It’s really all about optimizing the balance between cost and efficiency to deliver the best experience for customers. How do we look at this data differently? How do we make it more realtime? How do we push the envelope in the way we’re tackling these problems?
By Adam Sylvain
For many of us, the pandemic upended conventional work routines. Kitchen tables and spare bedrooms became home offices, Zoom became the conference room, and business attire suddenly became much more comfortable.
“I honestly can’t remember the last time I wore anything with buttons,” admits Meera Bhatia T'04, COO of the global activewear company Fabletics. “I have fully embraced the work-from-home casual attire.”
While certain aspects of pre-pandemic life are destined to return, Bhatia believes the trend toward hybrid, athleisure-style clothing is here to stay.
“From what we’ve seen, activewear is much more than what you work out in now—it’s how you live,” she says. “I think consumer expectations about being comfortable have just changed.”
After joining Fabletics as COO in February of 2020, Bhatia had to dive in quickly to help the company navigate two “pandemic tailwinds” that imposed significant pressure on the company’s supply chain. One of those tailwinds was the growing interest in more versatile clothing and the other was the mass shift to e-commerce, which brought an influx of previously offline retail shoppers.
“The most immediate issue was getting customers their packages since primary carriers like FedEx and UPS were backing up and unable to handle the volume,” explains Bhatia. “As a direct-to-consumer business, we needed to move quickly to diversify our carrier network.”
At the same time, there was also the challenge of transitioning the company’s entire customer service operation—based largely in the Philippines and South America—to remote work so employees could pick up the phone away from a potentially unsafe office environment.
Solving these challenges called into focus the skills operational leaders need most to be successful. Although the specifics of a COO’s role can vary depending on the industry context, Bhatia says the evolution and expanded use of technology requires a metrics orientation and an ability to analyze large amounts of data.
“It’s really all about optimizing the balance between cost and efficiency to deliver the best experience for customers,” she says. “This demands an openness to innovation and always questioning your thinking. How do we look at this data differently? How do we make it more real-time? How do we push the envelope in the way we’re tackling these problems?”
The work is also inherently cross-functional and relies on building relationships and working effectively across teams. Bhatia can easily trace the cultivation of these skills back to her time in Hanover.
“Success comes from being collaborative and recognizing my role is not always about having the best ideas, but drawing out the best ideas in other people,” says Bhatia. “I attribute so much of that to Tuck.”
Before pursuing her MBA, Bhatia earned an engineering degree, with a minor in math, from the University of Pennsylvania. After a few years working in technology consulting, she felt a growing desire to transition away from pure strategy into a career in product management.
“I arrived at Tuck with the goal of becoming a product manager at Microsoft and came out as a product manager at Microsoft,” Bhatia says. “So, it worked out pretty well for me.”
Bhatia’s five-year Microsoft career included a move to London, where she led pricing and strategy across the company’s European online advertising businesses. It was in London where Bhatia gained her first exposure to large-scale ecommerce when she became senior director of global product at Hotels.com. After moving back to the Bay Area, she joined LinkedIn in a product management role for two years before moving into the consumer retail space at Stella & Dot—a social-selling jewelry and accessories company—first as VP of product management and, eventually, COO.
“After years of working in classic high-tech, I learned all about what it means to work for a company selling a physical good,” shares Bhatia. “I was able to expand my role outside of technology, taking on engineering and eventually more operations functions, including customer service and our warehouse.”
Although it may seem like a big change, as a product manager Bhatia says she was always working across teams to maximize different aspects of the customer experience. The shift to managing operations has simply broadened this focus on the customer even more.
In addition to her current COO role at Fabletics, Bhatia is also president of TechStyleOS, managing the technology products that power five fashion brands, including Fabletics. She says building all their own technology has allowed them to tackle supply chain issues faster than other retail companies.
“We realized early on, pre-vaccine, that in order to operate our fulfillment centers safely, we were not going to be able to fulfill the demands of our peak season,” says Bhatia. “We had to bring on another facility and within months, we did it. Because we own our technology, we can control our pace and make these things happen.”
The ability to innovate and move quickly continues to be of paramount importance. Even as the vaccine rollout began and cases dropped in many places throughout the summer, Bhatia understood the pandemic disruption was far from over.
“Despite the optimism that emerged, we were predicting factory closures due to the vaccine disparities across countries,” says Bhatia. “We knew this had the potential to hit our business even harder.”
Fabletics benefitted from its diversified factory base and as facilities in places like Vietnam were forced to shut down, Bhatia says they were able to shift volume to other areas where they could operate safely. Still, she says factory closures remain a concern in addition to transit times that have increased threefold since the pandemic began.
“The world is not past the pandemic. Not even close,” says Bhatia. “There will be products that people want that aren’t going to be there and it will be a challenge for all of us to figure out how we keep customers happy.”
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