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Marla Schaefer studied org psych at TC. She put it to use in the family business.

Marla Schaefer studied org psych at TC. She put it to use in the family business

Most students at TC look to the College to provide them with their first fieldwork opportunities. Not so Marla Schaefer (M.A., 2003), who, in the midst of studying organizational psychology, was suddenly asked-'"along with her younger sister, Bonnie-'"to take over the family business when their father suffered a stroke.

"I applied what I learned on a constant basis," says Schaefer, whose family business happens to be Claire's Stores, the mostly mall-based retailing giant that sells accessories and costume jewelry to tweens and teens.

While taking a course on human resources, Schaefer led an effort by Claire's to acquire another company. While studying organizational dynamics, she established a succession planning process for Claire's.

"Whatever I was studying, I looked into my own company and saw it happening," she says. "It was like my very own petri dish."

Both Marla and Bonnie had worked for their father nearly their entire adult lives before being suddenly pressed into service as co-CEOs in 2002. At 18, Marla had started in the family's wig export/import business, then the world's largest. She joined Claire's in 1981 as her father's executive assistant, became involved in merchandising and ultimately developed Claire's overseas buying program, frequently scouring Asia for suppliers for the business's 11,500-plus products.

Yet when their father fell ill, the sisters were initially pressed by the Claire's board and shareholders to put an outsider in charge. Instead, they restructured management, changed marketing strategies and expanded internationally. In two years, profits nearly doubled and revenues rose 28 percent. In five, Claire's grew from a $1 billion to a $3.1 billion company and its stock value rose 275 percent. Today Claire's has 3,100 stores on four continents.

"It was quite a ride," Marla says. "Bonnie and I became a formidable team."

Obviously the sisters had good genes-'"but Marla credits TC, too: "TC helped me understand our family business a heck of a lot better than I'd ever understood it before, and I had been in it all my life."

The Schaefer sisters sold Claire's in May 2007 to Apollo Management-'"a tough decision, but one they felt was necessary to preserve their father's legacy and keep the business growing.

"I feel like I'd been on a great road trip with a great team, and I had to get off and watch the bus continue down the road," Marla says.

For now, she's looking forward to spending more time with her own two girls. Given her track record, another bus will likely be along soon.

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