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The Secret Behind the Sexy

Meet Sharen Jester Turney, the small-town farm girl now running lingerie empire Victoria's Secret

By
From the The Secret Behind the Sexy issue of Capital Style

The pint-sized towhead was only 3 years old when she started hauling hay into troughs on an Oklahoma farm. Sharen Jester Turney later graduated to plowing land on the tractor. And eventually, her father-a ranch foreman who also raised Black Angus cattle and peanuts on his own property-even had his daughter moving irrigation pipes.

Then, when she finished her outside chores, the energetic girl helped her mother, a full-time teacher, care for her younger siblings, including a brother born with brain damage.

When the honor-roll student finished high school, she headed to the University of Oklahoma to become a teacher-because that, she assumed, is what women did. But an otherwise-typical job fair changed the course of her life. Turney accepted a position with a department store, found her passion and slowly climbed the retail ranks.

Now 54, Turney is still a tiny, vivacious blond with a relentless work ethic and tender twang, but she's no longer feeding Freckles the horse: She's the ruler of the world's most popular lingerie empire, the queen of an annual fashion show dubbed the sexiest night on TV, the executive who lures our husbands into her stores and then makes them blush amid a sea of sumptuous satin and lace.

Turney is the CEO of Columbus-based Victoria's Secret-the woman who has been boss to both Heidi Klum and Gisele, and is ranked third on Fortune magazine's "25 highest-paid women" list. She globe-trots often, hop-scotching from Asia to Europe to oversee production facilities. She owns three homes-one in New Albany, another alongside New York City's Central Park and a third in Florida. She favors Dolce & Gabbana suits and mingles with celebrities.

But she still wears a cross around her neck. She dotes on her husband-a fellow small-town Oklahoman to whom she's been married for 20 years-and her son, Matthew, a 16-year-old whose childhood sketches decorate her office. And she swears that on a recent trip home to Oklahoma, she found a pair of shorts at Wal-Mart.

"She's just a sweetheart just a really good person to her core," said her husband, Charles, whose southern drawl is equally as charming as his wife's. "I guess she rubs shoulders with corporate CEOs and celebrities and fashion icons, but

I'm just proud of the fact that she treats everybody the same-with a smile, and warm, and friendly, with a disarmingly genuine manner."

Others sing similar praises. She's clearly brilliant, they say, but just so doggone cool, too.

"Sharen's one of these people who has so many friends, because she's more interested in them than she is in trying to get them interested in her," said longtime friend Patty Smith. "She's like a pied piper. She sets this little tune. Sharen's just a magnet."

The first time Turney truly traveled was as part of her college dance team. (On her first trip to Columbus, she watched her Sooners defeat the Buckeyes in dramatic fashion: "Von Schuman-he was the kicker-kicked a field goal in the last two seconds," she easily recalled, smiling.)

Though she enjoyed seeing the country, she planned to return home to Ardmore. But as she finished her business education degree, she stopped by a job fair and walked booth to booth, interviewing at them all. (An auditor asked her if she even knew what an auditor did. "No," she replied, "but I'm sure I can figure it out.") Clearly, the plucky cheerleader and camp counselor made an impression: Foley's, a department store in Houston, offered her a buying position.

"She thought she'd be there for a summer, then go back to Ardmore and teach business classes," said longtime friend Smith. "(But) she fell in love with it, and they with her."

Foley's quickly sent her on her first trip to Europe, and when they did, she invited along her younger sister Debbie McNamara. They took photos of themselves imitating statues and got flashed in Hyde Park. "It was hysterical," Turney recalled. "We had a lot of fun." More than that, though, it assured that one thing hadn't-and wouldn't-change: Turney's generosity, and her tight ties with those she loves.

"She is thoughtful and giving and always has been," said McNamara, who now lives near Chicago. "She just really understands the importance of family."

Turney rearranged travel plans to be at her sister's side when she delivered both children, and she did the same to be with their father when he was ill.

Patty Smith said she even did it for her daughter. When Katie was turning 5, Turney was in France when she found a particular doll the girl wanted. She flew home early-on a red-eye flight-to get to Katie's birthday party. "She just knew how much Katie loved that," Smith said. "She always makes you feel that you are not only part of her life, but very important in her life."    

Turney often takes her husband and son on trips or to events when possible. They typically join her for a week in Europe each summer. They've sat on the 50-yard-line with supermodels at the Super Bowl. And last year, they mingled backstage before the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.

"For a couple of red-blooded boys, that's a pretty good event to go to," Charles said, laughing. "My friends and Matthew's friends hate us."

But the gestures are a testament to who his wife is, he said: "She's very inclusive." Matthew even rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange a few years back. But he's almost shy about the glitz. Yes, the Columbus Academy junior very much appreciates that his mother has scored him a few jaw-droppingly cool photo internships. (He doesn't tell anyone, his mother said, that models text him and call him on his birthday, "because he's a humble human being, and I so appreciate that about him.") But when it comes down to it, he just loves the mom who makes cookies when his friends stop by.

"When she's home, she's just mom," Matthew said. "The thing that I've always appreciated the most is how, with such a time-consuming job, she always still puts us first."

Turney, of course, is not a typical mom.

Traveling has been an accepted-and enjoyable-part of her life since that first trip abroad, as she worked her way from Foley's to Byer California to Federated Department Stores to Neiman Marcus and eventually to Victoria's Secret.

In her own estimation, her time is split into thirds: a third overseas, a third in New York or around the country, and a third in Columbus.

"Sharen goes to Paris like other people go to the lake," Charles said. "For us, it's just a normal part of the deal."

When Matthew was born, Turney said, there was a time she thought she just couldn't leave anymore. But they developed a system early on that worked for them both: If she wasn't coming home that night, Turney would leave through the front door so Matthew understood it was a longer goodbye. When she returned from trips, she'd enter through the front door, too, kiss him from head to toe, give him whatever exotic gift she bought and take him to the park. The guilt of being away, she said, remains the most difficult aspect of her career.

At the beginning of each year, she puts her son's school and athletics schedule on her calendar first, and instructs her team to work around it. In elementary school, for example, Matthew was into acting. "I did 20 plays. She never missed one of those," he said. "I remember one, she was 10 minutes late because she flew home from New York. For any mom to never miss anything is incredible."

Charles, a CPA and investment advisor by trade, works out of a home office so he can be available for Matthew. "The benefit for me is that unlike a lot of fathers, I've been able to be home with my son and participate," he said.

He and his son accept Turney's travels-and enjoy them when they can. "Sharen has friends all over the world," Charles said. "I think the biggest benefit is for Matthew. He has a real understanding that it's a big world out there."

It's a big business world, too, and Turney is conquering it.

Victoria's Secret hired her in 2000 as president and CEO of Victoria's Secret Direct, the brand's catalogue and e-commerce arm. She drove sales to the $1 billion milestone, and in 2006, was named CEO of the whole company. Since she took over, sales have grown nearly $1 billion, from $4.5 to $5.5 billion. Victoria's Secret just opened its first international storefronts-four in Canada-and will open another in London in 2012.

Turney wanted ample time to study and learn before launching storefronts outside the country (there are 1,040 in the United States). Too many American companies forget how different business is internationally, she said. Victoria's Secret is a powerful brand that receives online and catalogue orders from more than 160 countries, so expectations are high.

"I'm very excited about it, because part of me knows it's going to be a tremendous success," she said. "But part of me knows we don't know what we don't know."

Cheryl Krueger, the founder of Cheryl & Co. who now runs a strategic consulting company, said she is "amazed" at Turney's abilities. "She has a very keen business sense about her, and yet she has a wonderful personal side about her as well," Krueger said. "She knows how to be demanding, yet she also knows how to be caring."

Turney credits her success to a few things, including pure tenacity, curiosity and fear of failure.

Occasionally, she'll escape the stress by reading on the beach. And every morning, she takes any frustrations out on tennis balls, in the hopes of someday beating her son ("He's wicked," she said).

"I do believe you have to get away sometimes," she said, "to get a fresh perspective."

Patty Smith had planned an extravagant going-away party for her friend.

Turney was leaving Dallas for Columbus to work at Victoria's Secret, and Smith wanted to send her off in style. But, Turney told her, "That's not what I want." Instead, she suggested that they and their husbands-just the four of them-visit all their favorite dinner spots three nights a week for a month. "I," Turney said, "want that memory." They enjoyed everything from French cuisine to burgers. "We had a marvelous month," Smith said.

Indeed, Charles Turney acknowledged, he and his wife partake in their share of social soirees. But they're most content at home, cooking for a few friends, watching old movies or playing Trivial Pursuit (he only beats her, she animatedly noted, because he knows sports trivia).

"Sharen's an easy person to love," Charles said. "Sometimes we sit back and kind of pinch ourselves and go, 'Wow, this has been a fun ride. Who knew?' "

Turney's sister finds it equally as surreal.

"I've seen her interviewed on TV; I see her in magazines," said McNamara. Yet she also sees her at family holiday gatherings playing hide-and-seek with the children and teaching the girls cheers. "I always want to know, 'Who have you seen? Who have you talked to?' It is very interesting. But it is sometimes crazy that that is who she is."

Turney hopes she is using her position for good.

Aside from company giving, Turney herself financially adopted two girls in Sri Lanka who were left parentless after the tsunami. She pays for them to attend school, buys them clothes and puts money into a savings account for their futures.

She has visited them six times and tries to write them at least once a month.

She also has served on several boards, including those of the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence and Columbus Academy.

"I've been very fortunate in my life," Turney said. "I came from meager beginnings. I want to be able to give back."

Turney's mother died of cancer in her 40s, but despite her life's hardships, she never was bitter. She inspires Turney still. Her father also passed-but not before getting to watch his daughter blossom.

"My mom is looking down from heaven appreciating Sharen's successes, but didn't necessarily get to see everything my dad did," Turney's sister said. "But my dad was extremely proud of her."

And certainly, he was most proud of the same thing the rest of the family admires.

Yes, they say, Sharen Jester Turney's experiences have changed.

But she, they promise, has not.