Virginia Drosos took over the top leadership spot at Signet Jewelers Ltd. during a low point for the national retailer.

“The last few years have been challenging,” Drosos acknowledged in a recent interview.

She stepped up when Mark Light stepped down as chief executive officer for health reasons last summer after 35 years at the company. The firm has about 2,000 employees at its Akron campus.

At the time, Signet, whose brands include jewelry stores Kay, Jared and Zales, was embroiled in publicly embarrassing lawsuits and national media stories alleging gender discrimination and widespread sexual harassment at the company. Financial underperformance hurt the stock price, with the company losing more than half its value.

Also, like other retailers, Signet is dealing with changes in how customers buy goods and services.

With Light’s resignation effective on July 31, Drosos, a member of Signet’s board of directors since 2012, transitioned to CEO a day later. She’s a Georgia native with years of executive experience at other Ohio companies.

Less than a year into the Signet job, she’s dealt with unexpected, costly problems selling off the company’s credit portfolio, signed off on a key acquisition and led the company in a cultural and financial transformation.

There are signs the transformation plan already is paying off.

“Signet is far and away the market leader in what is a large and fast-growing, fragmented category,” Drosos said. “The U.S. jewelry business is over $90 billion in sales and growing 3 to 4 percent every year. We have about a 7 percent share, which is larger than any other competitor by three times.”

But market share needs to grow, she said.

Path to Brilliance

Enter the Signet Path to Brilliance announced in March.

“Path for Brilliance is a transformation plan. It’s a bold plan, named by our employees,” Drosos said. It’s not about the shine of a diamond but “to bring the shine and luster back to our company,” she said.

The plan has three key strategies, she said.

“I developed the plan through really intense listening and study of the business over my first six months as CEO,” Drosos said.

The three strategies:

• Customer first.

• Omnichannel, or smoothly integrating online shopping with bricks-and-mortar.

• Building a culture of agility and efficiency.

“The strategy is not nearly as hard as the execution and the culture,” Drosos said. “We’ve broken down all of our strategies into very clear action plans, some of which we can accomplish this year, some of which will take us a couple of years to get fully in place.”

Based on its latest financial report, Signet appears to be moving in the right direction.

The company this past week posted stronger-than-expected first-quarter results and reaffirmed its outlook for the year, including sales of $5.9 billion to $6.1 billion.

Signet’s share price soared on the news, bouncing well up from 52-week lows. Industry analysts said they like what they see so far.

“We are most encouraged by management’s deep commitment to uphold their 3-year transformation plan of ‘Signet Path to Brilliance’ to transform the business,” Oliver Chen, analyst with N.Y.-based investment firm Cowen International, wrote in a June 6 note to clients.

“We appreciate management’s dedication to improve and modernize the business in a rapidly changing jewelry industry to capture demand,” Chen said.

Engaging customers

That modernization includes adapting to how customers, particularly millennials, prefer to shop for jewelry, Drosos said.

A customer’s journey to buy a diamond engagement ring can involve seven to nine steps, she said.

“More than half the time, the journey starts online,” Drosos said. “And more than 90 percent of the time, the journey ends in-store.”

Work to create a seamless customer journey speaks to Signet’s $328  million purchase last August of longtime business partner R2Net, largely for the New York company’s innovative online shopping technology.

“I’m very proud of that acquisition. It was my first decision really as CEO of the company,” Drosos said.

Some of R2Net’s technology allows Signet to market 100,000 diamonds online through a virtual diamond vault, letting customers first see diamonds from all angles and at large magnification on computer screens. It’s in 70 Jared stores so far.

Signet technology also lets people virtually try on rings over a computer screen via a scan of their hands and fingers.

Signet is making other changes. It plans to close 200 underperforming stores this year, many in malls, while trying out new formats, Drosos said. The closures still leaveSignet with about 3,500 stores.

Embracing diversity

Drosos and Signet has been busy elsewhere.

Six of company’s 12 directors are now women, where the board had been predominantly male not too many years ago. The senior executive suite also has an increasing female presence.

Last week, Signet announced the hiring of Mary Elizabeth Finn as chief people officer. Responsibilities include fostering diversity and inclusion and leading training and development in the company. The areas of responsibility touch on issues raised in litigation against Signet.

Finn, former chief human resources officer at $6.2 billion Nielsen, reports directly to Drosos.

When Drosos was first brought onto Signets’ board of directors six years ago, the company cited her executive experience and expertise in branding, marketing, global operations and business expansions.

Drosos, who is 55, said her skill set and experience proved the perfect fit for Signet when Mark Light decided to step down.

Her background includes being president and CEO of Assurex Health, an Ohio company founded in 2006 that specializes in pharmaco­genomics, the study of the interaction of a person’s genetic makeup with medicines. Before that, she was a longtime employee at Procter & Gamble.

Building a diverse board and leadership team is about creating an environment to make great decisions, Drosos said.

“You really want diversity of experience, diversity of gender” and diversity in other areas, she said. Signet now has one of the most gender diverse boards among publicly traded companies, she said. In addition, the company lists Drosos and four other women among its top 10 senior executives.

“When you surround yourself with a diverse team, you see in all directions,” she said.

Drosos said she considers herself a continual learner and an empowering and pragmatic leader who gets inspiration from the people around her.

“I think I have the ability to set a very clear vision for the organization,” Drosos said.

“I’m really all about moving aside the barriers so we can execute excellence.”

Reporter Jim Mackinnon covers business and county government. He can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @JimMackinnonABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/JimMackinnonABJ