Faced with the most life-threatening change in the company's 83-year history, our staffers performed miracles -- once we let them

"More losses. I don't know how much more we can take," my husband and business partner, Steve, said grimly as we pored over the Christmas sales figures at our clothing store in Grand Forks, a town of about 50,000 in eastern North Dakota. "We won't last another year downtown," I answered. "We have to move the store."

It was a decision we didn't want to face. But the facts were indisputable: the mini- and regional malls on the outskirts of town were more alluring to customers than the downtown area, where there were fewer clothing stores. We were torn not only because our business had been a mainstay of downtown Grand Forks for more than three generations but also because Steve's father owned the buildings we were in. In the 40-plus years we had occupied that location, we had spread out into neighboring buildings and basements. It would be impossible for Steve and me to try to cover everything that would need to be done to uproot the business. One of the biggest problems would be getting our employees to pitch in and make the move go smoothly.

But our financial statements told us we had no choice. In three years sales had dropped more than 30%. We were overloaded in inventory and personnel. And we were about to end the year in the red . . . again.

Steve kept staring at the financials. "We'll kill ourselves trying to move an 83-year-old business," he said. Still, we leased a space in a new minimall with half the square footage of our downtown store.

The business would need a complete makeover, starting with Steve and me. We had basically parented our employees. We set and enforced the rules of the working "household." One or both of us made or approved all decisions. We thought we were managing by a vision that had begun with Steve's grandfather: a commitment to both excellent customer service and a carefree "family" of employees. But in reality, Steve and I spent our time juggling crises.

Our staff was a volcanic mixture of many rock-solid achievers and a few malcontents and slackers, some of whom had been entrenched for more than a decade. But even the efforts of the best and the brightest were dimmed by three years of losses. Most days it seemed as if nobody wanted to come to work.

Where to begin again? We decided to let the staff lead us. "Get into your cars," we announced at a rare full-staff meeting. "You're about to see your future."

We drove to the other end of town and got out at the construction site that was to become the new Silverman's. It was February, and the temperature was well below zero in the concrete and steel shell. But the heat of excitement was high. To the thrill of our tailors, we paced off a new alterations shop that was double the size of the old one. The sales staff marveled at the brightness of the selling floor, even without a single prop or fixture, compared with the dark, windowless space downtown. Only the receiving manager broke a sweat, trying to figure out how he was going to fit a mountain of stock into a molehill of space.

We called the group to the center of the unfinished structure. "The best is yet to come," we said. "But it won't be possible without the full, unconditional efforts of all of you."

Within 48 hours the staff had organized into three teams: one to help set up and oversee the moving sale, one to handle the details of the move, and one to organize the opening of the new store. A "Sorry -- that's not my job" response was unacceptable from anyone, anytime.

Skills emerged that we didn't know people had. One quiet secretary became a phone-system dynamo, researching the costs and capabilities of equipment and surveying staff members to determine their needs. Our marketing manager turned into a decorating whiz kid, going hands-on with a rag and a paint bucket to demonstrate the effect she wanted from the commercial painter. A tailor wowed us with her ability to arrange artificial flowers. A salesman who'd never touched a mannequin surprised us by dressing forms like an expert.

Not everyone was happy to pitch in. A salesman who'd been with us for 25 years quit, fearing the extra work. A bookkeeper who couldn't meet the demanding pace was let go, and one secretary took a job elsewhere with fewer hours. The losses were difficult, but the remaining staff members filled in the gaps. Even their friends and family helped out as temporary hires during the 18-hour days we spent setting up the moving sale.

That sale paid off a lot of old debts; the move was accomplished without injury or loss; and the new store opened exactly on the target date. With improved working conditions, a streamlined inventory, and steadily increasing sales, our staff is now meeting deadlines, reaching sales goals, and filling customers' requests.

Steve and I have decided never to manage by ourselves again. We've teamed up with our sales manager, chief buyer, and bookkeeper to keep things balanced and running smoothly. We meet regularly with members of every department to talk over problems and focus on the direction of the company. The solutions we're generating are cost-effective and have the support of the staff.

One year after we'd made the decision to move, we celebrated with our staff members and their families. "Never in our wildest dreams did we think everything would go this smoothly, this well," Steve said to the crowd. "I hope each of you knows how valuable your contribution was. Robin and I certainly do."

I looked around the room at the people we once considered our dependents. Now they were our colleagues and teachers. "Thanks, everybody," I told them wholeheartedly. "Thanks a lot."

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Robin Landew Silverman is co-owner of Silverman's, a haberdashery in Grand Forks, N. Dak.