Laura Cler: “The buck stops here”

I believe a good executive is someone who is empathetic, a good problem solver, listens well, has strong emotional intelligence, and encourages others to succeed. I was fortunate to have worked with several excellent leaders in previous positions who instilled those qualities in me. People who are stubborn, quick-tempered, driven by money without regard to the […]

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I believe a good executive is someone who is empathetic, a good problem solver, listens well, has strong emotional intelligence, and encourages others to succeed. I was fortunate to have worked with several excellent leaders in previous positions who instilled those qualities in me.

People who are stubborn, quick-tempered, driven by money without regard to the bigger picture, and have a “take no prisoners” attitude should really think twice about assuming a leadership role.

As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Cler of Linnea’s Lights. In 2012, Linnea’s Lights was passed onto Laura Cler from her mother, Lynn and Laura now ushers her family’s business into a future that is looking bright. A passionate explorer and world traveler, Laura’s appreciation of nature’s bounty and handcrafts were shaped by generations of strong and nurturing women in her family. She gained invaluable experience working in various retail and wholesale industries, where she learned to appreciate the value of heritage as represented through quality, integrity and social consciousness, all of which today serve as essential principles of the Linnea’s Lights® brand.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Thank you for allowing me to participate in this opportunity!

All of my previous careers lead me on my path to becoming a maker/entrepreneur. After getting communications & marketing degrees from Indiana University, my first real career was as a buyer for a major apparel/home goods catalog company working with international and domestic vendors. This experience allowed me to negotiate with vendors, analyze inventory, manage shipments, forecast plans based on trends, and work with a budget. I also had significant experience working for a global apparel manufacturer (Levi Strauss & Co), where I managed wholesale & strategic partnerships for various collections. During the peak of my career, I had two young children at home with one who needed developmental treatments, and I found myself overwhelmed. While I loved my position with Levi Strauss & Co., I found I didn’t have the work/life balance I needed. At the time, my mother and my step-father were creating small-batch candles in their kitchen to sell at antique and artisan markets. My step-father was battling colon cancer, so making candles together in their kitchen with lively music served as their way to spend quality time together. Unfortunately, my step-father passed away, and my mother was left to wonder, “what’s next.” My mother and step-father created a beautiful candle experience that just needed to be tweaked. My mother named the candles, LINNEA’S LIGHTS, as an homage to our Swedish roots (5 generations of the name Linnea in our family) and the strong women who came before us. So, I decided to join forces with my mother to elevate the packaging and create a beautiful candle experience in the market that was mindful of materials, thoughtful in the details and created pure joy in one’s environment. My experience, coupled with my mother’s artisan talents formed a great partnership, and in 2009, LINNEA’S LIGHTS successfully launched. My mother retired from our company in 2012, and passed the torch on to me to carry the family business on to the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think what I’m most proud of with Linnea’s Lights is that we have built a solid reputation within our industry. While we are not a dominant brand, we are a curated and special offering that holds dear loyal partnerships and specialty offerings. We offer our branded products, but we also partner with mid to high end retailers to create curated private label brands where we offer preeminent customer service. It warms my heart that several buyers and CEO’s of companies we’ve worked with value our partnerships so much that they have supported our brand throughout the course of their careers with different retailers.

I’m also proud of the brand in that it also resonates with our customers. One special customer surprised us in the studio one day. This particular customer, who was from Japan, was visiting her daughter and son-in-law at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN (about 1.5 hours from our studio in Carmel, IN). She had received one of our candles as a gift from a friend in the US and saw on the package we are based just north of Indianapolis. So, she and her daughter decided to take a road trip to Carmel to visit our studio one day. We are a small manufacturing studio without a retail location, so it came as a surprise when our visitors showed up unannounced. However, we quickly became acquainted, and it warmed our hearts and souls that they had made the journey to experience our candles and tell us how much they love our brand firsthand. Our visitors ended up staying for a few hours – it was such a fantastic experience rich in mutual gratitude that I will never forget.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the funniest things I can remember is getting the financials from my mother’s bookkeeper before we officially launched LINNEA’S LIGHTS to the US market. At the time, she had a small-town accountant who used ledger paper and an adding machine with the tape runner. Mind you, computers had been around for some time, but this accountant was old school to the core! When I received all the paperwork, my office manager and I looked through all the documents and started laughing (because we really wanted to cry) as we were overwhelmed with paper receipts, lined sheets, and tab columns. We learned that while bookkeeping can be an art, we better be efficient and get our books automated. So, we invested in a good bookkeeping software system and hired a computer software savvy accountant to get our books in order.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

Having the ability to create a business model that evoked a family atmosphere, created beautiful products, and impacted social causes was important to me. Having the power and authority to create the kind of company that was forward-thinking and allowed me to have work/life balance was a dream come true!

Most of our readers—in fact, most people—think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

In my small firm, the saying “the buck stops here” is true to the core. No matter who makes a mistake in my company, it’s ultimately my responsibility. It’s not always about pulling strings to make things work, it’s about leadership from the top, and solving problems by learning from mistakes.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I absolutely love creating and brainstorming ideas and having the flexibility and the freedom to take risks and seize opportunities. Of course, I have to be rational and strategic from the business side, but creating ideas and generating partnerships is energizing. I also love meeting and talking to other small business entrepreneurs and learning about their companies and missions. Creating a community through networking with other artisan and like-minded leaders feeds my creativity, soothes my soul, and inspires me to be better!

What are the downsides of being an executive?

I find that I am always thinking of my company and my people, whether I’m in the office, working remotely, or taking a vacation. Since I’m responsible for the livelihood of my employees, I take that responsibility seriously. I’m an emotional leader, so my strength is not dealing with mundane HR issues – those exhaust me. Good thing I have a talented team for support and guidance (I outsource HR to a PEO) and since my studio manager has a background in counseling she handles all the little HR details and issues that make me insane.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I still feel that women executives still have the balance of work to do at the office and at home, at least in my experience. I’ll run my company and once I leave, I’m putting on my mom/wife/daughter/friend hats until my head hits the pillow and I start over the next day. Being the CEO of Linnea’s Lights and being the CEO of the Cler household takes a lot of energy!

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I honestly had no preconceived notions about what it meant to be a leader. I wanted to create a company that I would be proud to work in – one that emulates the corporate culture of inclusivity, diversity, and collaboration and that’s what I’ve been fortunate to do!

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I believe a good executive is someone who is empathetic, a good problem solver, listens well, has strong emotional intelligence, and encourages others to succeed. I was fortunate to have worked with several excellent leaders in previous positions who instilled those qualities in me.

People who are stubborn, quick-tempered, driven by money without regard to the bigger picture, and have a “take no prisoners” attitude should really think twice about assuming a leadership role.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Lead with emotional intelligence and give people a reason to want to be better. Trust your instincts, collaborate, support, and empower all your team members (whether administration of the shipping assistant) to help them be the best they can be in their roles.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I was fortunate in my early career to have mentors who took a chance on me, saw my potential and gave me the space to spread my wings & fly (or fall down). Donna Maras from my first career at Spiegel taught me global sourcing and planning. Lyle Klein, Steve Micheletti, Rick Soberanis, and Donna Paulo from Levi Strauss & Co. were all leaders who taught me the value of strategic partnerships, loyalty, and heritage. All of my leaders taught me to challenge convention, ask for the opportunity, and to be brave.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I believe that LINNEA’S LIGHTS mission is not only to create beautiful products that enhance one’s environment, but also to make a difference in our communities through giving back to causes near and dear to our heart. We give 5% of annual net profits to various charitable causes (some charitable causes include: Autism Awareness, Colon Cancer Research, One Tree Planted, (RED), The Honeybee Conservancy, Write Girl, NAACP, The Women’s Fund, etc). I also provide a safe, healthy work environment for my employees and provide them with fully-funded health care/vision/dental plans, a strong 401K & matching program, and paid time off / community service days.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Starting a business is stressful. I don’t think I was honest with myself about the challenges that came with starting a business. I found I tied my identity to its success and struggles, which caused great distress. I wish I’d adopted relaxation tools like journaling, consistent exercise, and yoga, and gave myself permission to step away for a break early on.
  2. Don’t hire friends. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the hard way a few times where I hired friends for various roles. I found that I was reluctant to let these employees go even though it wasn’t a good fit and their work caused issues with other employees. After this experience, I found it’s best to keep personal and professional relationships separate.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff — this is important because launching the company, I thought every decision I made would cause the company’s ultimate demise. I quickly learned that we’re not saving lives, we’re creating candles, and it helped put my mind at ease and the business in perspective.
  4. Learn to delegate. When we first launched, I found it challenging to delegate because I wanted to make sure that all I’s are dotted and T’s were crossed. Once I hired diverse & talented employees to bring into the company, I found it easy to delegate and found out we had some naturally gifted leaders!
  5. Automate & Outsource. It took us several years before we improved our business systems to create maximum efficiency. We’re moving toward automation in our administrative departments, and the cost savings has been incredible. Also, outsource where you can. We tried doing HR in-house along with payroll, but it got to be murky and I was uncomfortable with the thought of making a mistake with payroll or taxes. We were fortunate to find a strong PEO where I was able to decrease HR costs, improve employee benefits, and create a framework for rules and culture of Linnea’s Lights.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I think the biggest myth about being a CEO or executive is that you have to be the smartest person in the company. I believe that’s hardly the case in my experience. I believe a good executive hires and surrounds themselves with people who are smarter than they are to make the company successful. I certainly have done this in my company, and it’s a collaborative effort that creates a winning combination.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My goal of doing good in our communities reaches beyond just my small studio of diverse women and men. Everyone has a history, and a story that makes them unique. I personally struggle with anxiety and depression, but I have been fortunate to have the means to seek help. I envision a world where mental health is not stigmatized and treatment is accessible and affordable for all! Imagine a world where everyone feels supported, loved, and healed!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“She thought she could, so she did” – RS Grey. This quote is my mantra. Believe in yourself and your dreams, block out the negative thoughts, and move forward on your path. You will not fail, and if you do, get up and start again! As the youngest child in a blended family where both parents worked to make ends meet, I learned early on how to care for myself, and that my success would come through hard work, determination, perseverance and a belief in myself. I had to earn my own money for extras, and I worked my way through college becoming the first generation of college graduates in my entire family.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Angela Ahrendts is a woman whom I admire greatly. She hails from a small Indiana town (like myself), and worked her way up through the retail industry to lead some of the greatest brands. She strikes me as an easy and gentle yet decisive and effective leader who isn’t afraid to take risks to make brands great. And, THANK YOU!

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