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Marjory Williams: Keeping Up With Changes

July 8, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ Marjory Williams has seen her life take several dramatic shifts.

Moving to Hong Kong from Boston was one. And when she began to teach American literature, she thought that was a pretty big move - away from English literature.

″Little did I know the shifts to come,″ she now says.

Ms. Williams, 44, is the founder and sole owner of a chain of 17 career women’s clothing stores that enjoyed just under $5 million in sales in 1987.

Seven of the stores, called She, are in Minneapolis, where Ms. Williams’ company is based. The rest, under the name Laura Caspari - her great- grandmother ’s name - are in San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; St. Louis; Chicago and Detroit.

This wasn’t the work Ms. Williams expected to do when she graduated from Wellesley College in the mid-1960s.

When the Chicago native left Wellesley, women had few job options, and business wasn’t one of them, Ms. Williams recalled in a recent interview.

″One didn’t talk about a career path,″ she said. ″Either you were getting married right away ... or you went to Katie (Katherine) Gibbs in Boston and you got your secretarial training ... or you taught or you went to graduate school.″

″I just had a little bit more sense of adventure,″ Ms. Williams said. So she chose the third option - but in Hong Kong.

She spent 2 1/2 years teaching English literature at Chinese University, and then moved to India, where she switched topics and taught American literature at the University of Bombay for three years.

Ms. Williams married while in India and had a son. But in 1972, when her child was 8 months old, she decided to get a divorce and return to the United States - with no job and the responsibility of single parenthood weighing heavily on her.

″I was starting at zero,″ she said. ″I had to think, ’what am I going to do.‴

Her natural inclination was to pursue a doctorate in literature, but the expenses of four years of study made that idea impractical.

College placement officials and relatives advised Ms. Williams to stick to traditional women’s roles, such as librarian or secretary. She knew those jobs did not suit her personality.

But the seeds of an idea planted in Bombay had begun to take root, and Ms. Williams found herself turning toward business.

″While I had been in India, I was struck by the adventure that I felt in the business community,″ she said.

With India having won its independence only in 1947, ″business people were self-made men or their fathers were,″ she said. ″You had this very entrepreneurial spirit.″

Ms. Williams believes that spirit inspired her.

″I decided business was probably a good idea,″ she said. ″I felt it would be interesting and at the same time it would meet the practical needs I would have.″

The road to becoming a businesswoman was a bumpy one. When she inquired about a degree from Harvard Business School, she was turned away for lack of practical experience.

So she got a job as an assistant at Boston Financial Technology Group. In 18 months, Ms. Williams worked her way up to manager of a real estate portfolio and vice president and was now ready for Harvard.

After business school, she became an assistant buyer with Dayton Hudson Corp., the Minneapolis-based retailer, where, in 1978, she thought of selling women’s career clothes in a specialty store format.

She suggested the concept to her bosses, but ″the idea was deemed too risky and too unlikely at the time.″

″So, I went out the next year and I did do it myself,″ Ms. Williams said.

With a Small Business Administration-backed loan, Ms. Williams opened four stores in her first 12 months as an entrepreneur. The company took in $400,000 that first year, and has grown steadily.

Ms. Williams, honored for her achievements by the state of Minnesota and the National Association of Women Business Owners, exudes enthusiasm about her company and retailing. As she talks about her work, her speech quickens and she waves her hands for emphasis.

She oversees a staff of 140 employees, to whom she ″delegates strongly.″ But she does the fashion buying, which has given her a few headaches over the years.

One occurred over the past year, when fashion gurus proclaimed the miniskirt was back. Ms. Williams found her customers, like many other working women, balking at the idea.

″The feedback I was hearing in our stores didn’t support the idea that they were going to be comfortable″ wearing shorter skirts, she said.

In a poll of customers, only 2 percent said they preferred skirts above the knee, and 72 percent, asked if they would buy shorter skirts for work, said no.

Ms. Williams decided to buy just a few short skirts, while other retailers flooded their stores with them. The shorter lengths barely budged at She and Laura Caspari branches, ending up on ″sale″ racks.

But Ms. Williams found she wasn’t immune from the fallout from the miniskirt controversy. Overall sales did temporarily dip because customers weren’t sure what to do.

Customers ″would come in and they’d like the longer lengths,″ she said, ″but they’d say, ’I don’t want to invest in a length if it’s going to go out of style.‴

This wasn’t the first time Ms. Williams had to gamble on fashion trends. In 1982, she said, the fashion market declared women no longer wanted to wear classic clothing - exactly what she was selling.

But Ms. Williams theorized the problem was too many retailers offering career clothes. She found customers weren’t ready to abandon the conservative look.

″I bought against the market’s advice,″ she said, ″and we did have a terrifically successful year.″

Another success was the development of the company’s own private label fashions.

″Women were finding there were dozens upon dozens of the identicl thing - blazers and skirts - on rack after rack in store after store,″ she said. ″What we started to hear from our customers was, ’I want something a little more exclusive.‴

Her constant efforts at staying in touch with customers is part of Ms. Williams’ emphasis on customer service, which she calls critical.

″The customer should feel as though she owns the store,″ she said.

Ms. Williams’ style mirrors one she said retailers used to have.

″Your old-time retailers were really out there, listening to what their customers said ... and responding immediately,″ she said.

Retailers must have the ability to change quickly, she said.

″It’s good to have goals and it’s good to have priorities, but it’s critical to plan flexibly,″ she said.

End Adv for July 8

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