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Eye of the Entrepreneur

Robert Schwartz, CEO of Eneslow Shoes & Orthotics, reveals the secrets to retail survival.

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Dear Robert, Let me get right to the point: the path ahead will be harder than you might expect. You’ll be on an obstacle course your entire business career. Welcome to the world of owning shoe stores in New York—for 46 years and counting! While it’s never easy, it’s always exciting, engaging and, at the end of every day, rewarding. You’ll always be learning and growing, and life’s challenges only make you stronger. Perhaps your greatest attribute: you never lose your optimism—the key to being a successful retailer!

You probably can’t envision such a career as you get ready to start basic training for the U.S. Coast Guard, which will be followed by becoming the first executive trainee for Playtex, then the world’s leading consumer packaged soft goods company. Over the next decade, you’ll rise through the ranks of the firm’s sales and marketing department, from road salesman to senior marketing manager at corporate. You’ll call on and service independent retailers as well as the largest department store chains in America. You’ll live in Chicago, Toledo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York and Boston. You’ll learn how to write business plans, budget, forecast and manage P&L—all skills that prepare you well for your retail career. 

That career begins in 1973, when you decide to join the family business, Eneslow Shoes, then a three-store chain in New York, and the wholesale business, Apex Foot Health Industries. Not long after you and your brother, Richard, each become 50 percent owners. Life is good. In the early ’80s, you split the business, with you taking ownership of Eneslow. You seize upon the opportunity and expand into a regional comfort chain of eight stores. Life is (still) good, but you must always be prepared for the unexpected in business. That day comes in 1986, following New York’s decision to slash Medicaid reimbursements for medical shoes and orthotics from 50 percent gross profit to 33 percent. It causes a 50 percent loss in business! You’re forced to close all locations except the flagship, then located at 924 Broadway in Manhattan. Times are tough, but Eneslow’s quality selection and excellent customer service remain a constant.

This is but the first of many challenges. Recessions, discounters, online shopping, consolidation—it’s all part of the ever-changing business, economic and consumer landscapes. Fortunately, your insatiable hunger for knowledge enables you to learn how to adapt and survive. Like when you joined the Pedorthic Footcare Association (PFA), where you become deeply involved in education and training, eventually serving as its education chair for years and president from 1985 to 1988. In 1995, you launch the Eneslow Pedorthic Institute, where you train fellow retailers and vendors on how to provide the best shoes and related products to people with foot-related disorders. The year before, you join the education committee of the National Shoe Retailers Association and spend the next 16 years on its board of directors. For the past 10 years, you’ve served on the board of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, helping small businesses survive. You were once president of the 23rd Street Association, a trade and civic organization, and helped spearhead the Flatiron/23rd Street Business Improvement District that revitalized the local economy.

You will travel the globe, teaching pedorthics and buying unique styles from brands not widely distributed in the United States—all to help improve profitability and offer greater value to your customers. This endeavor will provide enough incremental gross profit to stem the loss of sales to online dealers. Still, you are wise to save for rainy days, some of which feel more like monsoon seasons. But you always find a way to slog through the tough times, coming out stronger when the skies clear. Your energy, hard work and perseverance sustain you. Even in the darkest of moments, don’t despair. You will be fine!

My advice: Trust your judgment, listen to others, slow down and make each moment special. Don’t panic when things are tough, and don’t get too excited when things are great. Maintain your inner calm, because life is not predictable. Just try and do your best each day, and do so with integrity and the best business practices. While struggle is normal, celebrate greatness when you can. As a small business entrepreneur, you must dedicate your life to your work and to the people who work for you! Appreciate them, always.

I’m proud to inform you that Eneslow, now celebrating its 110th anniversary, continues to defy the odds, particularly in New York where more than 50 percent of shoe stores have closed over the last five years. We’re following a counter-intuitive approach, opening stores in neighborhoods where ones have closed. We’re in the process of shifting from a big box model to more streamlined, neighborhood stores. This makes it easier for customers to access our services. Since consumers are increasingly shopping online, they’re less likely to travel long distances, even for specialty products and services. For the same reason healthcare, banking and other services have gone local to reach more consumers where they live and work, we’re doing the same. So far, so good.

By definition, an entrepreneur is a fearless, imaginative individual who sees what is and discovers what can be. Failure is part of the equation, but the rewards can be far greater. This business isn’t for the faint of heart, but trust me you will love it!

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