To say that Jeff Lubell has a passion for denim is an understatement.
“I’ve always been obsessive about fit, fabric, finish and the style of jeans, and I attribute that to my businesses’ success over the years,” said Lubell, the 54-year-old CEO, chairman and creative director of the white-hot True Religion Apparel company, best known for its pricey jeans.
Lubell has a history of entrepreneurism, previously helping to launch Hippie Jeans and Bella Dahl brands. In 2002, with 25 years in the textiles industry, he and his wife, designer Kymberly Gold-Lubell, founded True Religion Apparel. The goal was simple: to redefine premium denim. Lubell wanted to make high-quality, great-fitting 1970s inspired denim wear, but with a trend-setting look that would appeal to today’s consumers.
The couple set out to sell their product to high-end boutiques in the Los Angeles area.
“The biggest challenge of my career was at the very beginning of launching True Religion, when we needed to get the product into stores,” Lubell said. “At the time, there were no jeans over $125. It was a difficult task convincing retailers to try out not only a jean that was $172, but one with a flap on the back pocket, multi-colored stitching and half-inch stitching. Everything from the construction to hardware was different from what was out there.”
Lubell was nothing if not determined. He was able to finally convince the trendy Ron Herman store in Los Angeles to carry some of his jeans. But it was still a slow start: The product barely sold.
Lubell decided to take matters into his own hands by giving the store’s salespeople sample jeans to wear while they worked. The tactic gave the brand the exposure it needed to capture the attention of shoppers and create some much-needed buzz.
The buzz helped capture the attention of select luxury retailers, including Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus, and the young Hollywood elite. Cameron Diaz and other celebrities were photographed wearing the brand. In a shrewd move, True Religion kept the product supply tight. Trend-conscious shoppers started to view the product not only as a fashion investment, but also as a must-have status symbol.
As the company grew its brand profile and expanded its offerings, Lubell kept his focus on the quality—and fit. Fans say True Religion jeans fit like no others, and are styled to make the wearer look thin and fit, so much so that customers think nothing of shelling out $200-plus for a pair (women’s jeans run from $172 to about $240).
“The quality of the product in itself—while making it innovative, trendsetting and unique—has taken us a long way,” Lubell added.
During the past couple of years, True Religion has expanded its merchandise lineup to include knit and woven sportswear as well as a full range of licensed product, from footwear to handbags to fragrances. At the same time, the company remains true to its denim roots.
True Religion product is sold in premium department stores and boutiques in 50 countries around the globe. Lubell is also expanding the brand through freestanding True Religion stores. The company opened its first dedicated store in late 2005. It is on track to meet its 2008 goal of 39 branded stores.
“Looking forward, we will continue to secure retail locations that promise to deliver the targeted levels of sales volume, customer traffic and overall fit with the True Religion brand,” Lubell said.
True Religion’s net income has increased on average in excess of 80% annually since it was founded, according to the company. (It expects net sales of $242 million to $247 million for 2008, an increase of 40% to 42% over 2007.)
The growth of its higher-margin retail segment has been a significant contributor to its strong financial performance, according to Lubell.
“Over the next 5 years, we expect to continue to grow our consumer direct segment by opening new stores to showcase our entire merchandise offering,” Lubell said. “We also see opportunities outside the United States, especially for True Religion Brand Jeans stores.”
Although the company is a long way away from its start-up days, Lubell said he felt the entrepreneurial urge at a young age.
“Even when I was a little kid, I used to sell stickers and try to turn a profit,” Lubell said. “That said, I think the best advice I would give to aspiring entrepreneurs is to do what you are truly passionate about and never give up.”
“It’s so important to keep at it if you fail the first few times. A true entrepreneur will learn from his failures,” Lubell added. “It certainly worked for me.”
When not working, Lubell enjoys spending time with his three sons. He also enjoys surfing, skiing and, of course, shopping.
A lot of family businesses never make it to the second generation, much less the third and a fourth. Not so with Harmons. The supermarket chain was founded in 1932 by the grandparents of Bob and Randy Harmon, who have worked side by side since they were young.
“We are fortunate in that we are best friends,” said Randy Harmon, 48, VP of consumer affairs, Harmons, West Valley, Utah. “Also, we really love what we do.”
Randy and his brother literally grew up in the business, spending Saturdays and after-school hours in the store.
“As young boys, we would ride our bikes to the store to see our parents, who worked six days a week,” said Bob Harmon, 47, VP for the customer. “It was a lot of fun. We would help sort bottles, take groceries to customers’ cars, and play around a bit.”
As the brothers got older, their commitment to the grocery business grew more serious.
“My dad was very smart in that he wanted us to understand how every department worked,” Bob said. “We worked in nearly all the departments in the store, starting from the ground up. When we got good at one thing, or in one area, we would move on to the next department. It was excellent training.”
Harmons has expanded and grown increasingly sophisticated in recent years, taking on a fresh-food emphasis that attracts “foodies” as well as regular shoppers. Randy and Bob are determined to make grocery shopping fun. The stores are upbeat and colorful, and offer a multi-sensory experience.
“We decided a long time ago to differentiate ourselves from everyone else in our market by delivering value,” Randy said. “But value not only with regard to a great price, but also a great experience. That’s been our focus and it will continue to be.”
Currently, Harmons has its 14th location under construction. The company was recently chosen as the sole supermarket for a rejuvenation project in downtown Salt Lake City, winning out over 10 other grocers.
But for all the changes, Harmons remains very much a family affair. Randy’s wife Laurie—the couple met while they were working in the bakery—heads up human resources for the company. Of their four children, three work for Harmons.
Bob and his wife, who also worked at Harmons, have five children. All but the youngest, who is only 14, work there, too.
With a fourth generation coming up through the ranks, the Harmons seems to have mastered the art of not only maintaining a family business, but helping it grow.
“We understand the challenges that come with being family, and that we are always projecting some kind of meaning in terms of image,” Bob said. “My dad helped us understand this, and we are doing the same for our kids.”
The Harmons have set up a mentoring program for the new generation, with the mentors selected from among company associates.
“Most of the mentors were, at one time or another, employed outside of this company,” Bob said. “They have a much better perspective than Randy and I, both of who never worked anywhere else. Our kids can relate more openly to them.”
Interestingly, a non-family member heads up the business, serving as CEO and president.
“My grandfather and dad were very smart in that they tutored us on the fact that everyone has special gifts and skills and our challenge was to find where we best fit in the organization,” Bob said. “My parents talked openly about how we could continue the legacy we were given by our grandfather, which led to a balanced understanding of where we could contribute and how we could have others contribute.”
At this point, the brothers agreed, the company has the right people in the right seats on the bus.
“It’s a great balance,” Bob said. “We get to focus on the personal side of the business and engage our customers and associates in a way that, if we had different roles, might be more difficult.”
Although Randy and Bob have different titles, they are both focused on the customer experience.
“Our biggest job is to make sure our customers have a great shopping experience and that our associates are happy,” Randy said. “The both of us really enjoy going out into the stores together and interacting with our associates and customers.”
The brothers also enjoy working with their children.
“It’s exhilarating,” Bob said. “Our kids bring a brand-new perspective to the table in the way they feel about things like food safety, sustainability, carbon footprints and the like.”
As to Harmons’ success, they agree that the quality of their associates is key.
“You have to surround yourself with quality people,” Bob said. “It’s very difficult to do and it takes a bit of time. But you can’t sustain a business without people.”
Harmons invests heavily in training, and has a reputation for taking good care of its employees. It took a team of 40 associates to Northern Italy on a culinary tour.
Another critical factor is passion for the business.
“At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself: Do I really love what I do? We do. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Randy said.