On Top of Their Game

With the upheaval in retail in recent years – big box chains encroaching on independents, online shopping gaining on brick-and-mortar stores, even some longtime beloved institutions going the way of the dinosaur – there are still success stories that seem to defy the odds. Here are two South Texas businesses that didn’t just manage to stay in the game – they stayed on top of it. In a volatile economy with advertising noise coming from every corner, what is the secret to their success, and what can others learn from them?

The Gold Standard

When the founding principles of a company are “service, fashion, and more service,” there’s little question where its priorities are.  Julian Gold (www.juliangold.com) founded his high-end women’s clothing store in San Antonio in 1945, and 67 years later his legacy lives on in the Alamo City store as well as in Austin, Corpus Christi, and Midland.

It also doesn’t hurt to be something of a maverick. “Everything was downtown at one time,” says Bob Gurwitz, CEO, son-in-law of the founder.  Mr. Gold was one of the first to open a store in a non-business district on Main Street, and by the time Gurwitz joined the company in 1961, the flagship store had already moved to its present home on McCullough in Olmos Park, in and near some of the city’s best neighborhoods. “It was a very smart location for Mr. Gold to pick.”

Brilliant, really. With a clientele active in society and charity events,  it set the stage for an impressive history of fundraising luncheons and runway style shows for groups such as Any Baby Can, Girls, Inc., San Antonio Zoo, Charity League of Corpus Christi, Helping Hands in Austin, Safe Place in Midland, and many more.

“That was a decision made many years ago, and as we’ve grown we’ve been able to do more,” says James Glover, COO, who’s been with the company for 23 years.

In addition to the company’s signature presence on the charity circuit, their impeccable inventory of brands like Emilio Pucci, Escada, St. John, Michael Kors, Versace, Armani, Fracas, Jean Patou, Estee Lauder, Jane Iredale, and La Prairie, to name a few, also helped to put them on the retail map.

Gurwitz insists they had no downturn during the recent recession. “When things are bad, customers are more careful about spending their money and they go where they feel the most comfortable and where they are appreciated the most. They want more service.”

And that leads us to the heart of the Julian Gold experience. How do they instill the importance of customer service into new hires? “When they are surrounded for eight to ten hours a day by seasoned, quality sales associates, it doesn’t take them long to catch on to what level of service this is.” Glover makes it clear that “in all four stores, you do whatever it takes to take care of that client.”

That could mean delivering a selection of clothes and accessories to a recent widow too upset to shop, or completely outfitting a woman who needed to be at a gala in 45 minutes (mission accomplished.) One online reviewer described the service at the San Antonio bridal shop as “out of this world.”

Admittedly, it helps to be a small (180 employees) business, but plenty of those businesses have gone under. Julian Gold has simply perfected the art of simplicity when dealing with their cherished clientele. “You’re not going through 90 million different processes to get one thing taken care of,” says Glover. “We just get it done.”

They Like Ike

Lots of businesses claim to know their customers – demographics, psychographics, and the like – but for Isaac “Ike” Epstein, president of Dr. Ike’s (www.drikes.com) True Value Home Center, he means he really knows his customers.

As president of Dr. Ike’s and son of the founder, over the decades Epstein has come to know everybody who comes into the stores – two locations in Laredo and one in Zapata. But Epstein says just knowing your customer isn’t enough.

“You walk into a store and they say, ‘Hi, how are you doing, you look great!’ Well, that may feel good but if you leave without getting the information you wanted, or you can get only half the project done because nobody was interested in what you were trying to do, you’re not going to feel good later.”

Epstein was born and raised in the tradition of helping people with home building, repair, and remodeling needs by his parents David and Flora Epstein, European immigrants who arrived in Laredo in 1932. “The first store my dad opened was called David Lumber Company, then another location called Economy Lumber in 1958. In 1973 we consolidated all the stores into what is now Dr. Ike’s.”

Along with the philosophy of treating customers like family, Epstein has actual family working with him. His son Clay Epstein is vice president, and daughter-in-law Carolyn Epstein is controller. “We’re on the third generation,” he says proudly. With a family business statistical failure rate of 50 percent in the second generation and 75 percent in the third, “we’ve beaten the odds.”

His roughly 100 employees are almost as loyal as his customers. “Most of them have been with us many years,” he says, some for more than 35, some as many as 50.  “We use very few part-timers,” he says, the benefit being that “over the years they learn complete projects, they learn what goes with what.” Even those who left often come back to thank Epstein for career guidance. “Some of them used this job as a stepping stone, to become managers at other places.”

Epstein claims he doesn’t worry about big box competition. “Our job has always been to take care of the customer first, give them good quality and value pricing.” Then there’s the hands-on community involvement that’s cumbersome for chain stores, but allows smaller businesses to step up. The company has built Little League parks in Laredo, and is involved with Big Brothers, the Laredo Philharmonic, community theatre, and more.

With such longstanding ties to deep South Texas – the company is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year – nostalgia is a recurring theme. “I just hired an intern to do graphic design and she said, ‘Do you remember my grandfather – you built his house in 1961.’ I said yes, I do, does he still live there. She said, ‘yes he does.’”

By Julie Catalano

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