A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Russell Markman, Founder & CEO of Collegiate Retail Consulting Group
In the midst of “back to school” season, Liz sits down with Russell Markman, founder and CEO of Collegiate Retail Consulting Group, for our September Founders in Focus series. Russell is a friend and long-time colleague of Liz’s; they worked together at Barnes & Noble College and, most recently, REIT helped design and launch Russell’s newest business venture. Join Liz and Russell as they walk down memory lane, discuss what it’s like to work together today, and explore the many connections that return within one’s entrepreneurship journey.
Liz Reitman: Hello, everyone. Welcome to our next Founders in Focus series where I have my good friend and colleague, Russell Markman, who I’ve known for geez, I want to say almost over 20 years! We met in our days at Barnes & Noble College when REIT was working with them, and I’ve recently had the pleasure of working with Russell on his new venture, Collegiate Retail Consulting Group. It felt appropriate to launch with him [for our September Founders in Focus Series], being that it’s school season and he is the higher ed expert. I’m really looking forward to connecting so thanks, Russell, welcome.
Russell Markman: Thanks, Liz. Appreciate it.
Natasha Cucullo: Thanks, Russell, for being here.
Before we dive into how the two of you know each other, we'd love to hear about your career and how you got to where you are today.
Russell: I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version and only charge $1.50 for that. [laughs] So this is my 44th year in higher education retail. It is the only thing I’ve done since I was 18 years old. As a student at Cal State Northridge working in the bookstore, I eventually became the store director – and it was a wonderful experience, 14 years there. Then I worked for Follett for about seven years as a regional manager in the Carolinas; my last year was as the store director at UC Berkeley. [Then] 20 years with Barnes & Noble, the last 12 as Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, the new business side of Barnes & Noble College, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My territory covered Hawaii over to the Rocky Mountain states…and then took an early retirement in July of 2020.
And [I knew] that I was not going to retire; I can’t sit at home and eat bonbons and watch the soaps for the rest of my life! [laughs] But it did allow me to decompress and get into my next venture, which I knew was going to remain in higher ed retail but doing it myself and not being tethered to an organization. And listen, I love all my Follett people still and my Barnes & Noble people, but it is really cool when you’re myopically focused on the success of the campus client. So in August of 2021, I launched Collegiate Retail Consulting Group, affectionately known as Collegiate Retail. And you know, two weeks ago was year number two. I’ve had incredible clients and incredible projects as well. It’s been a blessing. So. I know that’s probably longer than the reader’s digest version…
Liz: You have a lot to say! That’s awesome.
Cool. Could you give a little overview of what Collegiate Retail does and how that differs from your work in a more traditional corporate setting?
Russell: Yeah. So there’s really two prongs that I’ve focused on: one is assessment and analysis and the other is project management. So I’ve had many campuses say, “We would love a third party entity to take a deep dive into all the aspects of the college store from a human resource standpoint, technology, marketing and communication, promotions, and the course material side”. We look at the assessment phase holistically; when you’re able to conduct focus groups with the existing store team and coupling that with a focus group of associated student government and then coupling that with a focus group of faculty, you’re really looking at the bookstore and their relationship to a variety of stakeholders – not just from the standpoint of, “Well, let me go look at your financials and tell you what you’re doing right or wrong”. That’s easy. Anyone can do that. So that’s part of what Collegiate Retail brings is that assessment and analysis piece.
The other side of what we’re doing is the project manager role. For campuses that are looking to either move from being self-operated to outsourced, I act as the liaison facilitator. I’m involved in the bookstore committee and the advisory committee, and I support selections, presentations, creating timelines, deliverables and seeing the process through not just from an RFP development, but also see it through operationally. Those are two very different pieces and campuses, but when you have a set of eyes [that] have been part of 44 years of looking at the totality of the business, it’s helpful and beneficial. At 30,000ft., that’s kind of the stuff that we’re doing.
Nice. Liz was on the vendor side of Barnes & Noble College at the time that you two met there. Liz, do you want to share how you met Russell and how you got into Barnes & Noble?
Liz: Yeah. So ironically Russell and I actually never worked together! REIT was hired in 2012 working for Lisa Malat, who’s been on here and who Russell knows very well, as do I. She had a staff of two when I met her, and she was looking for another marketing company – they were using somebody based in Boston; they really wanted somebody from New York. And we had worked with a company called textbooks.com, so they made the introduction and we really hit it off. We started helping her with a number of different marketing initiatives, communications…and then we started helping out with their annual sales conference, the annual meeting. And that, I believe, is where we met.
Russell has this great personality and he’d be interacting with people, and I was moving people through the space, and I don’t even remember the moment we met, but we just clicked. We became friends. And every year at the annual meeting, I would see Russell, right? And we would interact throughout the week. And we maintained that yearly friendship for almost 20 years.
Russell: Natasha, maybe you’re going to ask this question –
Liz: Go for it. He’s taking over! [laughs]
Russell: Well, yes, and I’m prone to do that. [laughs] So here’s what was so fantastic for me. I’m getting ready to leave Barnes & Noble and I knew in my head what I wanted to do, but the one thing that was [that] I never owned my own business. It was about: What’s my voice? How am I going to position myself? How am I going to do things differently? I knew in my head, but how do I get that on paper? So what happens if I was able to work with an organization that worked in higher ed retail that I knew, but that was able to transform all this stuff in my head to voice and to messaging? So I reached out to Liz.
And that one hour conversation led to us spending so many hours with Liz’s team, [working on] everything from narrative to design. But I could not have done it and I could not have done it as quickly, if I had to spend hours and hours and hours telling REIT design, “Well, this is what the college store industry is”. So [that’s] how we started and that’s what made this incredible relationship. And I have used Liz and her team probably four other times…but it’s great bouncing off ideas. She was such a great help. And her team.
Liz: Thank you, Russell. For me it was so fun to flip it, right? It was so much fun to work with you on this in this capacity because again, you did have all the ideas and your energy is effusive – it was so much fun for our team because it was not only that you liked [the design], but you were appreciative, you were able to articulate what you were looking for – the whole process was beautiful. And then the win was he was already getting clients and building momentum even before [the website launch]. And what I love about Russell is he’s always thinking about, Okay, what can we tweak? How can I change it? Now I have more case studies, more clients…let’s add this, let’s edit this...
Russell: And it’s been fun for me, too. I mean, I thought there would have been heavier lifting [had I not worked with Liz], so to have this person, this team on my shoulder at times saying, “Have you thought about that?” We just launched our website 2.0 and we’ll probably [update it with] a couple other [case studies] after the fall. It’s been really great and really engaging. We challenged each other a lot – and I would hope that there were things that came out of our engagement and continuing that made Liz’s organization better.
Liz: Yeah. I mean, it was so fun to have the creative freedom…when we presented his first branding options, we had one very safe, traditional [option] – very collegiate – and then we offered a couple others. I love that he picked the really fresh and unique one.
And also for me, it’s been fun just to offer insights on just being a business owner and an entrepreneur because this is a new landscape for you. And there have been many conversations [between us about entrepreneurship] – I mean, I’ll never tell somebody what to do, but I’ll share my experience. So that added to the layers of fun for me.
Russell: I always appreciated that conversation and information.
It's amazing. I know Liz talks a lot about relationships, too, and credits that to a large part of REIT being here today, 26 years later. Now it is –
Russell: Well, I don’t want to be around for 26 years because that makes me 90 and mean. [laughs]
Natasha: Well, it sounds like in addition to both of you having very energetic and lively personalities, that your values for your businesses are also somewhat similar.
Is the relationship component something that you learned throughout your professional experience? Something that you inherently knew? A combination of both? Something else?
Russell: I’ll go first. Well, that’s why I reached out to Liz. It’s not just because, you know, Liz and her team had worked on elements of higher ed. I knew her as a person, so I knew that if Liz had the opportunity to work in this new venture of mine, that it would be successful because our personalities are so similar.
Liz: You know, it’s so funny because I don’t even really think about like the personality aspect of it – I definitely think about the relationship aspect, but I think that at the end of the day Russell and I are so similar – I think we just generally really like people – so it’s easy, it’s authentic, right? And so I’m not surprised that you’re talking about relationships in your world, too.
Russell: No, I completely agree. And the relationship piece and the presenting piece [is something] that I’ve always enjoyed. To me it was always about the show. But I think it goes back to what you just said, Liz, when you like people that you’re working with, the rest is really easy. That’s true because –
Liz: That’s what we do best, right? Then we get to tap into our expertise.
Russell: Yeah, it makes it fun. And we’re good at it. I mean, it’s important. Today is based upon all the learnings I’ve had, and I have incredible mentors that I’ve worked with – there’s no way I would have gotten to this point if I didn’t have this great house that was built with all these stones so well.
That's a beautiful metaphor and a wonderful segue to our last question. For people that are coming into the workforce now, or are still relatively early on in their careers, do you have any advice or takeaways to create and sustain connections like the two of you have with each other?
Russell: Well, first of all, it has to be important to you to do that. And it takes work to do that. So whether someone is starting out or someone is on the opposite side starting out – there’s a difference between me when I started at 18 and me when I started [Collegiate Retail] at 63 – but they’re both starts. And they both revolve around people and interactions and being in the present [that leads to] continued conversation and dialogue.
Natasha: Love that.
Liz: Yeah, I meet with a lot of young women figuring out their careers. And I’ll have coffee [with them], which is such a good idea. And I will say for myself, I purposely have made Mondays my day to meet people – I try to make it a priority on my schedule because I know how important it is. So I think for a young person, don’t be afraid to ask somebody to meet up. And then being very accommodating to that person, in terms of location or time or whatever. And to Russell’s point, just being present.
Prioritizing relationships is a great place to end.
Liz: I agree. Russell, thank you so much for being on. You know, for me, it’s like no surprise that he’s successful out of the gate – there’s just this beautiful energy and aura about you. And honestly, it’s been a joy working with you and rekindling our friendship.
Russell: It’s always fun. I’ve enjoyed it and look forward to the next 26 years. [laughs]
Collegiate Retail is a strategic partner to college and university leaders seeking to reimagine retail on campus. Working closely with campus leaders, we uncover audience, brand and business needs for self-operated and contract-managed college stores.
With 44 years in the field, our team combines assessments, strategic planning, and implementation to build relevance, profitability and synergy across retail channels — from the college store to online and event sales. We are a passionate team powered by partnership, integrity and the shared purpose of reimagining the college store as the retailer for all of campus. Our data-driven approaches focus on today’s shopping experience and marketplace realities to increase market share, reduce operating expenses, and ensure relevance in ways that drive sustainable growth.