CMO ClubHouse Conversations with Sharon Buntain

We chatted with Sharon Buntain about how luxury brands can make a difference, the importance of world travel, and where hope can still be found.

Sharon Buntain is the Chief Strategy Officer and Head of Global Partnerships at A.T. Cross Company. She has had a long and distinguished career with such marquee luxury brands as Montblanc, Gucci, Swatch, and Links of London, just to name a few. At the ripe old age of twenty-four, she became de-facto CEO of FIT, (French Industry & Technology,) an international start-up, and was later named CEO of Lalique, a French luxury brand. Sharon raised two sons, loves to cook, and is an avid world traveler. She currently lives in Hoboken, NJ, and on the Jersey Shore.

CMO Club — Welcome. Can you tell us a little about your parents and where you grew up?    

Sharon Buntain — “I’m only second-generation American. All four of my grandparents came through Ellis Island. Polish on one side, Irish on the other. They met when they both were 13 years old, and fell in love immediately. He graduated two years early from school, learned Italian in a two-year program, and went to work in Italy as a translator. He wrote my mom love letters every day until he came back to marry her.  They both eventually wound up working at Penn State University. And that’s where I grew up.” 

CMO Club — What was that like?

Sharon Buntain — “It was pretty cool. I didn’t realize how cool until I left. Normally, central Pennsylvania is very rural, but at the university, there were 30,000 in the student body and 30,000 more in town. What we had was a very international community in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. My best girlfriend was Indian. All of our language teachers were native speakers, so I came out of high school bilingual. I took all of these immersion language classes, no English was spoken, which I failed the first semester since I didn’t understand what they were asking for in homework assignments. Many left the program, but those that stayed, including me, learned the language.” 

CMO Club — What kind of kid were you?

Sharon Buntain — “I was a very friendly kid. I’m a people person and I’ve always been. My mother and Father were completely different personalities. Mom was Irish, super gregarious. My father was very kind, soft-spoken, and smart as a whip. He kept her feet on the ground. I was influenced by both of them, but I was closer to my father. I only recently lost him at 90 years old. My mom is still going strong at 93, still driving and taking care of herself. I wanted to be a ballerina when I was younger. As I got older I gravitated to the languages that surrounded me. I took immersion French because the school didn’t offer immersion Italian. I didn’t really know what profession I wanted to pursue, but I knew I wanted to do something where I could use my language skills and allow me to travel internationally.”

CMO Club — How did that work out?

Sharon Buntain — “I did two years at the university and, that was the time after Papa Doc Duvalier that Haiti was a mess, right after Baby Doc Duvalier, a total disaster. I left school much to my parent’s severe dismay, to go work full-time for a relief group for Haitians. I never went back to University. Instead, I met two French gentlemen, one had an accounting firm, the other a law firm. They had come to volunteer for a short period. They approached me about clients they had who wanted to come to the United States to live and do business, but they had no contacts to send them to once they were there. They proposed that the three of us form a company. I was to be based in the U.S., and they would send their business clients to me to get settled in and I would work on a business plan for them to get started. I was like, “Shoot, that sounds like fun!” 

CMO Club — How old were you at the time?

Sharon Buntain — “I was 24. I said OK, and so we did it. They had their clients come over from French industries like fragrance, lingerie, and wine, mostly luxury sectors, and I would do a business plan, learn about their products, budget costs for the first term. The finance guy would approve the plan or make adjustments, the legal guy would put it in a contract, and we’d sign these people up for a monthly fee. The idea was that if we hit the target, I would get a ten percent equity share in their U.S. company. It wasn’t my idea, but it was a great idea. I quickly learned how differently you behave when you have an equity share.” (laughter)

CMO Club — Wow, I would imagine. What became of that company?

Sharon Buntain — “Eventually, the two partners had a falling out. We wound up selling the company, and one of my client companies took me on as their CEO. From my first job on, I’ve been a CEO. I know that sounds pretty weird, but it’s true. I went on to Fragrance, always with an equity position. Their goal was to go public on the London and Paris Stock Exchange, which we did. I represented here in the Americas about one-third of their businesses. I started their manufacturing in both Mexico, Brazil, and on Long Island. We bought numerous companies, keeping the owners on as COOs. It all worked very well.”

CMO Club — What in your background do you think prepared you for all of that at such a young age?

Sharon Buntain — “It was my dad. He was a businessman. Because I was the only kid in the house, dinner conversations were a little bit about me, and a little about mom, and a lot about his business life. I heard those conversations in a much more adult setting than you normally would because there weren’t other little kids at the table. That’s where it all started.”

CMO Club — You’ve put together many teams over the years in your career. What’s would you tell young marketers is the most important thing they need to understand to be successful?

Sharon Buntain — “Curiosity is the biggest quality they need to have.” 

CMO Club — What do you think you are most proud of achieving in your career?

Sharon Buntain — “I think about that now and then. I have mentored a lot of people over the years. My proudest accomplishment is having helped a lot of people, men, and women, in the beginning stages of their career, all through their careers, and then stayed in touch with them, sort of like a “Business Aunt,” if you will. (laughter) I’m very proud of that. Many of them have gone on to wonderful careers. Another thing I’m very proud of is the way I raised my sons. I’ve traveled all over the world since they were little. We never made a big deal of Christmas, with presents and all of that. Instead, we’d travel over the Christmas break. I’ve spoken only French to them since the beginning. Spoke no English at home, since they could learn English automatically just from being here. I decided also that they were going to see ten countries by the time they were ten, twenty countries by the time they’re twenty, and thirty by the time they were thirty. And that’s what we did.”

CMO Club — Wow. What made that so important to you?

Sharon Buntain — “To get our heads out of suburban America. It would be a different world if young people were required to do just that. It’s a very humbling experience when you travel, especially in third-world countries. Right now, in the context that we have, they both have become very expressive about having that understanding of other cultures and how similar we really are. Even traveling in our own country, we’d go to places like Alabama to see how other areas worked and lived. I think if you ask them, they would say it gave them a greater understanding of human beings and what’s important, and have become better people for it.”

CMO Club — In sticking with that vein of the greater importance of the human condition, especially now, how do you feel about corporations having a greater responsibility in society for the greater good? I mean, you don’t often associate luxury brands and goods like fancy pens, jewelry, and perfume as items that are important to people right now. How do you think those brands can help in pushing the envelope forward? 

Sharon Buntain — “There’s always a corporate responsibility to the greater good. Not only in times like these but always.”

CMO Club — Even for luxury brands like yours?

Sharon Buntain — “Especially for luxury brands. We have lovely margins compared to others, and names that carry clout in some circles. I think luxury brands can and should be a role model. Jewelry, timepieces, and writing instruments are legacy items. They are items that you’re not going to buy and throw away next year. Sometimes these items increase in value, and items that you can hand down from generation to generation. That’s important. These companies can also help by flat-out contributing, or having mentorship programs for the next generation. Sometimes these companies might hire people without the educational profile you need, but have the personality you want. So many creative ways to help. Sometimes efforts can backfire and be perceived as pure marketing, so companies have to stay genuine to who they are.”

CMO Club — I was going to say that to the novice eye some of the “feel good” marketing efforts just feel phony and gratuitous, some seem forced, and some seem genuine. How does a marketer like yourself know when it’s right?

Sharon Buntain — “Everyone wants to get their message out right now. Some do it clumsily, others hit the mark. I think more important is what a company does internally. That’s what matters most. It can be as simple as the hiring process, a fair hiring process. That would be good for morale. If you have a list of ten things that a candidate has, and a certain candidate only has five or six but is curious and intelligent, let’s give her a chance. Let’s assign mentors that give those folks a fighting chance. It can be a simple as an employee mentality.  That can hopefully change attitudes in the long term.”

CMO Club — Anything your passionate about outside of work?

Sharon Buntain — “I have an amazing group of international friends who get together whenever we can, now mostly virtually. I also love to cook. When you cook, you’re doing something practical, you’re being creative, and you’re giving.  I love that.” 

CMO Club — Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know about you?

Sharon Buntain — “A long time ago, when I was working with Haitian families, I went to JFK to pick up children for a couple who was finally ready to welcome all three of their kids here after their grandmother had taken care of them in Haiti for many years.  We built two triple bunk beds in the little room of their apartment and, since they were both working, I went to pick the kids up, taking the five-year-old that had been born here with me. The three kids, who were six, eight, and nine-years-old came off the plane escorted by the flight attendant who saw our sign and brought them over to us. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that those 3 skinny older kids were just about the same height as the well-fed five-year-old who had grown up here. That image always reminds me of how even the underprivileged here are better off than many elsewhere. That’s stuck with me.” 

CMO Club — What gets you angry?

Sharon Buntain — “I get impatient with certain things. A sense of entitlement would be one of those things, especially right now.” 

CMO Club — On the flip side, what gives you the most joy? 

Sharon Buntain — “Family. It’s truly my greatest accomplishment. It’s a pretty big deal, taking a helpless, brand-new human who doesn’t know anything and raising them to have kindness and work ethic and sensibilities, that’s you, that’s your job as a parent. My heart is very full on that front.”

CMO Club — Can you tell us about your relationship with The CMO Club, and what that’s meant to you?

Sharon Buntain —Pete Krainik introduced me to the club back when he was launching it.  I loved the concept but didn’t have time to truly engage as an effective contributor and participant.  I’ve attended a few events over the years and very much enjoy the passion and open, sharing culture that’s been created and expanded to a global community. I am a firm believer that collective intelligence is a valuable asset. I look forward to learning from other CMOs while sharing my experiences.  Two initiatives related to my current role as Chief Strategy Officer and Head of Global Partnerships at A.T.Cross/Sheaffer, are new licensing partnerships and business gift opportunities for all regions.” 

CMO Club — Last question. With all the craziness happening around us right now, do you have any words of hope to share? 

Sharon Buntain — “What gives me hope is the current generation. They’re watching a movie right now that could generate all kinds of new and creative ways to systematize humanity in this country, which has been sorely lacking on many fronts. That’s where the hope is.”