Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is BusinessMakers USA coming to you from Seattle, Washington and I’m very pleased to have as my guest Seattle’s upper end retail fashionistas Butch Blum and Kay Smith-Blum. And until just recently they were the owners and operators of Butch Blum; Butch, Kay, welcome to BusinessMakers USA.
Kay: Thanks Russ, nice to be here.
Butch: Thanks for having us Russ, appreciate it.
Russ: All right great. So I kind of ended the introduction with until just recently, tell us what’s happened.
Kay: Well we sold the business.
Kay: And we’re very excited because it was actually part of our strategic plan, so it’s always nice to see a plan come together isn’t it? But we had been moving toward structuring the business so that we could retire or possibly sell it, right before the downturn and we were in our third year of a five year plan and then unfortunately the economic downturn occurred.
Russ: So that delayed things?
Kay: Delayed things a little bit so we had to regroup, re-structure our plan and decided if we could put together several years of profitability that we could have a very saleable business again and we’re thrilled to say that by the end of 2014 we were there. So we quietly out it out there and sure enough there was multiple people actually that were very interested.
Russ: Well that’s impressive. I mean that’s really particularly impressive when you think about 2016, the world seems to be shifting online and here you were you had a very popular, very successful retail outlet that others recognized.
Kay: Right, and I think we would just say that with everything exciting that’s happening online and those tools are very valuable to us in terms of our being able to promote and sell things directly from our store, the luxury of ceptor is still very much about touch (02:21-Russ: I’m sure. Obviously; that makes sense) and feel.
Russ: Cool. And I understand Butch that you knew the buyer, the man that bought it, from way back?
Butch: Well actually not exactly Russ. What happened was he knew of us; he knew about the store because he was from Seattle originally. He has a store in Brookfield, Wisconsin just outside of Milwaukee and has had that store called Squire Apparel for about 6, almost 7 years now and he was doing very well back there.
Russ: So take us back just, you know, a couple of months before you sold; what was Butch Blum like? What was the store like?
Butch: I have to take you back a bit because for the early years I was sort of the day to day operator when we opened in ’74. When we got married in 1981 and opened Women’s, you know, obviously Kay was very involved in the business. But over the years as the business has evolved I’ve sort of taken a step back and Kay for the last dozen or so years has really run every facet of the business.
Russ: So you’ve actually been running it?
Kay: Yeah, I’d say for like the last 15 years. Butch has been semi-retired; he has required reading on Mondays until we sold the business in August and that’s been perfect because it’s allowed him to be active in the things in the community he really wanted to be active in and also still lead our buying team and us have the benefit of his great prowess as a merchant.
Russ: Okay, so what set the retail, the store, apart from the others?
Kay: I would say in Seattle we have served as a salon. So when you walk into our store on any given day there’ll be a variety of types of folks shopping with us; it can be restaurateurs, it can be developers, it can be some of the largest contractor company’s owners in town, it could be small business folks, it could be artists, it could be architects.
Kay: Celebrities; and I think what is special about our is – and what I like to say my role is – to play hostess and to get that – to get that excitement and energy on a daily basis you need to introduce people. And it’s funny how in a store like ours when people have a commonality in fashion and design they find that they have other commonalities. And so we’ve made a lot of introductions through the years and then we do things very intentionally to bring conversations into our store that will better the community of Seattle and the Greater Northwest.
Butch: I think the other thing too that has always set us apart Russ is I think we’ve always taken the road less travelled. It’s really easy in our industry as certain designers become popular to just take the safe road and to always buy the way all the other stores tend to buy around the country or around the world and we’ve always taken a different approach. And we hear that constantly from our clients is I find things in your store that I’ve never seen anywhere.
Russ: Well as you were saying that Butch I couldn’t help but notice your vest even looks pretty cool and pretty neat.
Kay: That’s the perfect example, it’s Roda which started as a tie maker and then they’ve slowly developed multiple categories in their collection and we have it exclusively in the Northwest.
Russ: All right, so there is this interesting chapter that you alluded to a second ago that you started it by yourself and you were like into it 5 or 6 years before you met Kay, so I mean were you in the industry at the time?
Kay: Yes, I was a buyer for Neiman Marcus. So I oddly was the first woman buyer in the men’s division at Neiman Marcus and the youngest in a group of 13 men.
Russ: Were you in Dallas?
Kay: All the buyers are based in Dallas and they buy for every store.
Russ: Oh wow, so your experience is there – really in high fashion – is that where you crossed paths with our own Leisa Holland Nelson?
Kay: That is, she was an accessory buyer at Neiman Marcus and she and I became quickly good buddies and occasionally were in Europe at the same time because I was the dress furnishings buyer along with dress shirts for men and so we had some fun times and stories that we’ll save for another time.
Russ: Okay, all right; we can do that. Okay, so rolling back, I mean Butch was it part of your strategy; I’m going to find a woman that knows fashion and get her to marry me and…
Butch: Not at all, not at all; no.
Russ: It wasn’t that at all? Okay.
Kay: But he was interested in my neckwear resources.
Russ: Oh he was?
Butch: So quick little aside. So we used to go – we meaning there were a group of stores, a very small group around the country, we became very friendly because there were so few stores going to Europe at the time to buy. And so I was in Florence at a show called PITTI Uomo and we always used to stay at the Excelsior Hotel on the Arno. Our little group one night after working all day we were gathering in the bar to have a cocktail and to decide what we were going to do for dinner that night. And all of a sudden walking in to the bar is this good looking young gentleman and this fabulous looking young woman. And we all – this was the Neiman Marcus buyer who had all the resources in the world and we were all very curious about her knowledge so we would, you know, go have drinks, we’d go to dinner, we’d pick her brains, steal resources from her.
I certainly was happy to get whatever information she had. And the relationship was just sort of that for a few years. And then all of a sudden one day we found ourselves without partners; she broke up with her fiancé, my wife and I got a divorce and the events were not really related to one another it’s just kind of the way it worked out.
And, as I think I related to you earlier in the conversation, here I was at this trade show that we all attended where – it was called The Designer’s Collective and a lot of new, young, hip designers were showing there – and I decided that night I was going to sort of make my move. I was curious as to whether or not she was sort of interested in me. So my way of doing that was to get drunk so that I worked up the nerve to ask her out; she did not receive it well.
Kay: I said no the first time and the second time but the third time was the charm.
Russ: Okay, wow, what a story. It sounds like it was destined to happen though and turned into quite a success.
Kay: I think so. And I think that it’s, you know, I think what’s interesting about our time in the industry and to Butch’s credit, in the mid 70s/late 70s and probably into like ’81 and ’82, ’83 the European customer in Seattle really didn’t exist. He, starting in 1974, actually developed that consumer. So when you think about business makers it’s sort of like find a need and fill it and this was a need that the greater populous of Seattle didn’t even realize they needed, right? And we like to say that we educated the consumer and really created that genre of fashion in the Northwest.
Russ: Really cool. Well Kay, Butch, I really appreciate you spending some time with us and chatting, telling us things.
Kay: Our pleasure.
Butch: Our pleasure, thank you Russ.
Russ: It’s really a cool story.
Kay: Thank you.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Kay Smith-Blum and Butch Blum of Butch Blum’s Fashionista Retail Environment. And this is BusinessMakers USA.
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