Greeting change: How Hallmark Labs' SVP helps drive meaningful solutions
Ask Albert Lai, Hallmark Labs’ senior vice president and general manager, what he likes about working for the famous greeting card brand, and he’ll gladly explain that the company passes the “mom test.”
“If I can easily describe what we do to my mom and it helps make her life better, then it passes the mom test,” Albert says. “I’ve worked at several companies where we did technically interesting and professionally challenging work, but it doesn’t make for an interesting Thanksgiving dinner conversation.”
As the leader of Hallmark’s digital arm, Hallmark Labs, Lai can spend family dinners describing how he helps integrate the company’s consumer-facing experiences — such as e-cards and those addictive holiday rom-coms — in a meaningful manner using technology.
WHAT THEY DO: As Hallmark Cards’ center for technology and innovation, Hallmark Labs is the driving force behind Hallmark e-cards, Hallmark Movies Now and other direct-to-consumer digital products and services.
WHERE THEY DO IT: Santa Monica
NOTABLE PERKS: Beachside office, massage chairs, bicycles, soft serve and a sparkling water robot
IDEAL CANDIDATE: “The ideal candidate — no matter their years of experience and previous employers — wants to learn, contribute, and succeed,” Albert says. Candidates also use their problem-solving skills to take action when things get ambiguous.
Albert Lai, Senior Vice President and General Manager
Albert oversees Hallmark Labs, integrating digital technology with Hallmark’s existing portfolio of products and services and creating more innovative digital, retail and consumer experiences.
BEYOND WORK: Albert enjoys traveling abroad and across the U.S. He is especially fascinated by how technology can help or hurt a situation — such as changing a hotel or flight reservation — and how information and data plays a role in decision-making while traveling.
What initially drew you to Hallmark Labs?
At first glance, I didn’t fully understand the opportunity because I associated the brand with greeting cards. But, as I casually asked friends and family what they thought of Hallmark from a consumer perspective, the feedback was surprising. They recognized Hallmark as it related to greeting cards, but the other Hallmark touch points were equally strong.
For example, a colleague of mine mentioned that his wife wouldn’t let him switch from cable to a virtual multichannel video programming distributor unless it carried Hallmark Channel. My wife pointed out the number of Hallmark ornaments and keepsakes her mother has given her over the years. Then, after meeting with company leaders Don and Dave Hall and many others, I realized how digital could be a transformative complement to Hallmark’s portfolio of traditional retail, merchandise and entertainment products and services.
What was your biggest fear when you started? How did you overcome it?
As a new leader coming from outside the industry in an established company, there’s an expectation that you have to make big changes to underscore that you’re in charge. I’ve been in situations where new leadership came in with the explicit goal to execute change for the sake of change, to break old habits — both good ones and bad ones — and to upend the organization for the sake of process over people. To me, that type of situation creates uneasiness and distrust, dissolving culture instead of strengthening it.
It turned out I didn’t need to fear facing this expectation. Very quickly it was evident that I had the trust and support of fellow executive leaders and that my role was to elicit and execute the appropriate changes in a meaningful manner.
How has Hallmark Labs evolved since you joined?
The context of Hallmark Labs has evolved quite a bit, from when it was an independent company to the initial acquisition by Hallmark to a more integrated division in the last several years. We’re like a tween or early teenager, in that we’re still figuring out what we want to do, what we do well, and what we need to improve. We have some blemishes and our clothes don’t always fit right because we’re going through growth spurts, but we’re starting to get some rhythm and muscle memory from our previous successes. And most importantly, we’re beginning to define our identity. Yes, we’re part of Hallmark and will hold ourselves to those values and vision, but we’re Hallmark Labs and we have to make our own imprint.
What kind of imprint are you planning to make?
Beyond establishing our cultural identity, we are focused on execution over the next 12 months. Like an athlete, we can measure ourselves in baseline metrics: How fast can we run? How high can we jump? How much weight can we lift? But we need to evolve into the elite athlete: How does diet affect performance? How do different training regimens impact performance and recovery? For Hallmark Labs, we need to improve our capabilities to execute our technical and creative strategies, but we also need to adopt the appropriate processes and tools that enable us to be more efficient at being successful.
Where do you see Hallmark Labs in one year? In five?
Like a duck, we look graceful on the water, but underneath, we’re paddling furiously to operate our existing products and services and to launch a number of new ones. When I told an ex-colleague that I was joining Hallmark and focusing on digital, she responded, “I’m a huge fan of Hallmark and Hallmark Channel — but I didn’t think they did digital.” Well, in five years, that perception will change. That journey has already started, and at Hallmark Labs, we focus on that goal every day.
Very quickly it was evident that I had the trust and support of fellow executive leaders and that my role was to elicit and execute the appropriate changes in a meaningful manner.”
What are your goals for your team?
I want to elevate the team professionally while maintaining a healthy and balanced work-home relationship. For everyone at the company, I want to challenge them to be better professionals and make them feel they are learning and contributing every day, but they should also feel proud that their investment of time, effort and intellect helps millions of consumers live a more meaningful and connected life.
And as a leader, I want to help my colleagues navigate challenges with confidence and the acceptance that success — and failure — will be frequent, but both help move us forward to the common vision.