Corner Office: Deirdre Quinn: If a Meeting Starts at 9, Be There at 8

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Corner Office: Deirdre Quinn: If a Meeting Starts at 9, Be There at 8

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Corner Office

By ADAM BRYANT

This interview with Deirdre Quinn, chief executive of Lafayette 148 New York, a women’s fashion site, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. Tell me about your early years.

A. I grew up in a small town called Cresskill, N.J. I was an average student, but I had a lot of energy. I worked 12 different jobs before I graduated high school. I was pretty independent, and I didn’t want to have to ask my parents for money. I’d just figure out how to get it myself. I was always like that. I didn’t want anything from anybody, and I’ve never been afraid of working hard.

I come from a huge Irish family. I’ve got 60 first cousins, and I know every one of them. Family has always been a really wonderful part of my life, and I feel like the company today is just an extension of my family.

I’m also the second born of my brothers and sisters. I watched my older sister argue with my father about what she wanted. When you’re the oldest, I guess it’s a little harder to blaze a trail. For me, I could crack a joke and get what I wanted, because my father had a good sense of humor. I used to say to my sister, “Just watch — I can get it for you.” Then I’d get him in a good mood and just go for it.

Tell me more about your parents.

They’re both immigrants. They were born in Ireland, and they came to America when they were young. My father became an American by going to the Korean War. He said the Pledge of Allegiance every night before dinner.

No matter who was at the table, even if I had invited a boyfriend, it was his table, and it was about America, the Pledge of Allegiance. Then it was quiz night afterward. He’d ask us about the capitals of countries, and always challenged what we were learning in school.

I think I’m a combination of both my parents. I can work hard the way he did, and I have his determination. But my mother was a great delegator, and she would have fun doing it.

Did you know what you wanted to do for a career when you went to college?

I went to college for fashion. I was fortunate that my hobby is my passion. I started sewing in fourth grade. I went to college in Miami and worked full time to put myself through school.

I had two jobs — in a garment factory and in a restaurant — and I lost both of them within one hour. I went to pick up my paycheck from the garment factory at 5 p.m. and they told me they were out of business, so I drove to the restaurant where I was supposed to start at 5:30, and they told me they sold the business over the weekend and didn’t need me anymore.

When did you first start managing people?

I started at Liz Claiborne in a very basic job in the pattern room. Then I got promoted to secretary to the head of production. I knew I wanted to be in the business, but I wasn’t exactly sure what angle in the business. I loved it.

I was sitting in a meeting taking notes one day, and they were discussing how short skirts were suddenly in style. So the guys — there were only men sitting around the table — said that someone had to go to Korea tomorrow to shorten about 200,000 skirts. Nobody said a word. So I said, “I’ll go.”

The next day, I went to Korea for three months. I got the job done. After then, whenever there were problems, people would say, “Send Dee.” I went everywhere — El Salvador, Haiti, Sri Lanka, India. I became vice president of operations when I was 28 and had a whole team.

Maybe it was because I had come from a big family, but managing people was no problem for me. I was willing to work hard. I was willing to make anybody look good. I could get the job done and convince you that it was your idea.

What are some leadership lessons you’ve learned over time?

A lot of people come into this industry and think they’re good at one thing. My management style is to either build around what you’re not good at, or move you to another place where I think you could be better.

Finding the best in people is like a chess game for me, rather than saying, “Well that didn’t work — we don’t need you anymore.” And once in a while you’ll find a utility player who is good at every job.

Biggest pet peeve?

People who are late. I just grew up in a world where if something is supposed to start at 9 a.m., you started at 8 a.m. I’m always early. When I say a meeting’s starting, don’t be late. I close the door.

How do you hire?

I have good instincts about people. I can pretty much decide in the first hour if I think that we could work together. But I also watch if you write down things when we’re talking. Some people should take notes.

I don’t have specific questions. But I might say, “Don’t you hate getting up early in the morning?” Sometimes they’ll answer, “I hate it. I’m not a morning person.” I don’t want that. I want a happy person in the morning.

We all have bad days, but I want to work with people who want to be here. So I’ll ask, “Do you like what you do? Why do you want to come work for Lafayette? Why do you want to leave your job?”

What advice do you give to new college grads?

You have to work hard, so hard. You have to have a little bit of luck, and you have to have patience. You can also learn from a good boss and a bad boss. It can’t always be rosy.

And what do you tell them about the fashion business specifically?

I tell them it’s glamorous, but not that glamorous. Don’t be afraid to go the extra mile. Just embrace it every day, and then come back in five years and tell me if you still love it. At the end of the day, it’s a business.

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