How DBI Brands President Andrea O’Donnell Approaches Leadership and Mentorship in Her New Role

Andrea O’Donnell is only two months into her role as brands president at Designer Brands. But the retail veteran has already jumped headfirst into the new job.

“I’m not the kind of person that enjoys the 90-day plan where I basically have to sit on my hands and not do anything for three months,” O’Donnell, who previously served as the chief executive officer of shoe and apparel retailer Everlane, told FN in an interview.

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As brands president, O’Donnell has been tasked with overseeing the sourcing, design and distribution of Designer Brands’ growing roster of owned and licensed brands, including Keds, Vince Camuto, Topo Athletic, Hush Puppies, Le Tigre, Lucky Brand, Jessica Simpson, Kelly & Katie, Crown Vintage, Mix No. 6 and more.

Net sales for the DSW parent company decreased 0.8 percent to $754.3 million in the fourth quarter of 2023. Comparable sales also decreased by 7.3 percent in the period while adjusted net loss was $25.3 million, with loss per diluted share of 44 cents. Owned brands penetration was flat in Q4, though the company is still looking to double sales from owned brands and Camuto Group national owned and licensed brands to almost one-third of total sales by 2026, a plan that is O’Donnell’s North Star.

While the framework for growth is very much in place, the atmosphere at Designer Brands is one of innovation and change. In addition to O’Donnell’s recent arrival, chief executive officer Doug Howe assumed the top role in April 2023 and Laura Denk came in as president of DSW last July.

“There’s quite a new team here with an appetite for change,” O’Donnell said. “We’re already asking, ‘Why do we do this in this way?’”

Leadership style

When it comes to her approach as a leader in footwear, O’Donnell tries to encourage people to think outside of the box. She described her leadership style as a “player coach” dynamic, which she sees as a major departure from her prior experience in a command leadership style earlier in her career.

“For me, it’s [about] creating a culture where everybody feels recognized and respected,” she said. “Where everybody feels they’ve got a voice.”

For example, she explained how the company recently held a series of meetings that brought together everyone from design, sales, product development, sourcing, planning and other key players to discuss the company’s spring/summer 2025 collections. The meeting was meant to engage and solicit feedback and creativity from people at each level in the process.

“Creativity has a risk associated with it,” she said. “You’re not always going to get it right. But I think it’s incredibly important that people are allowed to think beyond a ballet flat for $100 at a margin of X.”

O’Donnell also understands the power of mentorship. Having benefited from the advice and support of women earlier in her career, O’Donnell now makes it a priority to pass her knowledge forward, with a focus on empowering women to be more active in the trajectory of their careers.

“In my experience, women disadvantage themselves, because they don’t put themselves forward. They don’t put their hand up that energetically,” she said. Her own career journey was shaped by the advice of one mentor who advised her to take on more visible tasks that mattered to stakeholders.

“I never would have got to the level I got to without this woman basically telling me I had to do stuff I didn’t want to do,” O’Donnell said. Now, she aims to do the same for other women. “When I see potential, I really like to cultivate relationships with those people and take their development very seriously.”

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