How to stay resilient in trying times
This pandemic has hit businesses across all sectors in different ways. But something we can all agree on is that brick-and-mortar retail stores have taken some of the biggest blows of all. Of course, resilience comes into play. But are there ways to adapt in such trying times? Can you come back from a setback of this size?
”Small business is just about not believing in your initial proposition too much. It’s just about improv. It’s just about always moving around, not getting too caught up in what you believe you’re right about.Ken GiddonOwner of Rothmans Men's Clothing
Small Business Resilience in Retail with Ken Giddon
Katie Hankinson (00:02):
Hi, I’m Katie Hankinson.
Mickey Cloud (00:04):
And I’m Mickey Cloud, and welcome to Building While Flying, a new podcast from the Sasha Group where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient, and navigate ever-changing skies.
Katie Hankinson (00:22):
Hello. Welcome to this week’s episode of Building While Flying, and my guest this week is Ken Giddon, who is the founder of Rothman’s Men’s Clothing in New York City, one of the finest independent menswear stores in the country, and I think you have outlets in Scarsdale, Bronxville, Union Square, and, of course, online. Rothman’s is a truly archetypal New York landmark with a real loyal base. I read an article which described that the atmosphere there had the camaraderie of a barber shop, so kind of has that real true neighborhood feel, and you’ve been going for 34 years now under leadership of Ken Giddon and his brother and the team. So welcome to the show, Ken.
Ken Giddon (01:07):
Thank you so much for having me.
Katie Hankinson (01:07):
I’m curious to know how you ended up here because it sounds like you started out in banking, right, and this ended up being kind of a family thing that just landed in your lap?
Ken Giddon (01:16):
Yeah. I mean, everybody makes that mistake of going into banking at some point, but I was a typical economics major in college. My first job was at a bank in Boston. I started off in the lending side, and then I was a foreign exchange trader, and I kind of enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun, but I was heading off to business school. I was actually already in. I had my deposit down, and my parents said, “Oh, your grandfather’s store that’s been in business since 1926 is going out of business. He’s in his 80s and his brother’s in his 80s, and it’s time.” It had been a good run, but in the last 10, 20 years, it had definitely slowed down. My parents said, “Would you come down? You’re a business guy.” I’m like, “A business guy? I’m trading foreign exchange. I don’t know anything about business.”
Ken Giddon (02:09):
So I came down for it was supposed to be two weeks, and then I was going to go on a trip to Europe or something like that before business school. I ended up kind of liking it. Now, I didn’t even like New York. Everybody thinks I’m a New Yorker now because I’ve been here so long, but I still root for Boston teams and that’s where I’m from. But I came down for what was supposed to be two weeks. I didn’t know a soul. I ended up enjoying running this business, even though I was running the very tail-end of the business. It was really interesting to be making decisions, managing people, coming up with marketing ideas. So I did end up closing that store. I deferred business school for a half a year. Then I got this crazy idea to reopen, and I thought I could just do a new version of my grandfather’s store. It was also at a time where nobody threw the word entrepreneur around. There was nothing cool about it, and New York wasn’t particularly cool in 1986 either, so-
Katie Hankinson (03:08):
Some might say gritty at that point.
Ken Giddon (03:10):
It’s so funny that you say that because that’s the word that I use now. When people say, “What’s New York like,” because I’m back in New York City, and I say, “It’s gritty. It reminds me of the late ’80s.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s just gritty. The days of walking around with your head down and in your phone, I think it’s just grittier and you just got to be a little more observant. That doesn’t mean it’s not cool.
Ken Giddon (03:36):
So that was kind of it. I came up with this apparently crazy idea to reopen the store. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I did it anyway, and I just cobbled together a little bit of credit based on my grandfather’s reputation, just literally started by faking it. I had an article on my wall for the first five years that just said, “We’re all faking it,” and it said if you blew a whistle in New York City and asked everyone that didn’t really know what they were doing to stop, the whole city would come to a standstill. I wasn’t even particularly fashionable. It was definitely learning kind of while flying.
Katie Hankinson (04:15):
So you jumped into the world of retail without a background in fashion, partly because it sounds like you loved the many aspects of the role. How did you build out your skillset across the things that you didn’t necessarily know so much about? How did you make up for the fact that you didn’t necessarily have that background?
Ken Giddon (04:34):
Yeah, I mean, business, in my opinion, small business is just about not believing in your initial proposition too much. It’s just about improv. It’s just about always moving around, not getting too caught up in what you believe you’re right about. So we would go in one direction. At first, we started off as a discounter, and we were pretty good at that. Then we started becoming a little more high-end because we thought that the whole discount side of the business was going to be much tougher, and we evolved over time. But we always were bobbing and weaving, just like take a few steps this way, move this way, and always looked to just find the best way to do it. My mantra has always been if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door, and I’ve always liked that one.
Ken Giddon (05:31):
So we’re always constantly just trying to build that better mousetrap, always trying to build, making Rothman’s an efficient and rewarding experience for our customers. Whether we’re discounting or we’re high-end or whatever it is, we’re just following that idea, just build the better mousetrap, make it efficient and rewarding. Then we kind of find a path. In terms of the skillset, I think of myself kind of as a marketer more than a merchant, and so I felt like I had pretty good skills there about trying to define what we were. But all the other stuff, I surrounded myself with some really talented people who had a much better skillset than I did in so many things, like marketing and buying and merchandising. You just learn.
Katie Hankinson (06:19):
You’ve got such a simple thing at the core, the fact that you’re really seeking to focus on an efficient and a rewarding experience. How has that mantra or that focus changed over time? What aspects of the business have you changed and thought about, both from an operational and a marketing perspective, to help continue driving efficient and rewarding? What does that mean to you?
Ken Giddon (06:42):
Efficient and rewarding at the beginning was guys were wearing suits, and it was all about providing hundreds and hundreds of suits available for big guys and small guys and guys that were skinny and guys that were heavy and just having the best selection and having the best prices. Then they could come in, it would be, boom, efficient and rewarding, and our prices were good. You know, I was in my 20s when I started this, and a 20-year-old guy, I had a lot of my friends coming in, and that 20-year-old guy, that’s what efficient and rewarding was. Get in, get out, buy some suits, look good for work, and move on. Then casualization started, and it’s been kind of a like a 20-year trend. These guys wanted different things. They wanted cool stuff, they wanted the new denim brand that just came in. So we got a lot better at buying and introducing new lines.
Ken Giddon (07:37):
For the last 15 years, we’re introducing a new brand every three weeks that hasn’t been in New York or hasn’t been in the United States, but we’re still putting it under that same lens of is it a good deal and is it a good buy for our customer and is it what they want because we want them to come in and they want to chit-chat a little bit, hang out a little bit, maybe have a drink, but they want to move on, too, and they want it to be effective. Because it’s also we’re going up against the world of online buying, and we have to differentiate ourselves, and part of it is the camaraderie, part of it is the friendship. But what we’re really good at is curating, and that’s a word that we didn’t even really think of at the beginning. 20, 30 years ago, it was trying to decide whether you buy more blue or more gray suits, and now it’s really about finding what are customers looking for. It changes all the time. It’s changed dramatically since COVID.
Katie Hankinson (08:37):
I’m interested in that one. I noticed on your site you were talking about how we’re adjusting to the realities of the way men dress and the way men can dress right now. What are you finding with that, and how have you tackled the work from home, waist-up experience that most of us are currently having?
Ken Giddon (08:59):
Yeah. I mean, one of the things we did was we found what we thought to be the perfect Zoom shirt. Now, I guess I should’ve been wearing that. I actually reached out to Zoom this week and said, “I would love you guys to set up something in the store, like Zoom-branded, that shows what guys would look like on Zoom,” like an iPad that had kind of branding on it and say, “Oh, you like this shirt? Step over into our Zoom room.” They weren’t really ready for it, but I still like the idea. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to go with it.
Ken Giddon (09:35):
But I have so many vendors, and we found one guy who worked for a big company, and he quietly started a new company that created a dress shirt that’s made … It’s really a knit shirt made in a dress shirt factory, so it has a perfect collar but it’s really almost like wearing a t-shirt. So it presents really well on Zoom, and it feels like a t-shirt on, but it has a beautiful collar. I won’t say the name because I think he’s still undercover on his real job, and this is his side hustle. But we find things like that where it gives people a reason to come to us. Here’s a great Zoom shirt. We’re always looking for things like that. So I think that people are really looking for the sartorial equivalent of comfort food, and that’s-
Katie Hankinson (10:28):
That’s so nicely put.
Ken Giddon (10:30):
Yeah. That’s what they are. Everyone, they want a little love, they want a little comfort. These are cold times. They want comfortable clothes, warm clothes, both psychologically and physically.
Katie Hankinson (10:44):
It’s actually back to your point before. In these gritty times, you do want to have something that gives you a bit of soothing. So how do you square that? I’m interested. Obviously, your whole approach has been very much the bobbing and weaving, the testing and trying over the years. But it does sound like there’s been something very much at the core throughout. We talk a lot about how brands that are strong at the core are the ones that are able to flex. What do you think sits at the core of Rothman’s and what you’ve built there, both in terms of company values but also what that north star is for the company?
Ken Giddon (11:23):
That’s interesting. I would say we love our customers and they love us back, and we do everything we can to love our customers. We truly appreciate them. We celebrate them. Part of what we do is post them on our Instagram. We hashtag it #RealRothmans, and the point is that these aren’t models. These are just regular guys that happen to look really good in our clothes. Love the customer, and they’ll love us back. Make it, again, as I say, more efficient and rewarding. Just always look for the best way to do business and be honest with them, consistently be honest. Don’t make one sale, make 10 sales over time. Frankly, we’re the only guy left right now in New York, the only large independent. I think it’s just because we don’t get too caught up in being who we are. There’s no real ego involved in it. My grandfather used to say, “We’re just selling pants.” I always remember that. We’re just selling pants, so it’s not that complicated, and that doesn’t make us too smart. We’re just doing our best, and keep that in mind and don’t get cocky.
Katie Hankinson (12:37):
Definitely doing something right, to your point. You’re still kind of [inaudible 00:12:40], have that stake in the ground in New York City, for sure. When it comes to you as a business leader, a couple things I’m interested in talking about. One is the family side of the company. I guess when it was your granddad’s business, it was also a family business, and now you obviously work with your brother. What do you think are the challenges but also the benefits of being in the family company for you guys?
Ken Giddon (13:09):
I don’t think about challenges. I certainly know the benefits. For some reason, during this COVID crisis, I’ve really, really locked onto what the benefits are. I really feel how lucky I’ve been to work with my brother for 30 years. Now, I’m the older brother, so he may not feel the same way, but I certainly feel that way, and I’ve noticed even … These are crazy difficult times for us. We’ve been closed for six months in our main store. But I just noticed, even in this period, how my brother, Jim Giddon, has evolved so much during this period and picked up so many new skills. At a point, we went from about 30 employees to two, me and him, so he’s the bookkeeper, the accountant, the packing guy. We’re everything now. As he said once to me about a month or two ago, he said, “Anybody can run a business in good times.” These challenging times, really, I hate to admit it, but part of it, a very small part of it, is kind of fun.
Katie Hankinson (14:16):
Let’s talk about that. I’d love to hear you unpack that a bit more. I hear this a lot, the echo of the fact that the constraint, it’s terrifying but, at the same time, it brings out a lot of creativity and a lot of enterprise. How has the last six months been? You’re shrunk down in size. This has been a giant pivot.
Ken Giddon (14:41):
Katie Hankinson (14:41):
I’d imagine it’s got to be one of the biggest challenges you’ve really hit in the 30-plus years that you’ve been in business. But what have been some of those pivots and bright sides, too?
Ken Giddon (14:51):
So we’ve been through a bunch. I can almost say it rogue now. We survived 9/11, we survived super storm Sandy. We survived the 2008 financial crisis. Now, COVID-19 comes along, and I do think this one has been the toughest from a business perspective. We saw on about March 17th, about the day we closed … I sort of wrote a manifesto about what I saw going ahead. It turned out to be pretty accurate to what we had to do. I cut it into three pieces. The first one was survive, just get through it in any way you can, and that meant basically cutting all expenses. We basically furloughed everybody. We paid healthcare, but we furloughed the entire team. Most of them did pretty well on unemployment, so that was good.
Ken Giddon (15:46):
The second part was just really depend on others. Even at that point, I recognized that this was too big a thing to get through alone, meaning there had to be government help, there had to be help from vendors, and there had to be help from our landlords, our three landlords. That’s what we did for the last six months, is worked on those three things. Then the last part was to really think about manifesting our destiny. What do we want to be on the other side of this thing? We spent a lot of time thinking about that. I realized that this would be like the greatest off-site meeting in history because you’re going to have six months off-site. So if you can get stuff done in two days, imagine what you can get done in six months. That’s kind of the way we looked at it.
Ken Giddon (16:35):
The other thing was we had immense debt as we got into this thing. We weren’t immensely in debt before, but we came out of this with a couple … I mean, we went into March with a couple major problems. We weren’t able to pay rent in New York City. To be very honest, I had a personal guarantee on the lease, a good guy guarantee, which is a unique New York real estate situation, on a lease that was more than a million dollars a year. So I spent the last six months as the poorest guy in my neighborhood because I had a personal liability of a million dollars a year for many, many years. So my job was to get out of that. We also owed vendors. Vendors dropped on us huge deliveries, $100,000 of suits from Canali, $100,000 of suits from Corneliani, $100,000 from Zegna, $50,000 worth of jeans from J Brand, and guess what? We shut the doors.
Ken Giddon (17:37):
So now we have all this product and we owe all this money. I always remember the old adage that if you owe somebody $10, they own you, but if you owe somebody a million dollars, you own them. That’s kind of the situation we were in. So if we owe you a million dollars, you’re going to have to talk to us, and that’s what we spent the last six months doing, was negotiating those things. That’s been my job. For the most part, people have been really creative and cooperative. After probably five of the six months, we finally settled a deal with our landlord because they knew that chasing me for a personal guarantee of multiple millions of dollars was not going to do them a lot of good, and they wanted us to stay in business, and I think they were cooperative and creative, and we came to an agreement that gives us an opportunity to succeed in this environment.
Katie Hankinson (18:40):
But, wow, what a challenge to keep to those three areas of focus through that period of time just to stay steady and strong. How were you even able to think about the manifesting of the future destiny when you’ve got so much on the immediate plate? Was that then exercising compartmentalizing?
Ken Giddon (19:01):
Yeah, definitely. Also, I always like to say that the most important tool in the small business toolbox is resilience. I think that’s what we’re blessed with. We can take a punch. And, listen, this one could knock us out. I don’t think so. I really don’t think so now. But we’re willing to take a hit, and we just keep getting back up because we’ve been through it before. I know so much about insurance claims, it’s frightening. We’ve had so many floods, floods and fires and looting and all these different things, I’m an expert on insurance claims now. You just got to keep getting back up. It was weird. I wasn’t stressed out all winter because I had a vision that if we could get through this and right-size the business, it opens up a lot of opportunities for us moving ahead.
Katie Hankinson (19:54):
Talk a bit about the online side of things. I’m assuming that’s obviously been a big focus while the physical stores were closed. How have you been thinking about that? Are there aspects of that that you will now carry forward once-
Ken Giddon (20:08):
Katie Hankinson (20:08):
… we’re all back to some semblance of normal?
Ken Giddon (20:10):
One of the nice things we were able to do was we found an amazing person who had been laid off from a big digital job for an online company, and she was out of work, and we found an incredibly talented person for a few months until she found a new job to help us revamp our site, and we’ve tripled our business. Now, it’s tripling off of a very low number because we’re primarily a retail brick and mortar store, but, certainly, the trend is our friend and it’s going in the right direction. The challenge for guys like us is that all of our vendors who we introduce to the public also have very good online sites. We have to work extra hard to create things that are different and you can’t get from their sites.
Ken Giddon (21:03):
Retail’s always evolving. I think, ultimately, we’re going to be a showroom, in the sense that we might not even carry product. People will walk in and a click of their phone, we’ll buy that product, and we’ll get some cut of that sale because they saw it in my store. I think it’s eventually moving that way because the cost of me holding inventory is going to be too much to compete with those other guys. But, meanwhile, retail stores, they’re the cheapest form of customer acquisition for a brand. Walking into my store and selling me wholesale, making a little bit of money selling me wholesale, I introduce the brand to people, that’s the cheapest form of customer acquisition because you’re making a little money while you’re doing it rather than paying $50 a customer or whatever it is.
Katie Hankinson (21:51):
I think it’s interesting you’re saying … We’ve all been watching what’s happening to retail and this morphing of the brick and mortar store experience to being more of, yeah, an experiential space or a kind of [inaudible 00:22:05] brand immersion. I think you’re right. When you’re working with loads of different brands in a space, you have an opportunity to almost tell a different, more interesting story in a way than the singular brands do.
Ken Giddon (22:18):
Yeah. We started a side hustle called TestShop, and TestShop, we approached brands and said, “We’re going to meet your cheapest form of customer acquisition, and you are going to pay us to be in my store. When you pay us to be in my store, we’re going to build out a beautiful experience for your customers, and you’re going to be able to keep the information that you get. Not only are you going to pay us, you’re going to pay other stores that we find. So instead of going to trade shows or working really hard and spending a lot of money online, we’re going to create your mini-store in our environment and in several other great stores across the country.” We started it about a year before COVID, and it’s been doing really well. Now, let’s see what happens in this. Obviously, nothing much happened for the last six months, but we have an activation going up in a store that’s not my store that should do really well.
Katie Hankinson (23:17):
Well, it’s so interesting. It’s pure marketing speak. It’s very much about the branding experience. It’s also a kind of progression of your curation, the work that you’ve always done in terms of curating product. You’ve just turned it on its head and reversed the direction of flow, if you like, and you’re curating other stores. I think that’s super smart. So when you hear the much-headlined word of retail apocalypse, what is the ideal manifested state for Rothman’s when you come out of this, and do you think that retail also needs to right-size? Where’s your bet?
Ken Giddon (24:02):
I think my manifest destiny for Rothman’s is more stripped down and more flexible. One of the things that we had in New York was our business probably wasn’t right-sized in our space. Our main store is 11,000 square feet, which is a huge independent store. I don’t know if that’s needed anymore because that was based on millions of people working in a city and that’s probably not going to happen anymore. Whatever the new version of work from home or going to work is going to be, it’s certainly going to be different. So I want more flexibility. I probably want more stores and smaller stores. Instead of 11,000 square foot store, my ones in the suburbs are more like 3500 and 1000 square feet. I think more boutique-y, more tech-savvy in the sense that some of the things we talked about in terms of people walking in and getting from what I have displayed and then straight deliveries from the manufacturers.
Ken Giddon (25:08):
We want to do a much better job on clienteling and communication with our guys. We just signed on with a great company, had a meeting with them today, called Oneshop, and what they’ve done is they’ve downloaded all our data from our system and created an app that each one of my salesmen has now in their hand every piece of information about the customer. They hit one button, and it sends an email to the guy that says, “Hey, you should come in for this new Faherty stuff we have in,” or whatever they’re trying to shill.
Katie Hankinson (25:41):
Oh, I love it.
Ken Giddon (25:43):
It makes clienteling easy. So we’re looking at things like that. We’re looking at smaller stores. I’m fascinated by the idea of having a Roth truck. That’s my-
Katie Hankinson (25:54):
Oh, like a food truck? That’s awesome.
Ken Giddon (25:57):
No, like a … It’s a food truck, but it’s also … A great client says, “I’m a little afraid to come out,” so, all right, we’re coming to you.
Katie Hankinson (26:05):
Bring it to you.
Ken Giddon (26:06):
We’re going to load up the Roth truck and come to your house.
Katie Hankinson (26:08):
At the beginning of lockdown, there was something that was doing the rounds on LinkedIn, and it was in Germany, I think, where a bunch of the supermarkets were using electric trucks to just bring almost a little miniature grocery store down the road. It reminded me, being British and having grown up in London back when you still had a milkman dropping the milk off every day … The milkman used to come round on those little floats, like electric milk floats. I love the idea of that, and I think New York lends itself so much to that, that kind of local feel. I think that’s awesome.
Ken Giddon (26:47):
Yep. So my little Roth truck off in the future. But I’m looking at it. Part of that manifest destiny is fun things like that but just continuing to respect and love our customer and they’ll love us back.
Katie Hankinson (27:01):
To me, it’s almost a direct mapping of your efficient and rewarding statement. You’re talking about right-sizing to drive efficiency then finding new ways to delight with the funness of the truck but also the concierge type experience. It’s awesome. I wanted to ask you, you’ve been in one of the most hard-hit industries in a pretty tough, gritty city, who do you turn to in some of these challenging times? Where do you get your mentorship? Where are you seeking advice? What are some of the places you go for that?
Ken Giddon (27:37):
You know, it’s so funny. We have such a great customer base, a lot of famous people and a lot of very successful people and a lot of people who have just street smarts. Why I still like coming to work every day is that I like people and I like talking to people, and I can talk to anybody. Some people even have recognized my ability after all these years of talking to men, that’s what I do for a living, that I can … I have a pretty good ability to figure out when someone is bullshitting. If you have a 30-second conversation with someone in a clothing store, if I can’t understand what they do or they can’t give me the elevator pitch, then I start getting a little suspicious, but so that my income is dependent on this for so many years that I have some weird sense or ability to understand men.
Ken Giddon (28:30):
Because of that, I also get really good advice from really smart people from all different backgrounds, always looking for an answer. One of the funny things is, in talking to you guys, it reminded me of an experience when I was … I met James Orsini, who you work with, and I had a very strange experience in that I had two groups that I put together. One was a designer, and one was a manufacturer. I had this great idea to put them together and create this new business, and it was actually a pretty good idea. I had them meet in my office, we shook hands, I was going to have a piece of the deal. Then I was cut out of the deal, very surprisingly, and by two sets of friends. I was livid about it. It had never happened before. It’s never happened again.
Ken Giddon (29:19):
I ran into James, and I was telling him this story and how pissed off I was. So he had a lot of wisdom, and he said to me, “Well, how much were you going to make if it really worked?” I said, “I don’t know, maybe a fee of 50 to 100 grand.” He said, “How much do you make now if you just walked away and got some sort of settlement from them?” I said, “Oh, about 15 grand.” He says, “Is this a part of your core business?” I said, “No.” He goes, “Then just take that 15 grand and go buy yourself a used Mustang convertible and enjoy it.” I just thought to myself-
Katie Hankinson (29:54):
Ken Giddon (29:55):
That completely changed my perspective on things. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten in business. It freed me up to concentrate on my business. I didn’t get the Mustang, but the concept of the Mustang was great.
Katie Hankinson (30:09):
I had one final question, which is the question we’ve been asking at the close of a lot of these conversations. It’s tied to the idea of the building while flying, which is that, yes, we are all acknowledging that everything is moving really fast and you constantly have to be pivoting and adapting to this changing world we’re in. If you think about the actual metaphor of building while flying and you think about pilots, every pilot has an inflight checklist or a preflight checklist that enables them to be able to adapt in midair or do what they need to do. What would yours be? What is the Ken Giddon preflight checklist of setting you up to build while flying?
Ken Giddon (30:53):
I would say, for sure, that you better expect turbulence. Go up knowing that it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Also, know where alternative airports are because you may not be going in the direction you thought you were going. I would also say, probably, make sure you keep the flight attendants happy because it could be rocky and you got to keep everybody happy, so your team has to be happy. I would just go from there, but those would probably be the main things that I would start with. Then just have a way to land the plane.
Katie Hankinson (31:32):
Well, I feel like Rothman’s is in great hands. I’m super excited to see what’s going to happen in the ensuing months. I know you just reopened the New York store on Columbus Day, right?
Ken Giddon (31:45):
Yeah, we just opened. No, October 1st. Yes, we’ve only been open for 14 days. We’re getting a surprising amount of support. People are out there in this grittier, maybe more fun New York. Definitely, people are stepping up because they want to help, and that’s great. But we’re still out there trying to make it efficient and rewarding, and we keep repeating that.
Katie Hankinson (32:06):
Oh, I love it. Well, I hope to also see a Rothman truck on a street near me soon.
Ken Giddon (32:13):
Thank you so much.
Katie Hankinson (32:15):
Thank you very much for joining us today. It’s been wonderful speaking with you. Well, now that we’ve finished that thoroughly interesting interview, we’re getting ready to land. But before we do, Mickey and I spent some time unpacking some of the key takeaways that really stuck out to us.
Mickey Cloud (32:31):
We liken this to the post-game show, where we break down the really extraordinary nuggets that we can all benefit from, including us here at the Sasha Group. So get ready for the Sasha Sidebar.
Katie Hankinson (32:49):
Ken was just such a dude. He was a delight to talk to. It was really fun having his James anecdote.
Mickey Cloud (32:58):
Katie Hankinson (33:00):
I just was so impressed with … I think retail’s taken one of the biggest hits this year in terms of just sideswipes, and it’s just been reeling from all of the changes, and it’s been right at the frontline of that. He was just so optimistic and graceful and chilled and-
Mickey Cloud (33:20):
And calm, right? I think-
Katie Hankinson (33:22):
Mickey Cloud (33:23):
It was so great. My favorite line was, “If you owe somebody $10, they own you. If you owe someone a million dollars, you own them.” I was like-
Katie Hankinson (33:32):
Mickey Cloud (33:32):
When I saw that in your notes, I was like, “Wait, what?” I had never heard that before. But when he broke it down, it was like, yeah, if you owe someone a million dollars on a personal guarantee, they have to talk to you. I’m just going to keep sending it. They’ve got to come to the table. He’s like, “That’s what I did for the past five, six months, was just work on that negotiation.” It’s so funny. Especially when legal teams get involved and procurement and all this kind of stuff and it’s like … You feel like when something’s written and it’s signed, that thing’s ironclad. It’s not going to be able to be moved. Nothing can happen. Then a pandemic happens, you’re like, “Well, let’s look at this and see how much are we actually going to pay that we said we were going to pay,” or-
Katie Hankinson (34:15):
So true. And, also, just the power of personal relationships and treating one another like human beings has just been a really consistent note, I think, through a lot of the conversations that we’ve been having with people through this.
Mickey Cloud (34:33):
Your point about retail taking a huge hit, which it certainly has. I think what’s interesting, though, is there have been companies who have been pushing to change the way retail traditionally happens, right? So the Guideshop, for instance. He mentioned Rothman’s is moving towards this idea of we’re going to have less inventory on the floor, it’s going to be more of a curated experience, and you can have a drink, which has probably always been part of that experience, but he’s going to hold less inventory in a store. That’s what Bonobos was founded on in 2007, was we’re going to have limited supply and a small space as a retail footprint, and then you’re not actually going to walk out of that store with anything. It’s just going to be like you’re going to try it on, you’re going to have someone help guide you through it. It’s literally called the Guideshop. Then you order online and it gets shipped to you. When I moved to New York and first discovered Bonobos, I thought that was amazing because one of the worst things about shopping in New York is you have to lug everything with you.
Katie Hankinson (35:42):
Slog about, yeah.
Mickey Cloud (35:42):
You got to hop in a cab and put it in the truck or something like that. When I was at Bonobos, it was like, “Yeah, great, I’ll just walk out, and then they’ll send it to me.” I always thought, “Man, that is a really interesting retail concept,” and that was 2007, eight, nine when it launched, right? Now, 2020, I would say more retailers are now like, “Oh, huh, we don’t have to just have all of our inventory in the store.” So I think it’s been interesting to see that there’s probably been early adopters that have been pushing retail that way, but it took something like this to force almost everyone probably to look and say, “Hey, well, why do we have the square footage that we have, or how do we use it?” Even just him talking about he’s testing having other brands pay to come get in his space and-
Katie Hankinson (36:28):
Mickey Cloud (36:29):
… monetize that space as opposed to just it being a cost. So that, to me, I thought was super interesting.
Katie Hankinson (36:34):
I agree. I think the other big piece of it which struck me is it sort of takes physical brick and mortar store retailers back to the things that you truly only get in a human one-to-one interaction. So the piece where he’s clearly such a people person and has built real relationships with customers and clients over time is just at the core of how he thinks about the whole experience. That really is at the core of what has been called omnichannel all this time, and it gets so jargon-filled that you forget that it’s just about a one-on-one relationship with a customer in a way that is seamless and adds value.
Mickey Cloud (37:20):
He kept going back to it. It’s efficient and rewarding.
Katie Hankinson (37:23):
Efficient and rewarding, yeah.
Mickey Cloud (37:25):
I thought you would really like that phrasing because it was just like he was so honed in on it and he knew, efficient and rewarding, efficient and rewarding. He knew what he wanted that experience to be, and it was a really detailed, honed-in focus, like we want it to be efficient and rewarding. It seemed like everything kind of circles back to that. I know as a branding person at your heart you [crosstalk 00:37:44]-
Katie Hankinson (37:44):
Yeah, I know. I was like, “Oh, there’s a mantra here.”
Mickey Cloud (37:46):
… stand on their principle, yeah, stand on their values.
Katie Hankinson (37:49):
Totally. I am looking forward to see what happens with the Roth truck. I saw a lot of that happening in the summer, of people experimenting with different ways of getting product to people who maybe weren’t going as far afield as they had been before.
Mickey Cloud (38:08):
Yep. He talked a lot about resilience and how he had wrote out his manifesto focused on three things, to survive, depend on others, and then manifesting our destiny and thinking about what do we want to be on the other side. But you kind of pinned him on, “Well, what’s been the challenge about that, and talk about that and how you think about the future,” and he said it all comes down to resilience, which was so interesting because as he was talking, the vibe I was getting from listening to him, from seeing him is that, man, he is just so cool and calm and didn’t seem stressed. That’s a gene, you know what I mean? On some level, that’s back to the experience coming to the table-
Katie Hankinson (38:47):
Yeah, it’s a real-
Mickey Cloud (38:51):
… but it’s a little bit of a gift, as well. He talked about, “I’m more of a marketer than a merchant,” and he was. You could hear that, whether it was just the core principles of knowing what to go back to from a storytelling perspective, from what do you want the customer experience to be. But then he also had a great line about finding the perfect Zoom shirt and finding that for clients. He said, “Well, what’s the sartorial equivalent of comfort food is what people are looking at.”
Katie Hankinson (39:21):
Mickey Cloud (39:21):
I was like, “Holy crap, sartorial equivalent of comfort food. Where did that come from?” He is a marketer. He is good at that. But then he also seemed aware enough of social and digital when he was like, “We use the hashtag #RealRothmans. We don’t have models, we just show real guys who are looking great in our clothes.” So that, I thought, both the principles of marketing but then he seemed to be somewhat of a practitioner, as well.
Katie Hankinson (39:48):
Agreed. Great chat.
Mickey Cloud (39:50):
Yeah. It was really cool. He had another line that I thought was great, which was he said his grandfather used to say, “We’re just selling pants.” I’d be curious what-
Katie Hankinson (40:00):
Remember we’re not … Yeah.
Mickey Cloud (40:01):
Yeah, yeah. My dad is a surgeon, and so I like to tell people, “We’re not on an operating table.” I was like, “Literally, my dad is on an operating table,” and that gives me perspective on our jobs. But curious what our audience is … What are lines that maybe your granddad told you or your dad told you or your mom told you or your aunt told you and it was something that stuck with you in business?
Katie Hankinson (40:31):
Ooh, love that, especially as this was a family business, something that was passed down, yeah, from a previous generation that you use as an internal mantra. Let’s hear from our audience about that. That’s awesome.
Mickey Cloud (40:46):
Thanks for joining us, gang, and for Building While Flying with the Sasha Group today. I hope you learned as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here next time for another flight. If you’d like to hear more about how business owners and brands are navigating these times, tune into the next episode, and if you’re so kind, please rate and review us. Plus, we love feedback, so let us know what you think, what you’d like us to dig into next on Building While Flying across brands, businesses, marketing, and more.
Katie Hankinson (41:13):
This podcast is produced by the team at mustamplify.com. Original music by Fulton Street Music Group.
Welcome to Building While Flying!
This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.
In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild; building the plane while flying.
Our pilots, Katie Hankinson and Mickey Cloud, will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.
Ken Giddon wants shopping at Rothman’s to be efficient and rewarding for his customers.
Rothman’s Men Clothing is one of those archetypal New York landmarks that we all recognize when we’re in the city. As the owner of this cherished retail spot, Ken Giddon has seen his fair share of catastrophes. His store survived 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and the financial crash of 2008, so a pandemic is no big deal, right? Well, actually, according to Ken, nothing has compared to what he’s seen this last year. But that doesn’t mean the end for Rothman’s. It’s quite the opposite.
In this episode, Ken gives us the incredible backstory of how Rothman’s came to be. His grandfather’s advice, “We’re just selling pants,” is always at the forefront of Ken’s mind. This is entirely evident in his cool, calm, laid back approach to pretty much everything. He gives us the lowdown on the incredible ways he’s adapted the business during the pandemic. And he gives us some hints about the funky ideas he has for the future. Don’t let Ken’s zen persona fool you. His company had to close its doors and sit on millions of dollars worth of inventory when Covid hit. And, of course, there was that million-dollar NYC rent price tag to worry about. What he’s been able to do is no easy feat. This was such an uplifting conversation and Ken had some amazing insights. If you find yourself at a crossroads with your small business right now, you’re going to want to listen up.
Other in-flight topics:
- Rothman’s backstory
- What it’s like to mix family and business
- What’s so gritty about NYC
- Weaving and bobbing
- What makes the buying experience different at Rothman’s
- Negotiation during a pandemic
- A Roth Truck?
- Some hilarious advice our James Orsini gave Ken
- Ken’s pre-flight checklist