Known for his impeccable eye for detail, Country Road’s National Visual Merchandising Manager, Mark O’Halloran, began his career in dance, followed that with interior design and then ended up in visual merchandising. Here, he discusses the unusual path he took to his position and his advice on getting into the retail industry.
Photography by Daniel Gurton.
Could you describe the path that led you to where you are now?
My career path is quite a varied one and probably doesn’t follow the normal route of someone in my type of position. Straight after high school I studied musical theatre at a dance colleague in South Melbourne, then spent the next eight years working as a professional dancer. I was really very lucky; I was young and being paid to travel the world and do what I loved for a living. I eventually went back to study and completed an interior design course. I worked and managed a showroom designing kitchens and bathrooms for a few years before I was offered the opportunity to take on a position as a colour consultant for Australia’s second largest tile retailer. I came across the position at Country Road quite by chance, reading the position description I could see how my experience, while not directly in Visual Merchandising, could be applied to this roll. I had a creative eye, came from a retail background and had managed large teams across multiple sites. Lucky for me the employing manager thought the same and here I am.
My typical work day looks like:
The only thing typical about my work day is that it’s not typical at all. Most days require the reviewing and replying to lots of email and phone calls. Aside from that pretty much anything can be happening. We might be installing a Kombi Van into Myer for Christmas, setting up a new store in any given state across Australia or New Zealand, launching a new range month, product line or setting up for an event, on top of regular store maintenance and window dressing. Like any other retail based position, Visual Merchandising has to be both reactive and proactive. We need to respond quickly to what our customers tell us and always try to anticipate what they want next. It’s a very fast paced and exciting industry to be a part of.
Could you describe the process of developing a national visual merchandising plan?
Well my position centres mainly on the process, procedure and implementation of the direction that comes from the Head Office Creative Team. So my approach has been very much driven by improving our processes, efficiencies and the standard of the implementation across Australia and New Zealand. My team of managers and I have put in a lot of work to improve the way we do things and to make sure there is a consistent standard across all channels of the business as to how the Country Road brand is represented to our customer and the greater public.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The people, and not just my team but the teams throughout the business, from retail to store design to the product design teams, they are all extremely talented, dedicated and most importantly friendly people. I must say however that my team are amazing to work with; they are very talented at what they do, and operate with a level of professionalism and integrity that impresses me all the time. They are also very funny. There are two of my managers in particular that keep me laughing on a daily basis. I can always trust that no matter how much pressure we are under to achieve a deadline they will lighten the mood and put a smile on my face.
What are the most challenging aspects of your role?
Keeping up with the fast pace of retail, it’s constantly changing and evolving and we need to be one step ahead at all times. What worked on Monday may not be working Tuesday so we need to respond quickly to make sure our retail teams are supported, the business stays competitive and the brand is front of mind with our customers.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Some weeks you don’t, but I do try most weeks. I find going to the gym in the morning helps wake me up and sets the rhythm for the day, nothing like exercise first thing in the morning to get your brain functioning. I do still do the odd dance class here and there; it’s not as easy as it was though 15 years ago. Weekends are usually spent with friends and my partner and try at all costs to avoid going into a shopping centre!
Do you have any advice you wish to impart to someone wanting to get into your industry?
If you are looking to get into the industry there are plenty of courses available that focus on Visual Merchandising. Our department head Clarissa Ball has developed a long standing relationship with RMIT, with whom we have a graduate program where the Victorian team take on a number of interns each year for a work experience program.
If you are not able to study there are still avenues to explore. My teams in Australia employ casuals each season rollout to assist with setting up the stores and the windows, visit a store and ask for the VM Manger contact details in your state. There are also opportunities in retail; the retail teams provide VM with a huge amount of support when it comes to the day to day maintenance of the store and product launches each month.