SoHE’s 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award winner rose through the retail ranks, spurred by her studies at UW–Madison.
This article is part of a short series profiling the four winners of the School of Human Ecology’s 2019 Alumni Awards. View all the winners in this earlier article, and see their individual profiles week by week in our news & events newsletter. Then, be sure to join us in honoring them—and connecting with SoHE friends old and new—at this year’s Back to School event September 27, 2019.
The Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes graduates of the School of Human Ecology who have achieved significant recognition in their chosen profession or life’s work. Through this work, they have improved the quality of life for others and brought honor to themselves, their community, the School of Human Ecology, and the University of Wisconsin.
A young Linda Ahlers (SoHE ‘72) perhaps could not have imagined the success she would achieve in her career when she was selling rabbit pellets at her father’s farm supply store in Weyauwega, Wisconsin—a town of only about 1,200 people when she was growing up there. But the now retired retail executive credits that experience with sparking her interest in the industry and giving her a taste of the variety that retail offered.
She arrived at UW–Madison certain she wanted to work in business but also certain she didn’t want to be an accountant or work in high finance. At SoHE, then called the School of Family Resources and Consumer Science, she found the Retail major—and never looked back.
Ahlers graduated in 1972 and went to work as a senior buyer for the Sheboygan-based H.C. Prange Department Store in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Five years later, she took an opportunity as a senior buyer in women’s apparel with the Minneapolis-based Dayton Hudson Corporation, which would later become the Target Corporation. The company grew healthily over the decades Ahlers worked there, and she earned numerous promotions, culminating in an invitation in 1996 to head the company’s Marshall Field’s division. She led the iconic department store chain masterfully, exercising her hard-won expertise in merchandising, marketing, and operations to oversee 64 stores and $2.7 billion in annual revenue until her retirement in 2004.
Reflecting on the value of her SoHE education, Ahlers remembers two particularly challenging courses: one on textiles and another on garment construction. As she struggled through the classes, she wondered, “Why do I have to learn all this?” But she later found it was that attention to detail and understanding of quality and fundamentals that set her apart from her colleagues at Target. That technical knowledge, in combination with the eye-opening freshman experience of suddenly being part of a 30,000-strong, top-ranking university community, helped her “see a bigger world.”
And Ahlers would not only see that bigger world, but also contribute generously of her time and wealth to improve it, particularly in the arts and in women’s business opportunities. She served on the Minnesota Women’s Economic Roundtable and the Minnesota Women’s Forum, as well as on boards of directors or as a trustee at numerous arts organizations, theaters, and museums across the Midwest and in Hawaii.
Ahlers reconnected with the School of Human Ecology in the early 2000s and has only grown more involved over time. A trusted advisor to Dean Shim on the retailing program and SoHE’s comprehensive campaign, she has also served on the school’s Retail Task Force, as the Executive-in-Residence for the Retailing and Consumer Behavior major, and as the keynote speaker for the Retailing Leadership Symposium. She is a major donor to SoHE, having established the Linda Ahlers Graduate Fellowship in Retailing, Design, and Innovation, and she is honored as one of the School’s 100 Women Who Have Made a Difference. She also serves on the board of the UW Foundation, which she notes has enhanced her understanding of SoHE’s important role within the university as a whole.
Along with her partner Scott, Linda Ahlers enjoys her retirement by continuing to serve on various boards and getting out for bike rides, kayaking, and watercolor-painting. She splits her time between Honolulu, Hawaii, and Waupaca, Wisconsin, the latter just a short drive from her small hometown and the farm supply store that started it all.