Friday, April 1, 2011

An Interview with Principals of Briara Trading

(with Bruce Gillespie, Ned Kaplin, and Larry Silverstein)
By Robert Nordstrom
Bruce Gillespie, Ned Kaplin, and Larry Silverstein, principals of Pennsylvania-based jobbing company Briara Trading, take pride in their understanding of the retail market. Ned, who with his father Elmer owned a chain of 55 off-price retail stores called House of Bargains, operating throughout five states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, and the Chicago area, brings a retailer’s sensibility to the wholesale side of the business.
When Larry and his father Harvey joined forces with Ned and Elmer in 1987 to open Briara Trading, it quickly became apparent that the retail and wholesale businesses complemented each other well. The wholesale operation offered the retail operation increased buying clout while the retail buying staff gave the wholesale operation increased market coverage.
During the 1990s the jobbing business focused primarily on children’s apparel and grew in both volume and reputation. Then in 1998, when Ned received an offer that according to him was “too good to refuse,” he sold the retail business and joined Larry in the daily operations of Briara.

Knowing What the Retailer Needs
According to Larry, Ned’s many years of retail experience gives Briara an edge over their competition. “Some of the wisdom I gained from Ned over the years is how to look at a retailer’s business,” Larry says. “We understand our retailers’ price points and can work backwards to determine at what price we need to own the goods. We must offer the right price to our retailers so that they in turn are providing value to their customer.”
“We realize they have to make money,” adds Ned. “They are our partners. We’re servicing them. We want them to make money, which ultimately allows us to make money.”
Whether working with small mom and pop stores or major off-price retail chains, customer service is key to Briara’s success. In today’s highly competitive retail environment, where apparel is one of the few products that have followed a deflationary curve over the past decade, retailers are looking for any edge they can find to cut costs and make a profit.
“We understand that when you make an off-price buy, you are not buying perfect assortments,” Larry says. “We do everything in our power to absorb problems and make them go away, in essence, putting Briara between the factory and the retailer.” Because of our wide selection of men’s, women’s, and children’s apparel, we’re a good resource for both smaller accounts and large chains.”
Briara prepacks merchandise into color and size assortments according to the needs of their customers. In addition, they will pack and hold goods for customers in the company’s 80,000 square foot West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania warehouse, a key resource for retailers who wish to minimize inventory space.

Jumping to the Next Level
In 2002, Briara Trading took a major step forward when Bruce Gillespie joined Larry and Ned as a partner. Bruce, who started Milway Corporation in 1987, had sold imported children’s goods to Larry and Ned over the years. Based in Pompano Beach, Florida, Bruce was an exhibitor at the Off-Price Specialist Show during the show’s early days at the Debbie Reynolds Hotel & Casino. In 1997, Bruce moved his offices to Nicaragua, later opening a Free Trade Zone and living in Central America in order to remain close to his sourcing opportunities.
All the pieces were in place. Bruce’s wealth of jobbing experience and particularly his overseas sourcing contacts were key to broadening Briara’s product line into men and women’s in addition to kids’ apparel. In the four years since Bruce joined Briara, the company’s sales revenues have increased over 50 percent. The partners have established offices and in-country managers in approximately 10 countries throughout South America, Central America, and Asia. With in-country managers, Briara is able to keep costs down by taking care of much of the sourcing, sorting, and packing in the country of origin so that when containers arrive at the warehouse, the goods are ready to ship.
“The interesting thing we all comment on,” says Bruce, “is how technology has changed the way we buy goods. The internet allows us to remain in constant contact with our people overseas.”
Today, a staff of 35 full-time employees runs the company. In addition to its warehouse and offices in Pennsylvania, Briara staffs a showroom in Manhattan. Larry comments “Briara owes a significant measure of its success to our highly professional sales team.”

Growing with the Off-Price Specialist Show
The company’s growth is evident in the increased exhibit space Briara Trading takes at the Off-Price Specialist Shows. An exhibitor since 1996, Briara moved out of exhibit booths and into Salon space in August 2004, which served as a good vehicle for Briara to display its broader adult categories in addition to its children’s apparel.
According to Larry, “We were able to jump start the men and women’s businesses by putting our new offerings in front of a lot of people in a very short period of time. The show is a tremendous opportunity for us, and we do a lot of business at the show. It’s a meeting of the industry. The buyers are at the show looking for opportunities and have money to spend.”
“When we were in booths,” Ned adds, “we had people lined up and it was difficult to work. The salon makes it much easier to work with the additional buyers we now serve as a result of the adult categories we have added.”

Adapting to Change
Given the consolidation in the retail industry, apparel’s deflationary trend, and the movement of product to overseas vendors, today’s jobber, in order to survive, must be creative, resourceful, and always opportunistic when sourcing, buying, and selling goods. Bruce, Larry, and Ned’s apparel industry experience is broad and deep. They complement one another with their individual talents and expertise—Bruce’s international sourcing expertise, Ned’s retail experience, and Larry’s sales, administrative and warehousing skills. They understand that change always creates new opportunities and that ultimately their success is tied to their customers’ bottom line.


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