Young and Ambitious
By Mark Brock
Specialty retail is trending toward fundamental transformations as younger professionals are joining seasoned pros at patio and hearth shops, and assuming increasingly responsible positions. These new workers, ranging in age from early 20s to late 30s, grew up with the Internet and are the most digitally savvy cohort ever to join the workforce.
Younger workers are not only seeking competitive pay and benefits, but they also crave opportunities that will allow them to learn and grow in their careers while belonging to a tight-knit organization that encourages a fulfilling life outside of work. All the while, competition for the best and the brightest of younger workers is formidable.
“A tight labor market, rising wages, and a more informed and discerning workforce is putting enormous pressure on employers to up their game,” said Warren Wright, author of “Second-Wave Millennials: Tapping the Potential of America’s Youth.”
“Employees, in particular Millennials, want a job on their terms. The answer for employers lies in a simple idea – good management. Young talent is far more discerning about the quality of their workplace, and they’re looking for careers that complement their lifestyles. This is a shift from previous generations that put work at the center of life.”
Specialty retailers are recruiting young professionals not only to advance current operations, but also to assure the continuance of the companies they’ve built. The average age of family business owners today is 60, which makes business succession a strategic issue for a large segment of specialty retailers.
Many family-owned businesses look first within the family for new ownership as part of retirement plans, but the statistics are not encouraging. Only about 30% of all family-owned businesses survive into the second generation, a mere 12% make it to a third generation, and a paltry 3% go to a fourth generation and beyond.
“When children see the benefits of owning and growing a business, as well as the excitement of new opportunities and personal freedom, they can become very interested in being a part of the family business,” said Dr. Michael Klein, an organizational psychologist who specializes in professional development for businesses and individuals. “Working in a family business can be intensely rewarding, but if your name is on the front door you have obligations to the business and to the community that you might not have working as an employee in another business. Many people don’t want that in a career.”
If a younger family member is not interested in continuing the business, the second best option is recruiting younger professionals who work their way up through the ranks and are well positioned to take over the business and provide the owners a viable exit strategy. The need for sales motivation, fresh marketing perspectives, and digital experience today, along with retirement strategies tomorrow, is leading specialty retailers to welcome younger professionals into the fold.
David Treto-Levlon, Outside in Style.
Younger Workers Create ‘Fun’ at Specialty Retail
David Treto-Levlon’s work life has centered on retail, ranging from health clubs and restaurants to clothing. When he landed a job as manager of a women’s shoe boutique in Albuquerque, Treto-Levlon, 28, discovered an opportunity to exercise his creative retail instincts fully.
“My goal was to have fun with our customers, to roll out the red carpet and make retail shopping more fun than they could imagine,” he said. “I created the idea of a ‘shoe party.’ I would show a customer the shoes she was looking for, but then I’d show her other similar and different styles, and she’d leave the store with four or five pairs. We made buying shoes an experience, and we all had fun.”
It was Treto-Levlon’s engaging personality and natural gift for sales that attracted the attention of Karen Galindo, owner of Outside in Style, which has locations in Austin and San Antonio. When she met Treto-Levlon he had transitioned to real estate where he was representing high-end properties and affluent consumers around the world. Galindo recruited him to join her Austin store in 2013 where he has transformed his shoe party concept into a patio party. He plays a central role in sales training, online marketing, social media, technology, and merchandising.
“We always make it a point to have the best time possible with every customer, every day,” he said. “No two patios are the same, and we treat it like a patio party. Our goal is to make our stores a destination where customers can have a fun and vibrant experience. It’s not just about their handing over a credit card and making a purchase, but forming a relationship with us where they come back often to see what’s new and where they refer their friends.”
One of Treto-Levlon’s greatest challenges has been to harness the power of the Internet, which he describes as a love-hate relationship. Having grown up in a digital world, he is focused on helping consumers understand the difference in product quality and customer service between Internet merchants and specialty retailers.
“Outside in Style is a great place to work – very family oriented,” he said. “I have always been attracted to smaller companies where your co-workers are like family members, and where you connect with your customers,” he said. “As younger professionals, we want to contribute to the success of our companies because we’re all in this together.”
James Waite, Today’s Patio.
Not All Retail Opportunities Are the Same
One of the challenges for specialty retailers in recruiting younger workers is conveying the fact that not all retail jobs are the same. Working for a Big Box store is a far cry from joining the staff of a specialty retailer that is typically either a family-owned business or an entrepreneurial enterprise with opportunities to learn, earn, and grow. At specialty retail, the products are investment grade and technical, typically sold to discriminating consumers with large and expensive homes. Specialty retailers employ experts in outdoor design and technical product installation, along with sales, marketing, and customer service.
James Waite, 30, certainly understands how career opportunities can vary from one retailer to another. He began working at retail as a teenager, eventually landing a management position with a national men’s clothier, managing two locations in Arizona. It was Today’s Patio, with locations in California and Arizona, that captured his attention and commitment in 2017.
“I was looking for a change from my previous atmosphere and position,” he said. “I knew I wanted to stay in retail, but wasn’t exactly sure in what capacity. I wanted to continue up the ladder in terms of price point and luxury/specialty. It certainly helped when Today’s Patio was able to offer me better hours and a location much closer to home. I also liked the family-owned atmosphere that I could sense even from my first interview. Chad Scheinerman (CEO of Today’s Patio) and the entire upper management team really sold me on the opportunity.”
Waite currently serves as a location manager in Arizona where he is responsible for every aspect of the store.
“The success or failure of the store falls primarily on my shoulders,” he said. “I’m responsible for selling, training, scheduling, directing/managing, ordering, mentoring, coaching, praising, and disciplining. My overall goal is to make sure the customer is served at a very high level 100% of the time. It’s my job to make sure the sales floor is neat, organized, well stocked, and merchandised, so the customer is able to satisfy any need easily and comfortably.”
While the great variety of responsibilities attracted Waite to join Today’s Patio, it’s the drive for sales success that’s essential for anyone joining specialty retail, particularly younger professionals who earn their stripes, and commissions, through sales success.
“In addition to working with people – customers and staff – one of my favorite moments is closing a large sale,” he said. “The thrill associated with working with someone for hours, days, and sometimes weeks and months and finally getting that payoff in the form of a sale is very rewarding. I enjoy getting new products for my customers to try, and selecting items to feature in the showroom. I have had the chance to travel a bit with the company, and I always enjoy that as well.”
Waite agrees that the perception of retail careers among younger professionals is a mixed bag with a range of attitudes.
“Overall, I think retail jobs are respected by my peers as a great starting point that can lead to many other avenues,” he said. “Sales, customer service, and general retail skills are very transferable into other industries. At the same time, I think that people my age may see a retail career choice as a declining one, where something in technology would be considered on the rise in terms of pay and advancement opportunities. I think the two most important things for people of my age range in their job is compensation and schedule flexibility.”
For retailers to compete for the best talent, Waite suggests that companies retain the feeling of a smaller organization where a person can make a difference.
“Obviously, staying very competitive with pay and benefits is a huge attractor of talented people,” he said. “Alongside that, I think that staying small and giving employees input, making them feel part of the family and that their voice matters, is another thing that ownership can do to attract the newer generation. Making sure the company is updated with new technology and ‘Millennial friendly’ is also essential. Ownership needs to stay current and realize that the younger generation might have a new and different way of doing things, but in the end, we are the future.”
Lisandro Salazar, Outdoor Elegance.
Younger Staff Members Add to Diversity
Another of the advantages that younger professionals bring to the workforce is diversity, not only in age but also in cultural and language backgrounds. This attribute is certainly the case for Lisandro Salazar, who joined Doug Sanicola’s Outdoor Elegance in southern California in 2017.
Salazar, 26, grew up in El Salvador, Central America, until the age of eight when his family moved to the outskirts of Los Angeles. His first job with Outdoor Elegance was in warehousing and delivery, and he recently transitioned into sales.
“The Hispanic population is growing, and it’s an important market for specialty retailers,” Salazar said. “When they come into the store, they are comfortable working with me because I come from the same background, and I can speak Spanish if they prefer to use that language. The Hispanic market is an important market for us and with my background I can help us reach out to different people.”
Salazar is energized by the sales environment, the variety of activities, the challenges of learning a broad range of products, and meeting his customers’ needs.
“Specialty retail is a great business to be in because you meet all sorts of different people, and our products are beautiful, well-made, and appreciated by our customers,” he said. “Once you get into the business, you begin to realize what a great opportunity it offers for helping people enjoy their lives outdoors.”
Specialty retailers who recruit younger professionals secure employees with a deeper appreciation for the power of digital marketing, he said. The best prospects are those recruits who also possess customer service DNA and who appreciate the exceptional work environments at specialty retail.
“I was attracted to Outdoor Elegance primarily because of the beautiful and positive work setting,” he said. “The key to having a successful business starts from inside the company. First and foremost, the most important element is the place where people work every day in serving their customers. We have that at Outdoor Elegance, and I think the opportunities here are endless with quality products and great customer service.”
Recruiting Recommendations from a Millennial Expert
Steven Rothberg, president and founder of College Recruiter.
Recruitment Focus Shifting from Millennial to Generation Z
When most people consider younger professionals, they are referring to the Millennial Generation, which is broadly defined as those born in the early 1980s to early 2000s. Right behind the Millennials is Generation Z, broadly defined as those born in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s. Generation Z is beginning to attract attention from business owners and managers as a fresh group of new employees.
“Millennials have been the largest generation in U.S. history, and is the largest segment of the workforce, surpassing Baby Boomers,” said Steven Rothberg, president and founder of College Recruiter, a leading job search site for students and recent graduates, assisting as many as 3 million each year.
“The oldest Millennials are now in their late 30s and have homes, mortgages, kids, and dogs,” Rothberg continued. “They are not stereotypical college students or recent graduates, which means that employers who think of them that way won’t be able to recruit or retain them. It’s members of Generation Z who are now in college, and employers are likely to be talking with members of Gen Z, who are at the beginning of their careers, and Millennials, who are at early to mid-career.”
According to Rothberg, the single greatest issue in recruiting entry-level Generation Z employees is compensation. The days when $8 or $9 an hour was sufficient have passed, with $15 per hour as the new expectation for an entry-level job. He adds that Generation Z may be more challenging for recruitment than Millennials have been.
“Gen Z is far more interested than prior generations in working to live rather than living to work,” he said. “They’re choosing to get fulfillment from experiences outside of the workforce rather than fancy titles or offices.”
Breanna Angle, Maschino’s.
Small Business Environment Attracts Younger Professionals
Business surveys over the past several decades have documented the importance of small businesses (50 employees or fewer) to the American economy. In fact, small businesses, including specialty retailers, employ just over half of all U.S. workers. Another interesting finding from various surveys is that younger workers are attracted to smaller companies, such as Breanna Angle, 25, who joined Maschino’s in Springfield, Missouri, during 2018.
“Once I finished my interviews (at Maschino’s, with assistant manager Joan Nutting and others), I found that a small, locally-owned business was very appealing to me,” Angle said. “I met some of the people I would be working closely with and they all made a great impression. It was also very intriguing to get into a field that I didn’t know anything about (fireplaces) as well as learning more about the furniture in the store, some of which is locally handmade.”
While Angle’s title is receptionist, her duties are far more expansive than answering the phone and greeting customers. It’s the variety that she finds most enjoyable about working with a smaller company.
“I do anything I can to help the sales and service teams stay organized and functioning smoothly day-to-day,” she said. “My job ranges from making tags for new products, to ordering inventory and converting hand-drawn plans to digital versions for our designers.
“There’s such variety between days, and that ensures I never really have a boring day. On Monday I might be answering phone calls and scheduling appointments all day, and Tuesday I’m setting up the store for a book signing or an art showcase. These extremes play well with the skills that I enjoy using.”
Before joining Maschino’s, Angle was a personal assistant to a family in Springfield, while she earned college degrees in graphic design and business marketing.
“I always saw retail jobs as something you hopped around in – work a few years in food service and realize you don’t enjoy that, move to Home Goods and get promoted to manager, move to another retail job that pays better and continue that slow cycle of moving up until you find a job you enjoy,” she said.
“Now that I’ve started working at Maschino’s I definitely see room for growth here within the company. It might be different at chain stores, but working for a local, small business there is definitely a sense of family, and your co-workers are friends who help you succeed. The people I work with have been here for anywhere from 10 to 40 years, and that wasn’t something I saw for myself until getting into this retail position.”
Career expectations vary greatly among younger professionals, but Maschino’s checks all of Angle’s boxes. The business is more sophisticated and complex than she had initially expected, with a broad cross-section of co-workers encompassing installation technicians and designers who create patio configurations and outdoor kitchens.
“Career needs definitely vary depending on each person’s situations. For me, I was looking for job security and something I wouldn’t get bored doing as a career,” she said. “Having insurance benefits and a fun work environment, including my co-workers, was a major perk that ultimately helped me decide to take this particular job. I think a lot of us young professionals are looking for growth opportunities, both personal and monetarily, and an environment that satisfies our needs. Career opportunities in specialty retail are surprisingly broad.”
What Younger Professionals Want
Stephanie and Nate Stegman, Elegant Outdoor Living.
Recruiting Younger Workers from Within the Family
While succession from one generation to another can be challenging for family-owned businesses, it remains a central theme for specialty retailers, including Stephanie and Nate Stegman. They were married in 2006, have worked with Nate’s parents, Tom and Debbie Stegman, owners of Elegant Outdoor Living, for several years and have taken on key leadership roles for the company, which has locations in Bonita Springs, Naples, and Sarasota, Florida.
During summers while in college, Nate, 37, worked in the family patio and hearth business, helping manage the warehouse and learning the ins and outs of how to operate a patio furniture business successfully. He also secured an internship with Brown Jordan in Florida, which furthered his education and contacts within the casual industry. Nate also served as a member of the team that opened the exclusive May River Golf Club at the 20,000-acre Palmetto Bluff resort and residential community near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Stephanie, 38, gained invaluable consumer marketing experience in positions with Victoria Secret’s catalog and call center. Additionally, Stephanie worked with Frontgate Luxury brands where she helped develop the holiday category and subsequently was named head buyer for the pool category. Her career has also included a position at Palmetto Bluff as assistant buyer for the golf shop and boutique.
By pursuing challenging positions with other companies, Nate and Stephanie were following a career path recommended by management experts who advise that family members work for other companies before joining the family business.
These experiences outside of the family business provide invaluable insights into business best practices and demonstrate that these family members have what it takes to succeed in careers beyond the security of a family-owned company. After their varied work experiences in fields as diverse as golf course management, marketing, and product development, Nate and Stephanie moved back to Ohio to join the family business, which relocated to Florida in 2010 with Nate as general manager and Stephanie as merchandising manager and buyer.
“Running our family business means we’re wearing several different hats every day,” Stephanie said. “Whether it’s accounting, delivering, buying, cleaning the showroom, or driving out to our customer’s home to show them how to work their newly purchased fire pit – there isn’t any job that we don’t do.”
Nate manages the Elegant Outdoor Living staff and coordinates product shipments and customer deliveries. He travels to the stores to connect with the sales team, arranges rep training, and ensures that all new employees are set up for success with the proper training.
“One of the favorite parts of my job is selling on the floor,” Nate said. “I love to be on the floor with customers and building rapport with them. I think when it’s your business you always share in the thrill of a sale. It’s part of the success and future of your company.”
Stephanie’s primary role is buying for the retail stores, ranging from furniture to accessories, along with store merchandising. She works closely with Debbie during Chicago and Atlanta markets, selecting each collection, fabric, and accessory for the next season.
“Merchandising is my favorite part of the job,” she said. “I love to come up with fresh layouts for the floor, and Debbie and I can get carried away when it comes to freshening up the floors. It gives a new energy to the stores and inspires our sales consultants.
“I am also responsible for our print advertising, website, and social media as well,” Stephanie continued. “Nate and I have expanded our marketing program into digital advertising, and I work closely with each publication in providing them the best content to go into our ads.”
Nate and Stephanie, Tom and Debbie, are an ideal intergenerational team. Tom and Debbie bring many years of specialty retail experience, while Nate and Stephanie have led the business into an increased emphasis on digital marketing and a focus on younger associates and younger customers. Everyone is engaged with a staff that ranges from sales professionals with many years of experience, which is Tom and Debbie’s perspective, to Millennials, which is where Nate and Stephanie have the insiders’ view.
Recruitment of younger professionals is an ongoing priority for Elegant Outdoor Living, as it is with all specialty retailers. Opportunities at Elegant Outdoor Living offer competitive compensation for individuals who have a gift for selling. The Stegman’s company offers young professionals the tools, training, incentives, and flexible schedules they need to excel in careers at specialty retail, along with opportunities to provide input into merchandising, marketing, and product selection. While Elegant Outdoor Living invests in its younger associates, their success requires their commitment to learn the business and recognize that ultimate success does not come during the first day on the job.
“Opportunities for younger professionals in specialty retail are abundant,” Nate said. “Some people are intimidated by the challenges of selling, but if you are good at understanding customers and know your products, you can build trust and show customers the elegant outdoor lifestyles your products can create.”