Wendy Hufford – Chico’s FAS
- Written by: Neil Cote
- Produced by: Matthew Warner & Matt Heppner
- Est. reading time: 5 mins
While you won’t find “process improver” on Wendy Hufford’s long letterhead, her colleagues at Chico’s FAS are fine with her adding the title to her formal roles at this upscale women’s clothing and accessories retailer.
“I like to take something that might be working well and make it better and more impactful,” the energetic Hufford tells Vanguard in February. “Early in my career, I earned a green belt in process improvement, and it changed my mindset. Let’s go from good to great.”
That’s a green belt at the midpoint of Six Sigma, a set of techniques and tools for workplace improvement introduced by the late Motorola engineer William Smith Jr. in 1986. Six Sigma methodology has been welcomed at Chico’s FAS where Hufford is senior vice president, general counsel, corporate secretary and chief compliance officer.
As to how Hufford applies process improvement, she cites her responsibility for enterprise risk management. Whereas Chico’s FAS had a program prior to her arrival in September 2021, she’s created something targeted and tracked on a “digital risk register.”
“Rather than pick 50 risks and take each a quarter inch deep, let’s focus on the most substantial risks and put more comprehensive risk mitigation plans in place,” Hufford says. “Then assign them to executive leaders, who can work with ‘action owners’ and track their progress quarterly. That doesn’t mean you don’t focus on other risk issues, but you do prioritize.”
Those priorities include another broad topic: compliance with rules and regulations that apply to the company and its brands of Chico’s, White House Black Market and Soma. To this end, Hufford has created a compliance committee with each member overseeing a specific responsibility and giving regular updates.
Some topics might seem unusual—for example, the company monitors its supply chain to retain federal certification for the voluntary Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. With a Tier 3 certification for 19 years, Chico’s FAS is a low-risk enterprise, meaning its cargo processing is prioritized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Privacy must be a top concern as Chico’s FAS optimizes technology for online commerce. Cybersecurity is another area of focus, as well as complying with texting and telecommunications laws. The company operating more than 1,000 U.S. stores and active online, there’s much compliance to satisfy.
She’s also borrowed a page she developed at a former employer, GE Money, setting up an early warning system for potentially litigious issues.
“There’s no avoiding risks entirely if you’re in business,” Hufford says. “But you can be proactive on what you can mitigate as opposed to the natural disasters that you can’t control.”
Being headquartered in Fort Myers, Florida, Chico’s FAS was recently impacted by a hurricane. During this time, Chico’s FAS provided daily communication, resources and support to its associates and community at large, with Florida Power and Light and the Red Cross moving onto the campus. Most of the time, however, Fort Myers is a delightful locale, with Hufford shuttling between there and Rye, New York, where the youngest of her eight children attends high school.
Fit for Chico’s
Hufford might still be in the New York City area full-time had she not departed from a similar role at Ascena Retail just prior to it filing for Chapter 11 in 2020. She spent the next year-and-a-half as president of her own consulting firm, Effective Dispute Management, before returning to retail with Chico’s FAS. There’s something exciting about being in-house in the fashion industry, she says, though much of what crosses her desk would seem standard business.
“Contracts are the bread and butter of most legal departments,” she says. “We have everything from store leases to marketing to consulting to modeling to master-service agreements for computer support.”
On other fronts, Hufford’s created the company’s Environmental, Social and Governance steering committee. She says Chico’s FAS sets an industry example through such initiatives as recycling fabrics in bras and denim, enhanced sizes for all women and sustainable packaging. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission soon to require companies to disclose emissions, she has an attorney overseeing energy use.
It’s all part of the expanding role of being an in-house legal leader, and it suits Hufford as well as the company’s apparel.
“I’ve never had such comfortable pajamas as my Soma Cool Nights,” she says with a laugh. “All in all, this has been a very rewarding, fun and interesting time. And challenging.”
Hufford addresses those challenges through her passion for lifelong learning. How valuable she says it’s been during an in-house career that’s covered finance, health care, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and, since 2018, retail.
More recently she’s been studying Spanish online. Come evenings she logs onto 20 minutes of the Duolingo app followed by 10 minutes of meditation to clear her head. Come morning, Hufford shares the legal load with a team of 15. She says the pandemic has made her more sensitive to the needs of employees as well as her own family, and she appreciates the company allowing her to split time between Florida and New York.
And it’s some kind of family she has, her grown children ranging from a Jesuit priest to a Wall Street Journal reporter, and the youngest son leaning toward psychology.
Herself a Colgate University and Yale Law School graduate, Hufford is his role model. Rigorous as the process was to earn a Six Sigma green belt, it’s only the third level with three to go. She expects to get there as well as speak fluent Spanish—a language she first spoke as a high school exchange student in Colombia.
But there’s much more to go for Hufford, personally and professionally.
“My team and my clients are committed to our four strategic pillars of being customer-led, product-obsessed, digital first and operationally excellent,” she says. “Equally important, we have a culture of kindness, making Chico’s FAS a wonderful place to grow your career.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Spring II 2023 Edition here.
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