Leading the way with Maria O’Halloran

Running a department store in this day and age isn’t easy, yet chief executive of Ballantynes Maria O’Halloran is leading the way with new ideas, and expansion. Metropol Editor Lynda Papesch caught up with her after the recent opening of the company’s new Invercargill store.

Since the age of 22, Maria O’Halloran has been running businesses, starting with her own. Now, in an era when department stores around the country are closing, the Ballantynes CEO is breaking new boundaries growing that business.

Maria has always been ambitious, shaping her career initially through her own business, then (after several years and starting a family) moving to roles with cosmetics giants Elizabeth Arden and Shiseido.

Both were “fantastic organisations”, Maria says, enriching her professional experience, especially within the dynamic landscape of the business world. “The opportunities and environment they provided were instrumental in my growth and development.”

The downside was the significant travel over many years with a young family, so Maria joined a pharmaceutical company for a year, before the Ballantynes Beauty Brand Manager role was offered to her. Two years later, and a decade ago, she took the helm as CEO, now responsible for a team of 350.

“I’ve been fortunate in almost every role of my career to date I have had progression or advancement opportunities,” Maria says, attributing this ultimately to a combination of hard work, continuous learning, and cultivating strong relationships.

Her first 10 years were focused on rebuilding the customer base after the devastating Christchurch earthquakes, and conquering the digital transformation wave. Most Ballantynes customers still prefer to shop in-store, with visitor numbers now close to pre-Covid levels.

Retail diversification is now a key factor in the store’s future, starting with providing those who walk through its doors a memorable experience. “Consumers don’t just want to transact with you, they want an experience,” says Maria. “They want to come in and be educated, informed, and entertained.”

Part of that experience comes from the boutique approach adopted by Ballantynes, with retail diversification a strategic priority, she says. That the other department stores are reducing is sad, she says, adding that personally she believes there is a place for them in every main city.

“Who doesn’t want to visit a department store? It’s a one-stop shop. What is important is to constantly innovate.”

Innovation and reinvention are Maria’s secret weapons. “Remain current and relevant to the customer today, without compromising your traditional values,” she advises.

For Maria, it all starts with the customers, understanding who they are, and how Ballantynes can make their lives better. This is at the forefront of decisions about what stock to buy. “If we know the reasons customers would choose to shop with us, our buyers can select products to match.”

As CEO, Maria finds many aspects of her role enjoyable, and one thing that is never lost on her is the willingness and eagerness of customers to share their Ballantynes stories.

“I have heard many over the years, with Ballantynes described by some as “their happy place”. For me, every story is a reminder that we don’t just sell our customers things; it is also about how we make them feel. These are the stories that we hear, and I love that.”

Christmas is her favourite when it comes to the store putting on a show. “For us, Christmas starts in February, with concept and design. It’s certainly a marathon, not a sprint.

“Christmas in a department store is a magical time. I recall last Christmas a customer told me her young child saw Santa at another location and asked why he was there? The mother told the child Santa has helpers all around the world. The child replied, “But the real Santa lives at Ballantynes”. Coming from the target audience, that was a huge compliment.”

With an abiding enjoyment of fashion and beauty, Maria says she’s fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful merchandise. Styling herself, she aims for a balance between fashion-forwardness and practicality. “I invest in quality pieces that are both stylish and functional, that way I can adapt to different occasions and settings. The team know me well, and regularly appear with items they know I will have trouble saying no to.”

An active relaxer, health and wellbeing are high on her priorities list, with exercise, nutrition, and sleep at the top. “I am in a team of three women who participate in adventure races. It’s a multi-sport event that typically combines kayaking, running, mountain biking, and navigation over varying terrain and distances. I liken it in many ways to my CEO role, it involves strategy, decision-making, up hills and down, and the all-important teamwork. It keeps me honest, training throughout the year.”

Top tips for women
• Build strong networks and seek out mentors who can provide guidance, support and valuable insights based on their own experiences.
• Invest in continuous learning and development. Professional development can come in many forms and places. By continuously improving your skills and knowledge, you’ll position yourself as a valuable asset and increase your chances of advancement.
• In the journey towards success, it’s important to never lose sight of your authentic self and values. While ambition and drive are important, they must be grounded in integrity and authenticity. For me, staying true to who I am and what I believe in has been paramount in navigating the complexities of the business world.

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