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NEW CEO Sarah Alter shares ‘herstory’ at Forum

Sarah Alter

Trucking dispatcher. Harvard MBA. Financial services executive. Mall industry maven. Working mother of three.

NEW President and CEO Sarah Alter discussed the pivot points of her life with more than 300 senior retail and consumer goods executives at the NEW Executive Leaders Forum, August 1 in Santa Barbara, California.

Alter – who took the reins at NEW in June – started her career at American President Companies, a role which included a year-long training program and a stint as a truck dispatcher. “That time humbled me big time and I learned to appreciate how important every single person in the company is — especially those people who get the job done.”

A sales job “opened my eyes to the real world of business and was, unfortunately, my first exposure to sexism. I was called ‘the little filly’ by my male clients in the ag business and the meat packing plants in Iowa and Nebraska.”

Alter was accepted to Harvard Business School, which “whet my appetite for global experience.” There she learned to “think on my feet, structure my thoughts, and build a strategy.”

After earning her MBA, Alter worked for A.T. Kearney as a management consultant in Asia before joining Staples in Europe as marketing comptroller for their U.K. and German stores. “It was the perfect next step, a mix of strategic thinking, operational execution and leading teams. It was all about growth.”

Going digital

Alter transferred to a new Staples acquisition, Quill, eventually becoming vice president of Quill.com, where she managed teams of up to 400 people. “My adventure at Quill.com started when the president of Quill called me into his office and said the company is telling us we have to build the ‘World Wide Web thing.’

“I realized I knew nothing, so I set out to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. I went outside and found the right partners who could guide me in this journey.”

Alter’s next move was to Discover Financial Services. “I left a 10-year career at Staples because I couldn’t relocate — family roots and my husband’s job kept us in Chicago,” she said. “I learned to heaquarter locally and find a long runway.”

After seven years at Discover, Alter took a year off to focus on family responsibilities,

“Either me or my husband had to get off the bus and I had fallen out of love with financial services — there was too much regulation.”

Her most recent role, as chief marketing officer at General Growth Properties, a Fortune 500 company with interests in than 200 malls and retail properties, was “a great learning experience and I met a lot of interesting people.”

Alter ended her get-to-know-you talk by talking about her family, including her three kids, two dogs and entrepreneur husband Michael, a full-time professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

“Each step in your journey prepares you even better for the next,” Alter said. “I pledge to put all my experience and passion in service to you and this organization. It’s going to be an exciting ride!”