“This right here makes me want to work for Ulta Beauty,” exclaimed Rihanna, walking out to a room of shocked faces.
The music star, pregnant with her second child, was onstage at the retailer’s Field Leadership Conference. It’s an internal, annual affair that gathers Ulta’s in-store leaders for a week of connecting, learning, celebrating — and surprises. Rihanna was the very first surprise, dropping by for a quick hello at this year’s festivity, held in Las Vegas.
“Your boss just flies you out to Vegas for fun? Like, that’s crazy,” she went on to cheers.
“I wanted to show up in person and thank you to your face so much for all of your hard work, all of your support, because none of this would happen — it would not have been this incredible and successful if it weren’t for all of you in this room, so give yourselves a round of applause,” she said of Fenty Beauty’s launch at Ulta Beauty in March of last year.
Rihanna then revealed her newest Gloss Bomb Heat, the clear “Glass Slipper,” available exclusively at the retailer between April 18 and May 26.
“What you know about that?” she teased.
The audience — more than 1,900 general managers and VPs — were hosted at The Venetian, where most events took place. It’s where they first met and heard from the executive team.
“Our success is due to your leadership in your stores every day,” chief executive officer Dave Kimbell told the crowd when he had the mic in the ballroom. The atmosphere was electric, filled with energy and excitement.
Touching on this year’s theme, “Be your own kind of beautiful,” he said: “It speaks to what we aspire to help our guests and associates do every day, to know they come to us already beautiful.”
Ulta’s goal is to help shoppers express themselves while sharing in “the power of beauty,” added Kimbell, who has been Ulta Beauty’s CEO since June 2021, and joined the company in 2014.
“A lot of it has stayed consistent, but we’ve grown a ton,” he said off stage later in the day, when asked about the evolution of the event. “We have more than twice the stores we did when I started. And we’ve elevated as an organization. So, the experience is a bit different, but the fundamental reasons have been very consistent.”
There are 1,355 Ulta Beauty stores today, and the company hit $10.2 billion in total net sales in 2022. It has 40.2 million loyalty members.
“That was fueled by our store teams and store leaders,” he said of results. “So, the benefits are in our success. That’s why we invest so much and make sure it’s a priority for us every year.”
FLC is a way to “connect with our leader teams and both celebrate the impact they have and get them focused on the strategies and initiatives and the operational elements that drive our business,” he continued.
The power behind FLC is Kecia Steelman, chief operating officer of Ulta Beauty since June 2021. Its production is a year in the making, she said, and destinations are chosen two years prior.
“I have a small and mighty team of three that are running this whole show,” Steelman revealed. They work alongside producing partner CPG Agency.
There are practical elements to FLC — field leaders are trained in new programs, educated on the latest happenings at the company and updated on the newest investments. They also take part in an expo — an anticipated day where they’re able to meet brand founders and take home boxes of products. There were 222 brands that participated this year, including 51 that are Black-owned with the likes of BeautyStat, Briogeo and Pattern.
It’s their largest assortment yet, said chief merchandising officer Monica Arnaudo. She’s had the role since 2019, after serving as senior vice president of merchandising two years prior. “Every category is covered.”
Arnaudo explained key pillars for Ulta Beauty are providing conscious beauty (“clean” ingredients, cruelty free, vegan, “sustainable” packaging and “positive impact”), BIPOC-founded brands, emerging brands and wellness goods in makeup, skin care, hair care, fragrance, bath and body.
“They’re all top of mind for the guest,” she said, adding that innovation, efficacy and “an authentic” founder are elements she seeks. What has worked? “We’re very invested in creating a strong partnership that is a win-win for both, meeting them where they are for the smaller brands. We also look at what they’re amazing at, and we try to amplify that.”
The expo allows the field leaders to have a personal experience with brands, bringing back their learnings from that day — and FLC as a whole — to their stores.
In the end, “It’s about paying it forward to their field teams,” said Steelman. It’s connected to Ulta Beauty’s investment in building long-standing careers, she added.
“All missions should start inside out,” said Michelle Crossan-Matos, named chief marketing officer in January 2022. “Your people, your internal need to represent what your brand will be external. What you experience in the store is the motivation that they feel here [at FLC]. For me, I’m not only reassured, I’m excited about the future. Because I see a whole host of people who have been given career progression and opportunity that will inspire them to think differently about our guests in the store. It won’t be transactional. It’s an emotional connection.”
FLC is also a time of enjoyment, said Steelman: “Yes, we invest in them in training and education, but we want to have some fun along the way.”
On Day One, the fun continued at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Raiders, which Ulta Beauty took over for their “Winners Walk” — an exuberant parade celebrating their top performers — as well as a Vegas concert and dinner.
Next, they would head to Kaos nightclub for a dance party and later see “Love,” Cirque du Soleil’s reimagined Beatles experience.
“This to me is a big investment in them,” Steelman said of FLC. “They get excited about it every year. Once it’s over, they ask, ‘Where are we going next?’”