It’s a Tuesday, 1 p.m., and my interview time has been rescheduled from the day before when DeeDee Shaw called to say she had to make a last minute trip to Charlotte to help another store owner remerchandise.
It took some serious arm twisting to convince this 5 foot, 6 inches tall, model-thin, outspoken 50-year-old working mom to reveal how she turned her dream for a little Wilmington clothing store into a successful multi-million dollar retail boutique chain spread throughout the Southeast.
Dressed in a camel-colored cashmere knit poncho, black-and-white spring slacks and high-heeled platform woven clogs, Shaw is back in her office, hidden away behind curtains and Monkee’s retail showroom floor.
Her workspace is about as unpretentious as you can get – the equivalent of a small stock room – and Shaw is armed with a laptop and iPhone that’s constantly buzzing with incoming business calls and emails. Next to her sits 27-year-old Lindsay Toler, hired a year ago to grow the Wilmington store’s social media and sales-generating Facebook page.
There’s no indecision when it comes to the cut-to-the-chase, female retail exec. And don’t let her self-professed “casual fashion style” fool you. As founder and managing partner of Monkee’s Franchises LLC, Shaw’s all about business and growing the corporation’s 21-store chain that includes a mix of independent franchisees and Monkee’s name licensees.
It all started in Wilmington in 1996. Shaw was 32 and turning the page on a new chapter in her life. She walked down the aisle and into a second marriage with a new husband – a Wilmington developer and successful businessman in his own right – and a life reboot.
Faced with the choice of staying at home to start a family or a finding a job, she opted for both. “I am a working girl. And I absolutely think women can have it all,” Shaw said.
The former math and science teacher, who once taught algebra, had always dreamed of owning a store. She left her career in the classroom and for three years gained experience as a sales rep, selling Giorgio Armani’s eyewear line to optometrist and eye doctor offices in Charlotte.
But with her new marriage and move to Wilmington, Shaw saw opportunity.
“The only thing I thought Wilmington needed was a good shoe store because there was nothing. And by that time, I had been in and out of New York enough to know fashion and style, and Wilmington didn’t have it, and Wilmington was ready for it,” Shaw said.
She opened for business in the upscale Lumina Station shopping center. Inspiration for the name came from her mom, who affectionately called Shaw and her sisters a bunch of monkeys when they were growing up.
Though pregnant with her first son and suffering from prolonged bouts of morning and afternoon sickness for months, Shaw, a stickler for merchandising, would not be stopped during the store’s early days.
“There were times that I would spend the night,” she said. “We had a chaise at the time. My husband would come up here at midnight, one o’clock in the morning and say, ‘You have got to come home.’ ”
By 1998, Monkee’s had gained traction selling exclusive designer lines women could not find at other stores in town. Shaw, then pregnant with her second son, was on a roll when one of her regular customers Brenda Maready pulled her aside with an idea.
“She asked me, ‘Would you be interested in doing a Monkee’s in Winston-Salem with me?’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was waddling around pregnant looking like an elephant,” Shaw said.
But the challenge to grow her Monkee’s brand was something Shaw could not turn down. The two women became partners, and Monkee’s – the upscale retail boutique chain – was born.
From 2000 to 2008, the duo went full throttle, opening 13 stores from Asheville to Greensboro to Greenville.
Each store had an independent owner who paid Monkee’s a name-licensing fee. In return, Shaw and Maready helped get them off the ground.
“We help you do your buy, we take you to market and then if you have any hiccups, we were there to advise,” Shaw said.
One key to Monkee’s success was strategically opening in university towns that also had a solid demographic of affluent permanent residents.
But in 2008 when the economy tanked, the burgeoning chain with the lighthearted name faced a critical turning point.
“I was hell-bent that I was going to be a high-end boutique, but when the crash came, I realized I wasn’t going to be strictly high-end anymore, or I would be out of business, period,” Shaw said.
For the next 18 months, Shaw and her corporate team drilled down, focusing strictly on keeping existing stores afloat.
“We highly adjusted. We started bringing in lower priced lines, bought in smaller quantities and backed off on our employment,” she said.
While two stores ultimately closed, Shaw came out the other side learning a huge lesson that ultimately grew her customer base by offering more affordable lines.
“It was the best thing we did for our organization because we realized that there were more of those shoppers than there were of the designer shoppers,” she said. “And if you can’t afford a $400 dress, then there’s a $100 outfit that’s just as cute, and that’s what we’re all about.”
At the same time the recession hit, Shaw and her corporate team overhauled their business model. They realized that to really expand into other states, they had to stop offering licensing agreements and become a franchise-only operation.
Under the franchising model, prospective store owners are carefully screened. They know up front the initial investment will run from $250,000 to $465,000 to open and fully merchandise a Monkee’s store.
The figure includes an initial $50,000 Monkee’s franchising fee. Monkee’s then gets 5 percent from a store’s monthly net sales. In return, new owners get a store brand with a proven track record for turning profits and growing a name in each city they open in.
Monkee’s stores are now operating successfully in seven states – from Cincinnati, Ohio to Auburn, Ala. to Lexington, Ky. to Nashville, Tenn., including 11 stores in home state North Carolina. Even in a down economy, the retail recipe has worked. Year-to-year financials show overall store sales are up 7 percent from 2011 to 2012, with $17.5 million in revenues for the entire chain in 2012.
While the Wilmington flagship has a range of lower price points, the store remains chock full of major designer lines from Tory Burch to Diane Von Furstenberg and vintage Chanel bags on sale for thousands of dollars.
Toler sees firsthand Monkee’s growing online reputation. She points to a Monkee’s Facebook fan who writes “Please come to Boston!”
Toler considers Shaw not just a professional female mentor, but also a friend.
“She’s tough. She is a boss. But she has a heart of gold. If she sees something that you’re not doing right, she wants you to do better and she will tell you. And we all do it because we respect her very much,” Toler said.
With a quick tour around the store, Shaw reveals what this year’s spring trends are all about.
“Color, color, color! And pants are having a comeback,” she said.
After all, she would know. The former Coastal Entrepreneur Award winner is determined to continue to grow the chain with plans to add two new stores each year. With additional franchises now in the works, Shaw has found her professional passion.
“Just put your sights on something and go for it,” she said. “And if you love what you’re doing, you never go to work.”
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