The nervousness of a first-time hostess follows Jeannine Klee even after 40 years at a Rochester retail pillar, Park-leigh Enterprises Inc.
Her anxiety reached a high point on the way to work last week as she turned the corner of Park Avenue, waiting to see the turnout for the latest launch of distinctively patterned, quilted handbags and accessories from Vera Bradley Inc.
Hours before the store opened, Klee found customers by the dozen waiting in 90-degree heat to see the unveiling in Parkleigh’s display windows, which for days had been covered with paper in preparation for the event.
Employees passed out water bottles and sunscreen and gave away free Parkleigh lawn chairs to the first 25 customers.
The breakfast event that followed had been in the works for months, and despite the meticulous planning, Klee, 63, still was nervous.
"This morning when I turned the corner, it could have gone either way. I have no fear about it, but I still worry about it sometimes. You wonder, ‘Is anyone going to be there?’ You still question yourself. I just don’t let it hold me back," she says.
Six years ago when Klee purchased Park-leigh from longtime owner and founder Bruce Kost, self-doubt could have held her back. After all, she was living six hours away in Ligonier, Pa.
She had moved there four years before to be with her husband, Stephen, chief operating officer at a country club. But despite the impracticality of living so far away, Klee had no intention of moving back to Rochester and every intention of making long-distance business ownership work. When she is in town now, she stays at a home her husband owns in Brighton.
Her prior 30 years at Parkleigh was a solid basis for sole ownership. Klee knew the store, its customers and their personalities inside and out.
Parkleigh has 40 employees and goes up to 50 to 55 during the holidays. When Klee became sole owner six years ago, the firm employed 35 full-time staffers.
Klee declined to discuss revenues, except to say that inventory and payroll adjustments helped keep Parkleigh’s business plan healthy in the fluctuating economy.
Klee’s son, Kris, says his mother has a distinct ability to look at separate aspects of the organization and understand quickly how each affects the whole. Everything she does, she does with the large and small considerations simultaneously in mind, he explains.
It is for that knowledge that Daniel Mejak, operations manager at Parkleigh, has so much faith in Klee. She knows what she is doing, he says.
"And because she knows what she’s doing, it’s always a pleasure to work for her and learn from her, especially when you made an error. It’s not you ruined the business or ruined the day. It is about how we’re going to move forward. So every moment for her is how to educate people further about how to run a business and how to treat people," Mejak says.
Even if there is a moment when he does not immediately trust her decision, he has faith in the reasons for it. Mejak says: "If I ever feel I’m in disagreement, I tell myself, ‘You’re just not seeing it yet, but you will.’"
It is not that she does not see obstacles, Klee explains, but she does not let them get in her way.
Klee says she and her husband both have the hospitality gene, with his focused on recreation and hers channeled into retail. It makes for a lot of philosophical conversations, Klee’s husband says, and a lot of excited revelations about the business.
They share each other’s successes, which often hinge, he says, on how well you make people feel at home.
The Vera Bradley launch was a good example.
"I was just so pleased when I saw everyone," Jeannine Klee said. "I jumped out of my car, I didn’t even go into the store, I was outside introducing myself to people, shaking everyone’s hands, and saying, ‘Thank you so much for being here.’ It was incredible."
A good host
Customers are guests, Klee underscores, whether Parkleigh is holding an event or not. Every day is a party, and every employee, she says, is a host.
At the company’s usual morning meeting on the day of the Vera Bradley showing, the focus was on reminding employees of that.
"You’re all hosts and hostesses. This is what you do at a party: You anticipate, you’re gracious. It’s important, the repetition of those words, because hopefully those are the words they keep in their minds when we then open the doors," she says.
Of the 50 or 60 people who were among the first to start shopping that day, at least 20 of them expressed their thanks as if they were in someone’s home.
"They said, ‘This breakfast party has been the most fun. Thank you so much.’ At no other event that we’ve ever done has any one employee had so many thank-yous," Klee says. "It was so rewarding."
The hiring process, she says, is centered on evoking that special knack for being gracious that some people have. If during the training that characteristic does not surface, that means the fit is not there.
"If you use a questioning method with new employees, a lot can come out of (training). I want people to see (how to make customers happy) and feel it, not just follow a formula. That’s the only way you can be consistent. It’s natural, and comes naturally to a lot of people," Klee says. "And because it’s natural, it touches the customer. There’s truth in that."
When trainees do not exhibit that honest inclination to help customers that Klee is looking for, it is a deal breaker.
In that way, Klee says, Parkleigh borrows a maxim used at Vera Bradley: "Hire slow and fire fast."
Brands are key
On multiple levels, Parkleigh communicates closely with key vendors, whose products, by becoming staples at the store, become synonymous with the Parkleigh brand. The brands grow in tandem with the store, Klee says.
Brand devotees become Parkleigh devotees, and vice versa.
"What I have learned in the retail business is that when you have a good brand, just go with it," Klee says. "If you believe in the brand, they’re almost making the choices for you because what they’re presenting to you is what you like anyway. You’re not formulating it by yourself."
Two or three brands are staples in each of the store’s 10 departments. Each requires a little more attention, if for no other reason than the following each one has. To serve the clients who want these brands, Parkleigh has to be faithful to them.
"We have a partnership with several brands like MacKenzie-Childs," she adds. "That’s one of our premier brands, and I would never pick and choose. People love the brands, and I’m going to present as much of it as possible. That’s what works."
The only problem, she says, is space.
"Keeping things fresh has not been a problem. It’s trying to pick out all of the best of what’s on the market. I want to go
in different directions sometimes, but I’m kind of confined to the square footage here," Klee says. "I have to make (new) selections very carefully, because once you take a brand under your wing and grow with it, you’ve invested a lot of time, energy, education."
Sometimes those investments pay off quickly. Trollbeads, Klee says, are a perfect example.
The Denmark-based jewelry design company behind Trollbeads and charms-Lise Aagaard Copenhagen A/S-has become one of Parkleigh’s top five brands in just two years.
Troll beads, designed by a Danish silversmith in the 1970s, originally resembled troll faces. Today the beads are more like charms, with a broader symbolism, representing animals, flowers, fairy tales or everyday items and made of precious stones, glass, sterling silver, pearls and other materials.
Because the beads are bought individually for customers to string together themselves, Parkleigh had to make room in the store and invest in a display to compartmentalize the beads.
Klee says she never foresaw the popularity the beads would have at Parkleigh.
"At some point, I realized I either have to not carry it in the store or pay some attention to it. That meant making sure I had the correct inventories, listening to the company, which explained how to grow with their product. I listened, and I did it, and we are still growing," Klee says.
"That’s what I learned in retail: Once you get to that point, you have to take the leap and pay for the fixtures and get the proper inventory and educate all of your employees and then have fun with the customers."
Deciding when to take the leap, she says, is a matter of gut instinct. Listening to her instincts, Klee says, is central to her business and her success.
In establishing the style of the store and its next direction, Klee walks the floor at Parkleigh and listens.
"Because I’m only here twice a month, I’ll walk the floor and overhear a conversation or comments on different products or displays. That’s my most valuable information, because that’s firsthand. I’m not looking at a chart on a computer," she says.
Following her instincts and having the courage to believe in them was something she observed in her mother while growing up in Fredonia, the Chautauqua County village south of Buffalo.
"She didn’t get married until her mid-30s, and in that era, that was kind of late to be married. But she had a professional life before she got married. She worked for Niagara Mohawk, and she was the only woman to work (there) out of 60 people in the offices," Klee recalls.
Sitting on Klee’s desk is a photo of her mother, smartly dressed in a suit and stylish shoes.
"When I knew her as a child, she didn’t work, but when I went back and heard stories and looked at pictures, I knew there was this strength there that she passed on to me," Klee says.
Klee’s mother traveled before she settled down to marry, and she always encouraged Klee to travel too.
For eight years in the 1990s, Klee traveled extensively with her best friend. The two women traveled to Turkey, Tahiti, Thailand and other far-flung parts of the world.
"My best friend happened to be a travel agent, and we just went everywhere. I was in my 40s, and I took advantage of her wanting to travel. We went places I would never think to go. It exposed me to a lot and opened my eyes to the world," Klee says.
Klee’s husband says her vision, her work ethic and the strength of her will merge to make her a fearless woman.
An only child like her mother, Klee says both she and her mother shared a fearlessness that perhaps came from not having to follow in anyone’s footsteps. Without siblings, there was never a precedent to follow.
Klee’s son too is an only child. He spent much of his youth at Parkleigh. Now 42 and a business owner in Boston, Kris Kaplan says he drew a great deal from his mother and her career.
Her ability to delegate and steer the organization are what have impressed him most, he says.
"She’s much more methodical than I am. She’s got careful insight about the business, and she is incredibly deliberate: ‘Ready, aim, fire,’" Kaplan says.
He followed his mother into the retail business and now runs a sales representative company, selling gift items to retailers in the Northeast.
Klee, married to her husband since 2007, is stepmother to Elisa, 24, Maggie, 22, and John, 20.
Retail was not always the obvious career path for Klee. She worked through high school and college. She started at SUNY College at Fredonia, then transferred to SUNY College at Buffalo without graduating. She pursued mathematics initially and then English but could never decide on a field of study that she would want to work in for the rest of her life.
Her first marriage eventually brought
her to Rochester in the 1960s. Her first apartment here was on Park Avenue.
Soon Klee discovered Parkleigh and started working there part time. The store was undergoing its transformation from pharmacy to gift shop under Kost and his brother, who founded the store.
Working primarily as a buyer, Klee eventually became vice president of the business and co-owner.
In the transition to gift shop, Kost wanted to make the store an experience, a goal which continues today with Klee’s focus on hospitality. Even so, the store’s personality has evolved since Kost’s retirement in 2004. Mejak calls it a culture shift, which comes in part from a change in the product mix at Parkleigh.
"We still have some high-end things, but I think our average price point in the store is $10 right now, when you average in everything from all the departments. Everyone can afford a $10 gift. Ten to 20 years ago, the average price point was probably closer to $30 an item," Mejak says.
"I think that we’re still viewed as quality," he adds. "People know they’re going to get something good and unique here, and they’re going to have a great experience. It doesn’t have the stigma of a really expensive store anymore."
Klee adds roughly 50 new brands to the store every year, despite the limitations of 6,500 square feet. The idea of expansion is at the forefront of her mind, but so far, she says, no definite plans are in the works.
This October, the store marks its 50th anniversary. Klee has events planned for every day of the month, including giveaways from the store’s most notable brand names. It is an exciting time, she says.
"We want October to be event-oriented, party-oriented. On 10/10/10 we’re going to do 10 percent off the whole store. That will be part of the anniversary, which actually is Oct. 9, I believe," she says.
At this point in her life, Klee says she feels like the luckiest person alive. Her son sees why.
Her life is very integrated, he says. "She’s not two different people. Her life and work are one in the same."
"My personal life, my professional life, it’s all so meshed together. Even my living circumstance, to be able to live in Ligonier, which is a beautiful, wonderful place to live, and then be able to come here and spend a few days," she says. "I have it all: little town, big town. And I get to go to New York to buy. I can’t complain about anything."
Position: President, Parkleigh Enterprises Inc.
Family: Husband Stephen Klee; son, Kris Kaplan, 42; grandchildren Matthew, 6, and Hannah, 4; stepchildren Elisa, 24, Maggie, 22, and John, 20
Education: Attended SUNY College at Fredonia, 1965-67, and SUNY College at Buffalo, 1968.
Residences: Brighton and Ligonier, Pa.
Activities: Gardening, reading and relaxing in her hammock
Quote: "I love what I do. It’s never work. It encompasses family and friends. It’s just what I do."