Claire's executive sees future for women in logistics

Updated 12/28/2015 10:45 AM

Raised by a single mother and growing up with a brother and aunt in Logan Square, Deborah Winkleblack had no intention of attending college.

But she did, eventually earning a master's degree in business administration. She later worked her way up the ranks in logistics as one of the few women executives in a predominantly male industry. She is vice president of international logistics and compliance for Hoffman Estates-based Claire's Stores Inc., where she travels internationally to ensure merchandise reaches retail stores worldwide.


The trendy retailer sells jewelry and accessories, mainly for young women, teens and children at mall stores or train stations across the world.

"I've really come to love the business," Winkleblack said. "Especially the international side."

Winkleblack, who travels throughout Asia and the world, is among 18 women executives honored recently during the 18th annual Influential Women in Business Awards, presented by the Daily Herald Business Ledger in partnership with the National Association of Women Business Owners. Judges based their selections on the nominees' business and professional achievements and the challenges they have met in building their careers.

Executives in logistics handle how products are shipped and ensure they reach their destination. Compliance focuses on whether those products meet government and legal standards for importing and exporting. There are not many women in the industry, but experts agree the number is growing.

Lombard-based Council of Supply Chain Management Professions said about 20 percent of its 8,500 members are women.

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While the majority of supply chain and logistics professionals in previous decades were men, women are increasingly choosing these fields as careers, adding value to their companies, their customers, and to the global supply chain community at large, said Rick Blasgen, president and CEO of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals.

Winkleblack's career started in 1974, working for Montgomery Ward. Her mother encouraged her to work hard.

"She did inspire me because she was very good at doing the best she could do in the inner city," Winkleblack said. "She taught me a lot on being a good human."

College wasn't initially on her radar, but she realized that a degree was needed to get a good job. She earned an associate degree in biological science from Triton College, a bachelor's degree in psychology from Elmhurst College, and her MBA from Rosary College.

While she was interested in science, she had already started as a freight clerk and enjoyed her job at Ward's. "I needed a job and there was an opening in Ward's freight accounting department," she said. "I did accounting in high school and it eventually led to other jobs there."


But as Ward's cut back, which eventually led to bankruptcy, Winkleblack took a buyout package. She was hired at Claire's in 1993 and loved the international aspect of logistics.

She learned early that if she was going to be taken seriously in a predominantly male industry, she had to make some changes, she said.

"I grew up as 'Debbie,' was 5-foot-2 and barely 100 pounds," she said. "I had a hard time being taken seriously."

So she switched to being called Deborah in an effort to shed a "little girl" image and gain respect. She educated herself on her job and the industry. And she said it is important to keep a sense of humor.

In addition, she learned about the cultures in various countries.

"In some countries, like Korea, going into the office it was very crowded and many women were pushed to the side in crowds. You were literally pushed away ... it was just a culture shock."

She also learned not to smoke in public in such countries.

"I remember being in the airport and I was smoking at the time and lit up over there," she said. "I realized I was the only female there and left very quickly. In Korea, a woman just doesn't smoke in public."

In 1996, Claire's moved from Wood Dale to Hoffman Estates, doubling the size of its office and distribution space.

She worked her way up the ranks at Claire's and was instrumental in building a "best in class" logistics and compliance system that earned some industry standards recognition.

She said the company's purchase order management system provided visibility into inventory long before it was common in the industry.

She also took the lead in getting a designation called Foreign Trade Zone for Claires Stores, which allowed shipments to be entered and consolidated at their North American distribution center in Hoffman Estates.

Being a Foreign Trade Zone allows shipments destined for Canada and other export countries to come into Hoffman Estates to be packaged for foreign stores, she said.

During her tenure at Claire's, the company has grown from 110 stores in the U.S. to nearly 3,200 stores in 46 countries.

With all this, she enjoys passing on her knowledge to others during her speaking engagements at various events.

She has mentored students at Harper College and College of DuPage in careers in the supply chain, and volunteered at Elgin Public Library to advocate retail careers to high school students.

But, she said, she is most proud of establishing the Winkleblack Second Chance Fund at Triton College. It is meant for self-supporting women over 21 who were not able to attend college after high school.

"I was a late bloomer and wanted to be able to help others make their way in life," she said.

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