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Buffalo Pals
 

It's a city with an economy as wintry as its climate. But those who stick around Buffalo are building flourishing businesses by mustering -- and managing -- the one resource that's still in ample supply: one another.
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It's a city with an economy as dependably wintry as its climate. But those who stick around Buffalo build flourishing businesses by mustering -- and managing -- the one resource that's still in ample supply: one another.

The Butler, as everyone calls it, doesn't look much like a business incubator.

That's partly because the neighborhood it's in, on Buffalo's West Side, is packed with houses, and the lone business nearby -- the Bubble Brush Car Wash -- doesn't exactly scream "office park." Then there's the absence of the much-vaunted business fertilizer known as change. The Butler -- or to invoke its formal name, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Buffalo, Butler Mitchell Clubhouse -- has changed very little since the day it opened on this spot, back in 1955. Only the driveway, which was long occupied by broken-down fences and rusted-out poles, is gone, replaced by a 10,000-square-foot park dominated by a wooden climbing structure and a colorful mural of children at play in the sun. Sunshine Park, the local kids named it.

It was local kids who built the park, too, during a five-day spurt in June 1994. Granted, they were kids of an earlier era. People like Ronald A. Raccuia, now 31, president of Integrity Distribution (#39), an office-supply and furniture business on Buffalo's South Side. And Chris Delprince, 37, founder and president of Lifestyle Street Gear (#65), whose five stores sell hip-hop duds. Ask these business builders to retrace the roots of their thriving inner-city enterprises, and they'll point their respective vehicles toward the Butler. Outside the building, sitting in their idling cars, they'll muse on how much help they got, and still get, from this unlikely business resource. The Butler is where Raccuia found Tom Naples, who became his business partner last September. And, in 1985, Delprince was able to put his retail headquarters up on blocks -- it was his car -- and open his first 400-square-foot store, thanks to a $500 loan from former club director Joe Biondolillo.

Growing up, though, what these future members of Buffalo's business community got from the Butler was a sense of refuge. Raccuia's household bulged with 11 family members, including a pair of great-uncles who shared a bedroom for close to 80 years but barely spoke to each other. Because he lived 10 blocks from the club, Raccuia would get dropped off on summer mornings and spend entire days minding the outfield. Delprince could be found here every day, year-round, playing Bingo, seeing what he could saw in the wood shop, or whacking around a Ping-Pong ball. Sometimes he'd run away from his mother, who was only 15 when he was born, and seek asylum with Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr., then the club's director. " 'I can't stand it,' he'd complain," recalls Bonifacio, a paterfamilias at the Butler for 32 years. "I'd kick him in the ass and send him back to mom."

Delprince never stayed away for long. Nor did he stray far, a decision that served him well as he built what by last year had grown into a nearly $5-million business. Indeed, those boys -- the club resisted admitting girls until 1989 -- who stuck around Buffalo despite an economy as dependably wintry as its climate, emerged from the Butler with personal bonds and community-building skills that have helped shield them from the city's frigid fortunes. "We taught people to care about other people," says Bonifacio. And while few of the Butler's alums became athletes (much to its director's surprise), many developed supreme agility at mustering and managing the single resource in plentiful supply around them: one another. "We've taken what we got there into our lives and into our businesses," says Delprince.

In doing so they've come away with tangible payoffs. Much has disappeared from Buffalo, including its once vibrant industrial base, which was destroyed two decades ago, and 8% of the population, which evaporated between 1990 and 1998. But Raccuia and Delprince -- well schooled in the art of unearthing hidden resources -- stay intently focused on what remains. Delprince, for example, attends liquidation sales as if they were job fairs. He found vice-president of operations Cal Lawson in 1996 while Lawson was helping liquidate the assets of retailer Merry-Go-Round Enterprises. Store manager Jeannette Murray was closing down the children's retailer where she had worked for 17 years when Delprince hired her. The CEO met longtime adviser Peter M. Cammarata at yet another business closing, and Cammarata introduced him to Carolyn Dearth, who became Delprince's vice-president of merchandise. "I may not have known where to look for the things I needed," says Delprince, remembering his earliest days as an entrepreneur. "But I knew how to keep looking."

The Butler's graduates know how to work the town for new connections, often starting with the old ones they value so highly. That kid who played left field next to Raccuia? He works in the mayor's office now. When the city's snowplows block access to Integrity Distribution's loading dock, Raccuia also knows somebody he can call to make sure those mountains are speedily reduced to molehills. Delprince, too, has Butler chums in important places. Hoping to move his flagship store this summer, the phat-faced mogul knows where and how to "plant the seeds" that will let him tap city funds to rehab a building.

"Cleveland has had a tremendous rebound, with people moving back in," complains Lawson, a 29-year-old area native. "Buffalo's not that way." No, it's not. But by looking closely enough, these entrepreneurs have found in this city just about everything they need.

With their shiny chain-link fences, bright red fireplugs, and pristine basketball hoops, Lifestyle Street Gear stores look like an idealized re-creation of their founder's inner-city upbringing. Delprince orders certain styles and colors in small quantities, knowing that it means a lot to his customers -- because it meant a lot to him as a kid -- to wear something unique. "You may not have a pot to piss in, but you'll still take pride in the clothes you wear," says Delprince. "I can relate. They know that."


Buffalo natives know the value of old friendships. The kid who played left field next to Ronald Raccuia? He works in the mayor's office now.


Customers may also feel they know Delprince from his radio ads, in which he assumes the persona of Chris Kringle Delprince, among other characters. "I've been coming here a long time," says a 29-year-old shopper named Theo, who is standing at a Lifestyle register, reeling from having racked up a $70 bill for clothes for his teenage son. "I turn him up on the radio." When Theo points in his direction, Delprince sidles away from the private-label T-shirts he's been adjusting. "Watch out," the CEO warns, jerking his head at me. "He's 5-O." I shrug and squint, universal symbols of cluelessness. "You know, 5-O," Delprince admonishes. "Cop." Me? "No, no, no," I assure Theo. "I'm 4-1-1. Just seeking information." Theo accepts his bulked-up bag from the cashier and strides out, nodding in response to a thank-you from Delprince, who waits until his customer is out of sight to acknowledge me again.

"You'd never make it in this neighborhood," he says, leading me out.

The actual neighborhood of Delprince's youth, on Buffalo's West Side, was an enclave of Italian American immigrants, most of them members of two-parent families, and many of the households -- including Delprince's -- on public assistance. During the past two decades, the area has metamorphosed into a rich mix of Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans, Italians, and even Bosnian refugees. The city's East Side, where Eastern European immigrants conceived grandiose works of ecclesiastic architecture before moving to neighboring suburbs like West Seneca and Cheektowaga, is inhabited largely by African Americans.

In the heart of the East Side, where Kensington and Bailey avenues intersect, Delprince opened his third outlet, in 1997. John Burke, who was then a counselor with the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State College, worked with Delprince at the time. "Have you done any market research?" Burke remembers asking. "No," Delprince replied, "but I don't need to." He then dragged Burke to the street corner. While Burke looked on, Delprince stopped pedestrians to solicit their opinions. "Hey, hey, I'm thinking of opening a store here," he shouted. Five out of five of his random sampling approved of the location -- pointing out, for instance, that it was right on the North-South bus route. But they also seemed to recognize Delprince. "What they said confirmed his theory, but it was also the way they said it: 'You gotta be up at Ken-Bailey, 'cause that's where the action is,' " recalls Burke, who joined Lifestyle and served as chief financial officer and "semi all-purpose adviser" before retiring, in February. "Meanwhile, I'm thinking to myself, 'This guy knows everybody on the East Side of Buffalo.' " The store, Delprince proudly notes, has the highest sales per square foot of all his outlets.

It doesn't always look that way. Popping in to the Ken-Bailey store one February morning, Delprince finds only a handful of shoppers poking around among the jeans sets and the cargo pants. That's not unusual, says the CEO, since his core customers -- African American males between the ages of 17 and 35 -- tend to shop later in the day. A baggy-jeaned shopper is planted in the middle of the 3,000-square-foot store, yakking away on his cell phone. As soon as his two friends make their purchases, they all rush out. "Your friend's on a mission, right?" Delprince says jovially, as they whiz past him. When it comes to crime, Delprince seems to believe, unfamiliarity breeds attempt. "I make it a point to act like I know them when I don't know them, because that's the welcome feeling we want to give them," he explains. "They're not going to some suburban mall where somebody is looking at them like thugs."

Delprince depends on employees and off-duty cops, paid by local businesses to patrol the neighborhood, to help identify the "players" among his customers. He makes sure the professional thieves "know that we know who they are," he says. Not that Lifestyle never gets hit. Last summer thieves made off with $30,000 worth of clothes from the company's warehouse, and Delprince worked closely with the police to find the culprits. "We wanted them to know they shouldn't mess with Delprince," he says. "On the street, everybody knows the places not to steal from. The neighborhood buzzes." He also makes sure to create a stir when he catches an employee stealing, having the accused hauled off in handcuffs.


"I make it a point to act like I know customers when I don't know them, because that's the welcome feeling we want to give them," says Chris Delprince.


Security is a natural concern for Lifestyle because about 85% of Delprince's customers pay in cash, forking over as much as $2,000 at a time. Lifestyle Street Gear is very much, as Sean "Puffy" Combs would put it, "all about the Benjamins." Puff Daddy also happens to produce Sean John, one of the hottest urban clothing brands. Other big sellers for Delprince include lines from Phat Farm (owner Russell Simmons cofounded influential Def Jam Records), Johnny Blaze, South Pole, Uspolo, and FUBU. The names of fly brands, emblazoned on green street signs, actually fly overhead at the stores. Boss Jeans, Delprince fears, may soon lose its altitude. "It's on its way out," he predicts.

How does he know? Wearing a soft leather jacket and a green sweater, Delprince seems unlikely to model the clothes he sells, including polyester shirts imprinted with kung-fu fighters or Asian letters carefully "engineered" so that their images remain intact even after buttoning. And although Delprince credits rap singers with setting the trends -- hip-hop being, for those scrubs who aren't down with it, the culture surrounding rap -- he has trouble naming any. In a valiant attempt he stumbles over the second -- and last -- name he throws out, censoring himself by concluding that syrupy diva Mariah Carey is "really more of an R& B singer." He promises to dig up examples, though, by sampling the pages of Vibe and The Source, the rap magazines his customers treat like "little Bibles."

Delprince won't fake it; in the spirit of rap, he's committed to keeping it real. So he is not ashamed to admit that he decides what to stock mostly by talking to other people and scouring trade shows. In part, that's because he knows he's got a surefire bond with his customers, having demonstrated such a "good sense of the market that it's been difficult for him to make mistakes," according to Dearth, the vice-president of merchandise. Delprince explains that he shares a language with his clientele. "I speak street," he says. "I can talk the jive." He can, but he doesn't overdo it. It's less convincing when Burke, 67, a former strategic planner at General Electric, repeatedly refers to "the hood" as he's discussing store location.

"He always blended in with the ghetto real good," confirms James Barclay, who was a customer in the late 1970s, when Delprince -- who'd begun hawking "deals on wheels" from the trunk of his Dodge Aries -- upgraded to a hole-infested van. "He was outspoken, and he gave us a good deal." The way Barclay remembers it, Delprince would come bounding around the street corner shouting, "Hey, you guys like bargains?" Or he'd park in the middle of a residential street, start knocking on doors, and yell, "I've got a big sale out here." That was a "herd sale," as Delprince dubbed it, because once he got one person to emerge, the entire block followed.

Delprince's marketing message apparently rubbed off on Barclay, who until recently was crammed behind the counter of an 1,800-square-foot store across the street from Lifestyle's East Side outlet. The sign outside says "America's Big & Tall," but that's just a remnant of the store Barclay owned until 1998, when Delprince bought the building. "He bailed me out," says Barclay, whose own business at the time was teetering toward foreclosure. Since then he's been working for Delprince, selling winter outerwear that doesn't fit in the Lifestyle store. "The price is so cheap, you'll save money even if you just keep it in the trunk and use it when you need it," Barclay roars at one customer. "It's 50% off," he booms in a Barry White baritone, "but I'll give you 25% more." Delprince walks in, and Barclay waves a receipt documenting the sale of three coats to one customer. Barclay immediately urges me to make a similar purchase, and I admit I'm tempted. There's just something about the man that makes him persuasive. Maybe it's the loud laugh. Or the disarming glare. Or maybe it's the fact that he's six feet five and weighs 420 pounds. He uses it, too.

In April, Barclay moved to a 1,500-square-foot addition to the main outlet that Delprince built to house outerwear. (The former Big & Tall space has been given over to a Lifestyle store for young kids.) Carl Paladino, a Buffalo native who heads the real-estate-development company that oversaw the construction of the addition, complains about the "very thin" margins of such a job. "We had to build this efficiently," says the CEO of Ellicott Development Co. "It's tough to build new for an enterprise like this."

Those thin margins, Paladino believes, apply to most inner-city companies. "It's a huge risk working in the city," he laments. "People will steal your eyeballs out."

But Paladino, who ranks himself the "largest landlord of city property," says that some parts of the city show more signs of life than others. He claims the southern part of Buffalo -- specifically a neighborhood called the Old First Ward -- is "one of the only viable spots in the area." Although it is only two miles from city hall, the Old First Ward may as well be 100 miles -- and 100 years -- away. Sky-high grain elevators line the banks of the Buffalo River, guarding its southern flank. Many of the Irish Americans who settled here originally labored as grain scoopers, unloading the grain from boats from the lake and shoveling it into bins or oceangoing boats. It's an industry that's almost gone now. "The St. Lawrence Seaway doomed Buffalo," declares 60-year-old Danny Sansone, who grew up here. "That was the beginning of the end. That was the end, in fact."

True, the St. Lawrence did open up a direct route from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, performing a bypass on Buffalo's docks. But the way Sansone talks about it -- rattling his head as if he's still trying to absorb the shock -- it would seem heartless to mention how long ago it transpired: 1959.


The natural tendency among these inner-city businesspeople to shore one another up makes the city of 300,000 feel like a giant entrepreneurial support group.


Yet it's no wonder that Sansone can't forget. The office of the Grain Miller's Union, Local 36, is one of 17 tenants in a 250,000-square-foot warehouse building he owns. And the voices of nostalgia are everywhere. Walk into Leahy's, a neighborhood bar across the street from the warehouse, and Mike, one of half a dozen patrons, reminisces about the area as it once was. "You couldn't walk a block without a gin mill," he recalls, nursing a Budweiser while the unfolding drama of Wheel of Fortune blares from above the bar. "Most of the parents and the kids worked in the grain elevators." Now 57, Mike, who declines to give his last name, spent his career scooping grain. So did his dad and his brother. "There were a million places to do that around here," he muses. "And then they just began closing up."

Fortunately, some new businesses have replaced them, including Integrity Distribution, which leases 2,500 square feet of office space (soon to be 3,500) in the block-long building Sansone owns. Houses surround the company on three sides, which means the warehouse workers know their residential neighbors. How well they know them depends on how disciplined those homeowners are about closing their drapes. The turning radius outside Integrity's loading dock is so tight that a driver could almost reach through a window and flip on a coffeemaker.

Nobody's suggested that, but a couple of years ago Sansone accommodated the neighbors by spending $80,000 to move the building's receiving dock. Truck noise hadn't been a major problem back when Integrity was a $90,000 company selling cups, napkins, and other paper goods. Then in 1993 Raccuia approached Integrity owner Peter Hammerl about becoming partners and distributing office supplies. Hammerl, who had worked as a bartender with Tom Naples, a friend of Raccuia's from the Butler, agreed, beginning an upward trajectory that is projected to produce sales of $6.6 million this year. But with more and more goods to deliver nightly, wholesalers started arriving earlier and earlier, waking neighbors with their rumblings at 4 a.m. The neighbors complained, and Sansone says he gave in as a matter of "damage control" after a local politician "made it her cause to come to the aid of these beleaguered homeowners."

Having good relations with the community pays off for Raccuia daily. The neighbors park in Integrity's lot, and he credits their presence with the fact that "our trucks don't get broken into." Then there's the arrangement with three local gas stations/convenience stores operated by BAP Inc., of which Carl Paladino is president. It's at those stations that three of Integrity's drivers routinely fill up. (The fourth drives a diesel-powered rig.) The stations bill Integrity weekly, and the company cuts a check within three days. From Raccuia's point of view, it's much more efficient than having drivers carry credit cards or hang on to receipts. Paladino terms the deal "unusual" but considers it a practical response to what's happening -- or, rather, not happening -- in downtown Buffalo. "It's pretty desolate right now," he says. "This way, we get guaranteed so many gallons that we can pump. And we're going for volume, so we can stay alive." Ray Gonzalez, the 71-year-old owner of the Buffalo Wholesale Flower Market, where Raccuia buys the floral arrangements he often sends customers, says that for him the key to survival has been focusing on wholesaling rather than retailing. "We don't need people around," he explains.


"It's always good to have the mayor cutting up ribbons and talking you up," says Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.


The natural tendency among these inner-city businesspeople to shore one another up makes the city of 300,000 feel like a giant entrepreneurial support group. Raccuia counts exactly one employee who came to Integrity through any venue as impersonal as a newspaper ad. Integrity driver Edward Romanini is an old friend from -- where else? -- the Butler, where he played baseball and "hung out with Napes," as he refers to Naples. (Romanini's older brother did his hanging with Delprince.) Another driver, Ed Nagy, operated a Ferris wheel at one of Hammerl's earlier ventures, a traveling carnival. Paul Nasca, one of four sales reps, played baseball both against Raccuia (in high school) and beside him (in college). Naples, who lives half a mile from Raccuia and is godfather to his son (an honor Raccuia returns), was a financial analyst at the local branch of the Federal Reserve Bank when Raccuia suggested he come aboard as a partner and buy 25% of Hammerl's interest. "I was looking for a change," says Naples, who had worked at the Fed for nearly 14 years after graduating from Canisius College, also Raccuia's alma mater. "And it looked like we could really build something here."

By "here" Naples means Integrity Distribution; but he might as well be talking about Buffalo itself. Paladino diagnoses the city as "a community that collectively doesn't have any self-esteem." But the members of this business circle share a (guarded) optimism that is reflected in city government, most blatantly in the renaming of its redevelopment agency from the Buffalo Enterprise Development Corp. to the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. "I liked getting the word renaissance in there," says Alan H. DeLisle, who made the switch when he became president of the organization, two years ago. "It gives me something to shoot for."

Raccuia and DeLisle both worked for Anthony M. Masiello, who was then state senator. (Masiello is now in his second term as Buffalo's mayor.) Like so many Buffalo connections, the one between Raccuia and DeLisle has continued to bear fruit: DeLisle helps Raccuia identify fertile spots to prospect for new customers. For example, DeLisle pointed Integrity's owner toward one downtown area that the city has been trying to seed with dot-com companies. Figuring the newcomers will need to rent office furniture, Raccuia has worked to gain a literal "early mover" advantage there. "If we do one of those offices, we can use that as a referral for other companies moving in," says Raccuia, who signed on his first dot-com customer more than a year ago.

And if he needs referrals, Raccuia can collect them from the highest echelons of city government. "We come from the same neighborhood, and we share a similar past," notes Mayor Masiello, who frequented the Butler with his boyhood buddy Bonifacio, now a council member. The Butler's West Side environs, not surprisingly, are well represented in city hall. The mayor's brother, Mike, who -- for reasons involving an unlikely combination of yellow galoshes and a country-club golf course -- is referred to as Boots by Raccuia, is director of stadiums and auditoriums. Buffalo's Sewer Authority, the sole city agency among Integrity's customers, is run by one of the CEO's former neighbors. And when Integrity's drivers are ticketed or city snowplows block the company's docks, Raccuia places a call to the director of parking enforcement. They're old friends. From the Butler, of course.

Visiting city hall with Raccuia, I ask him the whereabouts of a rest room. A man walking down the hall toward us stops and motions me to follow him. Unlocking the door to an apparently exclusive washroom, he introduces himself as Michael A. Seaman, city treasurer and a Butler alum. I emerge to find Seaman and Raccuia analyzing each other's golf swings.

When Delprince visits city hall, he doesn't swing in the halls, but he does stride through them like a one-man parade, blowing kisses and slapping backs. Oddly enough, it's the same way he floats through one of his stores, except that the city hall folks don't work for him. Still, Masiello sounds at times as if he's trying to sell his services to the retailer. "It's always good to have the mayor cutting up ribbons and talking you up," Masiello points out.

In fact, it's Delprince who introduces me to Masiello. Emerging from a meeting with Council Member Bonifacio, we pause in city hall's marble-floored lobby to admire the bust of Buffalo native Grover Cleveland. "Is there anybody else you'd like to see?" Delprince asks. I mumble something about the mayor. "Let's go," he says, turning and bounding up to the second floor. When Masiello comes out of his office, he seems unsurprised to find Delprince hovering. "Mr. Mayor," Lifestyle's founder begins. "How are you?" While I talk with Masiello, Delprince corners the mayor's executive assistant, Peter Savage. He and Savage are old friends from -- well, you know. Savage's son, Peter III, works on Bonifacio's staff, and his wife did a stint at Lifestyle Street Gear.

Heading back downstairs, Delprince seems a touch giddy. "I could spend the entire day here," he says. For a moment, it almost feels as if he's back at the Butler, hanging with his pals. Then he catches himself, remembering how far he's come. "Yeah, I could," he says. "But unfortunately, I'm not making any money being with you."

Joshua Hyatt is a senior editor at Inc.

For a detailed list of Inner City 100 companies, please see The Inner City 100: America's Urban Superstars.


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: May 1, 2000




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