Licensing Career Stories: Liz Kalodner, CBS Consumer Products

What were the career moves that brought you to the licensing business?
With no work experience and unable to find a “real” job upon graduating from business school – a real job defined at the time as consumer packaged goods at someplace like P&G or General Foods– I waited for 4 of my classmates to turn down a job at Kenner Toys in Cincinnati, Ohio before I was offered the post as Assistant Product Manager. My original rejection letter from Kenner said  that the company thought the job would be “difficult at best” for me. I didn’t know anything about product or children, and I certainly didn’t know that people like me could decide what color Play-Doh went in the can, but I spent 4 years there and immersed myself in the children’s entertainment/merchandise business. A career was born by happenstance. Tired of the Cincinnati winters, I leveraged that job into a licensing job at Disney, broadening my range from toys to all categories, and I loved it. (After 10 years at Disney, I veered off the path to run an online dating service before returning to my roots at Sesame Workshop and now CBS.)

What’s a “typical” day in your current position?
As a corporate employee with a team of licensing, marketing, creative and operational  executives, the majority of my day is internally focused. The chief responsibility is to make sure that individuals have the answers and tools they need and that the group is rowing in the same direction. That means that I spend my time keeping people informed; addressing legal, finance, HR and IT issues; and largely making decisions about time, money and risk – how much are we going to spend, is it worth the effort?, what’s the downside if we execute this plan? I also spend time doing the things that otherwise might fall of the list — meeting new people or reviewing atypical proposals, and, even more important, championing the difficult ideas that have real upside but that require us to think or act out of our normal routine.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you address that challenge?
The dynamics of the licensing industry are not always commensurate with the pace of entertainment industry machinations — negotiations on merchandise rights or talent approval – so we are often facing the task of getting answers in order to move forward on deals. Orchestrating the timeline can be challenging, and we work hard to keep all facets of a project progressing simultaneously.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
Ever fascinated by people and their stories, I love the opportunity to meet scads of fascinating people who do and make all kinds of interesting things. And I thoroughly enjoy the luxury of learning about new businesses all the time. Years ago, I used to recite by rote memory the categories on which I worked as “apparel, toys, gifts, stationery, home furnishings,” but I find myself stretching creatively and now learning about stage shows, exhibits, replicas, ecommerce and digital gaming. Most of all, though, I love managing people and bringing out the best in them. To see individuals perform at the highest level, to inspire them to create ideas that never would have occurred to me or execute plans with a unique finesse is incredibly rewarding.

What are the most significant trends or changes that you’ve seen in the business in recent years?
Everyone seems to have figured out that licensing is a great business model, resulting in a proliferation of brands from multiple sources including apps and games, celebrities and models and even former manufacturers and retailers like Sharper Image who have converted their businesses to completely licensed enterprises. Consequently, the competition for properties, licensees and retail space has escalated. We have become a victim of our own success. Since 2008, the risk tolerance has also changed, perhaps irrevocably. We see lower guarantees, a greater interest in co-brands to broaden reach and a reticence to sign a deal before there’s a retail commitment – all efforts to reduce overall exposure and up the ante for success. And we cannot deny the tremendous shift toward digital that has occurred.

What are the biggest challenges facing the licensing business in the next three years?
The ongoing advancement in technology is the greatest opportunity and yet the greatest challenge for it constantly alters our strategy, our execution and our overall business model. Technology will change how we consume content and how we consume goods; it will convert the goods themselves from tangible to intangible; it will shift our retail focus from brick and mortar to e-commerce; it will create more and more content options with fewer retail options; and, most important of all, it will do so with alarming speed.

In addition, as the world economy tightens, an increased pressure on manufacturing costs will result in an increased pressure on licensing economics.

What advice would you give to students or young professionals wanting to pursue a career in licensing?
The best advice I could give is not necessarily to start in licensing, but to start in consumer goods. It is incredibly helpful to understand product development and production issues, marketing tactics and sales needs, distribution and operational concerns from a manufacturer’s perspective first in order to be a well-rounded licensing executive. A focus on any single functional area– marketing, sales, product development, graphic design, etc. – is also good training.

I’ve also learned that product still rules in licensing. No matter what area of the business is your concentration, it helps if you get a kick out of the product.

Any advice for mid-career professionals looking to expand their competencies?.
A good reminder to all of us at any point in our careers is to stay current and stay uncomfortable.  Staying current is staying informed about trends and changes and industry activity. Staying uncomfortable is constantly reaching for new information and new skills, broadening our exposure and our expertise. Licensing is an industry of infinite categories, multiple disciplines and perpetual change; as such, it requires an enhanced level of ongoing education.