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March 14, 2024 8 minute READ

A Woman-Led Legacy

tags Behind the Scenes | Mast Family Favorites
locations All
Lisa Cooper at the Original Mast Store standing in front of the L.L.Bean Boot

Lisa Cooper stepped into her role as the president of the Mast General Store on September 13, 2016. The announcement was made at the company’s anniversary dinner, which honors long-time employees celebrating milestone years with the company. The move was not unexpected but could be considered a bit unusual.  

Before we share Lisa’s story, we want to pause a moment to look back at recent history. It’s important to recognize the steep climb that all women have had over the last 50 years in the workplace. The rights of women to own property or to do business by themselves was greatly limited in the 1700s. Little by little, legislative decisions provided rights for women to conduct business while their husbands were at sea or away from the business for an extended time, to exercise some oversight to property they brought to a marriage, and to have legal authority over their children.  

Women were not allowed to apply for loans or credit cards on their own until the 1960s, but some banks still refused to approve them without the signatures of their husbands until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974. Congress took additional action to open doors for women entrepreneurs in 1988 when it passed the Women’s Business Ownership Act. Today, women’s entrepreneurial spirit is continuing to grow at an astounding pace – 94.3% between 2019 and 2023 according to a Wells Fargo study.  

In the Beginning 

Lisa said her story is one that has been unfolding for almost 44 years. “When my family arrived in 1980, I was 11 years old, and I thought my parents had lost their minds,” she said with a grin. Making the move from the St. Petersburg area to the rural community of Valle Crucis, North Carolina is a little jarring for a young person.  

“The retail business has grown on me,” Lisa continued. “Seeing new items making their way to the floor and how customers react to them is exciting.” 

Through the years, Lisa has worked in almost every part of the store – from figuring out the combinations of the post office boxes in the early days to setting up the candy counter, then becoming the buyer for the graphics area to be followed by buying for the men’s department. “What is important is knowing what our guests want. While it’s not on my list of official duties as president, I still love to buy a few things in the merchandise mix.” 

John and Faye Cooper, Lisa’s parents, purchased the Original Mast Store in 1980. It had been closed for two and a half years when the Coopers re-opened it. “My parents treated our customers like they were guests in our home – because they were. We lived on the top floors of the building for the first four years that we owned the store,” shared Lisa. 

Watch and Learn 

Lisa said that she believes one of the reasons the Mast Store is so popular is its authenticity. “What was a hub of the community (referring to the Original Mast Store in Valle Crucis), is a hub of activity and community again. It’s every community’s store.”  

The Mast Store in Boone became the pattern for opening future locations – an old retail building with a good story that is large enough to combine all the departments from the Original Mast Store and Annex into one location, creaking floors, in the heart of the town, and an invitation from other business owners and the town itself to join them.  

In several of our downtown locations, some of our employees have either worked at the location before it was a Mast Store or remember having shopped there with their parents. “It brings a lot of pride for their downtown and remembering and sharing the history of the downtown is so vital to its future,” said Lisa.  

“It took me a while to understand and embrace my Dad’s thought process with the old buildings. There have been some where my first thought was that they’d be better served if they were torn down, but those buildings are so beautiful now,” explained Lisa. “It’s part of our process of crafting a store to tell its whole story.” 

The Mast Store is opportunity-driven when it comes to growth. Over the last several decades, a new “member” has been added to the Mast Store Family of Stores every four to five years. Many communities make contact each year with “the perfect building for a Mast Store,” but the one that calls to us to share its story has yet to be determined. “Growth is important to us, especially as an employee-owned company,” shared Lisa. “We have to grow to increase the value of our stock.” 

The company became family- and employee-owned in 1995. While the Mast Store offers a 401k option for employees to contribute to, John and Faye wanted to provide a little extra retirement fund that employees would “earn” just by coming to work and taking care of their guests.  

The Art of Buying by the Numbers 

Lisa has had many teachers along the way, not the least of which are her parents, but in almost every interview she mentions the impact that Dean Barnett had on her retail education.  

Dean was hired to work in the shoe department at the Original Store. He said that he had some retail experience and had worked at Ivey’s, a department store chain founded in Charlotte, NC, and was later acquired by Dillard’s. It didn’t take long to find out that Dean’s knowledge went far beyond his ability to help guests find a pair of shoes.  

“He taught us all about retail by the numbers,” said Lisa. “We learned about budgeting, open-to-buy (part of the budgeting process for buyers that controls the amount buyers can spend in different categories), turn (the number of times you sell your entire inventory over the course of 12 months), and how the retail calendar works. With his help, we got to a place where we had better inventory levels in the items that guests were looking for.” 

Dean referred to himself as “a coach” instead of a director of merchandise planning, his job title when he moved over to the home office. He helped his team learn the numbers and the art of being good buyers. 

Tests & Triumphs 

Leadership is tested from time to time. For Lisa, one of her biggest tests as president came in 2020. “The pandemic was hard because I didn’t know for sure if we would survive as a business,” she said. With the help and input of the rest of the leadership team, Lisa had to make some very difficult decisions to weather the challenging time.  

When she speaks of the pandemic, Lisa’s eyes well up with tears. It really was a dark time. But even dark clouds can have silver linings.  

“I am very proud of our efforts to save the company and to be in a position to grow,” Lisa recounted. “As hard as it was, some good came out of the pandemic. We took the opportunity to develop and put in place our best-store-fulfillment process to ship e-commerce orders in a more efficient way. And we also took action to be more financially stable just in case other challenges arise.” 

As a female business leader, Lisa is still a rarity. “Many times, I’m asked to be a speaker at a conference because I am a woman, and it’s difficult to find others that fit that bill,” she said. “It’s tough out there still. There are still a lot of men in business, but I’ve always felt accepted in the relationships that I have in the business arena."  

What’s Next 

Faye, Addison, John, and Lisa CooperLisa’s daughter, Addison, is following her own path at the store. She works as an assistant in the Marketing Department at Mast Store. “I take great pride in my (youngest) child deciding to come to work here,” said Lisa. “I have a lot of admiration for what my parents did to make the Mast Store a success. I didn’t work closely with my Mom because she was more on the financial side, but Faye handled everything with grace. She reminded me that their store hours were 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.” 

Addison chimed in, “Before I worked here, I would hear conversations about work at meals or family events, and I would tune them out. It would be interesting to rewind some of those conversations now with a different perspective. I didn’t know what it would be like to work with Mom every day. It’s neat to see how much she echoes the efforts of my grandparents with her involvement in the community.” 

“I like to say we are a business that sells stuff, so we can do good stuff,” shared Lisa. “The Mast Store focuses its giving in areas of human needs, environmental/conservation, and community forward – arts, education, etc. One of our area’s biggest challenges is affordable housing. The Mast Store is working with a group addressing the need in the High Country and has made a donation to move toward a solution. I’m glad to be a part of the group that is trying to make a difference.” 

What’s next for Lisa? “I’m checking off my bucket list!” she said. “And at the top of the list is coming to work every day with an amazing group of people that I like spending time with.” 

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