A Chat With Tom Ebling, Former Demandware CEO
I was excited to interview Tom Ebling last week, a true retail technology leader whose stint as CEO of Demandware from 2010-2016 included growing the software company into a $300 million public company that was acquired by Salesforce for $2.8 billion in 2016. Prior to Demandware, Ebling was the CEO of Lattice Engines, ProfitLogic and Torrent Systems. In September, he joined the board of directors for Custora, a customer segmentation platform for retailers. Here are some highlights from our discussion:
Melissa Campanelli: You have a lot of experience in retail technology, so let’s start there. What do you like most about the retail industry? What excites you about it?
Tom Ebling: Retail technology is so dynamic. Change happens so frequently and it’s exciting to watch our customers constantly deal with change and work with them to support them.
I think it’s also refreshing that when your customers are in retail and you mention them and what they're doing, everyone feels they can relate because everyone is a consumer. It makes what I’m doing very real to my entire network, my children, everyone. It’s cool.
MC: You’ve had great success in your professional life, so I’m sure our readers would like to hear about your leadership skills. Can you tell us what kind of a leader you are? What are some of your leadership mantras?
TE: To be a great leader, you have to have a great team. It’s very important that your team is comprised of talented people who are capable for their roles and team players. It’s also important for a leader to work with [his or her] team to create a common vision and a common strategy for the team. Once that's created, a good leader should empower the team to execute the vision without constantly looking over their shoulders. This requires a lot of time together as a team and a lot of communication. I like to think that was my style. I think I did a good job of creating a team, and creating a common vision and common strategy for the team.
MC: Any hiring tips?
TE: I don’t trust my own judgment. I really try to have people with different backgrounds and personalities from mine meet with [prospective] candidates. Then, I make a point to really listen carefully to all of their observations, and then I form a total picture rather than simply relying on my maybe too qualitative approach to doing it.
MC: What are some retail tech trends you're most interested in right now?
TE: One trend is around retailers being consumer and customer focused. Of course, successful retailers have always been consumer focused, but I think the concept of consumer focus has become so much more important now. Retailers aren't just thinking about how to get customers, but how do you keep them, nurture them, get the most lifetime value out of them, and retain their loyalty. It’s so much easier to lose them now than in the past, and the disruption caused by Amazon.com is certainly feeding into that. So, I think being consumer focused has become an obsession with retailers. It’s been building, but it’s really building even faster now and gaining more momentum.
Another trend is around predictive intelligence, or basically leveraging data and things like machine learning to help companies do a better job of being consumer focused. There are many companies using technologies to do this today, and big retailers are hiring people to do this directly as well. I think this is a trend because even though there’s a lot of talk about it, it’s just in its infancy.
MC: Finally, what attracted you to Custora, and what are you looking most forward to as a board member?
TE: Custora is right at the intersection of everything I’ve talked about around where retail tech and retail is going — leveraging big data and predictive intelligence to help drive consumer centricity. And it has a very impressive list of customers for an early-stage company. Where Custora is going with its technologies and solutions for customers is where I believe all of retail needs to go.
Also, over the months before I joined, I got to know Corey [Pierson] and Jon [Pospischil], Custora's founders, and really liked them and believed I could add value. Some of the experiences I went through at the companies I led, grew and ramped up will be experiences that Custora will probably go through, and I can hopefully help and guide it on the journey.
Melissa Campanelli is Editor-in-Chief of Total Retail. She is an industry veteran, having covered all aspects of retail, tech, digital, e-commerce, and marketing over the past 20 years. Melissa is also the co-founder of the Women in Retail Leadership Circle.