From the Front Lines: A CEO's take on technology

It pays to outfit your business with technology in the planning stage, rather than make it an accessory after the fact

A pastor comes into my upscale menswear shop, in Harlem. "My pastoral anniversary is two days away," he says. "And the shoes I was planning to wear got ruined in yesterday's storm. Do you have a pair that will go with the suit I bought here last week?" I step behind the sales counter and tap a few keys on my computer. "Mr. Jones," I say, after glancing at my monitor to make sure that the face on its screen is the same as the one before me, "don't worry. I'm sure we can help you out." I quickly drill down to the "wardrobe coordinator" page of the pastor's profile and see a full-color photograph of the gray Tallia suit and striped tie he purchased last Monday. I then call up the system's inventory-tracking application. "We have a pair of black Cole-Haans, size 10, that would look just smashing."

This is how we operate now at Executive Fashions, the haberdashery business that I opened in December. It's our way of continuing the one-to-one-relationship tradition of the fancy men's shops--A.J. Lester, the Bly Shop, Nat Nevens--that lined the streets here long ago, before computers and before there was a need for a new Harlem renaissance, like the one my store is part of.

My enterprises have not always been so automated. But I've consistently tried to make them so. Most entrepreneurs establish their businesses and then look for the technology to fit them. Not me. Since I struck out on my own, in 1991, I've built my three companies around a software product. And as the program's capabilities have expanded over the years, I've revised my business model to encompass them.

My first business was a sole proprietorship called Power Suits Unlimited, which I operated out of my home, in Queens. Every day, I'd load up three or four shopping bags full of the finest suits--by Hugo Boss, for instance, or San Remo--as well as swatches of fabric of various textures and hues, and head out to appointments at investment-banking firms like Salomon Brothers. The idea was to bring to customers--folks who had no time to shop but had to look sharp--exactly what they needed rather than make them come to me for a limited selection on a rack. While consulting with potential customers, I'd scribble down their designer and color preferences, sizes, and alteration requirements to prepare myself for future sales. Then I'd take their orders and travel to the manufacturers to pick up the suits, which I'd hand-deliver within a week.

My belief in such a customer-centric approach arose not just from what I'd seen growing up in Harlem but also from my 20 years' experience as a salesman for behemoths like IBM and MCI. But I wasn't sure how to pull it off--until I read in Crain's business report about a DOS-based program for clothing retailers called ImageMate (from ImageWare Technologies). Here was a package that would enable me to carry one-to-one-relationship selling to the nth degree. I could maintain a database of customer profiles detailing everything from birthdays, professions, and measurements, to hobbies, power colors, and how often people wore black-tie. I could call up customers by any number of variables (say, all investment bankers who wanted to buy shoes in the winter) for direct-mail campaigns. And I could track buying habits, not just to better my position as a fashion consultant but also to know when my customers were ready for their next appointment or eligible for special discounts.

I wasted no time in securing a bank loan to purchase the $10,000 program (which included a service contract) and installing it on the NEC 386 PC I kept in my living room. (To my wife fell the happy chore of entering the data from my paper sales slips and from the profile cards, generated by the software, that customers filled out.) As Power Suits grew (sales rose to $250,000 annually) and I began to accumulate inventory in every corner of my duplex, I realized it was time to rethink my strategy. ImageMate had an inventory-tracking function and could automatically tabulate salespeople's commissions, based on the information entered into its rudimentary point-of-sale application. Why not grow the business to accommodate a retail store for walk-in traffic and a professional sales force for corporate appointments?

In 1995, with two partners, I set up Savvy for Men in midtown Manhattan. With me came ImageMate, but this time it ran on a Novell network linking three PCs. I had a 1,400-square-foot shop, a fleet of six salespeople (to handle both the floor and outside appointments), two tailors, and an administrator who ran weekly reports for me on everything from sales to inventory. The business did well in its first year--$800,000--but unfortunately, my relationship with one of the partners did not. In late 1996 I sold my shares and left.

By then ImageWare had come out with a Windows version of ImageMate--complete with the ability to store digitized images; a more robust alterations-tracking system (when a tailor checks off in the computer that an alteration is done, the person responsible for the sale is automatically notified in his to-do list); a daily calendar and a tickler application to remind salespeople of the status of each customer; a word processor with letter templates; and telemarketing capabilities such as automatic teledialing and prewritten scripts. Unwilling to let go of my dream of a business that combined retail space with appointment-based sales, I got the system upgrade (my service plan covered the cost) and began searching for a new location.

Harlem, where I was born and raised, came immediately to mind. So in December, along with the partner from Savvy that I was still on good terms with, I opened the doors of Executive Fashions, in a building formerly occupied by the Carver Savings Bank. With 4,000 square feet of retail space, four salesmen (to cover both the store and the tristate area), and one tailor, I felt as if I'd finally come home.

My first step upon moving to 125th Street was to set up ImageMate. I hired a consultant to wire together our three PCs with Windows NT and immediately began to take advantage of the system's new features, particularly the ability to digitize images. Today at Executive Fashions we not only sell wardrobes but plan them. That's because the system carries the equivalent of each customer's closet in its database. When a man comes into the shop, a salesperson makes sure to use a digital camera to snap pictures of him and his purchases--and even items he might buy in the future--and store them as part of the customer's profile. The customer then need only call with a request ("Do you have any belts that go with the suit I bought last Tuesday?") or if he drops by the store, wait moments for a salesperson to call up a screen and his needs will be met.

I hope, as we settle in, to be able to use ImageMate's other enhancements--especially its telemarketing application--to refine my one-on-one-relationship focus still further. And who knows? Perhaps someday, when I can afford to give my salespeople modem-equipped laptops, Executive Fashions will move into the realm of a virtual company, too.

Thomas Garrett is the CEO of Executive Fashions, in New York City.

Published on: Jun 15, 1998