NORMAN SHERMAN: This is Norman Sherman for the Game Changers and today we’re going to be speaking with Alexis Cardona, who is the new CMO of Transitions Optical. Alexis, how are you?
ALEXIS CARDONA: I’m doing very well, Norm.NORMAN SHERMAN: Tell us a little bit, if you would, about Transitions Optical.
ALEXIS CARDONA: Transitions Optical is an international company headquartered in Pinellas Park Florida, and their location is fantastic. What Transitions does – I’m sure most people have heard of the Transitions lenses, which change from light to dark and dark to light depending on whether you’re inside or outside – and that’s the Transitions Optical company. They manufacture adaptive lenses that change and adapt to changing light conditions so you always see as well as you possibly can. They’re in 85 countries – that’s a quickly growing list – and we currently develop primarily prescription lenses, and then we apply the photochromic technology to them. We’ve started to expand into sun wear and sunglasses as well as motorcycle wear and helmets. The company has about 1300 employees and has been growing at an accelerated pace globally since its inception in the early 90’s.
NORMAN SHERMAN: So tell us about the marketing model. Is this a consumer-facing organization? Is it professional-facing? How do you go to market with Transitions lenses?
ALEXIS CARDONA: It’s a very interesting model. Historically, as Transitions focused on establishing the business and growing their penetration, it was very much retail and channel driven. Transitions works with lenscasters – the folks who actually make the lenses – and Transitions applies the photochromic technology to those lenses. It was very much channel and lenscaster driven and it still is to this day. Increasingly, Transitions has recognized the importance of creating demand and creating brand equity with the consumer. That’s where I come in and that’s where others in the past have said “This would be one of the few companies in the optical industry that’s not a frames company” – which are really the ones that are most well known – “driving lens demand and product demand directly to the consumer.” Transitions has a lot of high awareness, particularly in North America, as far as brand recognition. Most people know who Transitions is or at least what the product does. This company really has gone from being primarily professional and channel driven to trying to be very consumer-centric. It’s a healthy mix of several stakeholders. The channel and the retailers and the lenscasters are important, so is the eye care professional who recommends the product, and we talk directly to the consumer to generate that demand and that loyalty.
NORMAN SHERMAN: That’s quite a marketing challenge you face; that’s a lot of audiences that you need to get on the same page. I know you spent many successful years within Procter & Gamble. I’m sure over the course of your time at Procter & Gamble, which I’ve always viewed as one of if not the preeminent marketing organization in the world; people have knocked on your door to say “Here’s an opportunity.” Why was Transitions the opportunity you chose to leave for?
ALEXIS CARDONA: These kinds of opportunities don’t come along that often. It would’ve been rather easy to transition from a P&G – who is one of the classic consumer marketing companies in the world – to another CPG company and continue my career there. This opportunity to be the chief marketing officer of a fast-growing small global company who really wants to become best-in-class in terms of brand-building and consumer-centric marketing is unique. I’m in a position to shape not just the communications aspect but the operations, the business strategy, the innovation strategy, the organizational capabilities. I’m in charge of developing the marketing for the organization: they’ve already invested quite a bit; I’ve got to accelerate that and take that to the next level. I’m part of the C-suite, so I have the chance to impact a whole company’s development rather than just a brand or a category. That really appealed to me. The second thing is the opportunity to apply my classic consumer marketing skills to an industry that is primarily technologically and channel-driven. That challenge of bringing an industry and a company from being primarily based on technology and sales to professionals into thinking about the consumer’s unmet needs, consumer equity and brand loyalty was really, really appealing. We’re leading the way in the optical industry in that regard. I thought that was a great challenge. The last thing I would tell you is that it’s fast-moving, it’s entrepreneurial, and it’s a great culture to be in. Maybe it’s not as hierarchical or process-driven as others and that appealed to me as well.
NORMAN SHERMAN: I understand all of those positive sides, but at the same time, you’re moving from a huge company with vast resources available, people in every different department. Press a button and you get the answers that you need. What do you see as the challenges that you’ll be facing in moving from a large – let’s call it bureaucratic organization with very well-defined processes and procedures to a much smaller, younger high-growth organization?
ALEXIS CARDONA: You have to be careful what you wish for in this scenario. You get a lot of people that say “I really want to be somewhere that’s flatter and not as hierarchical.” The difference may be that I actually meant it. You’ve got to be careful what you ask for because a lot of the grunt work is done by you. It’s a very lean organization; you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get it done yourself as you seek to build on a track record of excellence and continue developing a world-class brand and marketing organization. This can be a very good thing because you have so much hands-on involvement; you are truly shaping things as they happen. That’s probably challenge number one, and I’m already seeing that very early into my tenure with Transitions. The second is that you have to learn how things “get done,” because there’s probably less process than in larger organizations. There are ways – that are intrinsic to the company’s culture – that things get done: key stakeholders, key relationships, and what’s in your direct control versus what’s not. More things happen in meetings and face-to-face conversations than in a more process-driven, larger company where the process dictates the results and everyone has a common understanding of “the process”. You want to bring in a little bit of that process and more of that strategic planning, but in a way that doesn’t disrupt the culture. If you disrupt the culture, you won’t be effecting positive change; you’ll be effecting negative change and that can work against you.
NORMAN SHERMAN: Is that something you have to be conscious of every day, or is it something that comes naturally to you?
ALEXIS CARDONA: Both. I think I’m skilled in developing relationships, but frankly, I have to work at it. I have to be conscious of the fact that we’re not necessarily speaking a common marketing or organizational language – and that this is a different company! When you’re talking to R&D, to consumer insights, or sales, or operations and supply chain, there isn’t necessarily a process or template or formal output that everyone knows and recognizes – or at least, it’s not as formal or as rigid as in other larger, older companies. You have to be aware that things will get done by your influence and by how well you understand the other person’s need. The advantage, however, is that it’s a younger company which is a lot more nimble, entrepreneurial and flexible and not so wedded to “one way of doing things.” It’s a critical skill, and I’m not a master of it yet. I’ve been helped because some of my career choices at Procter & Gamble were more entrepreneurial, in categories that were not core competencies, and in regions outside of North America. Another challenge is a much higher need for adaptability and versatility. My experience is that we talk a lot about embracing change in big companies, but this kind of company is where it really happens. The last thing I’ll tell you, Norm – and one that people may not expect – is that in terms of your personnel needs and your hiring needs, the selection pool is very different than in large consumer marketing companies; or than being in the CPG or other industries (software, technology, entertainment, etc.) that tend to be even more marketing-driven traditionally. On the balance, you’re going to have fewer classically-trained folks that have been in traditional Brand or Marketing roles their entire career. This can also make you think about your succession planning and the career path of someone you bring into the organization a little differently. However, the opportunity that creates is that you truly have seasoned people that have background across a variety of disciplines and functions and bring a broader view to the assignment. Those are some of the things that you may not consider up front. The flip side is that you’re growing very fast and you’re effecting change every day and the flexibility and adaptability is fantastic.
NORMAN SHERMAN: One last question for you. I want to ask you a question that provides the opportunity to provide a little bit of insight to our readers or our listeners: What advice would you give to marketers who are in an organization where they’ve built some significant personal equity, they’re well-regarded, they know the ropes and are doing well, but they’re contemplating leaving?
ALEXIS CARDONA: I’ve certainly learned a lot during this process. The first thing I would decide – and it’s one of the key reasons that I became a CMO – is the type of work you want to do. I’ve found that things like industry and even the company are secondary to the type of work. We marketers are a pretty flexible bunch. So, do you want to do P&L? Do you want more classic brand management and equity-building? Do you want to focus on innovation and upstream product development? Do you want to zero in on developing communications? There are plenty of companies that have a communications group. Do you want to go more to tactical marketing? Do you want to be global or regional? Decide what you want to do first and where you see yourself ending up in terms of your career choice in the next five to ten years and try to get that. The second thing I would do is decide the culture. What culture do you want to be in? I’ll say it again: be careful with leaner, meaner, faster, more entrepreneurial; you will get what you ask for and you may not like it. Make sure that you really are comfortable in an organization that’s fast-flowing, where you may agree on something in a meeting and, for example five minutes later folks calling the people to advise them and you haven’t even been able to get out your own communications. Or, on the other hand, the organization may not be as top-down driven so just because folks agree in a meeting, it doesn’t mean it will automatically get done. I’ve seen both examples happen with friends & colleagues. Your approach to agencies may be a lot more project-driven with a higher turnover and less continuity. Be sure that’s really what you want to do. It’s not good or bad, it’s simply different. If you want to be more matrixed, you like process and being able to anticipate bottlenecks and outcomes and not have to think so much about the how, you may want to stay in a more matrixed organization. Third, research: do your homework on the opportunity you’re evaluating. I would talk to current employees, ex-employees, current and former agency partners. Talk to recruiters in the industry who don’t have a stake in your decision. Go to Dunn & Bradstreet and understand the financials. Get as much data as you can about the company, both the good and the bad. You want to see as many of the warts as you can before you make your decision. If you have a lot of personal equity in a company – which I did and I still do – leverage that network outside. One of the things that I did that helped me immensely is that even before I was actively pursuing Transitions or other opportunities, I was already talking to people who had built up a lot of equity within P&G and seeing who was willing to go to bat for me. Who would be willing to network for openings? Who was in a position to see things coming externally? Who would be a great reference? Eventually those guys will be the potential talent pool you may hire from. Leverage that network to help you on the outside and help spur what you’ll do once you leave the company. The last thing is the industry itself; it’s great if you can pick something that you have a passion for, but don’t get hung up on that. Initially, I thought Transitions were cool and nothing to write home about, but now, five weeks, in I’m a raving fanatic about them. I can’t understand how people could be without them. Once you understand the product and what’s behind it, you usually pick up a passion for it. If you can pick an industry that you love, great, but that shouldn’t be your guiding decision. You may be surprised; I think consumer electronics is very “sexy” and I am fascinated by the industry, but I found out that it is often very product-driven and marketing is pretty much at the back end. Think about the culture and the type of work you want to do, and what company affords you that, and the industry is probably a second thing to think about.
NORMAN SHERMAN: Alexis, that was very thoughtful and I’m sure it will be valuable input for our listeners and readers to think about going forward. We at the Game Changers wish you nothing but success in your future at Transitions, and thank you so much for your time.
ALEXIS CARDONA: It was a pleasure to be here and I’m looking forward to continuing to be a great Game Changers member. I enjoy the resource and my partnership with you guys; thanks a lot.