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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Pamela Thomas-Graham

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-10

Pamela Thomas-Graham says she's come full circle to the tenets of her childhood.

"I was brought up to challenge myself, to try to be successful on my own terms. I was brought up to be focused," the group president of Liz Claiborne Incorporated said. "So I see myself as more fully engaged than ever before."

Just how engaged can be adduced from the fact that, barely nine months into one of the most prestigious jobs in the $180 billion apparel industry, Ms. Thomas-Graham and her team are reinventing one of America's most venerable fashion brands.

In a few weeks, for example, they will launch a new advertising campaign. They will launch new designs created by Richard Ostell. This is all part of a new interpretation of Liz Claiborne as a modern classic brand that women will find as relevant to their workplace requirements as their weekend pursuits.

In giving that interpretation, Ms. Thomas-Graham and her team will not only try and reinforce Liz Claiborne's position as a market leader - it's the most recognized brand in women's apparel - but also, of course, ratchet up sales.

As one of the company's four group presidents, she's in charge of Liz Claiborne's flagship brand - established 30 years ago - along with such women's clothing names as Sigrid Olsen, J.H. Collectibles, and Emma James. The 10 brands that Ms. Thomas-Graham leads account for 20% of the company's annual revenues of $4.6 billion.

Isn't all this daunting, but especially for a woman whose last job was not in the apparel business but as chairman and CEO of the cable channel CNBC?

Ms. Thomas-Graham smiled.

"There's a new vocabulary for sure, and a new rhythm," Ms. Thomas-Graham said. "Our CEO, Paul Charron, and president, Trudy Sullivan, have been wonderful coaches. I've also worked in the industry before."

Her reference was to the decade that she spent at McKinsey & Company, where she became the first black woman partner since the fabled consulting firm was founded in 1926. At McKinsey, Ms. Thomas-Graham worked in the consumer area, which meant handling the communications, packaged goods, retail and apparel industries.

"I became very fascinated by why people buy what they buy," she said. "I also became fascinated with the whole question of decision making, of finding the right balance between being data driven and not being paralyzed by having too much data at hand. My fascination was with finding the right balance between art and science."

In turn, her outgoing persona and special status - that of a black woman in a predominantly white and male consulting industry - spawned wide fascination in business circles.

"When you are a black woman in corporate America, you feel the pressure to perform at an exceptionally high level," Ms. Thomas-Graham said. "If you fail, then you're closing the door to others like you. I tried to turn that scrutiny into a positive. I figured that when everybody is watching you, and you're good, then your good performance gets amplified."

That her professional performance was perceived as top caliber could scarcely have been a surprise to Ms. Thomas-Graham. She had been groomed for success since her childhood in Detroit as one of two children of two products of the South, Albert - who worked for Detroit's housing department - and Marian, a social worker.

Their emphasis on scholarship and on time proven values of their Presbyterian church had a profound effect on Ms. Thomas-Graham and her older brother Vincent, now assistant dean of the law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

"Our parents expected us to know what was going on in the world," Ms. Thomas-Graham said. "My mother always emphasized that we should be able to hold a conversation on any topic for at least five minutes. This reinforced the value of knowledge and intellectual curiosity in us."

That sense of discovery and curiosity served her well. As an undergraduate at Harvard College, she discovered economics. So she switched her choice from government to what Thomas Carlyle famously called the dismal science.

Ms. Thomas-Graham did not find economics dismal.

"I really liked the mix of math, statistics and behavioral aspects of economics," she said.

She also understood that it would be important to gain early experience in the market place in order to fashion a career, notwithstanding her undergraduate degree and her subsequent joint graduate degree from Harvard's business and law schools (where she served on the law review). She sought and obtained internships at institutions such as Goldman, Sachs, and the Boston-based consulting group, Bain & Company.

"At one point I toyed with the idea of doing a doctorate in economics. But that notion lasted for exactly two seconds. I came to the realization that I wanted a career that was action oriented," Ms. Thomas-Graham - who's married to the best selling author Lawrence Otis Graham - said. "I didn't want to be a theoretician. I wanted a career where I could actually have an impact."

A career in the law wasn't it. Neither was teaching. So Ms. Thomas-Graham joined McKinsey. She flourished.

Then an old mentor, James Cash, a member of the board of General Electric and formerly James E. Robison Professor at Harvard Business School, introduced her to the chairman and CEO of GE. The official, Jack Welch, was so taken by Ms. Thomas-Graham that he recommended her to Robert Wright, the chairman and CEO of NBC Universal.

Mr. Wright asked her to head CNBC.Com, then in its infancy and a financial Web site. With her characteristic creativity and flair for eliciting yeomen contributions from colleagues, Ms. Thomas-Graham and her team made CNBC.Com one of the top 10 Web sites in finance within 18 months.

"I do not use brute force in my management style. I use my strategic abilities. I work hard to create a team environment," Ms. Thomas-Graham said. "It's extremely important for a leader to empower others in driving the success of the organization. I emphasize how essential it is to be nimble and always resourceful."

Mr. Wright then assigned Ms. Thomas-Graham to take control of the cable channel, CNBC, after CNBC.Com was merged with Microsoft's Web site in 2001. She achieved record profits and stabilized the network in turbulent times.

But when the call came from Liz Claiborne, the lure of the women's apparel business - which accounts for nearly 60% of the overall apparel industry - proved irresistible. The new business was more than twice the size of CNBC.

But, the reporter wanted to know, does Veronica "Nikki" Chase wear Liz Claiborne?

Nikki Chase is the heroine of mystery novels that Ms. Thomas-Graham writes. Acclaimed by critics and readers, she's at work on the fourth book of the series. Each book features an Ivy League local.

Is the character of Nikki Chase - a sparkling, ambitious single economics professor at Harvard - based on the life of her creator, a mother of three young children?

Ms. Thomas-Graham looked at her questioner as if to say, "What do you think?"

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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