How Sean Sondreal broke traditions in retail marketing.
Everyone dreams of loving their career and excelling in it. For Sean Sondreal, he knew he had a passion and drive for marketing from the time he was 16 years old, when he started a baseball card business with his father. He enjoyed the promotional aspect of the business and quickly realized he knew how to sell a product.
In Sean’s 20-plus years in the retail marketing industry, he broke away from traditional career pathways to stick with what he loved and what he excelled at, thus becoming the first person to move from loyalty manager to digital director to chief marketing officer. Here’s his story.
Sean began his career at Kohl’s, in the manager-in-training sequence, where he helped with credit acquisition programs. This led to his first direct marketing experience, building a marketing database. From there, Kohl’s created a new role expressly for him: credit marketing analyst.
Sean later moved into a loyalty marketing manager role, where he worked on the customer relationship marketing side of things, and helped with new store opening strategy, promotional lever and building customer prospects.
Rise to Digital Director
Around the time of the dot.com bubble, Sean came back from a DMA conference and expressed interest in Kohl’s pursuing online selling. He talked with his boss about his desire to take on more digital projects. Eventually, he became the retailer’s digital director and set up their marketing strategy and systems.
“This was the biggest risk I’d ever taken,” Sean says. “Digital media was expensive and in most cases, unproven at the time — so I had to fight and claw for every marketing dollar.”
Thanks to bosses who stood as a support system and weren’t afraid to give him opportunities for growth, he was able to excel in this role.
Rise to CMO
Sean’s success as a digital director led him to a chief marketing officer position at Harbor Freight Tools, where he took charge of modernizing a marketing organization that was still highly reliant on print. Then, he transitioned to a CMO role with Bealls Department Stores because they were looking for a leader to imbed CRM and digital marketing disciplines into their traditionally run advertising group. He eventually took over responsibility for managing their digital business.
He describes his decision to go to Bealls as a no-brainer.
“I was excited to join a company, then nearly 100 years old, that was still held by the same family who started it,” Sean says. “I was also looking for a company that would grow me outside of just marketing.”
His time at Bealls taught him to take risks and gave him the opportunity to learn all aspects of the retail business. Since he spent half his time with marketers and the other half on the business side, like learning how to productively manage the products in the store, he was able to get a 360 view of marketing.
Currently, Sean is a CMO at The Learning Care Group, where he and his team are focused on innovating customer engagement for five key brands. He finds the job rewarding because he has the opportunity to help parents understand the benefits of the right early childhood education.
“We have very different goals than a traditional retailer,” Sean says. “The Learning Care Group has offered me the opportunity to apply my experience in a mission-driven organization.”
Sean believes we’re already seeing what the future of retail marketing may look like. With content and service localization, there’s an increased focus on relevancy. But he says principles of CRM may not have changed that much, just the methods of communicating and technology advancements, like in-store technology and app development. He says you can be interacting with a brand at any given time.
Family and Personal Life
Sean has been married to his supportive wife, the quarterback of his life, for nearly 16 years. His weekends are mostly filled with attending football, soccer and volleyball games for their 9-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter.
When he’s not spending time cheering on his kids, Sean enjoys rooting for the Green Bay Packers and University of Wisconsin Badgers.
Sean’s advice to loyalty and retail marketing professionals is to always look for a leader who’s willing to invest in your development.
“Much of an individual’s success is dependent on the people who believe in them,” he says.
He notes that much of his own career success came from working with people who wanted to see him succeed and who invested in his career development. Additionally, he was gracious to the people who have been on his teams throughout the years. His ability to build, coach and develop high performing teams is a passion of his.
“I am 100 percent satisfied in the career I chose,” Sean says. “I love what I do.”
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