Business Person of the Month: Super Salesman Is Dressed for Success
By Gary Kauffman
They come runnin’ just as fast as they can
Cause every girl crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man.
Helping men in the Aiken and Augusta areas dress sharp has been the mission of Lionel Smith of Lionel Smith Ltd. for more than half a century.
True to ZZ Top’s assertion that women like a sharp-dressed man, Smith said women play a surprisingly large role in a men’s clothing store.
“A large portion of the business is driven by women – a wife, mother or girlfriend – so we’ve always tried our best to cater to the ladies,” he said.
Smith should know – he’s been in the clothing business since 1961.
After 15 years of working in other clothing stores, Smith started Lionel Smith Ltd. on Laurens Street in Aiken in 1976. Now semi-retired – being fully retired doesn’t seem imminent – he works three days a week in the store now owned by his son, Van, and partner Danny Minolfo.
Smith began his interest in clothing as a teenager growing up in Fayetteville, N.C. Although his family wasn’t wealthy, one of his friends came from money and Smith accompanied him to a men’s clothing store.
“I saw all those people who were well dressed,” Smith recalled. “They always seemed to have money, they always seemed to be happy. I was impressed by that.”
When his family moved to Edgefield during his high school years, he worked part-time at Belk. He was then asked to manage the boys department at the Belk in Aiken. He was a quick study and soon the boys department in the Aiken store was the top performer of any Belk store. Still, he wanted to work with men’s clothing. Then a regular customer suggested he move up in the world by working at the Manning Owen clothing store.
Smith worked in the Manning Owen clothing store until Owen’s health deteriorated. Smith was unable to buy him out, but several investors from Augusta asked him to run a clothing store for them. After four or five years, investor interest waned, so Smith opened his own store in 1976 on Laurens Street, across the street from its current location. The store has been in its present location since 1982.
“The idea was to not out-Walmart Walmart,” Smith said. “I decided to go up above that to have a higher and nicer quality. I felt if I stayed with quality merchandise there would always be a market.”
One unique feature of the store is that it makes office calls, a feature that is still part of Smith’s job description. The idea to do that came after a chance conversation a number of years ago.
An attorney from out of town stopped into the store and told Smith that he would rather buy from him than anyone else. But because of the travel time, then the fitting and alteration time, it ate up his entire day. Smith noted that he was going to be in the attorney’s town the next week and offered to bring the altered suit with him.
The man liked the idea, and then added that his partner wanted a new blazer. Could Smith bring one along? That was an “aha” moment.
Smith did a little research and found that Tuesday was the store’s slowest day. He reasoned that he could make trips to see clients that day and increase his business. There is a tacit agreement with his clients that when he makes the trip, a purchase will be involved.
“It’s convenient for the customer and nice for us,” he said. “If I can make it convenient for people, then they’ll be customers that come back.”
About 25 years ago Smith made the decision to sell the business to his son, Van, over a period of time.
“I had to figure out a way for Van to buy the business for himself using our money,” Smith said with a laugh.
Although Smith is now technically an employee, working in the store on Mondays and Saturdays, and making his office calls on Tuesdays, he said it is a good fit.
“It feels fine the way I do it,” he said. “I’m still treated like I’m the owner.”
What are you passionate about in your business?
People – on so many levels. The store personnel, I love all those guys. And the customers. After all the years, going back to when I was at Belk, I have customers who are now grandfathers who bought here for their children and grandchildren. Now their grandchildren are buying here.
What do you do for fun?
For years I ran and biked. I always enjoyed both of those. I took some exciting bicycle trips. I rode from Oregon to Washington, I rode from Rome to Paris across the Alps and I rode from Aiken to Bar Harbor, Maine.
Do you ever dress down in a T-shirt and sweat pants?
Sure. At home when I go out walking in the morning I’m not as careful, but I still put things together. I don’t wear clown outfits. I always tell the people that work here that every time you go out you’re making an impression, either positive or negative.
How has the business changed since you started?
It’s changed in so many ways. The internet has changed things. Vendors are also now competitors. They make it aggravating to us that they’re in competition with the people who put them on the map. But we have the benefit of years of experience of putting things together. Customers like our advice and our displays. On the internet you can’t walk up and feel the fabric.
How do you give back to the community?
Through volunteer duties through the years. I was a charter member of the Sunrise Rotary. I served on committees and my wife, Dot, and I give a scholarship to the college. And through our church. We encourage our personnel to get involved too.
What does the future hold for you?
The store’s handed off to the next generation and they’re doing a great job in making it even better. I never think about “retiring” retiring. I spend time with Dot and we do things together. We’ve been married for 55 years so we’ve kind of gotten used to each other.