Janet Lutz On Leadership: Hire Smart People, Then Give Them The Support To Grow

By Stan Linhorst syracuse.com

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Entrepreneur Janet Lutz owns a store for crafters. She says dealing with the Coronavirus has been, by far, the biggest challenge she's ever experienced as a retailer. Lutz says keeping customers away goes against everything that retailers do...namely get people IN the door.


Janet Lutz owns Calico Gals, a quilt shop and fabric store on New Court Avenue. She was a co-founder in 2001 and before long became sole owner.

Knowing I ask about leading through a challenge, she was ready with an answer:

“Right now, I'm going through one of the toughest challenges. In 20 years. I have always been focused on quantity, getting as many people as possible into my store.

“Now, that's all changed. I'm focused on keeping people out of my store, finding creative ways to meet their needs and helping my staff, customers, and business to stay healthy. This is by far the biggest challenge that I have ever experienced as a retailer because it goes against everything that retailers do."

“We found ways of helping our customers through curbside pickup, through deliveries, through online sales, phone sales. I spent a lot of time with my staff thinking, all right, how are we going to do this?

“For the social piece, we’re using technology – Facebook Live and Zoom – and we're able to continue our clubs, our tutorials, some of our classes, and reach people in that way. This is new territory for me.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Lutz had turned her customers into a sewing community by creating fun and social connections. Her store featured the latest technology in home sewing machines and held a wide variety of classes, workshops, and events.

“Historically, sewing and specifically quilting were a social activity, especially for women,” she said. “Today, sewing and quilting tend to be more solitary – people do it at home. So we provided that social environment for people to get together and do it together. We thought: What would make this more fun? I created an event, actually a worldwide event, to boost the fun of shopping in quilt shops.”

Her innovative thinking led Lutz to found Row by Row Experience, which grew into Quilters Trek. It was a way to build business during slow times and create a network of people who sew and quilt and like to meet others who do, too.

Tell me about Row by Row Experience.

It's kind of like a wine tour with quilt shops, but we're not drinking wine. (Laughter) In the same way that people would travel to wineries to sample, they travel to quilt shops and they receive a free pattern for a row in a quilt.

I started it in 2011 in New York state with 20 stores. Quilting is a big thing in the winter, but our customers kind of disappear in the summer because they're traveling or gardening or doing outdoor things.

I thought: How can I bring people into the stores in the summer?

So this is what we did. Each shop created their own row pattern and people travel and collect it. The only thing we said was stop into the store anytime over the summer.

People began talking about it, going to the stores. Word spread in kind of a viral way. The next year, I easily got 65 stores across the state. And the next year we added Pennsylvania. After that, it just went kaboom. Now, we are in every state in the United States, every province in Canada, and even stores in Europe.

At our highest point we had more than 3,000 stores participating. We won’t hit that number this year – people are unsure about their traveling for the summer. We're thinking about how we're going to adapt.

Were you in leadership roles growing up? I love that question. I grew up on a farm in western New York – Wyoming County. My family still lives on that farm and still runs the farm. It was a sheep farm and cash crops. Now, my brother raises beef cattle.

Living on a farm, it's all about physical work. It's about hard work. It's not a 9-to-5 job. We grew up taking it for granted that you work all the time and that that work is how you end up eating. It's what pays for your life and provides your life. So I think that was a big lesson. Of course, as a child you don't think of that as a lesson.

As I became an adult, went to college, started my own family, and started my own business, it's amazing how that comes back to be a big asset, that you're not afraid of hard work.

My parents (Dawn and Gus Bertrand) were quite influential. My dad was an immigrant. He came to this country when he was about 20 years old. He came from what at the time was West Germany. He was a child through World War 2 and grew up in Wuppertal, outside of Dusseldorf. He grew up in the city and his dream was always to live in the country in the big wonderful place they called America.

What’s your advice – five or so tips – to be an effective leader? I was writing down thoughts to prepare for your questions. I started out being kind of advice-y. You are in charge of your own destiny. Don’t create limitations on yourself.

But then I realized a big one is to hire people smarter than you are.

It's important to empower your team to create, develop, and realize their own ideas and for you to support them in their goals. What are their goals and dreams? For many of the people who work with me, this is a part-time job, a job in their hobby. They work here because they think this store is the coolest place ever.

Of course, it ends up being hard work, too, but they really do believe and care about the success of the business. That is crucial as far as leadership goes. The best way to make that happen is to empower them to actually be part of it. Not just do what they're told, but to think creatively and come up with new things. Your own excitement and enthusiasm encourages your team.

I have an amazing team, and they come up with a lot of ideas. I made a note about sharing the glory, because my team is a big part of the success of the business.

There's always risk that trying something new won’t pay off. How should the leader of an organization react with someone who makes a good-faith effort that fails?

I encourage them right from the beginning. I would rather make a mistake than not do anything at all.

My line has always been: If it doesn't work, we'll do something else. We can always switch gears. This is another advantage of working in a creative industry.

How do you go about hiring? Often, I hire customers. I hire people that I like. I feel like I can teach them everything from how to sew to how to cut fabric. But you can't really teach people how to be nice. That's really important to me. They have to care about others, have that empathy. That's one of the things I'm always looking for, and you find that when you're working with your customers.

When I hire someone, I’ll watch them and work together with them for several weeks, even months, to see where their strengths are, and then it will be more about what would be good for them. It always ends up helping the business when I do that.

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