Two CEOs on Empathic Leadership and Growth Strategies.
Produced by Vanity Fair for City National Bank - As part of a series of one-on-one conversations with business leaders, City National Bank CEO Kelly Coffey and Beautycounter CEO Gregg Renfrew speak to the business-minded approach of empathic leadership, building a business, and accelerating growth in uncertain times.
For entrepreneurs, relationships are key to building a successful business, and during a global pandemic, strengthening those relationships is essential to survival. City National Bank CEO Kelly Coffey sat down with Beautycounter founder and CEO Gregg Renfrew as part of a series of one-on-one conversations with business leaders. They discussed leaning into relationships, leading a company’s many transitions, how to navigate through a pandemic, and the qualities that make a successful leader. “One of the best parts of my job is that I get to meet so many business leaders and learn from their stories,” said Coffey. “That pioneering spirit goes to the heart of City National, as we were started 67 years ago by visionary entrepreneurs who saw opportunity in the entertainment and real estate industries.” Their candid exchange yielded practical insights that could benefit businesspeople at any stage of their careers, from startup to C-suite.
Beautycounter was launched in 2013 after Renfrew perceived an urgent need for “clean beauty,” a term she defines as cosmetics and skincare made without toxic chemicals and that are also sustainably sourced and minimally packaged. When she was unable to find products that didn’t contain what she calls “chemicals of concern,” Renfrew rolled up her sleeves and worked with chemists, material suppliers, and manufacturers to produce a line that started with nine offerings and now includes more than 150. She also created the blueprint for her company’s business model. “I was looking at the emerging gig economy, with people wanting more flexibility,” she said. “I took the best attributes of e-commerce, retail, and traditional direct selling and morphed them into a new type of direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand—and it’s worked really well for us.” Today, Beautycounter is a middle-market business that boasts 60,000 independent consultants selling its products. “Middle market” is defined by Investopedia as American businesses with annual revenues of $10 million to $1 billion.
Renfrew attributes the company’s success to her diverse, high-performing team as much as Beautycounter’s high-quality products. “I’ve learned that having people of different ages, races, genders, and sexual orientation helps you look at the world the way it’s composed,” she said. “I also try to hire people who are smart and even better at their jobs than I am.” Coffey agrees with that approach: “In my first 18 months [as CEO], I focused on building the right team.” She seeks the perspectives of employees “with a different and challenging point of view.” The U.S. Office of Personnel Management affirms that “research has shown that effective diversity management coupled with inclusive work environments improves organizational performance and innovation.”
Both Coffey and Renfrew are CEOs in industries where the top executives are typically men. “I was not one of those people who thought, ‘Oh, there are no women in that position,’” said Coffey. Rising through the ranks in the finance sector, she worked in a range of jobs, from mergers and acquisitions to derivatives to private banking. This multi-faceted skill set has served her well as the CEO of a major bank. “When you sit in your [CEO] seat, you need to know a lot about many different subjects to pull it all together and then direct people.” Renfrew’s path to CEO of Beautycounter was as a serial entrepreneur, beginning in her college days. Both women prioritized building networks and consulting experts throughout their careers. “I’m always trying to learn from others who have done a great job before me,” said Renfrew. Having women in top leadership positions has been proven to positively impact the bottom line: Research from McKinsey & Company found that “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability.”
Their experience and long-standing focus on relationships have helped Coffey and Renfrew lead their companies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Renfrew immediately recognized the need to keep supply chains going. “I have more than 60,000 families that depend on our platform to pay their bills,” she said. “If I don’t have product, they can’t sell it.” She reached out to her suppliers, whom she regards as business partners. “I created a forum where they could talk to each other and tell us what guarantees they needed from us,” she said. This afforded suppliers the opportunity to help each other with raw materials, warehousing, and shipping to meet demand. “At the same time, I leaned into our community of consultants to tell them I was there for them,” Renfrew added. “I wanted to let them know we were stable, and even growing.” In fact, recent research from BBH London, as reported by MarketingWeek, indicates that the pandemic is actually benefiting brands that sell DTC: 65.6% of consumers surveyed agreed that they are now “a lot” or “a little” more likely to buy online, with convenience being a more important factor than price.
Coffey took a similar tactic of instantly initiating communication with and listening to key stakeholders when the pandemic became the country’s primary business challenge. “Virtually overnight, City National had to move employees home with the ability to serve clients,” she said. “It was fundamental to assure the entire team, our clients, and the community that we would continue to be here for them.” In summer 2020, City National launched new technology platforms based on feedback received from clients before the pandemic hit. “For us, personalization, customization, and that client relationship is front and center. As long as we’re solving their problems.” Coffey also began producing an internal podcast about what’s going on with the bank and clients, “so every Friday, they know they’ll be hearing from me.” Renfrew summed up leadership during the pandemic: “You have no choice but to take a step forward and keep going. Because people are counting on you.”
*This was shot in accordance with the Covid-19 guidelines set as of the date of filming.