Sznicer began her glittering career as a retail assistant at The Athlete’s Foot in Melbourne. She had just turned 17, and started the job full-time “about one week after the Year 12 exams.” What might have been a mistake for some teenagers – going straight into work from high school – turned out to be a brilliant choice for Sznicer, who says the chain offered her structured training and built a sense of discipline which she still relies on today.
Sznicer was hungry for career progression right from the start, she says, and made it clear to her managers that she took the retail industry seriously. She says she worked out “pretty quickly” that minimum wage was not for her.
“I was exceptionally hungry to be the best that I could be. That’s probably not something you’d find in every 17-year-old but it’s about understanding that retail is a performance-based industry.”
Accordingly, she was quickly promoted. Over the next 10 years, Sznicer zoomed up the ranks within a number of different retail companies, going from flagship store manager at Sportsgirl to state manager at Bras N Things, to national retail manager, to being in charge of national retail operations at Australian fashion brand Brown Sugar.
By the time she was 27, Sznicer says, she was effectively a general manager sitting across multiple departments. She can list the core competencies learned during her years in retail off the top of her head: HR, operations, visual merchandising, strategic planning, and all aspects of property.
Her main specialisation is very transferrable: “My fundamental skill area is in leadership and people management.”
In 2006, her talent and hard work was recognised when she won the Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year award. Sznicer was the only retailer among all the finalists.
“I was very proud as a retailer to win that award and extremely passionate about careers in retail, because they can be as lucrative and wonderful as any other career.”
The visibility following the award meant Sznicer was able to choose her next employer from an array of tempting options. She picked Australian clothing retailer Witchery, becoming its general manager in 2007. The company then had 70 stores to its name. When Sznicer left five years later, it had expanded to 220 stores across three countries.
She presided over the opening of each store, Sznicer says, including the 23 Kiwi outlets: “It was a wonderful introduction into New Zealand.” Two of these stores were forced to close after the Christchurch earthquake, and one has since reopened.
Witchery still has the strongest brand DNA of any other retailer, Sznicer says, explaining that it knows exactly who it is and maintains its brand integrity with grace and strength.
The emergence of large international retailers in Australia’s retail market meant the end of Sznicer’s time with Witchery. She wanted to understand them, she says.
She joined Busbrands group to facilitate that understanding, and was made group general manager retail operations, overseeing a group of five companies which included Gap, Guess Jeans and Aldo footwear, alongside two luxury travel businesses. Sznicer worked directly with the international head offices of these brands every day, but it wasn’t until Glassons approached her that she thought about moving to New Zealand.
She became Glassons’ general manager retail and operations in 2013, working across the brand’s different retail divisions. It was through Kiwi retail networking that she met the four founders of Dry & Tea, one of whom is Max Fashions CEO John Kelly.
“I instantly identified that the business sat in a very strong niche,” Sznicer says.
Dry & Tea focuses on providing customers with “affordable luxury.” It offers a range of hairdressing services, from the $15 ‘She Bangs’ fringe trim to a full cut and colour, but focuses on its signature blow-wave with wash.
All three premises were designed by the famous Nat Cheshire of Cheshire Architects, and are carefully appointed, considered spaces. They bear signature floral branding by New Zealand artist Paul Hartigan.
Cheshire told Architecture Now in 2013 that the first salon in Newmarket had a beautiful garden, but the second premises at the concrete-heavy City Works Depot was meant to be tougher and more urban. He described Dry & Tea as an exciting and enticing offering.
“In summer, you can hit a big red button so the fire station glass door tracks up and along the ceiling. Then, all of a sudden, you’re sitting at a beautiful marble counter top drinking bespoke tea or sipping Champagne, perhaps you’re having your hair styled, the sun’s streaming in, and you’re doing all of that for a few dollars.”
Dry & Tea won Metro magazine’s Best Hair Salon in 2013, also picking up Best Beauty Bar in the same year’s NZ Beauty Awards.
Sznicer says when she purchased the business, she knew blowdry bars were popular overseas, and she liked that two salons had already been established. She had wanted to become a business owner for some time, but had been waiting for the right company to come along. “It was the right time for the founders, they wanted to see it grow.”
Upon making her move with Dry & Tea last June, Sznicer lost no time, opening a third salon in Britomart just three months after acquiring the company. “Within a week of takeover, we signed the lease for Britomart. Which I wouldn’t recommend doing.”
Sznicer says many of the personal skills she acquired as a retailer are now applicable to what she does at Dry & Tea, as are the lessons she learned about handling staff. Sznicer says she has put a retail spin on Dry & Tea’s offering.
Within Dry & Tea, few actual products are bought and sold, but Sznicer has made sure her 45 staff deliver an optimal customer service experience to each customer. She says she has started to think about this experience as the businesses’ main product: “In retail, people are critically important, but the product that sits on your shelves is your product. In this environment, people are your product.”
Sznicer has seen a few challenges following her career switch. Her time working with large companies has allowed her to get used to working with a lot of resources and a lot of people, which contrasts with the lean operation she runs at Dry & Tea. “Here, we have a planning meeting and it’s maybe my partner David and I and one other person, and we have to go away and action things ourselves.”
Time management is another pressure point, especially as Sznicer juggles care of her three-and-a-half year old son Hamish. She says “having it all” as a woman in business takes persistence and organisation but is certainly possible.
She says she hopes to see more women in retail rising up through their companies to achieve gender parity at board level. At an executive level, Sznicer says, there are equal numbers of men and women, but the boards retain a male majority.
“Generally speaking, we need to be pushier and stand up – [women] need to have more of a presence in those boardrooms,” she says. “It’s about busting the door down, pushing in and shaking up the boys’ club.”
Sznicer says she wants smart, young, ambitious retailers to seriously consider retail as a top career. It’s about understanding which aspect of retail sparks your passion and following that line to the top, she says.
“I’ll probably always consider myself a retailer, regardless of what happens here.”
This story was originally published in NZ Retail magazine issue 737, April/May 2015.