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EPISODE #31

#31 5th Generation of Success – UWM Men’s Shop

Fifth generation business owners of UWM Men’s Shop, Bart, Brandon and BJ Stringham discuss how they have been able to weather recessions, depression and other challenges over the last 100 years!
UWM Men’s Shop was established in 1905 and continues strong today providing men’s fashion in Salt Lake City, Utah.

 

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Transcription:

Speaker 1:

From his first job flipping burgers at McDonald’s and delivering The Washington Post, Craig Willett counts only one and a half years of his adult life working for someone else. Welcome to The Biz Sherpa podcast with your host, Craig Willett. Founder of several multimillion-dollar businesses and trusted advisor to other business owners, he’s giving back to help business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs achieve fulfillment, enhance their lives, and create enduring wealth.

Craig Willett:

This is Craig Willett, The Biz Sherpa. I’m excited to have you join me today for this episode. I’ve got some really good people that I’d like you to meet. They own UWM Men’s Shop in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the City Creek Center. The Stringham family, BJ, Bart and Brandon. They’re fourth- and fifth-generation business owners and I hope that today you’re able to take from what they teach us and from their experiences a lot about marketing, sales, customer service and also, how to get along in business and stay family. Welcome, guys.

BJ Stringham:

Thank you.

Brandon Stringham:

Thank you.

Bart Stringham:

Thank you.

Craig Willett:

Grateful that you’d join The Biz Sherpa podcast. It’s really rare and I have to give you great recognition and commend you for being fourth- and fifth-generation business owners. Do you guys realize how rare that is?

Brandon Stringham:

Yes, actually, we do realize how rare that is.

Craig Willett:

Really? What makes you realize that? What—

Brandon Stringham:

Actually, I was curious, so we’ve googled it before just to see what the percentages are and from what I could find, less than 3% of family businesses make it to fourth-generation, and I couldn’t find any statistics on fifth-generation. So yes, we know it’s very rare.

Craig Willett:

That is very rare. Recently, I interviewed a sixth-generation—

Brandon Stringham:

Wow.

Craig Willett:

—but it was a harness maker, very skilled practice, very niche market. And I’m sure this has migrated from what it first started out as. UWM Men’s Shop was formerly known as Utah Woolen Mills. What was that about five generations ago? Bart, do you want to share with us what that was like?

Bart Stringham:

Our business in the old days— that was great-grandpa and grandma. It was direct-to-consumer sales. We had over 400 salesmen at one time canvassing the United States and Alaska, and we made things. We went around to farmhouses, set up in hotel rooms and the people would come to us. From where that was to what it is today, as a high-end men’s retail shop, some big changes.

Craig Willett:

What was it that they made in that—

Bart Stringham:

Well, they specialized in coats, outerwear, underwear, suits, sweaters. Clothing. Everything—

Craig Willett:

Wow.

Bart Stringham:

—people needed at the time. Back in those days, they didn’t go to malls and the cars were—I mean, there was no central place to buy so they got everything.

Craig Willett:

The store went to them, basically?

Bart Stringham:

The store was there. We had sample cases. We still have the sample cases around the store here because that’s our heritage of what we used to do. Now, people come here and we just lay it all out.

Craig Willett:

Well, we’re going to get some video of that to make sure we’re showing that during this podcast to show that. That’s amazing that you had preserved that kind of heritage. What are some of the key principles that have led to the success for the generations of the Utah Woolen Mills-UWM Men’s Shop legacy?

BJ Stringham:

I think one of the core principles is just we have a set of cultural beliefs, and one of them is “Own it.” I own our results and consistently ask what else I can do to achieve them? I think from my perspective growing up, seeing my dad and my grandfather work just insane hours to make sure the business got taken care of, not seeing my dad all December because he was here at the shop.

Craig Willett:

It’s true that, in retail, December’s the biggest month of the year?

Brandon Stringham:

By far.

BJ Stringham:

But for me—and I don’t want to speak for them—but for me, just owning what the responsibility is, not waiting for somebody else to do it I think is probably the core principle that’s kept us in business.

Craig Willett:

Get in, get it done and—

BJ Stringham:

No excuses.

Craig Willett:

Get it done and be accountable.

BJ Stringham:

Be accountable.

Craig Willett:

“Be accountable,” I love that. Great. How was it to be accountable, Bart, to your father?

Bart Stringham:

Kind of the same. I just figured he would do everything unless I stepped in and tried to take some responsibility off his shoulders because he wasn’t waiting around for other people to do it, it was for him to do. For me, I liked being able to relieve a little bit of that burden, be here, help him, and take over and not have him having to micro-manage because he knew if I said I would do it, I would get it done.

Craig Willett:

That’s great. That’s good DNA for your family. How did it go from going on the road to becoming a premiere men’s high-end retail shop today? What was the next step from having 400 salespeople to manage on the road? That’s a big deal.

Bart Stringham:

Well, I think what happened is just history. The automobile, malls and stores, the accessibility for people to travel, be where they want to be, get what they want, so the traveling salesmen aspect kind of changed. It wasn’t as viable. Our business—we became more centralized in the things that sold the best, like clothing, suits, sport coats, slacks. We still did do blankets but those were the things that sustained us, these items that people would come to us for that kind of quality because they were used to it and as the salesmen started doing less and less on the road, we did more and more in the store. The store became the focal point.

Craig Willett:

How long has the store been here?

Bart Stringham:

Well, we had a store even back in the day, so 115 years.

Craig Willett:

115 years. Wow. What a legacy—

Bart Stringham:

Yeah, 115 years is a long time.

Craig Willett:

—to have. Not a lot of businesses make it that far, like you said. What are some of the other principles? I like what BJ said but Brandon, do you have any ideas that you’d like to share about principles that have guided you as you stepped into more responsibility here?

Brandon Stringham:

It’s interesting. I hadn’t thought too much about it. Bart was mentioning he had to take over roles that my grandfather was doing and I think that’s—without him saying that, that’s what I did and that’s what BJ did. I looked at how our books were being done and it was all done by hand. It was correct, it just—we wanted to know where we were at today and we never knew, we always had to wait. I was like “Well, why is that the case?” It seems crazy but about— I don’t even know how long ago—maybe 10 years ago is when I got us computerized and got us onto inventory and constant, consistent spreadsheets of “We know exactly where we’re at, at any one time.”

It was just one of those things that wasn’t there. It was creating opportunities for myself for a full-time job because I didn’t see myself being on the sales floor forever. Sales isn’t my thing. BJ’s great at sales, my dad’s great at sales, but that’s never been my thing, so I wanted to create something that I’m good at, which is numbers. I think it’s just a way of being able to see something that needs to be done, creating it for yourself and do it. I think that’s the principle I’m trying to get at there is you need to create it.

Craig Willett:

If you have to create it, I’m interested in the 10 years that you’ve automated the accounting system. Are there some things that you’ve changed your pattern of as a company from the information being more timely and maybe more in detail?

Brandon Stringham:

Oh, man, yeah. Definitely.

Bart Stringham:

Regarding every aspect of our business. Just—

Craig Willett:

Really?

Bart Stringham:

Inventory, for example. We know exactly what we have at any time. “Oh, we need more of this, we need more of that.” We can anticipate, and “This isn’t selling very well.”

Craig Willett:

So you just don’t go based on feel, you have to really be honest. The numbers don’t lie.

Bart Stringham:

Yes, and let’s face it, like blankets. My dad had to have blankets, everybody had blankets. We sold tons and tons of blankets. I’ll never forget, we got the computers, the boys came to me and says “Hey, you know, blankets are 2% of our volume. It’s taking up 20% of our space. This makes no sense, does it Dad?” I go “No, it doesn’t make sense.” Blankets were gone.

Craig Willett:

Wow. That’s pretty good information.

Bart Stringham:

Yep.

Craig Willett:

What other things besides blankets? What else did you find in that process?

BJ Stringham:

I think for me, because it’s such a personal business for us, having accurate data about what happened last year at this time on this date sales-wise—it gets very easy to get down. Anybody who’s in sales understands how it is when sales are not what they were the year before, so you’re always comparing yourself. You’re never satisfied. Having accurate data changed the game, at least for me, to be able to say “Wait a sec. This is normal. It’s okay.” To be able to step back a little bit and be able to see that this is just how business is. It fluctuates. Having the data to show it really eases a lot of those fears and “Oh, what’s going to happen?” Anyway, I just think for a good mental state, to be able to see the numbers was important.

Craig Willett:

I think that’s great. It goes back to the accountability principle, too, but also, I like that because numbers on their own without some understanding don’t really mean anything. It’s probably nice to have Brandon’s strength—

Brandon Stringham:

Awesome.

Craig Willett:

—to help with the business. What was it like and is there a formal passing of the baton? When does the father know it’s time to hand it over to the son?

BJ Stringham:

That’s the best question ever.

Brandon Stringham:

Let Bart handle that.

BJ Stringham:

Yeah. When do you know that?

Bart Stringham:

That’s really interesting. My role has changed here. It’s been rather difficult because I’ve been so hands-on in every aspect, every aspect: the numbers, the buying, the selling, the relationships, the advertising—everything, everything. I think Brandon just hit it. You start looking and they start looking at how could they relieve some of the pressures or the weight that I was carrying? And they did. For me, it’s been so easy because my goal now is to coach and to help our guys see what there is, see the vision and give some enthusiasm towards our goal, which is to satisfy the needs of our customers.

Craig Willett:

That’s great. So you knew when it was time?

Bart Stringham:

Well, I’m still involved on a different basis, but the time is they’re running the business and have been for several years, so it’s—yeah.

Craig Willett:

That’s great. You mentioned something really important and that is relationships. How do you pass relationships that you’ve had for 40 years to the next generation?

Bart Stringham:

Well, you’re a perfect example. You come in here, right, and—

Craig Willett:

Well, I call you up and make sure you come in. I track you down.

Bart Stringham:

Right, except if I’m not here, you’re with Brandon, you’re with BJ or with any of our guys. It’s so easy. I had a guy call me yesterday. He says “Hey, I’m in town.” I wasn’t here. I says “Don’t worry about it, the tailor will know you and take care of you.” Spent a lot of money, but he was so happy. Calls me, he says “This is amazing.” It’s pretty easy because our goal is the same: let’s take care of the customer and there’s no ego involved here. 

BJ Stringham:

I think it’s also different because I think we visualize the business differently. Growing up in the business, it was every relationship was handled by a Stringham, full stop. That’s how business is done.

Craig Willett:

Right. Well, that’s how I came to know the business 30 years ago. It was your grandfather or your dad.

BJ Stringham:

Well, one of the big changes that we’ve made is looking at this more as “Well, wait a sec, is this something we can scale? Is this something we can grow?” If it’s up to me to be here, or Brandon or Bart to have those relationships, there’s only so many relationships, there’s only so many hours in the day and at what cost? We’ve made a lot of changes and they’ve been difficult to implement, both from a traditional standpoint, from the feelings that we have inside about what we should do because we’ve— you know, I’ve seen my dad work—

Craig Willett:

Because it’s your baby.

BJ Stringham:

I’ve seen my dad work Christmases my entire life, and I haven’t worked nearly the time in December, but we chose to do it differently. What we have chosen to do is we’ve hired more guys and we’ve said, “Wait a sec. The relationship is key. How can we teach other people what we know how to do so that we’re basically multiplying Stringhams so that people can have the same great relationship and the same experience, but it’s not necessarily me?” Can I use my skills that I’ve learned from watching my dad for 40 years—and I’ve been doing it for 20 years—can I use those skills to teach them how to do it so that maybe not only this location but can we do another location? Could we do another location and not lose that feel? Taylor, for instance, has been with us for 10 years and he has people that have just as strong a relationship that you and my dad have with him and his customers. As far as they’re concerned, UWM Men’s Shop—

Craig Willett:

Is Taylor.

BJ Stringham:

—is Taylor.

Brandon Stringham:

Right.

Bart Stringham:

Is Taylor.

BJ Stringham:

Taylor Hawkins. He’s not a Stringham but, as far as they’re concerned—

Craig Willett:

That’s amazing. You’re onto something here. I really want to talk about this more. This is a really interesting concept because so often as business owners, we feel like we have the magic formula and it resides with us as entrepreneurs. It’s difficult to try to train that, I think. For many of us, one, it makes us feel like “Oh, I have to give something up,” and “I’m giving up something and I’m really risking that they’re going to offend one of my prized customers.” How did you go about transitioning that? Your philosophy is “Take care of the customer and their needs.” How do you teach people to know the needs of the customers and then take care of them? You’ve been able to successfully do that. And you’ll see video of the story, you’ll be able to know that it’s not just Stringham-dependent.

BJ Stringham:

Well, we’re doing that but it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a challenge for us. We met with a great coach. What, it’s been about a year ago? Was it a year? Over a year ago. Tom Smith. He wrote Change the Culture, Change the Game. He lives in Provo. He is a great customer of ours, for years. I mean, he’s been shopping with us for a long time. I was talking to him one day about “Well, how do we do this? How do we grow?” I said, “How do we hold people accountable? How do we teach them how to do it how we want them to do it?” He says “Well, I wrote the book on that.” I was like “Really? Tell—”

Bart Stringham:

Yeah, read the book first.

BJ Stringham:

So anyway, we went down to his house and we spent a Saturday, no less, which for us was a big step because Saturday’s our biggest day, but we were not at the store. At his house, we wrote all the things that we feel like could be better in our business, that we didn’t like about ourselves and our business and it was a really brutal, honest evaluation of our business.

And then, it was really fun because, then, we wrote the other side of, What do we want it to be? That’s where we came up with our cultural beliefs and there’s some fundamental beliefs that we have that we work with our entire team every day. When COVID hit, we did training videos. Now, we literally are sitting down with our guys and we say “Okay, look, when this situation happens, how do we want you to handle it?” I had to watch him for 20 years to really be able to effectively handle—

Craig Willett:

Experience is a great teacher.

BJ Stringham:

Experience, right? All of a sudden, we’ve tried to put all those experiences on videos, we’re walking our guys through those videos and we’re saying “Okay, look, this is what happens with that, this is what happens with this.” Anyway, that’s—

Craig Willett:

Through those experiences-

BJ Stringham:

—been that transition was sharing those experiences.

Craig Willett:

—and they understand principles that they can apply.

Bart Stringham:

Well, they can watch him. Watch him over and over again, pause it and just say, “Oh, this is what’s happening here, this is what’s happening there. Why did he do that in that situation?” Then, we explain it and they go, “Oh, I get it.” Everything makes sense because it does make sense because now, we’re in our 115th year. We know it’s successful, we just have to show others how to do it.

Craig Willett:

Now, I’m really curious: are you willing to spill some of the beans of the success? How do you know when you say, “People do this. Why did they do that?” You certainly understand customer behavior.

BJ Stringham:

Sure.

Craig Willett:

Is that right?

BJ Stringham:

You were going to say something. Did you—

Brandon Stringham:

Well, this is a little bit of back to what we were talking about with the experience, so it’s just real quick. One of the things that forced us to do this is they built City Creek next to us. This very big, successful mall, and we had to change our store hours. Well, we didn’t have to, we chose to change our store hours to compete with the mall. We’d always been open from 9:00 AM until 6:00 PM and we wanted to do—

Craig Willett:

Right, because you were an inner-city retail store.

Brandon Stringham:

Right, an independent store. We thought we should compete with the mall and they were open until 9:00 PM. That’s a huge change for a store that’s always been open until 6:00—

Craig Willett:

Right, and if you’re the family doing it, how do you get home for dinner?

BJ Stringham:

Ever.

Brandon Stringham:

We were trying it and after a couple weeks, “I can’t do this. I can’t work 12-hour days, five, six days a week. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t care if I’m making money, it’s not worth it to me.” BJ actually reached out to our—Tyler was the first part-time—

BJ Stringham:

Yeah.

Brandon Stringham:

—employee, right?

BJ Stringham:

Yeah.

Brandon Stringham:

It was a guy that just happened to walk in the store and BJ just offered him a job. Then, Taylor came on very soon after that and we were saying Taylor’s the one that’s been here for 10 years. We, after a little while, trusted them to run the store from 6:00 PM until 9:00 PM, so they were forced to learn it and I think that was a really good thing for them to get those experiences and have to have it, but it took them a little bit longer than this new training process, where it’s been a lot better than, “Hey, go figure it out,” it’s, “This is how you can do it. Now go figure it out.”

Craig Willett:

Hire out of necessity here, help us fill in the gap—

Brandon Stringham:

That’s what started it is City Creek moving in and us being forced to adapt to it, more or less.

Craig Willett:

He must know what he’s doing because I know the last time I was here—then, I want to get into this customer behavior thing because, and this might be the key to it. I was buying a few things and we were getting ready to leave. I’m usually trying to tell Bart “No, I have enough.”

Bart Stringham:

I never listen.

Craig Willett:

Somebody—and it must’ve been Taylor—came up to me and I ended up with this jacket at home. I had it in my closet for almost a year. I put it on the other day, my wife said, “Oh, that’s the coat that—” my wife said, “That guy needs a promotion down there. You were ready to leave, and he pulls this coat off and you bought it. You didn’t wear it for a year.” Now, I wear it a lot but it was kind of an interesting experience for me. Anyway, enough on that. How do you understand customer behavior? How does it help you with your sales and how do you train people to recognize that?

BJ Stringham:

That’s everything. It’s everything. What we’ve learned is men don’t like to shop. Men, if they’re going to shop, they want it to be fun. They—

Craig Willett:

That’s why you have a ping-pong table in here?

BJ Stringham:

We have two. We’ve got all types of ping-pong tables.

Bart Stringham:

Pool table, too.

Brandon Stringham:

And a pool table.

Craig Willett:

A pool table, okay.

BJ Stringham:

In our new shop, we’ve got a punching bag just to get out the stress before you shop. We’re men, so we know what we like, we know how we want to be treated, so as far as our training’s concerned, it’s just addressing those things. I always tell our guys the minute a man walks in the store, there’s a stopwatch. You’ve got a limited amount of time to make it a good experience for him so be on it. If he likes the jeans, you make sure you know what model he’s in so, if he wants another couple colors, he doesn’t have to try them on, it’s just there, just done. Make it easy because guys hate to shop, and that’s—

Craig Willett:

Oh, now I get it. That’s why I have three pair of the same thing.

BJ Stringham:

Exactly why. We’re giving you the inside scoop. Yet, you’ve been shopping with us for how long?

Craig Willett:

30 years.

BJ Stringham:

Do you enjoy your experience?

Craig Willett:

Oh, always.

BJ Stringham:

That is because of the behind the scenes things that you don’t see that I’ve learned and we’ve taught our guys. It’s, “Hang on, there’s a reason why people like shopping with us. These are the reasons.” Make it quick, make it painless, take all the hassle out of it, make it easy. That’s it.

Bart Stringham:

And make it right. One of the first things we tell our guys: don’t sell stuff to sell stuff. Make sure it’s going to actually work for the customer. Find out what the customer does and have it work. You just said you had a coat for a year. Now, you’re wearing it all the time but, if we sell you the wrong thing, Craig, you’re never going to come back. If we sell you the right thing, maybe one thing, two things or 20 things. If they’re right, you come back, you have a great experience. It has to be the right thing.

Craig Willett:

Well, that’s great. There’s no high pressure?

Bart Stringham:

No.

BJ Stringham:

No high pressure.

Bart Stringham:

It’s just fun. The more you spend, the happier you are.

Craig Willett:

That’s an interesting philosophy. Let’s put that into business books. Let’s put that in writing. Don’t tell everybody’s family budget about that one but okay. You mentioned another location. How did you evolve to another location?

BJ Stringham:

You want to take that one?

Brandon Stringham:

Sure. We’ve talked about it for quite some time and part of the problem with Utah Woolen Mills and leading us to change to UWM Men’s Shop was the perception of what we were. The second location is actually called Tom Nox Men’s Shop. It’s a completely different name, it’s a different business, it’s also a different price point. It’s not even true, but people just assume that our suits are $8,000 here. We have $8,000 suits but we also have $800 suits. That gets missed somewhere in translation so, basically, we wanted a clean start to be able to go and really tell people what it is that this Tom Nox brand can do. We have suits at Tom Nox that range anywhere from $495 up to maybe $4,000, but the bulk of them are $900 to $1,000. It really was a way for us to get a clean start. We’ve been renting downtown for a long time. We wanted to not have a landlord, to be able to do our own thing so we decided to buy the building in a high-traffic area. That’s what we did.

Craig Willett:

I love it. I love the idea of owning the real estate behind it. Now, you basically own this. I know you have a rent, but you have such a long-term lease—

Brandon Stringham:

Very long-term lease.

Craig Willett:

—that it’d take somebody a lot of money to move you out of here.

Bart Stringham:

Yes.

Craig Willett:

To buy your interest out because a long-term lease is as if owning it, but I do like the fact that you own your second location. What a brilliant idea. Who came up with the price point and how’d you figure out that people lost track that you had the $800 to $1,000 suit lines?

BJ Stringham:

Well, I just think generally, when people come in for the first time, that’s part of our sales process. We’re asking “How’d you find out about us? Where’d you find out about us? Who told you about us?” That’s just kind of a theme that we’ve found. We also think that demographic that Brandon was talking about, that price point, is just something that we could actually replicate in more places, something that, with this level of quality and luxury in our downtown location, it’s hard to envision opening up multiples because there’s only—you don’t see—

Craig Willett:

You cannibalize your own market.

BJ Stringham:

Yeah.

Craig Willett:

You make it closer to home to your customer, but you don’t add any more sales.

BJ Stringham:

You don’t see a lot of Ferrari dealerships in the same city, and that’s kind of how I look at this.

Craig Willett:

Interesting. Very smart. You mentioned that your customers—when they come in—how do you go about marketing and advertising your business?

BJ Stringham:

Well, we talked about this. That’s something we had not done well. I mean—

Bart Stringham:

It’s been word of mouth, basically.

Craig Willett:

What’s wrong with that?

Bart Stringham:

Nothing, it’s just kind of a slow process and we like that, except the masses don’t have a clue. People—

Craig Willett:

For the Tom Nox, it’s probably more important?

BJ Stringham:

Well, I think it’s important for both of the stores to—we’ve been on that. We’ve been—

Craig Willett:

I used to see Bart on TV 20 years ago.

BJ Stringham:

Yeah, that’s true.

Craig Willett:

Doing commercials.

Brandon Stringham:

Well, I think that’s the truth. We’ve tried—

Bart Stringham:

We’ve tried—

Brandon Stringham:

— just about everything.

Bart Stringham:

—lots of things and we thought that maybe the name’s—Utah Woolen Mills—connotation was, as Brandon says, we shear sheep or something. They had no idea until they walked in. Even being here in the mall, people walked in and said, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea. Been here for 30 years, had no idea that you actually had this quality.” I’ve been to Nordstrom’s and they go there, they don’t—they stay here. They don’t go back because of our quality. It’s unsurpassed in the country. We have very high-end, nice stuff.

Craig Willett:

Well, on that note, you have two stores right next to or near Nordstrom and two locations in Utah. They just pulled their suits out of Utah. Maybe you guys had something to do with that?

BJ Stringham:

We just found out about it yesterday and we’re still in shock because it’s still—with the epidemic and all, it’s still a business. We’re still doing business.

Brandon Stringham:

We still sell a lot of suits. There are still weddings and plenty of other occasions to wear suits.

Craig Willett:

Great. Let’s talk about how do you get word of mouth. What does it take—in addition to just selling them what they need and selling them quality so that they want to come back, and not selling them something they won’t use—what is it about service after the sale, what is it about the relationship that makes people want to tell other people about you?

BJ Stringham:

Well, for me, I can just speak for me. I pride myself on the relationships I’ve built here with the men that have shopped with us, and it’s not just the men, it’s the wife that comes in and knowing their names. I send my family’s Christmas card to all my favorite customers and my wife gives me grief because I’ll tell her about this interaction I had with today and she said, “Oh, is he your favorite customer?” That’s just kind of how I feel.

I’ve established some really great friendships, just like I see with you and my dad. It’s about friendship, it’s about relationships, and I think that is why the repeat business and that is why the word of mouth is so strong, because I’m not just a suit salesperson to somebody, I’m BJ. I’m somebody that they text, they ask about this or we talk about water skiing, we talk about basketball, we talk—the suits are just the clothing.

Craig Willett:

You become part of their life.

BJ Stringham:

The clothing’s just something that we connect on but we connect on a lot of deeper levels, and I think that’s what leads to them telling people about me or telling people about Taylor, Brandon, or Bart. That’s what does it, I think.

Craig Willett:

Great. As you look at it, you mentioned that you’ve been asking yourselves the question, “How do you go about marketing and advertising?” Are there some things you’re considering that you might want to share that might benefit our audience about how you’re going to analyze it, what you’re looking to do, what are some of the avenues that are best?

BJ Stringham:

Well, I can take this one. We actually reached out to a data collection service, Experian. They collect all sorts of data. We’ve never been data-driven, honestly. We’ve been—

Craig Willett:

Except for the last 10 years.

BJ Stringham:

Except for Brandon bringing us in.

Brandon Stringham:

Well, it’s getting us started with it.

BJ Stringham:

We’re learning to be more data-driven and finding out what is the common thread between our best customers? Not even best customers, what is the common thread through our customers? Then, how do we find more people like that, that would enjoy what we do? That’s really what it is, it’s about connecting a product that people like with the people who would like it.

Craig Willett:

Finding who’s in your area or market that would be potential customers to then getting—

BJ Stringham:

Finding mirror images—

Craig Willett:

—information in front of them.

BJ Stringham:

Mirror people of the people who love our business. Between talking to customers and also looking at data, that’s kind of where we’re trying to go.

Craig Willett:

When you identify them, what’s the best way to reach them? I mean—

BJ Stringham:

That’s what we’ve got to figure out, but that’s what we’re working on, honestly. It seems like we’re a 115-year old business and maybe that’s the lesson: we still haven’t got everything figured out. Every day, we’re still trying to get better. We’re still trying to evaluate what we’ve done, what has worked, what hasn’t worked. That’s not necessarily going to work tomorrow.

Craig Willett:

Magnify your strengths, then look at your challenges and then take on that opportunity. That’s great. How have you been able to survive some different inflection points over a 125-year history? I would imagine during that time there’s been the Great Depression, there’s been the Financial Crisis, there’s been wars. How did the family business react to those things and what’s key?

Bart Stringham:

They’re both looking at me, so—

BJ Stringham:

Well, you’ve been here for most of those 100 years.

Craig Willett:

They say “Hey, we’re in the pandemic, we know a little about the Financial Crisis,” so Bart, you’ve been through it all.

Bart Stringham:

It’s interesting. I think back and one of the biggest challenges we had, when they decided to put the light rail in front of our business and close us down. I happened to one day be talking to an attorney who happened to be the personal attorney for the mayor. He called the mayor for me and I got a little audience with her. She said, “Oh, hey, don’t worry about it. When this is done, your business will thrive,” and I says, “That may be true but how do we get to that point?”

I think that idea of surviving anything and just doing what you’ve got to do to get through it. I remember getting up early and coming every morning—because it’d always be closed off. The city couldn’t deny us access so I had huge banners made, I had banners everywhere around us directing traffic into our building parking area. It was tough but we did well.

When they constructed City Creek, we were basically closed down and we had to negotiate. We did all kinds of things with banners and signs to try to let people know. We’d stop traffic because they’d have to come in here. There’s been so many roadblocks and I think the common denominator that we all feel—and I know BJ and Brandon are feeling the same—we’re not exactly sure what to do, but we figure out a way and then we try it and we do it. Some work, some don’t, but we keep trying. We’ve never said, “Nope, we’re done.” Can-do attitude.

Craig Willett:

That’s probably why when the statistics say 3% of businesses make it to the third or fourth generation and there’s none saying all the way to the fifth, it’s easy to give up. Sometimes, it’s easy to rest on your laurels and sometimes, it’s easy to say that. How do you take that attitude and make something?

BJ Stringham:

Well, I wanted to add the reasons why we’ve been able to weather those things is because of just very wise financial decisions from my grandfather, dad saying “Hang on a sec, we could be doing all sorts of things. We could be spending money here, here, here, here,” but the principle of, “If we can’t pay cash, we can’t afford it.”

Craig Willett:

You’ve never financed buying inventory or paying operating costs?

BJ Stringham:

It’s a very different animal. I remember when in December of 2008, when that hit, we said, “Okay, we’ve just got to—let’s pull back and let’s reduce our buys, let’s be smart about what we have.” We just changed everything and the next year, 2009, was very profitable. We made wise decisions but it was because we had this base from which we could make—

Craig Willett:

You had financial discipline already in place.

BJ Stringham:

Yeah, so that, I think, is a huge key to the ups and downs. Even right now, the epidemic, it’s a rough time. People aren’t running out and buying suits left and right, but—

Craig Willett:

They’re all working from home.

BJ Stringham:

I mean, we’re lucky people get out of their sweatpants. We’re okay and we will be okay.

Craig Willett:

You carry that, too.

BJ Stringham:

We do that, too, yeah.

Craig Willett:

Just higher-end.

BJ Stringham:

But I think that financial security, the wise decision to be conservative on how we spend our money and not getting in debt is what has enabled us to overcome.

Craig Willett:

I think that’s great and it’s a wonderful principle, but I could imagine it’s still tough as generation passes to generation, the older generation’s still holding on to those purse strings a little bit and the younger generation, I would imagine, would want to go out and try all kinds of new lines, want to appeal to their generation and the old generation’s going, “But we used to sell these suits, we have this relationship, these are more expensive and it’s going to take more of our money tied up in inventory.” How’d you make it through that kind of transition? Were there any experiences you’d like to share that might help enlighten how to deal with that?

BJ Stringham:

I feel like I’m talking too much—but we had one instance in particular was a shirt company that we brought in. It was high-end, great shirt. They retailed at $265 a shirt. Brandon and I fell in love with these shirts and we said, “We should have these.” Bart’s experience had been, to the time, that it’s a pain. It’s a pain to stock them. If you don’t sell them, they get shop-worn. It’s a losing venture and custom shirts was really where our business was at, which was a great business but Brandon and I felt strongly about it. The difference was they had a tremendous stock selection that we could draw on constantly. He advised—

Craig Willett:

You were able to convince him.

BJ Stringham:

He advised against it but the thing is, to his credit, he’s always been supportive. Whatever those crazy moves have been that we wanted to make, he’s been supportive, even if he’s like, “That’s terrible. Don’t do that.”

Craig Willett:

What’s that like?

BJ Stringham:

It’s been a great—

Brandon Stringham:

The trust is there.

Craig Willett:

The trust is there.

Brandon Stringham:

The trust.

Craig Willett:

And has there been times where it hasn’t worked out? Has there been any, “I told you so?”

Bart Stringham:

No.

Brandon Stringham:

I don’t think so.

BJ Stringham:

I just know with him, you made a lot of changes that grandpa wouldn’t have approved of.

Bart Stringham:

It was the same with my dad because our goal was to make this the best men’s shop in the country and for sure in Utah. We did. There’s nobody like us and he just kind of backed off. He says “Well, whatever.” I traveled the country and picked out lines. I did things that this city had never seen and he just says “Okay, let’s go for it.” We always were able to pay for it and when BJ and Brandon come and say, “Hey, I think we ought to do this,” I’m going, “Well, I don’t know. That didn’t work before,” he says “Yeah, but if we do it this way, it can work. We have the money to do it, let’s do it.” I’m very supportive, obviously, because the success is right there in front of us.

Craig Willett:

Wow.

Brandon Stringham:

That particular example makes us look really good because it was very successful and that was one of the best things we’ve ever done for the business.

Craig Willett:

That shirt decision?

Bart Stringham:

Yeah.

Brandon Stringham:

Thousands and thousands. We became their biggest specialty store in the country.

Craig Willett:

Did it grow your overall shirt sales, too?

Brandon Stringham:

Oh, tremendously.

BJ Stringham:

Like not even—

Craig Willett:

Really?

BJ Stringham:

And also—

Craig Willett:

No comparison to the custom shirts?

BJ Stringham:

It also helped us sell other items because they looked so good, you throw a jacket on top of it, that looks great, too. It also gave us the confidence to go after a couple other big moves that were big, that really helped us.

Craig Willett:

So small successes, calculated risk, and it works out, then you continue to expand. I think one of the things that you shared with me might be the secret to the Stringham success of five generations is the other generation’s willing to trust the next after a certain apprenticeship in here and support that. Especially in retail, you have to change with the times or you become outmoded.

Bart Stringham:

You’re out of business, basically.

Craig Willett:

Wow. That’s great. That’s a compliment to you. Well, one of the things you can never escape on The Biz Sherpa podcast is to explain one of your greatest failures and what did you learn from it. I don’t know who—

BJ Stringham:

Are we going one at a time?

Craig Willett:

One at a time or if one of you wants to be the spokesperson for—

Brandon Stringham:

Well, we actually talked about this because we actually hinted at it a little bit earlier—and they can finish up what I’m starting to say here—but you asked about advertising. We’ve been in business for 115 years and if you go ask a random person on the street, they probably don’t know who we are. That’s a problem. It’s a big problem, and we’ve tried different things. We’ve tried billboards, we’ve tried playbills, newspaper, radio, TV, like you mentioned, but we’ve tried them all.

There’s got to be something else that we’re missing and I feel like that is our biggest failure is that we’re a 115-year old business and I bet 5% of Utah knows who we are. If you’re talking country-wide, less than a percent knows who we are. We’re doing something wrong there, and that’s something that BJ and I have been focusing on a lot, and Bart’s always been trying it, too. We don’t have that answer and I still don’t know what to do with that. We’re trying different things.

Craig Willett:

Clothing has to be hard online, especially at the level and the quality that you do, but what kind of online presence have you considered? Is that one of the solutions to—?

BJ Stringham:

It’s tricky. That’s a tricky thing. We’ve—

Craig Willett:

Not necessarily sales but at least an online presence of—

BJ Stringham:

Well, we do online—we have a weekly mailer email that highlights some products and we’re active on Instagram, we’re active on Facebook and all those outlets, but we’ve also seen as—I don’t know. If you look at the retail environment in total, especially in our space, a lot of the stores that went heavily into online business, they’ve really alienated their associates in the store, selling things online then having them come in and having their associates try to service it, whether it’s been discounted or whatever. Those associates can’t make a living servicing products that have been sold online.

You look at a lot of the big box stores and even acquisitions of—maybe even Nordstrom acquiring Trunk Club and Trunk Club was—that’s a digitally native brand that’s online that’s sent to you, brought back. The jury’s out on how smart it is to really dive into online sales. Of course, online sales, if it’s something that doesn’t need to be serviced, that’s one thing. The things that need to be serviced, it’s tricky. It’s tricky. I think I’m with Brandon on our biggest failure: just the fact that people don’t really know who we are until they walk in the store and we educate them. I’d agree.

Craig Willett:

Wow. That’s hard to admit after 115 years. Bart, did you have any thought of other experiences you remember that you’ve stubbed your toe and you learned something from?

Bart Stringham:

Not really. I mean yeah, I’ve stubbed my toe many times and I think it’s usually on purchases, thinking “This should be amazing, why don’t people see this?” They don’t, so you think, “Oh, well, earlier, we were late to the game.” I remember Dad and I sometimes buying a suit, a particular maybe, color or something, thinking “This is unbelievably great,” and nobody liked it. Then, if you keep it for a little while, then somebody comes in, “Man, that’s cool.” Then, they’re gone within a couple of weeks. You never know.

I think when I’m listening to BJ and Brandon talk about our greatest failure, the interesting thing is, Craig, and I don’t know if you’ve picked up on that because you don’t look at us as, maybe, failure in any way because your experiences here have been incredible, but they’ve been incredible because you got to know us, you supported us and you tell everybody you know about us. That’s probably our biggest success is you and guys like you. Because it isn’t a matter of all the stuff you buy, it’s the relationship that we’ve developed, so for us, our biggest failure is also maybe our biggest success because that failure, and I think BJ’s kind of touching on it, but we don’t really have the relationship with people when we’re online and things. Our business has been so relationship-oriented that we want to do that but we want people to know us because once they know us, they’re with us. That’s really true. 

Craig Willett:

You earn their trust, you earn their respect.

Bart Stringham:

We want them that way. We want that. It’s kind of interesting.

Craig Willett:

I’m glad you said that. I almost said it. I didn’t want to be the one taking a guess at it but my guess is some businesses don’t lend themselves to spending a lot of money on advertising when you’re after such a small niche in the market that not everybody needs to know about you but, like you said earlier, what you’re researching with the credit bureaus and the information that you can get from the data out there are find the people in the niche that you want and those are the people that need to know you. If that’s only 5% of the people out there, then that’s all you need.

Bart Stringham:

Yeah.

BJ Stringham:

So true.

Bart Stringham:

Good point.

Craig Willett:

You can’t be all things to all people and that’s good. I think that’s been important. I think it’s important for survival in this. I have one last question and I’ve always wondered this because, sometimes, I’ve talked to my wife sometimes about doing business with our family and certain members of our family. Lately, I’ve brought them in on a few things, my children, and she always says “You know, business and family doesn’t mix.” Carol said that. I just wonder what are family reunions like, what are family get-togethers like? When you have the business that you’re operating in and have to get along, you have a great relationship, but there’s also other members of the family. How have you been able to survive and what has that been like?

Brandon Stringham:

Man, that’s a tricky one because obviously, with any relationship, whether it’s family or not, even if it’s a strictly work relationship, you’re going to have issues and I think the biggest thing for us has been trying to figure out boundaries of family versus work, being somebody’s boss at work, trying to be the boss at home and trying to figure out those boundaries of, “Okay, this is my life outside of work, I’m going to do what I feel is best for me and my family, and you have no say in this. This is my life, this is my family,” and just creating, I think, boundaries is what I want to get at there.

Craig Willett:

I think that’s a great concept and I think maybe it’s helped to hire more people so you’re not working the 9:00 to 6:00 or having to be open 9:00 to 9:00, training others so you’re not here all the month of December and you’re able to spend time with family and evolve that so that it’s not fully consuming your life as to why other people are going, “Why is he never here? We’re having a party and they’re down tending the shop.”

BJ Stringham:

Well, there’s a couple things for me. Building the trust, having open and honest conversations—it’s another one of those cultural beliefs we have. I think open and honest conversations between us. “Hey, this doesn’t work. Hey, I need to be understood here. This doesn’t work.” Having those open and honest conversations, understanding that we love each other, because we do. There’s a lot of love in this room. We have very different personalities, different skill sets, different problems. I mean, I’m as forgetful as they come. We had a staff meeting this morning and it’s 7:20, I was supposed to be here at 7:30, “Oh. Anyway.”

Craig Willett:

“Hey, where are you?”

BJ Stringham:

That would never happen to these guys but I’m also really good with our people. Establishing the trust in our relationship to be able to set those boundaries is really important. Another thing I’d like to say just when it comes to family: I’ve got four kids. Brandon has a kid, too. I want to make sure that—I’m very fortunate to be in this position that I am because Christmas, I can be with my kids. Family business is tricky, so I don’t know what I’ll say to my kids if they want to do it. It’ll be a different business going forward anyway, so—

Craig Willett:

That’ll be interesting to see, the sixth generation come along. It’ll be exciting. I’m grateful that you would spend the time today. What I really love about what you shared today and probably what is most important, and that is your understanding of who’s most important: the customer. You certainly put them first. You certainly build those relationships. I think that one-on-one contact is something that is more and more rare in the world that we live in. It’s becoming more and more of a digital age, but I think the businesses that can understand that and can get beyond having a digital presence but still have that feeling of closeness, feeling of trust—when you can capitalize on that like you have, you’ll have a successful business, not only for years to come but also in continued generations.

I appreciate your honesty to be able to come on here and put your dirty laundry on our episode but also to share your secrets to success. I admire your business. I hope people will look you up and not only frequent your store but more importantly, that they’ll come to understand the principles that you have put in place and how they can benefit from those, too. You’re great examples to me that I see as I know your family. I appreciate the time that you took. This is Craig Willett, The Biz Sherpa. I’m grateful that you joined me today at UWM Men’s Shop in Salt Lake City.

Speaker 1:

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