At the age of 39, Becky Finger, a full-time homemaker and mother of three from Cincinnati, went with a friend to visit a Once Upon A Child store in Columbus, a couple of hours away. She had seen franchise founder Lynn Blum on the cover of Entrepreneur magazine in 1992 and thought her concept was brilliant.
"Lynn has such a passion for resale and for recycling, which you didn't hear as much about 25 years ago," says Finger, now 64 and the owner of nine Once Upon A Child and seven Plato's Closet stores. "Recycling clothes is what she was doing, and that was an added bonus to me."
Finger, who had never run a business, was smitten as soon as she visited the Columbus store. "I liked it because it was clean, organized, and bright. It smelled fresh, everything was gently used, there was a great variety of brands, and it was a family operation, which appealed to me," she says. "I liked the idea of franchising and having a proven model so I didn't have to figure everything out. I'm pretty black-and-white with things. It would have been reinventing the wheel for me to open 'Becky's Used Clothes.' I knew I just had to follow in Lynn's footsteps. Of course I learned a lot along the way and developed my own style."
She and her partner bought the entire Cincinnati-Dayton territory, and she's never regretted it. Their only competition then was Children's Orchard and small mom-and-pop stores.
Finger soon brought her entire family into the growing business. "My family was supportive. When I started, my son was in kindergarten and my girls were in 7th and 9th grade--at three different schools. It was a major turning point in their lives. We'd bring in baskets of clothes from my old station wagon and tag them at home. Looking back, it was a crazy time," she recalls. "All three worked in the store, and my husband was also all in. I had great people working for me, too. My most successful employees were customers who believed in the concept."
In retrospect, she says that being a "people person" and an organized, hard worker qualified her for her new life as a multi-unit franchisee; and later, as a multi-brand owner when she took on Blum's newer brand, Plato's Closet.
"I earned my degree in home economics (that's when they still had such a thing) at Ohio University and thought I'd be a mom. I didn't think I'd be an entrepreneur, but I slowly grew into it," she says. "I'm a people person, and I find I'm an HR person more than anything else. When I started I had 7 employees, now I have 35. Earlier, our stores would do maybe $300,000; now they're doing $1.5 million or more."
Contributing to her success, she believes, is the fact that her stores are in nice strip centers in neighborhood communities, have big bright, wide aisles, a public bathroom, a playroom for children, and are open full-time hours "like a real store," she says. "The big difference between us and consignment stores is that we pay our customers for their gently used clothes."
When Blum started Plato's Closet for teens 15 years ago, Finger wasn't sure it was a good idea. "I thought, what teen wants to wear used clothes? Boy, was I wrong. I went into my daughters' bedroom one day, and they were trying on their friends' dresses to wear to the prom. So I jumped into Plato's Closet too."
At the time, Abercrombie & Fitch was at the peak of its popularity, "and we hung our hat on tons of it," Finger says. "The trends are always changing, though, which is why we hire teens and 20s because they know what's in style and what will sell."
Today, two of Finger's children are taking on the day-to-day operations of her 16 stores, all located within an hour's drive. "Kate, my oldest, is running the stores and I'm more of an advisor. We work well together. She's been doing this since she was 14, and she's also a people person who is very good with the staff," she says. "My son Christopher takes care of all 16 stores and our warehouse. There's always a roof leak, a computer down, a door that won't lock. He does all that, as well as transferring merchandise, handling lease negotiations, and remodeling our stores with my husband."
Stepping back a bit, Finger admits she's glad not to cringe every time the phone rings with a "So-and-so didn't show up today" or "The air conditioning isn't working." But she doesn't really see retirement in her immediate future. "I still work every day. I get lots of emails since everyone reports to me daily. I have a passion for the business. It would be hard not to be involved. I visit every store once a month or two, but I'm more of a cheerleader now."
Eager to stay on top of shopping trends, Finger, who is pleased with the support she gets from franchisor Winmark Corp., says she and her team keep an eye on Internet sales. "We wonder sometimes if people will keep going to brick-and-mortar stores. But then people today are so aware of the environment, recycling is definitely here to stay. And most still want to see, feel, and touch what they buy. This is a good business. Our sales are still increasing after all these years."
Name: Becky Finger
Company: R & R Resale
No. of units: Once Upon A Child, 9; Plato's Closet, 7
Family: Married with 3 grown children
Years in franchising: 25
Years in current position: 25
My dad, who taught me to work hard, follow the Golden Rule, and have fun.
Buying a franchise at the age of 40 and opening 15 stores in 10 years, after being a stay-at-home mom.
Biggest current challenge:
To be a good listener and not too quick to comment.
Next big goal:
Developing the people who work for me.
First turning point in your career
: Hiring a district manager as I was opening up my sixth store. It changed my life!
Best business decision:
Buying the whole Cincinnati and Dayton territory, instead of just one store.
Hardest lesson learned:
The truth of the 80/20 rule.
Thanks to the Internet, I am always available, so I am constantly working.
5:30 a.m. boot camp 5 days a week.
Best advice you ever got:
Over the years, I've read a lot about public recognition and discovered that if you recognize someone out loud in front of their peers or family, it goes a long way. In our business we've had to find other ways to reward people besides money, and saying "Thank-you" in a public way works.
What's your passion in business?
To make every customer a repeat customer.
How do you balance life and work?
My kids and husband work with me, so my life is centered around my store.
Playing "Words with Friends."
Nancy Drew mysteries.
"Beaches" with Bette Midler.
What do most people not know about you?
That I taught quilting lessons for 10 years.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A little town called Leland, Mich.
Person I'd most like to have lunch with:
Lester Holt (NBC TV news anchor).
KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Management method or style:
The Three R's: Responsive, Receptive, and Reasonable.
Employee retention and burnout.
How do others describe you?
Most would describe me as optimistic.
One thing I'm looking to do better:
Make better hiring decisions. It's interesting that this is same goal I had 25 years ago! I guess that's always a challenge.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment:
Since our business changes based on our customers' wants and needs, I encourage my team to bring new marketing ideas and promotions to our business. If we always do the same thing, we'll get the same results. I like to try new ideas and get the customer feedback.
How close are you to operations?
My role has changed over the years. I currently have three district managers, a training manager, and one of my daughters is a general manager who oversees operations. We currently meet every Monday in person, and at the end of each day all upper management team members send everyone email updates on the progress of action items since the meeting (sales, problems, etc.). That way, everyone is in the loop. I also meet in person once a month with all managers for each brand.
What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
Benchmarking and moral support.
What I need from vendors:
Being the franchisee of resale brands, I'm in a unique business where my customers are my vendors. Having more customers that sell to us helps us increase inventory and drive sales.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
We haven't changed our marketing strategy. From day one, our key focus has been on providing great value and selection for families and young adults.
How is social media affecting your business?
It provides us more opportunities to meet our customers and explain how we're different.
How do you hire and fire?
Our customers are the best employees. They understand the concept and already have a passion for it, so we like to hire our customers.
How do you train and retain?
Our training is ongoing. We never stop training because our business is always changing with recalls, new fashion styles, etc. I've found that if someone is well trained and likes their job, it's easier to retain them longer.
How do you deal with problem employees?
We use a corrective action plan that we monitor weekly. The plan spells out the action we're looking to correct, how we are going to correct it, time frame, etc.
Fastest way into my doghouse:
To increase our customer count.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
By our margins, customer count, and average sales.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
In the next 5 and 10 years, I see my son and daughter becoming co-owners in the business. They'll have all control over operations and everything, and I will be available as an advisor to them as needed. Both my son and daughter have been working in my stores since they were teens. Today, my daughter is our general manager, overseeing operations for all stores in the system, and my son helps in a variety of areas, helping with things like lease negotiations, point-of-sale systems, and fixing physical problems in our stores.
How is the economy in your region affecting you, your employees, your customers?
My concepts are recession-proof. Our customer base has increased continually over the past decade, but I think it is because more consumers are value-minded and conscious of the recycling aspect of our business.
Are you experiencing economic growth in your markets?
Yes, our system-wide sales, through the end of July, are up 10 percent for Once Upon A Child and 7.4 percent for Plato's Closet.
How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business?
Our customers are extremely price-savvy, so we have to adjust what we pay our customers based on the retail prices of mainstream retail stores. For example, if American Eagle lowers its prices, then we have to reduce how much we pay customers for merchandise we buy, so we can then sell it at a lower price.
How do you forecast for your business?
We use information provided to us by our franchisor, Winmark Corp., and from our own past experience.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
We offer all our employees advancement opportunities, paid holidays and vacation, medical insurance, vision and dental plans, and a 401(k) plan. Plus, we are a fun place to work and they receive an employee discount.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)?
It's just a part of doing business. We budget it into our costs.
How do you reward or recognize top-performing employees?
With recognition, bonuses, and growth opportunities.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
My adult children work in my business and share my passion for the business. They are currently running the day-to-day of the business and will be co-owners of the business with me in the next 5 to 10 years.
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