Part 1: A Conversation between Liz Reitman (reitdesign Founder, EONY Vice President & Mentorship Chair) and Lisa Malat (former President and Chief Operating Officer Barnes & Noble College)
Reit founder and Entrepreneurs’ Organization of New York (EONY) VP & Mentorship Chair, Liz Reitman, is no stranger to balancing life and work. When Liz first started her business, being a women-owned business was less common than it is today; what’s more, finding time to connect with other working women proved challenging.
Recently, Liz reconnected with Lisa Malat, former President and Chief Operating Officer of Barnes & Noble College and one of the strong, forward-thinking women Liz had the joy of working with for over 20 years! Take a trip down memory lane with us as they reminisce on how they met, how their relationship supported their professional and personal journeys, and what a long-term relationship means to them. Want more? Stay tuned for Part 2!
Liz: Oh wow, this is a long time ago…do you remember?
Lisa: Yeah. Back in the days we were doing our own internal creative using a shop up in Boston. We needed to professionalize this place and get some real talent at the table.
Liz: We started in 2002 or maybe 2001.
Lisa: Is that really how far back we go?! Okay, so it was 15 plus years! It was more of the branding work when we first started…really when we [Barnes & Noble College] wanted to up our game in terms of external presence and communications to the colleges and universities we served. That’s really where Liz stepped in a big role. And then it evolved to include more internal communications, which is what I would consider our Annual Meeting. Right?
Liz: But here’s the thing. I didn’t start doing your Show until after we started doing the Annual Review.
Lisa: Yeah, the Annual Review was our first project together. But the work on the Show was really when things evolved. Every year the company produced an Annual Meeting and Back to Campus Show (‘the Show’). This was really a way to bring together in one place our 800 store managers from across the country to celebrate everything they’ve accomplished; and then, of course, deliver the company message and initiatives and the right learning and development programs. It was a lot of celebration; a lot of hard work. Just a great way to keep the company aligned.
Liz: We also helped a lot with the learning and development tools presented at the Show, and that became a big component of our work as well. That was really a different sensibility. We designed and built a game, created a sliding DISC assessment tool, built a book — this pop-up book with flaps and pullout components — that was this big [gestures to human-sized book]…talk about being pushed from a design perspective. It was amazing!
Lisa: Which were works of art. I mean honestly Liz, they were really gorgeous. It was great. It’s always been a great partnership. I love working with women and I love working with women entrepreneurs. We did a lot of good work together.
Liz: What was cool about our relationship was that it started with smaller projects and then grew into the Annual Shows. I was doing other things for the company and I remember the moment where Lisa was like, ‘Come in here for a second!’ She brought me to the conference room with all these posters that were HIDEOUS! You couldn’t even read the words, there were stars everywhere…and she was like, ‘Do you think you could help us with these graphics for our sales conference?’ And I was like, ‘Hell, yeah!’
Lisa: It was like clip art on signs, remember Liz?
Liz: Yeah! [Shakes head]
Lisa: That was exactly it. It was neat because Liz helped not just on, of course, the look and feel and the creative, but also helped to more effectively get our message out. How do we come up with the right imagery or branding that is really going to support the theme? And what do we want the managers to walk away with? It was a very integrated partnership.
Liz: And that’s kind of how Reit pivoted and we began to help you with the Show. When we first started branding the Shows, I didn’t physically go down to the venue. And then, this was really the game changer: one day a truck drove through a whole set of posters and you had to cut them down and try to round all the corners of the posters to save them. And after that you were like, ‘From now on, you’re coming down! I can’t do this!’ That was (probably) the beginning of us being on site together… I mean we really blew it out of the water in terms of size and scale of what we would do after that. It was way beyond posters…it also included rethinking the managers’ experiences for those 5 days.
Lisa: We did great work and had a ton of fun doing it.
Lisa: I think we really respected each other. Like, Liz, you really helped me a lot with what we had to produce, what we had to deliver. I trusted you. So that was a big piece of it. I love working with external partners, I love to expand the team that way to bring in different points of view, different talents and perspectives. And you were such a solid, important partner to us.
Liz: And you know what was fun for me was that because I had Lisa’s trust, we took more risks. I mean, I had never done certain things, but I knew I had her trust and I loved the challenge, so I always said, ‘Yes, I can do that!’ And then I’d go back to my team and say, ‘Ok, huge challenge here…but I know we can do this.’
Lisa: I think that was an overall leadership lesson; that if you give people the room and space and let them know, ‘Yeah, I trust you, go figure it out’. It may not be the same steps you take. It may not be one, two, three, four, five, six…it doesn’t matter. But it’s very empowering and very motivating to people.
Lisa: Yeah! We broke up for a year. I had new people on the team who wanted to go in a different direction. We had a bit of a falling out.
Liz: As she grew, not only in her position, her team grew too. So when I met you, I think you had four people on your team. And then cut to 10+ years later and it’s a team of 40. I think everyone’s trying to make their way. I personally think there was a little bit of jealousy with how well we got along. And I know I personally didn’t know how to navigate the politics. I was like, ‘Wait, I’m just trying to do good work!’ And it just got really messy.
Lisa: Yeah, new people came in and they had their partners they worked with at previous companies that they presented to me. As a leader in the company — as an executive in the company — I have to be open. I can’t say ‘No, we can only…’ obviously. So that’s how it evolved. And then we found our way back to each other.
Liz: Yeah. I mean it was such a long-term relationship and Lisa and I got along so well…
Lisa: I’m trying to remember what it was…was I desperate and I called you?
Liz: You sent an email and I’ll never forget it! I called you right away and you said, ‘Liz, we messed up. We’re reusing everything you did last year…it’s a disaster! Next year is the 25th anniversary of the Annual Meeting and I need you to say yes you’ll work with us again.’
Lisa: [Laughing] That sounds like me. I mean, you know, you try, you make a mistake, you acknowledge you made a mistake, and you work it out. And Liz was gracious enough and open enough to say, ‘Yeah, it’s business and things happen and we’ll join forces again.’ Which was awesome.
Liz: It was also good for me to know that I needed to diversify my client base. I always knew you could not have one jumbo client, especially as a small business. So as painful as it was, I think I learned so much from it. As you do with any and all of your biggest challenges.
Lisa: You went on to get some really big clients, right? You work with the Javits Center, The New York International Auto Show, The NYC Buildings Dpt. You’ve done some great things.
Liz: It really made me pivot and focus on things like becoming a WBE, going after larger city and state contracts —
Lisa: That’s awesome.
Liz: I feel like this is a therapy session! [Laughing]
Lisa: [Laughing] I think that we were — I don’t know — I think you were mad at me.
Liz: [Laughing] I think I was just guarded.
Lisa: Yeah, I think that’s what it was.
Liz: It’s very hard to get fired after, you know, 15 years. So then I didn’t know who to trust…
Lisa: There were also big structural changes at the company at that time. We went public, there were more eyes on everything, you know, we were now accountable to the street, accountable to a board of directors, new people were coming into the company…so as the structure changed, new people came in and the culture began to shift a bit. As a leader, I was challenged in different ways on how to look at my business. And so all of that factored into how we ran the company and how our relationship evolved.
Liz: It’s interesting to hear you say that. Because before it was all about the company family, and there was this blur of colleagues and friendships, right? Because we did a lot outside of work. So when I came back it was much more business. And I needed to get my head that way.
Lisa: And it wasn’t just you, it was the whole group.
Liz: Exactly. I think we all knew it. Everybody came back with a different mindset. It was a lot more serious because it needed to be. Based on everything you just said…about the changes in the company…we were all on our best behavior.