Former Claire’s Stores co-CEO says self-esteem and work ethic have been keys to her success

Bonnie Schaefer giving lecture

Working for the family business isn't always easy, but the rewards can be great. Just ask Bonnie Schaefer, owner of Westglow Resort & Spa in Blowing Rock and former co-CEO of Claire's Stores Inc.

Schaefer, who received an honorary doctorate from Appalachian State University in 2012, was the guest speaker at the Harlan E. Boyles Distinguished Lecture Series on Oct. 13. The lecture is sponsored by Appalachian's Walker College of Business.

"I never thought I'd end up as a CEO and never wanted to work for my family, but working within the company and being able to work my way up gave me the confidence that I lacked," Schaefer said of her career.

Like many college students, Schaefer explored several majors – from liberal arts to archeology and Renaissance art to nursing – before working for her father. She also got fired by her father for "a less than stellar job performance," she said of her early work for Claire's, an international costume jewelry and accessories retailer for tweens, teens and young adults.

After working for a year for another company, Schaefer's father rehired her. "I thought, 'now I'm going to make big money with a corner office and perks,'" she said. Instead, "I had to start at the very bottom and work my way up. Just because I went to work in the family business, it was not handed to me on silver platter," she said.

The experience was invaluable. Although the company was run at the time by men, she learned from the women who Schaefer said were doing the hard work.

"It was an interesting time working for a company devoted to selling items to girls and women that was run by men. Most of what I learned about the company I learned from these women in the field," she said.

While Schaefer started out working for minimum wage, she had a goal of running the company. She worked hard, coming into the office before her father did and working after he left at the end of the day. By gaining experience in each department within the company, she worked her way to the top. She was named a vice president in charge of real estate in the Southeast, later senior vice president of European operations and chair of a joint venture in Japan, and then chairwoman of Claire's. Later Schaefer and her sister were named co-CEOs of the company and co-chairs on the company's board of directors.

The experience of working in a male-dominated company led Schaefer to make many changes when she and her sister ran Claire's. Women were promoted to key leadership positions. "We made necessary changes promoting the best of the best," she said. Shareholder value tripled and the company grew to more than 3,200 stores on four continents with 16,000 employees. In May 2007, the sisters sold the company to a private equity group.

Her time at Claire's helped Schaefer develop and market Westglow Resort & Spa into an internationally renowned destination. It also fueled her passion for a variety of philanthropic causes, including women's issues, Jewish causes, animal rights, the arts and health issues.

Schaefer said the lessons she learned during her career include always finding something you love to do. As a result, it will never be boring. "Never let anyone tell you that you can't. You are the only person holding yourself back," she said. "Aim high, and be open to the journey."

Bonnie Schaefer giving lecture
Published: Oct 15, 2015 1:00pm