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The freedom to excel: Nadine Heubel

The day The CEO Magazine speaks to Nadine Heubel, Heinemann Americas CEO, she’s recently returned from a short trip to Uruguay and Argentina, for just two days. “I’d never been to Uruguay before, so it was good to get an idea of the market,” she says.

Nadine Heubel, CEO of Heinemann Americas

The day after, she’s due to fly to Istanbul, where Heinemann has just opened its biggest airport location yet. It sounds like an adventurous, jetsetting lifestyle, but it’s a necessary reality for an executive with one of the world’s largest travel retailers.

Over the past 140 years, the brand has grown to serve more than 100 countries and 40 million customers a year. But the Americas – Nadine’s sphere of jurisdiction – represents one of the most recent and crucial moves for the company, and thus a rich new experience for Nadine.

“The Heinemann family and the board entrusted me with this fantastic opportunity, this huge responsibility,” she explains. “That motivates me because I want to live up to the trust the company has placed in me. Each time I’m able to report back a successful contract or a successful new partnership, I get this sense of pride, as well as gratitude on behalf of my team here in Miami.

“As the leader of a growing company in the US, looking to expand our business significantly over the next couple of years, I have to constantly manage competing priorities. Every day I need to make sure that I choose what is best for the company, but at the same time maintain those strong commitments to our employees, clients and customers. That’s what Heinemann is about. Having been exposed to influential leaders in my 20-year career in duty-free and travel retail, I’m now well-equipped to face these challenges.”

Throughout her career, Nadine has benefited from the experience of businesspeople across the travel retail industry. In fact, she places such value on mentorship that she’s undertaken to pass her skills on to the next generation, as part of Heinemann’s International Talent Management Program.

Young talented employees are assigned to learn under a senior management employee; Nadine has been mentoring a younger woman over the past six months, and says she’s “growing in her role, leading projects and doing fantastic things for the organization”.

Nadine Heubel, CEO of Heinemann Americas

It parallels Nadine’s own experience; for the first 12 years of her career, within Hugo Boss’s travel retail department, she had the opportunity to observe numerous industry figures.

It taught her the variability of leadership styles – no one method is correct, and management methods can vary enormously. “They all have different styles of negotiating, different emphasis on certain values,” she says.

“Being exposed to such a wide variety of different successful businesspeople helped me to define myself; what suits me most, what makes me an authentic business leader. For me, authenticity is one of the most essential principles.”

When it comes to what, precisely, defines her leadership, Nadine draws inspiration from a quote by business academic Frances Frei. Well-known as part of Sheryl Sandberg’s address to graduates of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, it reads thus: “Leadership, at its core, is about making other people better as a result of your presence, and making sure that the impact lasts in your absence.”

“This fits me well,” Nadine explains. “It’s an authentic quote for me personally, but it also fits the Heinemann culture well, because we empower our employees. In Heinemann, it’s about trust. We trust that our people will do excellent work and we give them the tools to do this. But at the same time, if we’re not around, we know that they can still do it. That’s what I aim for every day when working with my team.”

Nadine joined in 2008, and after eight years was named CEO of Heinemann Americas. She moved to Miami, charged with the responsibility of expanding the regional business. Three years on, Nadine proudly declares that Heinemann has made significant inroads in America. But her first exposure to Heinemann occurred while she was at Hugo Boss.

Nadine Heubel, CEO of Heinemann Americas

Operating within the same industry, Heinemann was naturally a partner with whom she dealt often.“What always struck me was how Heinemann approached partnerships,” she says. “Our relationship was always based on partnership, on our family values, on what I would describe in three words: integrity, transparency and trust. Having worked with Heinemann from the outside, as a vendor, I felt confident when I got an offer to join the company, that this would be the right fit.”

“What always struck me was how Heinemann approached partnerships.”

In fact, one of Heinemann’s long-term partnerships was responsible for facilitating the expansion into America; MSC Cruises provided the opportunity for the travel retailer to open in Florida in 2013. It’s no wonder then that Heinemann values these partnerships to the extent it does.

Indeed, Heinemann has brought not just its business to the Americas, but also its homegrown German values – the same deep commitment to partnership. When she was working in Hamburg, Nadine found many of Heinemann’s customers had been there for decades.

Many couldn’t say why they partnered with Heinemann since that connection had predated their time with their own company. Though Heinemann hasn’t been in America for long, Nadine hopes that in 20 years, the company will have the same longevity in its regional partnerships.

Such an attitude is part of the company’s long-running family values; since 1879, when Heinemann was founded by two brothers, Carl and Heinrich Heinemann, the company has been family run. Four generations later, Gunnar and Claus Heinemann are on the supervisory board, and the CEO, Max Heinemann, is five generations removed.

As much as this legacy informs the company’s values, Heinemann refuses to be limited by it. The company focuses on modern shop designs which, Nadine says, “allows our consumers to enjoy a retail experience, one that hasn’t been present in the American market.”

Heinemann runs its own retail, distribution, logistics and purchasing divisions, so the capacity to tailor solutions to market-specific demands is one of the company’s greatest strengths. “We take a lot of time in analyzing who our customers are,” she says.

“From a demographic perspective, but also from the perspective of ‘why do they travel?’ Is it for pleasure? Is it for business? Where is the store location? Is it onboard a cruise ship? Is it in an airport? Is it a huge location? Is it a small, last-minute location? We take all these aspects into consideration to then determine the best assortment for the customer.

“Being a global company, we have a lot of data on our customers in the different parts of the world – how they buy in Sydney, Istanbul, Norway, Frankfurt, but also onboard our cruise ships here in the US. We gather all this data and from this intelligence, we draw further information on how to best develop our assortment, with the ultimate goal of delighting our customers.”

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