November 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Inside job

A young manager who always thought like a CEO now is the CEO at e-retailer Backcountry.com.

Employees at Backcountry.com's headquarters in Park City, Utah, can always tell when the e-retailer's newly minted CEO, Jill Layfield, is on her way, says co-founder Jim Holland. "She's the one always walking at a faster pace than anyone else," he says.

Layfield's pace matches Backcountry.com's growth. The e-retailer, which was acquired by Liberty Media Corp. (now Liberty Interactive Corp.) in 2007, has 700 employees, ten times the headcount when Layfield casually responded to a job opening posted on Craigslist in 2004. She was living in the San Francisco Bay area and loving her job as a marketer at photo-service e-retailer Shutterfly Inc. when she happened across Backcountry.com's listing for a director of customer marketing. The fantasy of life in a ski town made Layfield, a lifelong outdoorswoman, shoot off her resume, more as a lark than anything else, she says.

"To be able to ski and mountain bike and climb and do e-commerce at the same time—I thought, 'I can't ignore that' —and literally attached my resume with a one-paragraph e-mail," she says. She got the job, and, after years of learning the ins and outs of the business in a variety of roles, the 36-year-old in February landed a new position: CEO. "Really, who would've thought it'd work out like this?" she says.

Backcountry's decision to elevate a young executive rather than search for a more experienced leader externally makes sense for a company not in need of a major course correction, says Jim Okamura, a retail consultant. "If a retailer is sticking to its knitting and aims to do what it's been doing and do it better, then that internal hire makes a world of difference," Okamura says. "They probably live that brand." However, Amish Jani, managing director at FirstMark Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in e-commerce businesses, says it's a bit unusual for Internet companies to promote a CEO from within because those companies are often relatively new and rarely have spent a lot of time on succession planning.

But Holland says he and co-founder John Bresee never looked at external candidates when they decided to step back from day-to-day management because they knew Layfield could lead Backcountry.com, based on her track record. "Backcountry.com is a good-sized organization with a lot of moving parts and web sites, and the only way you can succeed at this level is to have super-smart people that are passionate and engaged in what they do, give them goals and hope it works out," he says. "I felt that Jill, as an inside candidate, had far greater odds at succeeding and understanding the business because she knows the organization from the inside out and connects with people in the organization."

Layfield's enthusiasm and passion for her job distinguished her from her first day at Backcountry.com, Holland says. Her primary job responsibility then was to drive site traffic, which she got down to doing after she completed her first task as an employee, putting her own desk chair together. "It was a very scrappy environment, and still is," she says. It took some getting used to after having worked in more structured workplaces like Cisco Systems Inc., where she managed marketing programs early in her career, but she quickly acclimatized and shed the near-regulation khakis-and-polo uniform of Silicon Valley for the more laid-back ski vest-and-jeans look of Park City.

Layfield credits that first traffic-generating role at Backcountry for raising her profile within the company. "Since we were focused on acquiring and retaining customers to grow the company, it was a pretty critical role and there was a lot of visibility into the impact I was having. It helped me gain the trust and respect of our two founders," she says. The average number of monthly unique visitors to Backcountry.com grew 32% from approximately 309,000 in 2003 before Layfield joined the e-retailer, to 408,000 in 2006, just before the e-retailer's acquisition by Liberty Media.

After four years in the marketing job and with traffic flowing to the site through the systems she helped put in place, Layfield turned her attention to improving the site itself, so that it could convert more visitors to buyers. Coming from Shutterfly.com, which, she says, put a big emphasis on refining the on-site experience, she recognized that this was Backcountry.com's next big challenge.

She pitched her thoughts about where the site needed to go and how it could get there to founders Holland and Bresee and proposed hiring a new employee to manage the job. After a search turned up no one, the co-founders turned to Layfield and asked her to do it. It was not what she was used to doing, she says, "but how could I say this is important and then not do it?"

Holland says that even though Layfield wasn't angling for the job when she pitched it, her approach to identifying a problem and proposing a solution was exactly right. "Some people bring problems to you because you are the boss and say, 'What are we going to do about this?' Others come to you and say, 'I think we should do this because we have this problem,'" he says. That's how CEOs think, and Holland says, "Jill has always been like that."

Getting to know you

Named vice president of product management early in 2009, Layfield spent the next 15 months turning then-CEO Bresee's content ideas into reality, adding community features that encourage consumers to share photos and videos of their outdoor adventures and ask questions about products. She says Bresee had the vision, and it was her job to convert that vision into concrete steps that would bring value to Backcountry.com's customers. "I owned the roadmap from the front end to the back end at that time," she says. That put her in contact with people in a wide variety of roles within Backcountry, from buyers to customer service to distribution.

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