By Stan Linhorst
Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Jackie Wilson says her fashion company’s hallmark has been speed to market, taking 10 weeks out of the normal timetable from conception of design to seeing garments in stores. She contracts with factories in Guatemala, China, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.
Jackie Wilson has built a fast-growing fashion company in Central New York. Since 2013, revenue at American Fashion Network has skyrocketed ten-fold.
American Fashion Network is the umbrella for JES Apparel, which Wilson describes as “our stage name.” JES were the initials of Jackie, Estina and Surina, her two partners in Singapore. Their partnership dissolved in 2011. Wilson kept the name and today has 13 designers, artists and brand managers working at her studio in DeWitt. Eight more — designers and factory support staff — work at her new office in Los Angeles.
Wilson said the company’s hallmark has been speed to market, taking 10 weeks out of the normal timetable from conception of design to seeing garments in stores. She contracts with factories in Guatemala, China, Vietnam, Indonesia. A new one is coming online soon in Peru.
She was born in Whittier, Calif., grew up in La Habra near Anaheim and graduated in 1985 from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism, hoping to see the world as a foreign correspondent. Instead, the Gemco cashier job she landed at age 16 launched a career in fashion sales and helped her to travel the world, first for employers in L.A. and New York and now from her headquarters on Heritage Landing Drive.
Question: Where would we see your work?
Answer: Our customer base is America’s mid-tier retail base. Our top customers are Kohl’s, JCPenney, American Eagle Outfitters, and Belk. When you see a JCPenny model on TV, it can be a design from our company. If you saw the Kohl’s ad for Black Friday, you saw a couple of our designs. When you walk through the mall and see mannequins at American Eagle, a lot of time those are our products.
We work directly with their product development and design departments. We design product for their labels. At Kohl’s, we do seven different brands. At JCPenney, we do six different brands.
We go into a retailer and we translate trend to fit each of their brands. We develop the product and then we manufacture it.
It’s all for private label. We don’t put our own name out there. Under the private label umbrella, it’s a lower margin, but there’s a lot more risk the other way.
Question: Tell me about your speed to market.
Answer: That’s our claim to fame, and it’s why we’ve grown so quickly. Look at what happened with Cyber Monday — it exceeded Black Friday in sales. So the retailer is having to figure out how to manage inventory levels knowing foot traffic is not as strong anymore.
A company like ours is a god-send. We’ve cut 10 weeks out of the process. Some retailers work on 22 weeks. The average is 18 weeks. With us, retailers can wait 10 weeks to watch the trend and then come to JES Apparel. They can book it when they know if the trend is going to continue.
The market is starting to catch up to us. So our new mantra is Speed to Development.
I just opened an office in L.A. with a sewing facility. We’re going to focus for 2017 on turning our samples in 48 hours.
Question: Tell me about formative influences and leadership roles growing up.
Answer: I was a middle child, so I think my leadership roles started there. My older and younger sisters didn’t necessarily get along, so I was in the middle being the peacemaker. (Laughs) So, I come by it naturally.
I was a Girl Scout, and I learned leadership there.
My father (Joseph Blancato) is a successful entrepreneur and has grown and sold companies my whole life. He’s my source of inspiration, but not necessarily in the way you would think. When I had problems, he wasn’t the type of person that would sit down and say: Do this or do that. He basically would say: You’ll figure it out. You’ll know what to do.
In the beginning of this company, I called him to say: Dad I’m not going to make payroll. I don’t know what to do.
He said: You’ll figure it out.
He wouldn’t write me a check — that’s what I was looking for. (Laughs)
As an entrepreneur, that’s something that nobody talks about very much. Those nights lying in bed and thinking Oh My God! How am I going to walk in there tomorrow and say I don’t have enough money for payroll?
But you know what, I always figured it out.
I always wanted to be famous, not rich. That’s a mindset, and it made me very competitive.
Question: Let’s say an ambitious young woman tells you she has a chance to lead her company. What’s your advice to her?
Answer: You have to be kind. A lot of times people think you have to be a bulldog, especially a woman. If we’re talking about a woman, I would say: Be a woman.
I have excelled to the top in my industry by being kind and being a woman. My customers love the fact that I’m a mother, that I’m nurturing. If I get mad, I can cry. I don’t sit there and boo-hoo, but my eyes will well up, and I don’t hide that.
So I would tell an up-and-coming woman to be a woman, be kind and take all that we are to the table.
Too many times, people are trying to be something that they’re not.
Next, really invest in your people. It’s not just writing them a check. Investing in your people is recognizing what makes them tick and then giving them the tools they need to be successful. If they’re successful, I’m successful.
Transparency is important. Any solid relationship is built on trust and transparency. I have to tell you what I need, and I need to hear what you need, and then we need to figure out if that’s feasible.
If we’re all honest with each other, we don’t try to force something that isn’t there. That makes me very particular about who I hire.
Question: What’s your advice for hiring?
Answer: Talk to the person. Don’t rely on some formalized sheet.
I’m not traditional in my approach. Typically, the people that I know are going to grow into key roles here are people I have interacted with. I figure out they’ll be right for us, and I recruit them.
I read a good article in the Harvard Business Review about culture, about not being in a rush to fill a position when you’re scaling up. Our volumes have made us scale up for about four years. You have to have a good gut — any successful entrepreneur has a good gut.
Go by your gut: How was that person? Will that person be best for the team? It’s not whether she has a great degree.
Question: What does an entrepreneur need to know to succeed?
Answer: You have to figure out how you’re going to sell your service or your product. Without a way to generate revenue, any product is just a product. An idea is just an idea until you figure out how you’re going to sell it and then how you’re going to produce it.
My advice to entrepreneurs is you have to think in 360 degrees. Sometimes when you get really busy, you stop thinking in 360 because you’re just taking care of the task in front of you.
When I say think in 360 degrees, perhaps the right word is vision. You have to have a vision and you have to know where you’re driving. You have to establish the map. You may not know the exact turns to get there, but you have to know where you want to go.
You have to believe in yourself — you’re going to get knocked down a lot. People are going to tell you that you can’t do this. You have to be The Little Engine That Could.
You know how I can work with billion-dollar companies? It’s because I’m nice. I’m kind. I genuinely care about their success as well as mine. You don’t have to go out there and be the big witch.
For an entrepreneur, read a lot. There are such great resources out there. I think Harvard Business Review is one of the greatest publications.
Study other business models.
Ask for help — that’s a key element, and it comes with transparency. Sometimes I need to ask: Can you help me? And vice versa. When they ask me, I help them. Sometimes you have to pay faster than your own customers pay. And it works both ways when you need help. Partnerships are so key.