Julie Roehm is cornered. The lanky blonde, who’s partial to skinny white jeans and ivory Ray-Bans, is stuck inside a brick McCastle in one of Bentonville’s gated communities, wedged into the northwest corner of Arkansas between a cattle ranch and a snaking country road. Roehm bought her manse three-and-a-half years ago, 2 miles away from her new boss at the time, Wal-Mart’s then-CEO Lee Scott. Hired as the retail monster’s senior vice president of marketing communications, arguably the top job in her field, she was charged with fighting off Target’s aggressive rise by transforming Wal-Mart’s image from low-end merch peddler to temple of discount chic. But a career that took 15 years to build unraveled in a flash. After scarcely 10 months on the job, Roehm (pronounced raim) was loudly, publicly fired. The following day, she put her house up for sale. “I was thinking maybe it would take six months to sell,” recalls Roehm, 38. “We’d go somewhere else, start again, pick a new job. Yeah. That was the thinking.”
It’s been two-and-a-half years, and no matter how many plastic fuchsia flowers Roehm and her husband, Mike, jam into the grass by the pool, they still can’t offload their $850,000 ball and chain. In 2006, after Wal-Mart fired Roehm at least in part for accepting a Nobu 57 sushi dinner from Draftfcb, the ad agency she’d recently awarded the retailer’s $580 million account, she filed a $1.5 million breach of contract lawsuit against the House of Sam, prompting a litigious spiral of soap-operatic proportions: Wal-Mart countersued Roehm for having an affair with a subordinate. Roehm countersued CEO Scott for buying discounted yachts and a diamond ring from a Wal-Mart partner. And the partner sued Roehm for defamation. An image of Roehm’s face slapped on a Wal-Mart ad went viral online (“If you come to Wal-Mart,” the spoof read, “please don’t fuck your coworkers… . Because our legal team will fuck you back for every penny you’ve got… . Guaranteed”) and bloggers ordained her a “ho” and “slut.” All of the parties involved eventually dropped their suits, but Roehm, once the face of innovative advertising for Ford and Chrysler, emerged as the Hester Prynne of Bentonville.
On a Windex-blue day in April, Roehm, shuffling around her office off the master-bedroom suite, reveals her latest attempt to exorcise her minimansion of its scandalous juju. “I wouldn’t want to scare away any potential buyers,” she says, at once blasé and sarcastic — a woman inured to humiliation. She’s referring to the dozen-plus framed accolades (“Automotive Marketer of the Year” from Brandweek; “Interactive Marketer of the Year” from Ad Age; “The Advertising Hall of Achievement”) that once hung on the walls. Some 14,000 people work at Wal-Mart headquarters — Bentonville itself has 32,000 residents — so she’s well aware that splashing her name around the house could keep her shackled here for another three years. The awards now sit buried under newspaper in the hallway closet.
But Roehm — who has another closet filled with 4-inch Donald J. Pliner pumps — isn’t exactly the type to go into hiding. “A weaker person would have said, ‘I’m going to buy a franchise or go be a college professor,'” says Andrew Judelson, chief marketing officer of Sports Illustrated, who worked with Roehm during her Chrysler days. Instead, Roehm has chosen a more treacherous path, taking on the most challenging rebranding campaign of her career: herself. “If I’m going to be stuck with this scarlet letter,” she says, “I’m going to dress it up and make it the prettiest damn scarlet letter I can possibly make it.”
Julie Roehm’s minivan is stuffed like a clown car. Well, technically, she clarifies, it’s Mike’s car — Julie drives a Hummer-size red convertible Wrangler Sahara — and stacked inside are her husband, her two sons, a neighbor’s kid, and her giant black schnauzer, Isabella. She’s on her way home from her 10-year-old Nick’s school recital in nearby Fayetteville, where one of his classmates once told him, “Your mom stole $50,000 from Wal-Mart!” (Roehm: “Sure, why not, just add that to the list.”) At the school, it was clear that Mike, a stay-at-home dad, was the regular, while most teachers were meeting Julie for the first time. After piling the kids back in the van and rationing out cookies, Roehm lays her head on the steering wheel looking like Carrie Bradshaw in a suburban straightjacket. “This is why I could never do this,” she yawns. “I’d go nuts.”
Roehm has always been a centaur of sorts — half swan, half pit bull. Or, as she puts it, “the princess and the tomboy.” “I’m an extremely competitive person, so I liked playing on the all-boys teams,” she says, “because I was better than a lot of them.” By the time Roehm was in an all-girls Catholic high school in Cincinnati, her salesman father had moved the family around to eight cities, and she had become as fluent at fitting in as she was at partying. “I really pushed the limits and never got caught,” she says. “I always believed knowledge is power, and I can work hard and play hard.” Watching her parents argue about finances, she decided early on that she never wanted to rely on anyone else’s salary. “I remember thinking, I want to be able to do what I want to do when I want to do it.”
Ever since, Roehm has been moving at Madison Avenue speed. While at Purdue studying civil engineering, she worked every other semester at Bristol-Myers Squibb, where she met Mike, a pharmaceutical packaging engineer, and discovered her passion for marketing. She was handpicked for Ford’s prestigious Marketing Leadership Program while getting her MBA at the University of Chicago. “The deep, dark secret about Julie is that she’s a brilliant engineer and a very analytical marketer,” says Jim Schroer, Ford’s former vice president of global marketing. “She doesn’t come off that way — she loves to be on stage — but her talent is hidden behind that flash and dazzle.”
Roehm was all of 28 when she led the U.S. launch of the Ford Focus, a European model previously shunned by the American market. Schroer recalls her presentation to Ford execs: “She said, ‘I want all you gentlemen to take off your wristwatch and put it on the other arm.’ She looked at Wayne Booker [Ford’s then vice chairman]. ‘Wayne, how does that feel?’ He said, ‘It feels terrible.’ She said, ‘You better get used to it because that’s how you’re going to feel by the end of this presentation.’ ” Her plan, she told them, was to give away Focuses to P. Diddy and 30 of his hip-hop brethren outside Roxbury Clubs in New York, Miami, and L.A. It was radical for Ford both in its media channel and for its pop-culture aspirations. And it worked. That year, says Schroer, 40% of Focuses sold were to consumers under age 30, which Ford hadn’t seen “for a couple of decades.” When Schroer left Ford in 2001 to become DaimlerChrysler’s executive vice president for global sales and marketing, he took Roehm with him.
By the time Roehm became DaimlerChrysler’s director of global marketing communications, responsible for its $1.6 billion Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge media budgets, she had tamed the Detroit boys club. “Let’s face it, if you’re an attractive woman, they either assume you’re stupid or they want you to be,” she says. “For me, to be underestimated is the best card I hold.” At Chrysler, she quickly became known for trying to overhaul the media-buying process (that didn’t happen) and for persuading dealers to shift from newspaper classifieds to digital ads. “We gave her two-thirds the budget of her predecessor, and she made it act like five times the amount in the marketplace,” says Schroer. But her biggest transformation was creating the Dodge “Grab life by the horns” tagline. “This completely rejuvenated the perception of the brand with the customer base and invigorated our engineers and designers,” says Wolfgang Bernhard, Chrysler’s former chief operating officer. “Normally, from marketing people, you never get a message so powerful. She did it.”
It was also at Chrysler that Roehm got her first taste of the dark side of risk. In 2003, when launching the butch Dodge Durango, she decided the brand should sponsor the Lingerie Bowl, a pay-per-view Super Bowl halftime show featuring supermodels playing football in their panties. The idea was affordable and hit her demographic dead-on, but once family advocacy groups — who threatened to picket Chrysler dealerships — discovered that a mother of two young sons was behind the campaign, “I became the pinup girl for the woman who has no respect for other women,” she says. “It was like I was promoting sex slavery or something.” Roehm’s picture was suddenly in USA Today, which also criticized her for other Chrysler ads involving urinals and wife swapping. She pulled out of the sponsorship, and her bosses backed her up, but she knew her reputation had been dinged: “I thought the thing that would be nailed on my tombstone was, ‘Julie Roehm, mother of two. She did the Lingerie Bowl.’ “
If only. In March 2007, The New York Times ran a leaked email that Roehm had allegedly sent to her Wal-Mart subordinate, Sean Womack: “I think about us together all of the time. Little moments like watching your face when you kiss me.” The Times described it as part of the countersuit Wal-Mart filed against Roehm three months after both she and Womack, a vice president, were fired. The suit also included a statement by one of Womack’s “friends”: “Womack had Roehm ‘pinned’ against the wall in an intimate pose” in a Fayetteville bar.
Two years have passed since the spicy headlines ran everywhere from BusinessWeek to New York magazine, and I’m now sitting between Julie and Mike on their overstuffed leather couch. Julie’s bare foot is hanging over the side, while Mike, who has the dashing looks of an ex-football player in his mid-forties, fetches her a glass of Spanish wine. They met when she was 18 and he was 26, and after nearly 20 years together, they qualify as an old married couple (they call each other “Tchotch”). Eight years ago, before their second son, Luke, was born, Mike decided to quit his engineering career to stay home with the boys. Julie’s salary was bigger, her professional prospects outshone his, and he didn’t want to miss out on his kids’ childhood. He takes his Mr. Mom role — driving the boys to school, doing the laundry, food shopping — as seriously as he takes his marriage. “I think this whole experience has strengthened mine and Julie’s relationship,” he tells me the next day, vague about exactly which experience he’s referring to. “We don’t take each other for granted anymore.”
Julie says the last time she spoke to Womack was in 2007, after they tried launching a marketing consultancy together. “I wish him well,” she says briefly, calling their defunct friendship a “casualty of war.” “I will never be able to tell the story most people want me to,” she says, which suggests she’s bound by a nondisclosure agreement with Wal-Mart.
Sipping her wine, Julie channel-surfs the flat screen and halts on a Sex and the City rerun. She recites verbatim nearly every punch line in the episode, with Mike laughing along. They are used to spending low-key nights at home. Their friends in Bentonville (a dry county where, Roehm says, “the second question people ask you when they meet you is ‘What church do you belong to?’ And trust me, there’s a wrong answer”) consist of three couples, all living on the same block. None of them work for Wal-Mart. Carson Myers, who lives four doors down, concedes she doesn’t know whether Roehm had an affair, and will probably never know. “I think if it did happen, Mike would view it as a bump in the road. But if it did, it better not happen again,” she says, pausing. “There were many times when Mike and Julie didn’t have anyone to rely on but each other.”
The final scene on the TV turns to Carrie Bradshaw lying in bed with her new boyfriend, Berger. She wants to know why he’s all hung on up his ex, and finally, he confesses it’s because she cheated on him. Julie is quiet. So is Mike. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see him briskly petting the schnauzer.
Wal-Mart has the power to make or break virtually any company in the world. Bentonville can do the same to people. (“Bentonville is to Wal-Mart what the Vatican is to the Catholics,” explained one supplier at the Wal-Mart Welcome Center.) “Ninety percent of the people I know here work for Wal-Mart,” explains another local. “For many people here, this was their first job out of school. They’ve never worked for another company, and they’ve made a lot of money in their stock options. But when you live in a town like this and you live in a house worth $1 million and you don’t agree with the company, you don’t just magically leave Wal-Mart. There aren’t really any other companies to work for, and vendors aren’t going to hire you because they don’t want to piss Wal-Mart off. People hit self-preservation mode. Wal-Mart has you in every way, shape, or form.”
The social behavior of the town, the local woman continues, is dictated by the retailer’s employee guidelines, which prevent anyone from accepting so much as a breath mint from a supplier. (And employees know they’re being watched: Wal-Mart reportedly has a stable of former FBI and CIA agents monitoring them.) Take her friend who works for PepsiCo: If she’s invited to a dinner party at a friend’s house and brings a case of Pepsi, “it’s a disaster trying to figure out who can drink a Pepsi or not.” Or those who want to shop at the new Target that just opened one town over. “If her husband works for Wal-Mart, his wife can’t be seen there, so she’ll give her shopping list to someone else.” After dishing for some 45 minutes, the woman suddenly hits self-preservation mode herself, pleading with me to keep her anonymous. “I am begging you, please. Oh my goodness,” she says, even though neither she nor her husband works for Wal-Mart or a supplier. “If all of this got out, we could be blackballed in two seconds. That’s the type of environment this is. Wal-Mart owns this town.”
The Roehms experienced some of this firsthand, when they were “uninvited” to a neighbor’s 40th birthday party. “It was too risky to have her there because the host works for Wal-Mart,” Myers, their neighbor, explains.
In other words, Bentonville isn’t exactly the ideal place to recover from the shrapnel wounds of a Wal-Mart stint gone bad. The day Roehm was fired, December 4, 2006, her first instinct was to get the hell out of there. She drove home, told Mike the news, and called her lawyer. Within 48 hours, she had put her house on the market and bought health insurance for the family. When she wasn’t fielding calls from headhunters and media, she was getting supportive calls from strangers. Sergio Zyman, Coca-Cola’s former CMO, who had never met Roehm before, flew to Bentonville that week to offer Roehm counsel. “Wal-Mart wanted to wear a pair of high heels, and Julie was high heels,” says Zyman, who made marketing history himself with the 1980s New Coke debacle. “When they put on the high heels, they said, No, this is too difficult to me, my feet hurt. Then the high heels became the problem.”
Roehm figured the incident would just be a professional blip. “My dad always said, ‘If you haven’t been fired, you haven’t really been tested.’ I thought, In the end, this is going to be good for me.” But her life quickly torpedoed. Wal-Mart refused to pay her severance because it fired her for violating company policy; Roehm sued for her severance, stock options, restricted stock, and bonus. “Her initial [$1.5 million] lawsuit was literally her protecting her family,” says Whirlpool vice president of sales and marketing Ann Fandozzi, a colleague of Roehm’s at Ford and Chrysler. “Anyone in her position would have done the same thing.”
Then it got worse. Wal-Mart filed the affair allegations in March — rumors had been swirling for months — and reporters were suddenly showing up on the Roehms’ doorstep, hounding Mike about his “cheating” wife. “Julie is a fighter,” says Sports Illustrated’s Judelson. “And when she believes she is a raccoon cornered in a garage, she’s going to come out swinging.” Roehm filed her second lawsuit against the retailer, which only inflamed the scandal. “I could not see the connection between the person portrayed in the magazines and the person I know,” says Bernhard, who now heads Mercedes-Benz’s commercial-vehicles business. Roehm recalls that one of her lowest points was watching herself being debated on CNN. “I kept thinking, I’m just this girl from the Midwest,” she says. “But I know you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be a prima donna in Ad Age and USA Today, and then pretend that you’re nobody. I get my own self-conflict.”
Many of those grim days were spent figuring out how she and her family were going to survive. “It was this roller coaster of being angry, afraid, sad, tired, and depressed,” Roehm says. In addition to her Bentonville house, she was still carry-ing an unsold home back in Detroit and found herself paying $9,000 in mortgages a month on zero salary. She maxed out all of her credit cards to pay bills, plundered her kids’ college funds to pay legal fees, lost 15 pounds, and went on blood-pressure medication. “Between what I owed to lawyers, the PR firm, and banks, I was in debt in the high six digits, verging on seven digits,” she says. At one point, she consulted bankruptcy lawyers. Mike couldn’t find a job locally and considered bagging groceries. And then there were the threats. Roehm received an email from one man — “I hope you get the skull fucking of your life” — and took out a life-insurance policy on herself. “I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she says. “I mean, accidents happen.”
Roehm is walking down Wal-Mart’s toiletries aisle. It’s the first time she’s been back (Mike shops here only to buy raw beef heart for the dog) and the first time I’ve seen her charismatic body language clam up. Her arms are folded protectively across her chest as she observes the changes the retailer has made since she was fired. But she’s different too. She’s less trusting of companies claiming to want change agents. “Change agents are easy to pick out in the crowd, put a target on, and shoot at,” she says. After the Wal-Mart fiasco, Dell interviewed her for a top marketing position, but she decided not to pursue it. “They were talking about how ‘we’re going to do things differently,’ ” Roehm says. “It suddenly felt déjà vu-ish.” She now ranks cultural fit — geographic and corporate — at the top of her list, adding that her “aggressive-aggressive” personality, as she describes it, doesn’t jibe with the “passive-aggressive” politeness of the South. “I wanted to be able to show that I can adapt anywhere, I can do anything. The thing I learned about myself is that I’m not a full-on chameleon, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Roehm has finally stopped dissecting how she could have done a better job of managing her own brand (“It’s sort of like doctors who smoke,” she says) and has instead hit the road, starting her professional makeover with those who knew her before her fall. In 2007, Sports Illustrated hired her as a consultant to help position the magazine to the auto industry and develop an in-house media auction. But CMO Judelson, who worked closely with Roehm when she was at Chrysler, concedes, “If I didn’t have that experience with her, I wouldn’t have considered hiring her.” As impatiently as Roehm tried to instigate change at Wal-Mart — like the “Sexy” ad featuring a wife opening a Christmas gift of lingerie, which Wal-Mart pulled after reportedly receiving just two complaints — her unglamorous task now is to change perception of her own brand, one company at a time. “Half the reason why people want to meet with me is they want to see the monster,” Roehm admits. “Does she have six eyes and horns? When she talks, does green slime spit out of her mouth?”
As she tries to put the myths to rest once and for all, Roehm has learned to find satisfaction in tiny triumphs. In 2007, her father helped kick-start her consulting business, Backslash Meta, and funded her salary for six months. That year, several startups recruited Roehm, and in 2008, she got a five-month gig with Credit Suisse. “I hate that term, ‘consultant,’ ” she cringes. “I think of someone who dumps a big fat binder at your door and leaves.” Nevertheless, her consulting job with the financial institution was a turning point. “It was a challenge to go into another culture that was really conservative,” says Roehm, who was justifiably criticized for being tone deaf to Wal-Mart’s culture. Before leaving for Zurich, she made sure to read Beyond Chocolate: Understanding Swiss Culture.
Last year, Roehm finally broke through. She sold her house in Michigan and earned enough from clients — which now include interactive marketer Acxiom and iTV company Biap — to fund her own salary, reimburse her father, and pay down $300,000 in credit-card debt. The most rewarding part, she says, is knowing she didn’t have a corporate brand name or billion-dollar budget to prop her up. “This whole experience was a great slap to the ego,” says Roehm. “But it has been a gift for me. I don’t pin my own personal self-worth on my title anymore the way I think I once did. That’s the epiphany.” Her days now are a hodgepodge of consulting and advisory gigs, most of them invisible to the public. And as much as Mike equates the past three years to “sticking a needle in your eye,” even he is grateful for how it has affected Roehm. “I got my wife back,” he says.
Some of Roehm’s biggest “missteps” at Wal-Mart have been vindicated. Draftfcb, the agency she had hired there and which was subsequently let go, went on to win the Kmart account. (Strangely enough, this past March, Kmart’s owner, Sears, revealed its new tagline — “Life. Well spent” — nearly identical to the one Roehm and Draftfcb reportedly dreamed up for Wal-Mart.) And while Roehm swears she’s content to be out of that world, her newfound professional Zen seems to be a combination of clarity, necessity, and rationalization. After a couple of days spent detailing her new ego-free career philosophy, she finally admits that if the right CMO opportunity came along, she’d take it. Whether that happens will depend on how willing corporate America is to take on damaged goods.
More than a few observers of her saga believe Roehm was disproportionately vilified because of her sex. “If we torched the career of every CEO who’s had an affair,” says her former Chrysler boss Jim Schroer, “we’d end up cleaning house at every Fortune 500 company.” But her undeniable Page Six impulses may continue to bedevil her. Last summer, she accepted an offer to play a Simon Cowell — like judge alongside Kiss front man Gene Simmons on Jingles, a yet-to-air ad-themed reality competition on CBS. It doesn’t take a CMO to recognize that it’s not exactly the reputational reboot she needs.
Still, Roehm insists she’s ready to get past her past. “That’s the great thing about America; people love a comeback,” she says. “I’m counting on it. I, as much as anybody, am counting on it.”