By Valentine Brkich
Touring the main offices of the Warrendale-based fashion retailer Rue21, you'll find employees working on the business side, designers discussing the latest trends, and models being photographed in the photo studio, even a mock-up “sim store” for testing the look and feel of their products before they’re in real stores. “It's really a dynamic place to work,” says Keith A. McDonough '83, the company's senior vice president and chief financial officer. “There's always something exciting going on.”
McDonough grew up in Crafton and graduated from Carlynton High School in Carnegie. There, during his junior year, he took an accounting class that changed his life. “I had an amazing teacher,” he says. “It's where I first got a taste for accounting.” After graduating, McDonough worked in construction before enrolling at the Community College of Allegheny College for two years. At 19, he married his wife, Ann. He transferred to RMU as a junior, and a year later, the McDonoughs were expecting.
“I walked into the first employment agency I saw, and they set me up with one interview,” he says. The job was with the Iron Age Corporation and only paid $10,500, but they also offered a tuition reimbursement program. “For a fairly poor kid, I was very lucky to have had the education I did,” says McDonough. He worked during the day at Iron Age while taking night classes at RMU's downtown Pittsburgh location. Beginning in 1981, he literally worked his way up from the mail room to the executive suite. In 2001, he was promoted to senior vice president chief operating officer.
In 2003, his connections landed him an interview with Rue21 CEO Robert Fisch. At the time the retailer was in a transitional period. Originally known as Pennsylvania Fashions Inc., the company had filed for Chapter 11 protection. It exited bankruptcy as Rue21 Inc. in 2003. McDonough was was hired as CFO the week the company emerged from bankruptcy. At the time Rue21 had only 169 stores. Today the company has 934 stores across 47 states, with plans to open their 1000th store later this year. “To be emerging from bankruptcy in 2003 and standing on the floor of the NASDAQ going public in 2009, it's been an amazing, amazing ride,” McDonough says. “It's been the best work experience of my life.”
In the near future, Rue21 is looking to expand to as many as 1,700 stores. They also plan to go live as an online retailer this fall. This spring Apax Partners, a private equity investment group that's owned a partial interest in the retailer over the last 12 years, announced it would buy Rue21 for $1.1 billion. “They know us very well,” says McDonough. “They believe in the initiatives and the future of the company, so it just made sense for them to go all in.”
McDonough says that Rue21 regularly welcomes interns from RMU. “When I see 'RMU' on their resume, they immediately get a passing grade from me.” He also does business with Stephen W. Klemash '82, managing partner of north central assurance and advisory business services at Ernst & Young, Rue21's auditors. “Steve and I grew up in the same neighborhood and played in the same baseball league as kids. Now I'm glad that our paths have crossed again in business, because he's one of the most skilled professionals I know.”
McDonough's kids both attended RMU, too. His son, Graham, followed in his father's footsteps, working in the accounting department at Iron Age when he was just 17 and later earning his accounting degree in 2003. He's now a senior accountant for Liberty Tire Recycling in Braddock. His daughter, Erin, earned a B.S.B.A. in marketing in 2011 and now works as a health and wellness program coordinator at Scott Medical Health Center.
The main thing that helped make McDonough's RMU experience an exceptional one was the professional experience of its instructors. “They were working professors who held positions with public accounting firms,” he recalls. “I specifically remember a CFO who taught financial accounting. That was especially rewarding and enriching to have both sides of the story: here's what the textbook says, and here's what it's really like.”
As for his own personal career success, he says he can trace much of it back to his time at RMU. “Robert Morris offers one of the most efficient and pragmatic educations available in the Pittsburgh area. They teach you what you need to know to get the job you want.
“It's all about the ROI — the return on investment,” he adds. “RMU was and still is one of the more pinpoint investments you can make.” ~
Keith will be attending Homecoming this year. If you see him, make sure you stop him and say hi!