In 1978, recent college graduate Elle Chute was asked by her employer, the Doody Company (owned by late retail guru Alton Doody), to help a high-end Japanese department store look more like its American counterparts. The firm removed signs, added mannequins and changed the lighting. In the first six months after the revamp, sales went up. Then they declined. Customers found the new space sterile.

“That was my first experience in really understanding that you really need to investigate thoroughly the culture of a customer base before you even start to design,” Chute recalls.

Chute continued to work in retail design stateside and around the globe for Doody spinoff Nexus, which merged with Richardson Smith and eventually became Fitch, until co-founding Chute Gerdeman with husband Denny Gerdeman in 1989.

At Chute Gerdeman, which employs 50, the intent has been to create a team that “could work on very different projects, work with different retailers or consumer manufacturers, restaurateurs that would have their individual brands, and that our team would be able to move with that business,” she says. Notable projects include the M&M’s store in Times Square, the rebranding of U.S. Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores and the first-ever (and now-closed) Barbie flagship store, in Shanghai.

In early 2011, Chute, 61, and Gerdeman were inducted into the Retail Design Institute Retail Design Legion of Honor; she also sits on the advisory board for trade publication Design Display Ideas.

What’s the best part of your job? Chute says she enjoys being challenged by a retailer to move its business, seeing how Chute Gerdeman team members respond and then seeing a measurable outcome.

What’s your biggest challenge? It’s difficult to effect major change within a business’s parameters in a short amount of time, says Chute. “We have to hit the ground running.”

How do you maintain a work-life balance? “The good news is that my husband works with me, so that makes it very efficient,” says Chute. “I don’t need to come home and say, ‘So what did you do today?’ ” Their daughter, Lauren Coburn, is 25.

What strengths do women bring to the workplace? “I do wrestle with that question because it has been said in the past that women tend to be more of the listeners, sensitive, and men are more out there, aggressive and more the communicators, and I just don’t see that. I guess I’m so much about the individual that it’s really hard for me to talk about that.”

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? Chute names Gerdeman, her husband of 27 years whom she met at the Doody Company. “He has so many qualities that I admire and would like to learn.” In addition to being a “connector and a networking person,” Chute says, Gerdeman “has a tremendous amount of perseverance, which allowed us to really get the company started.”

What are your goals for the next five years? “I think that my goal is to go deeper in understanding and developing the processes for allowing our team to learn how to build and teach creativity.”

How can employers ensure that more women achieve high-ranking positions? Women should “clearly define what their vision for themselves is,” and be assertive about the fact that they deserve to be leaders, says Chute. And employers “should expect that women are going to state what they feel and back it up, and have the confidence to do so.”

Michelle Davey is an editorial assistant and Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the May 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.