The path to career success is not always linear. Kathy Madigan can attest to that. Today, Madigan is flourishing as vice president and assistant general counsel at Ulta Beauty, the nation’s largest beauty retailer. But finding a dynamic team and ascending to a leadership position required her to take a few carefully planned risks.
In fact, Madigan embraced what many would consider lateral moves to ensure her career was robust and allowed her to develop the necessary skills to achieve her ultimate goal. “I continued steadily advancing over the years, but sometimes there were not opportunities to jump to the next level, so I prioritized moves that ensured I was growing as a legal professional, honing skills in certain areas by taking on slightly different roles,” she says.
It’s an all too familiar internal dialogue for any corporate lawyer. The Chicago native and Loyola University School of Law graduate excelled in tax and real estate law and knew early on she wanted to go in-house. While working as part of an internal team brings certain advantages, including a deeper understanding of the business and collaboratively working across the organization, it’s important to note that legal degrees are increasingly valuable in the modern corporate setting and advancement opportunities can be limited at times.
Prior to joining Ulta Beauty, Madigan spent the majority of her career at McDonald’s. As managing counsel and senior director, she led the asset management and new restaurant development practice groups. In addition, she took on general counsel responsibilities for the operating company, served as regional counsel over operations in Latin America, and supported the US sustainability team.
By raising her hand, Madigan sustained her professional momentum and continued to diversify her skillset. “It’s important to keep growing, and that responsibility falls to each of us,” she says. “Extra assignments, beyond the scope of your everyday responsibilities, help in-house lawyers understand the business more granularly. Seizing every opportunity that comes your way elevates your strategic leadership and abilities.”
In 2019, Madigan came to Ulta Beauty to lead its real estate practice at an important time for the retailer. With more than 1,300 stores across all 50 states today (and adding 50 more stores in 2022), Madigan supports the company’s growing portfolio with necessary leadership as the demand for legal services increases. She does that with agility, a drive to automate manual processes, create efficiencies, and by partnering with a network of strong regional firms to provide local expertise, where necessary.
Although Ulta Beauty is a large company, its in-house legal team is relatively small. Madigan works with two other attorneys, one paralegal, an executive administrative assistant; and an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) senior manager. She expertly identifies opportunities for professional development by individual and consistently promotes continuous learning.
Creating Ulta Beauty’s first ESG report, alongside General Counsel Jodi Caro, brought some of those opportunities to life for Madigan and her team, who assisted with the major initiative in concert with company leadership and subject matter experts.
Ulta Beauty’s ESG work focuses on “leaving a positive legacy” and comes to life across four, key pillars: People, Product, Community, and Environment. “People” represents how the retailer works to ensure all associates and guests feel as though they belong at Ulta Beauty. “Product” reflects how the company empowers guests to make informed choices across its unparalleled assortment, especially highlighting Conscious Beauty at Ulta BeautyTM. “Community” underscores Ulta Beauty’s philanthropic efforts, and “Environment” defines how Ulta Beauty will reduce energy consumption and minimize its impact on the world.
Shortly after issuing the 2020 report, Madigan and others began fielding feedback to build upon its foundation, which resulted in more data, disclosures, and governance information in addition to specific commitments and goals in the 2021 version. Early success indicators include the company’s commitment to have all packaging sold at Ulta Beauty be recyclable, refillable, or made from recycled or bio-sourced materials by 2025. In 2022, the company doubled its diversity, equity, and inclusion investment to total a $50 million investment, and it committed to setting an emissions reduction target in accordance with the terms of the Science Based Targets initiative.
As Ulta Beauty moves forward, Madigan and her team are managing various legal issues spanning retail, ESG and key partnerships. The company saw record profits in the final quarter of 2021 and sustained momentum into 2022 as annual sales spiked 40 percent to $8.6 billion. This accelerated growth is only amplified by the disruptive Ulta Beauty at Target partnership, which brings yet another touchpoint for beauty enthusiasts to discover. Together, the companies plan to roll out 250 more locations this year.
While ecommerce is strong, the value of human connections in-store remains critical to the beauty and retail categories. Reflecting on her own beauty shopping experience, Kathy recalls feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of brands in higher-end department stores. She had a vastly different experience at Ulta Beauty as the associate created an authentic and personalized experience. Today, Madigan takes great pride in having a hand in others having similar experiences.
“At Ulta Beauty, we unlock beautiful possibilities rooted in human connections,” she says. “Our teams are dynamic, agile, and driven to create and nurture meaningful engagement.”
Outside of her role, Madigan serves as a board member at Bridge Communities, where she helps connect those experiencing homelessness in DuPage County to support services. She also mentors junior lawyers and law students and vows to share openly and transparently with the next generation of leaders.
“I tell them about the choices I made throughout my journey, and the impact that created, personally and professionally,” she says. “I remind them to trust their instincts, remain curious, and always continue learning. I live by that and hope it inspires others to keep growing, as well.”
Parker Hudson, Bartko Zankel Bunzel, Brown Rudnick and Smith Robertson are grateful for the opportunity to serve as outside counsel to help Kathy and her team ensure the possibilities are beautiful every day.