About The Episode:
Jon Skudlarek and Justin Kehrwald help further explain what being an intrapreneur is as they give us their history of climbing the ladder in the retail world. Learn how two employees started at the bottom of management and worked their way up, by using healthy competition. Learn how a shoe company has survived a second recession by employing the right people.
About Jon & Justin:
In 1921, two friends Al Mains and Cecil Ginsberg were looking for a business opportunity. They found a man who was looking for some investors for his shoe stores. These men recognized that their chief competition was mail order operations like Montgomery Wards and Sears Roebuck. To encourage their potential customers to shop in the local community, they thought of the name “Trade At Home.” Then they shortened it to one word: “Tradehome.”
And so it was that Tradehome Shoes began in 1921, and the name Tradehome remains to this day. It was family owned until 1999 when nine individuals, who had worked their way up in the company, bought it. Their succession plans include getting other Tradehome employees involved with ownership. Tradehome offers endless growth opportunities for individuals to work their way up through management, district management, regional supervision, buying positions, and possibly even ownership. All it takes is desire and hard work.
From two stores in 1921, to over 120 stores in 2021, the success of Tradehome’s survival and growth has been summed up by its former owner, Donald Mains, in one word: PEOPLE. “People means our customers, and the outstanding level of Customer Service that sets us apart from other operations. People also means all the Tradehome organization with the ability and the attitude that has assured our success all these years.” This focus on customer service is what has set Tradehome apart from all of the other competition in the past and present. This focus on “people” is why Tradehome is here today!
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Climbing The Ladder In The Retail World | Jon Skudlarek & Justin Kehrwald
Our guests, I’m pumped to talk about them because they are from an employee-owned retail footwear company headquartered in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. This is Tradehome Shoes. Jon and Justin, welcome to the show.
Appreciate it. Thank you for having us.
How are you doing?
We are doing good. I’m not even going to attempt it because it’s awesome. At least, you know that nobody can dopplegäng you. It’s Tradehome Shoes. I’m excited to talk to you because there’s so much awesomeness that’s going into what you are doing. I want to know how you started, which was before you were even born and a long time ago, how you have grown now and continued to expand because you started in 1921.
We are 100 years old in 2021.
What are you doing to celebrate?
We are trying to make the most of the post-pandemic world and we are going to have all of our managers in. Once we found out that the world was going to be opened back up, we are going to have all of our store managers and corporate employees have a couple of days’ celebration with some of our vendors and invite back as many alumni as we can have. Just celebrate 100 years of people.
You both started in high school.
I started in high school. Justin, did you start in college or high school?
I started while I was in college. Jon and I have very similar stories to how he got started with Tradehome and he tells it a little bit better so I will let him do so.
It’s so fun because there are a lot of entrepreneurs that read the show and others that are employees of amazing places like Tradehome Shoes. A lot of this is geared towards entrepreneurs but I’m always like, “No, you don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be this amazing success, break the mold, get out of the box and be the Renegade, the disruptor. You can be what the phrase is now called like an intrapreneur, which is probably part of your story. Tell me about it.
I started when I was sixteen years old in Bismarck, North Dakota but the thing that kept me with Tradehome throughout the years is the fact that every day is different. When you talk about an entrepreneur, you have to have an entrepreneurial mindset to be good at Tradehome and have to think outside of the box. One of the biggest things that we look for with our team members is the fact that they go out there and make it happen rather than waiting for it to happen. I started when I was sixteen, part-time, never thought I would still be with the company years later. Honestly, with all of us, it’s all from within.
I became an assistant, fell in love with the job, enjoyed it, became a manager at the age of nineteen and oversaw three different locations. Now, I’m in my third territory as a Regional Supervisor. The biggest thing that I would say and the most fun has been the fact that every day is a little different and the constant is the change. That’s one thing we have been good at as a company is consistently changing when needed.
Justin, your story is similar?
Within our core group of people, we talk a lot about how the majority of us fell into an accidental career. I was attending South Dakota State University and started working part-time because a buddy of mine had a job there and they needed some help for the holiday. I’ve got started right around Christmas time. I fell in love with the interaction of the people, the competitive spirit within the tight-knit group of people that you work with.
Once I’ve got a couple of mentors that explained to me what it could be not as a job, I gave myself different goals that I wanted to achieve within certain amounts of time. The interesting thing with a retail company is there are so many different facets to it. I went store management and regional supervision, transitioned into the home office to start working with our operations team, got involved with our leasing and purchasing a product. I’ve got groomed by some people that had my best interest in mind. The third president in the history of Tradehome took the helm in 1999. In October of 2018, he handed a proverbial baton to me. Jon, I and the rest of our leadership group have been trying to make the best of our opportunity.
It’s so cool because things like retail, it’s one of the few places that exist where you can blow up a career. I came from the Best Buy world and you could do so many things within retail. You guys were in college but even other opportunities for people to start in climb the ladder are incredible and amazing. There are not many industries that you can do that. A lot of times, it will reach a plateau but looking at how far you have come. It’s awesome to see that. It’s not normal for 2021 to have any individuals that stay with a single organization for many years but let’s say even five years. It’s not normal for that. What kept you around this long?
It comes down to the opportunity. You can go as high as you want to go. Justin is clearly living proof of that. He started part-time and is now running the organization. Part of it too, is we try and give everybody a voice, whether you are a part-time employee, store manager or beyond that, we are all in it together. We had a great opportunity to create a close-knit group throughout the pandemic and that time. What’s interesting is we came out of it stronger but more than anything else, it’s the community of Tradehome that keeps a lot of people around for the long haul.
Justin, would you agree with that?
A 1000%. The only thing I would perhaps maybe add to it is that we were very fortunate when the ownership group that took over in 1999 bought it from the founder of our company’s son and son-in-law. They made a handshake agreement with Don and Harold that when they were ready to relinquish ownership of the organization, that they would make sure that it stayed owner-operated. The caveat attached to it for me as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for a living and I’m still doing that every day is I knew that at some point if I did what I was capable of doing, I felt like I would be in the position to be able to take a prominent role in leadership with Tradehome Shoes. To Jon’s point, the people that were there before us that we learned from so much had walked in our shoes. No pun intended in the footwear business but one of the things that maybe Jon and I even take for granted is that we never asked anybody to do something that we weren’t asked to do at one point. We were asked to do that by somebody who was also tasked with that job.
We don’t hire people from the outside to take leadership positions. This is a company where your ability and performance are going to determine how far you climb up. When you talk about people in other industries or retail organizations, our company ladder spans 24 states. If you want to change scenery, then we can help you move to a new area, run a different market, get to be involved in a different community and you can start that business to scratch that entrepreneur’s itch but you can do it with a support system of an old company.
I’m sure there have been a lot of changes over the years too but you are close to about the same tenure within the organization. Were you ever at the same level at the same time?
For the majority of our career? Yes.
I can tell you are close. Did you ever have any healthy competition between the two of you?
I would say some more than others. Any great organization is going to have some competition and you hope that it’s healthy but part of what makes us is we have so many like Justin and me out there running locations that have the same relationship that we had as we came through the ranks. There’s no question that we still challenge each other to this day in many different ways. That’s the special part for sure.
For anyone out there that enjoys sports analogies, to be successful for Tradehome, we don’t have one starting quarterback. We’ve got a 125-store pitching rotation and every manager wants their other managers to do well. They want to be known as the ace of the roster.
I would love to know some stories at some point. I don’t know if you are willing to share some of them but that would be a lot of fun to know some of those competition stories. You are holding back on me a little bit, aren’t you? “Everything is great. We have healthy competition, sunshine and roses.” Was there a time you ever wanted to put each other into a headlock and be like, “I’m going to kick your ass here? This is what’s going to happen because I’m doing better than you and try to catch up?” I’m talking in a very healthy way.
I don’t necessarily think that potentially happened but when you have a great organization, you’ve got a variety of people that are either pushing you, you are chasing or trying to catch up with. I don’t think there has ever been a time where I would want to put Justin in a headlock metaphorically or literally but in the end, it has to do more with the fact that when you have a lot of great people pulling on the same side of the rope, great things happen.
I see who you are. I’m saying, “Come out of the box for me for a little bit just for a couple of minutes.” You’ve got the foundation of an amazing company behind you and I’m seeing that. You have 125 stores you said, Justin?
Yes and we’ve got designs to increase that door count working with some of the major retail developers on our expansion plan. Part of the reason this show exists is to help people reach their potential, reading about previous episodes. The name all in, I love it is we can always buy more shoes, contract more trucks and work on logistics within our support system at the home office. As Jon mentioned, what makes us different is the people that we have that are the face of the franchise for us in each of our individual markets. As long as we can continue to hire and retain good people, we are going to continue to stretch the boundaries of our footprint and open up stores in areas that we feel are needed in the market.
Around the past decades, what have you seen as far as some of the biggest shifts that you have had to make to keep business moving forward? In your tenure, this is a second recession. You have been through one and now maybe again.
Perhaps we are atypical to retail in general but when you read studies on footwear, coming out of the COVID pandemic shutdown, there was a little bit of a retail resurgence, especially in products where people hadn’t shopped for it for a while. People are getting out hiking, running and walking. That’s the product that we carry. With us being full service, it also touched the core of how much people missed interacting with people. You get a little bit of a buzzkill if all you do is wait for Amazon packages to show up and not saying anything negative about purchasing items online. Our job is to make sure that our customers are in a better mood when they leave the store than they were when they walked in. We believe if we do that, selling footwear is going to be a by-product of the gist of the interaction.
When you shifted in 2020, I’m assuming you had to make some changes or at least for a couple of months when the states shut down because I’m assuming your doors were closed for a little while in most states.
Yes, in all of our stores. There were some pretty dark days for all of our leadership where we were at the mercy of other people making decisions. Six weeks was the shortest time any of our stores were closed and that stretched to three months.
From a regional supervisor perspective, I’m assuming you’ve got district managers and maybe some store managers underneath you, what were some creative ways? Justin was saying it gets a little old waiting for the Amazon boxes. Did you shift to any online push now?
We did open an online store on April 2nd, 2020.
The pandemic was not what predicated our eCommerce site. It had been in the works since the tail end of 2018. We wanted to do it right and the best job that we could in bringing a little bit of the service side to eCommerce. We fast-tracked it a little bit and expedited it and as Jon mentioned, we launched it probably 6 to 8 weeks earlier and we allowed the wrinkles to be ironed out while we were live, instead of having everything done on day one.
Build the plane as you fly it.
When you speak about the creativity of a regional supervisor, while we were shut down we did some things that are outside of the norm as far as engagement with our employees that allowed us to, believe it or not, we had 100% manager retention even with some furloughs.
For a lot of people, it was tough to be at home. For our managers who are so used to being in the community, they are running and gunning around their stores, working with their teams and stuff along that line, it was very difficult for them to sit home and ultimately not have any of that stuff going on. We started doing voluntary Zoom calls and stuff along that line. Honestly, Justin and I would both agree that we came out of the pandemic probably stronger from a community standpoint. The community in Tradehome has been strong for years but that’s all you have to focus on and all these individuals are used to being in stores helping customers and all of a sudden, they are home. It’s opening that up as an opportunity for them and taking the time to pour into them during those dark and challenging times, it was tough from a community standpoint but at least we could have a virtual community during that time. We did a good job in that area as a company.
Did you have any of the store managers help you in the online presence realm to get that shift made?
Yes, but behind the scenes. When we are in beta for upwards of two months, our store managers, even with customers purchasing items online a lot of times are the ones walking the customer through that process while they are in the store. We wanted to make sure that each of our managers felt the brand of Tradehome Shoes was being represented well. If they didn’t feel like it was very easy as a consumer, then they were going to be the ones that were going to have to try to walk people through it at the moment. Anything that we can do to streamline that process before we went live, if we could create a website that our store managers could navigate easily, we felt as though our customers would be able to as well.
That’s a great way to approach it. I have been in a lot of the retail stores to where they are like, “It’s on the website.” The employee would try to search the actual website of that retailer to try to find a product for me. They didn’t even know how to navigate it themselves. It’s so cryptic. That makes sense to want to do it right. Why did you wait so long even to begin with? The internet is not new. Why until 2018 did you say, “We should be online?”
In 2018, we did have a change in the leadership of Tradehome. Opening a website and starting properly is a little cost-prohibitive and you have to think the long game. There were a few people that were getting ready to retire that had been with the company for a long time that said, “When you are in control, we want you to make the website the way you want it. We don’t want you to have to retrofit a website that we created knowing that we were going to be outside of the company in 24 to 36 months.” We started working on some of the behind the scene things like what we wanted it to be and how we wanted to make sure that online sales and store sales flowed. We started working on some of that in 2016 but if you are 98 years old and you don’t have a website then does it matter if you are 99 years old and you don’t have a website?
How’s that worked out so far? Has it bumped your revenue? Have you seen a recovery from the pandemic? Has it complimented? Where do you see it fitting in long-term?
From the first time that we sat down and thought about what we wanted our website to be for us, the number one goal of our website is for it to be a vessel to help customers go into the store to make a purchase. We liked the idea of somebody sitting on their couch or their front deck and having a glass of wine or cocktail and pre-shopping. Footwear is a touch and feels category but going to a shopping center can sometimes be perceived as inconvenient. If on a Wednesday night, you spend a little bit of time online and you find 3 or 4 products that you might be interested in that your local store has, you are more likely to make that journey on a Thursday into the store. Our goal of the website is we don’t want to be the next Zappos. That’s not our goal. We are proud of the brick-and-mortar locations that we have and we want our website to be a nice advertising tool to support in-store sales but if you can’t make it into one of our stores, we would be more than happy to help you get a pair of shoes off our website.
Do you sell them online on any other platforms, you mentioned Amazon or is it through yours?
We sell directly through our own website. We do not support third-party sales. We are at Tradehome and Tradehome.com business.
Jon, being a Regional Supervisor, as we touched about this transition to becoming online, I’m assuming you probably are a little bit more of a road warrior?
Yes. Justin was at one point too and still is.
How did that work for you? In 2020, I filmed a documentary and I was still in Marriott Hotels for around $150 nights says my account. I didn’t even know it was that much during the pandemic. How did you cope? I sat home for five weeks in the beginning. I’m like, “This sucks. I’ve got to figure out something to do.”
It was an adjustment. There’s no doubt about that. I will go back to that Zoom community that was created during the time that helped us all out quite frankly but even when I’ve got back on the road, it was weird out there. I’m sure you can attend to that. It was strange initially when you first started traveling. One of the biggest things that we always want to make sure that our managers and the community of Tradehome understand is when we started opening stores, we wanted to be there as supervisors on the frontlines with the managers. That’s so important. It’s one thing to sit there and talk about how, “Everything is going to be okay,” and find over the phone. It’s a lot different to sit there and say it to them in person and be with the teams as they reopened with all the uncertainty in the world. That was important to us as an organization. It was part of the reason why most supervisors hit the road right away in May or late April 2021 to get back out there and be with the teams.
I had this weird thought in the back of my head and this is because I squirreled. Underneath you Jon there are store managers, is that the hierarchy?
It’s very much structured like Dunder Mifflin in The Office. I don’t know if you ever watched the show but that’s how I think. Do you ever see yourselves mirroring that life at all? What’s going on?
Maybe not entirely.
Tradehome, how did you get that name?
It’s interesting now that it’s gone full circle as the company was founded in Superior, Wisconsin and it was Trade at Home. Tradehome was a retail location provided to communities to keep people from having to use mail-order catalogs and they’ve got to trade in their hometown. We think it’s fitting now with the online marketplace that it still has a name synonymous with being part of the community, supporting your community, hiring people from the community and being a fixture.
When did the name shift from Trade at Home to Tradehome? What year?
It was very early, probably less cost-prohibitive to put a sign-up. It was very early in the infancies of Tradehome. There were only three locations at that time when they’ve got rid of the At part.
Many years ago I officiated my own grandmother’s funeral. Part of the talk that I gave was like, “All the things that she probably would have seen because she was born in the teens. It’s like going through the Roaring Twenties but then the Great Depression after that and World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam and then disco. She probably could have done without that one but those are considerations because now when we think, “Here’s a printer.” It’s so inexpensive to add that but back at that time, do you know if it was during the depression that they shrunk that down to save on the signs? That would be incredible.
I don’t know but the resiliency that you speak of your grandmother and what she went through, we wear that as a badge of honor with our company in general. All of those things that you have listed, we have survived all of those things and the future generations of Tradehome will be able to speak of the pandemic of 2020 as another thing that we not only survived but as Jon referenced, came out better on the other end.
Did you have to close any stores at all?
The only store that we closed permanently was going to happen regardless. Since our stores have reopened, we have increased our footprint by close to 10% since May 2021.
What do you think the future of Tradehome is? Everything is shifting to online and I do feel that during this time too looking at any industry sales, for example, became pretty much functional over Zoom. In my personal opinion, as far as sales in general, it’s going to shift back to where when you have that personal touch, that’s going to give you the edge again.
There’s never going to be a replacement for human connection. We can Zoom until we are blue in the face but ultimately there’s nothing better than being in the same room with somebody. Even when we look back on the pandemic and all these opportunities that were taken away to hang out with friends, family and stuff along that line, as people get back out there, I still think there’s going to be strong walls in America. I don’t think there’s going to be quite as many may be as there are now. If you are a store that does a phenomenal job with the customer experience and you make them feel like the only person on Earth while they are in your presence, I don’t know that the future can possibly look bad for you.
10% over 2020 is awesome. Where do you see yourselves going in the next five years?
We are going to continue to hit expansion mode. We’ve got some brands that are working for us and we have made a conscious effort to carry a product that you can’t get at a lot of sit and fit retail locations. Jon talked about the human interaction but the other thing that’s fun is if you can make retail shopping entertaining, educational, mix in some technology and perhaps you do a good job of tying your in-store shopping experience with your online shopping experience, that’s how you retain customers and customers don’t look for a specific product. They look for stores. As we continue to try to solidify the brand of Tradehome Shoes, those are the big Roman numerals that we are making sure form the outline of our next 5 to 10 years.
Are you guys’ parents?
How many shoes do your kids have to work for a wonderful place like Tradehome?
My daughter has quite a few shoes. My son is intentionally a minimalist. My son will get a pair of shoes and he will wear those until he wears them out, and then he will get another pair of shoes. He likes to remind me that he doesn’t take full advantage of the opportunity that he has to have his dad work for the company that he works for.
My wife and daughters take full advantage of the fact that I work for a shoe store. My oldest daughter has too many. I always try and justify it by saying she’s a good Guinea pig but I think she has been used too much in that role. They like their shoes. There’s no doubt about it.
It’s a little different with both of you working there but what recommendations would you have for parents that are looking for their kid’s shoes? Back to when I was a kid. My family didn’t have a lot of money so it was just whatever we could afford. I remember trying to think that, “I’m going to be the cool kid if I’ve got Reebok Pumps.” I don’t know what the situation of the money at the time. I was maybe only eleven years old and I remember I‘ve got my first pair of Reebok Pumps because that’s what I want and made me super happy. As far as parents looking for their kids’ shoes, I know how to fit my kids’ shoes what they like and everything but is there anything you would suggest to parents to make sure that their kids are outfitted the appropriate way to be a success in school and life?
It’s important to be fit. Think about how many stores you walk into, they throw the box at you and walk away. One of the biggest things that we do is when we talk about being a sit and fit, we legitimately walk you through the buying process. I always talk about us being your tour guide as you are in the store. The biggest thing with kids is their feet change so quickly throughout adolescence that it’s important to have them measured. We carry the Brannock Device in our stores. It’s old school but we sit them down and we truly fit their feet. Kids need to be wearing the right size. Oftentimes, they are not. Even a lot of adults aren’t wearing the right size of shoes.
It’s hard for me to find shoes with my Hobbit feet that I’ve got going on here. They are between sizes 12 and 13. It’s interesting because they are slightly wider at the front, which is why I have always been good at running but I hate running. The proper fit I see for my kids too is it’s so hard to find and you don’t get much help from anybody there in the stores. I’m talking if you purchase like Nike’s or something like that from like a Nordstrom or a Neiman Marcus, some of the high-end retailers and you still don’t get the help that you need especially for kids.
I would say sometimes it’s harder for children to articulate the fit of a shoe as opposed to once you are an adult and you know this one fits a little bit tighter here and less here. The other thing I would add to Jon in addition to, whether it’s one of our scanning devices, we have scanners in our stores that have lasers and cameras. We have the old-school Brannock Device but the only other thing that I would say is just because their foot measures at a certain size, it doesn’t mean that that’s the size that they are going to wear in every brand. These shoes are made literally on different continents. They are made at different times of the year, the calibration of the machine on a Monday versus on a Friday never assumes that once you get measured that you know what size you wear because if all your shoes are the same size, then probably a third of your shoes don’t fit.
I can tell that too because there have been some shoes that I have liked over the years that I have bought two pairs of because I’m like, “When these wear out, I’ve got the same pair,” but then I put on the second pair and I’m like, “What is the problem with these things?”
Those were Friday shoes.
Those were my, “I didn’t have too much salt for dinner last night” shoes. Last bit because your name changed from Trade at Home to Tradehome but you have something from what I read has been launched Trade At Home Give At Home. Can you tell me more about that initiative?
The first thing I want to touch on is the Century brand. That’s our apparel company. For every pack of socks that we sell at the local level, the manager had an opportunity to pick out a local charity to donate a pack of socks too and that has been extraordinarily successful so far. That’s the first initiative and then that has catapulted into the Give At Home slogan that you are talking about. What we are doing with our managers is we are allowing them to choose a charity again. In some cases, it’s the same one that they are giving us socks to and in other cases, it’s different.
We are allowing them to take a day off and we are going to credit their bonus account for that time away as a company and they are going to give it give back to their communities. The goal is we hope that it probably happens a couple of times a year. They take their family and kids with them, then they make an event out of it. We have been fortunate in so many markets and ways with the customers and the loyalty that we have had across the country. It’s our opportunity to give back a little bit. That’s what we are motivated to do moving forward.
Justin, what suggestions would you have for somebody that wants to start somewhere and rise to be president and CEO of the organization?
The first bit of advice I would have is be calculated your personal expectations versus the long-term end game that the company might have in for you. When you talk about Jon and I at each other’s necks are giving each other, any time anybody ever feels like they didn’t get an opportunity or a promotion that they were deserving of and it was given to somebody else. It’s easy to find another ship to sail on when you are not happy at the moment with the ship that you are on. I can tell you personally that I’m very fortunate that I had a couple of people that I thought highly of that were my mentors, that they knew the end game better than I did because they were working with 16 to 20 managers at a time. Mine was the only brain that I cared about at that moment versus the 120 stores.
Sometimes you’ve got to zoom out and realize that it’s part of the long game but the other thing is that if you work for an organization to where your direct report is someone that you can have a mentor-mentee relationship, you should take as much advantage of that as you possibly can. Jon talks about pouring into people and if you are in an organization where you look at the 2 to 3 levels of leadership above where you are at and you feel like all three of those people are people that you could learn a lot from, then you are working for a good organization. You can be patient and trust the process.
I appreciate you both being on and for anyone who wants to find your locations, Tradehome.com. Take a look and go into the store.
We would love to have you in.
Thanks. I appreciate your insight, especially in 2020 in brick-and-mortar retail. I’m hoping that you double your locations here in the next five years. I can’t wait to see what happens.
Thank you. We appreciate it.
- Tradehome Shoes
- Proverbial Baton
- Dunder Mifflin
- Brannock Device
- Neiman Marcus
- Century brand
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