastest–growing companies in America that year.

McLaughlin's company jumped from twelfth place to fourth on Forbes 's "200 Best Small Companies in America" rankings in 2003 as well, in part because of the dynamic, decidedly non–corporate structure at its City of Industry headquarters just outside Los Angeles, California. McLaughlin does her job from a desk situated in the middle of a large room amidst dozens of other employees, for example, while music videos play on screens overhead. The conference room resembles a dance club, and bands sometimes stop by for special in–house performances. McLaughlin encourages all employees to e–mail her with ideas and suggestions, and works hard to eliminate roadblocks that keep staff from voicing their opinions. Part of her job involves attending rock concerts herself, but she still carefully monitors the customer–comment cards for both Hot Topic and Torrid. "This is serious stuff because not many people ask teenagers what they think," she explained in the interview with Young for WWD. "You learn with teenagers that you don't presume anything. They are a segment that tells you what they think and they're not shy about it. The best thing to do is put it out there and listen [to] what they have to say. They'll vote with their words and they'll vote with their money."

Sources

Periodicals

Advertising Age, November 17, 2003, p. S2.

BusinessWeek, June 9, 2003, pp. 84–86.

Chain Store Age, September 2003, p. 96.

DSN Retailing Today, May 1, 2001, p. 2.

Fortune, September 1, 2003, p. 81; November 10, 2003.

Investor's Business Daily, June 25, 2001, p. A4; December 5, 2003, p. A3.

Los Angeles Business Journal, November 25, 2002, p. 10.

New York Times, February 9, 2003.

People, May 26, 2003, pp. 153–54.

Time, May 6, 2002, p. Y17.

U.S. News & World Report, April 30, 2001, p. 44.

WWD, February 1, 2001, p. 16B; March 15, 2001, p. 18; May 7, 2001, p. 20.

Online

"200 Best Small Companies 2003," Forbes.com , http://www.forbes.com/finance/lists/23/2003/LIR.jhtml?passListId=23� 6;passYear=2003&passListType=Company&uniqueId=TO7Z& atatype=Company (February 12, 2004).

Carol Brennan



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