The CEO Of Sam's Club Was Just Named One Of 2020's Most Powerful Women

When Kathryn McLay took the glass elevator to the top office at Sam's Club, she had no idea what she was getting into. Sure, the 46-year-old CEO has nearly two decades of experience in retail, at Woolworth's in her native Australia and then at Walmart, from 2015 until being hired in November 2019 to lead Sam's Club. But a few short months into her new role, COVID-19 upended the entire retail industry and the rest of the business world with it. McLay's predecessor didn't give her a handbook for dealing with a global pandemic, either (via Forbes). Nonetheless, Sam's Club's quick and effective responses to the crisis lifted McLay onto Fortune magazine's "most powerful women" list for 2020.

As she told "most powerful women" list editor Beth Kowitt in a video, McLay toured one of Sam's Club's 600 U.S. stores in March, in what was supposed to be a morale booster for this Chicago location. But the club was packed with panic-buyers, and she spent the first half-hour rounding up shopping carts in the parking lot because that's what the store needed most in that moment.

McLay's awareness of what people need has guided her through the pandemic since then. "I think from that first couple of weeks, one of the things that was really important to us was, how do we build empathy and kindness into all of our communication?" she said. "What we were seeing out in the community was that people were struggling."

Sales boomed at Sam's Club during CEO's first year

McLay instituted a concierge service at Sam's Club for elderly and at-risk shoppers, available at all club locations before the end of March (via Forbes). These members could shop without leaving their car. McLay created a "mandate tracker" so she could know the particular needs of each of the 600 clubs. She held meetings seven days a week in the early weeks of the pandemic, to make sure stores were getting what they needed (via Forbes). Sam's Club was also one of the first retailers to turn one of its stores "dark" during the pandemic, to fulfill pickup orders only.

Sam's Club has been booming in McLay's first year as CEO. Same-store sales at Sam's Club grew 11.1 percent in the third quarter of 2020, compared to 6.4 percent at regular Walmart stores. Income from membership fees had its largest growth spurt in more than five years (via Yahoo!).

As McLay climbed the corporate ladder, she sometimes noticed she was the only woman in a meeting. She decided to mentor other women who were trying to advance in retail (via TB&P). She said women too often lack the confidence to take important positions, waiting instead to be invited. A female mentor McLay encountered early in her career gave advice that worked for her: Don't expect praise or promotion. Just work as hard as you can, and success will come. Now she's among the "most powerful women" in business.