By: Caroline McMillan Portillo, The Charlotte Observer
Picture this: In the early 1920s, Babe Ruth was the “Sultan of Swat.” Unabashed flappers with bob hairdos and short skirts redefined the modern woman. The National Football League was created.
And in the small city of Charlotte, Sidney Levin opened the first Lebo’s, a family footwear store specializing in hard-to-fit feet. It carries sizes from 00 to 17 EEEEE.
Now, 91 years later, the company is bigger (eight locations in the Carolinas), the business model is broader (it also sells Western gear, dance wear and riding clothes) and the family still runs it in its original form.
Last week, the three living generations were gathered at Lebo’s corporate headquarters in south Charlotte, less than two miles from its flagship location on East Independence Boulevard. The office walls are covered in old photographs, awards and framed stories written about Lebo’s over its nine decades.
At 89 years old, Jerry Levin, son of founder Sidney Levin, is still intimately involved in the operation, visiting stores, designing dance clothes and sharing wisdom from his 65-year-career with Lebo’s.
“In my day, I would have never dreamed that women would wear open-backed shoes,” he said. “Slingbacks? Who started that trend? But we followed it.”
His son-in-law, Mark Goldsmith, 49, is president of the company. His son, Binyamin Levin, 48, a former Orthodox rabbi, is the vice president. And his grandson, N.C. State graduate Brian Goldsmith, 29, left a lucrative job with Northwestern Mutual in 2008 to join the family business, the fourth generation to do so.
“I was a salesperson throughout high school and college,” said Brian Goldsmith, who returned after first training to be a certified pedorthist, specializing in treating foot ailments with orthotics and foot lifts. “Part of me missed it.”
Nine out of every 10 small businesses in the U.S. are family-owned, but less than one-third of them are passed to a second generation, said Rhonda Stokes, interim director for the Wake Forest University Family Business Center, which has a location in Charlotte.
When you reach a third generation, only 12 percent of family-owned businesses are still viable, she said, and only 3 percent are intact for a fourth generation to take over.
“What (Lebo’s) has done is extraordinary,” Stokes said. “It’s hard to ... pass the baton to someone who really has a keen interest.”
How has a company that has survived nearly every economic downturn of the 20th and 21st centuries – from the Great Depression to the Great Recession – emerged stronger and more tightly knit? The family points to a diversified inventory and customer base, the hands-on approach of executives and employees, and a community presence unrivaled by big-box retailers.
Diversifying to meet need
Jerry Levin, who took over the company from his father in the 1950s, says the varied inventory at Lebo’s – a section of sequined dance dresses is within spitting distance of cowboy boots and straw hats – was a direct response to customer requests and his frustration at having to steer them elsewhere.
When regulars started asking if they sold shoes for tap and jazz dancing, Jerry decided to start offering them. And when customers buying dance shoes asked whether they also sold dance outfits, they started selling those, too. Now the company carries many different dance clothing lines and sells a few lines of its own. Jerry Levin says they were the first business to come up with the detachable tutu for leotards.
Lebo’s also has established a customer base outside of the Carolinas by sending out dance gear catalogs to more than 4,000 dance schools around the nation.
Leaving the desk
Mark Goldsmith has a formula for retailers who hope to survive. “Be right more times than you’re wrong.” And be right at least 80 percent of the time.
At Lebo’s, that means executives need to be involved in the daily comings and goings of merchandise. That’s why the Levins and Goldsmiths spend most Saturdays visiting all eight retail locations: two in Charlotte, and one each in Monroe, Cornelius, Concord, Gastonia, Rock Hill and Greenville, S.C.
“We don’t live in an ivory tower somewhere,” said Jerry Levin.
Mark Goldsmith said he spent two hours at the Monroe store last week doing the unglamorous task of changing lightbulbs. And while he was there, he chatted with customers, asking them what they would like to see done differently. This was especially important in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when customers were more reluctant to spend, he said.
The Lebo’s team also asks employees to maintain a “want list” in the stock room, where they copy down every brand and style of shoe or clothing that customers are requesting that the store doesn’t carry. Then they assess what inventory should be added.
As for the employees, Mark Goldsmith says he makes it a point to know the names of all 100 of them.
“Everyone becomes family after a while,” says Brian Goldsmith. A testament that Lebo’s “family atmosphere” isn’t simply lip service: Years ago, employees volunteered to drive six hours round-trip to help Brian move into college.
A search for “Lebo’s” in the Observer archives yielded dozens of results – though many stories weren’t about the retailer’s offerings and operations.
A story about a senior-citizen dance troupe at Levine Jewish Community Center mentioned Lebo’s, which donated the top hats. A WRFX Bike Tour kicked off at the Independence store. A mention of the local effort for Soles4Souls, a nonprofit that donates shoes to the poor noted that Lebo’s keeps donation bins out year-round and has collected thousands of pairs in the process.
“Community service is a gene that runs in family business,” said Stokes of Wake Forest’s Family Business Center.
“You know when someone cares or doesn’t care,” said Jerry Levin.
And after 91 years, he hopes it’s clear: The Lebo’s family cares.
McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan