Rockford retailer poised to lead MRA

November 14, 2009
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At her gift and home décor store in Rockford, Barb Stein is surrounded by moose and antlers, unvarnished birch branches, funny fishing T-shirts and jewelry that she buys but never wears.

In 2010, the straight-forward Stein will take the board president's chair at the Michigan Retailers Association. The state trade organization represents retailers from big-box national chains to tire store owners to, yes, the owner of Great Northern Trading Co., one single store in a small West Michigan town known mostly for Hush Puppies shoes and high school football.

Stein, who early in her career stood toe-to-toe with anti-retail city council members, doesn't sugar-coat the economic environment that retailers face as Michigan's recession drags into yet another holiday shopping season.

"I think it's going to be tough," she said. Officially, the Michigan Retail Index for the holidays is mixed, with a bit more than one-third of those surveyed looking for sales increases, a similar number expecting fewer sales, and the rest anticipating no change.

"It's just so obvious: People are not spending." Stein said.

"It was almost like somebody turned off the faucet. I think Michigan started the downward slide before everybody realized the economy was really bad, but it was gradual. This last year has been like jumping off a cliff."

Much of a retailer's experience depends on the niche, she said. Across town, for example, Rockford Hardware sells items that people can't do without. A few miles to the west, a Meijer Inc. store promises shoppers low prices in a battle with the world's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart.

But what about Great Northern's quirky greeting cards and novelty lamps that Stein chooses with great care and helps her customers select? "There isn't a thing in here anybody needs," Stein said. "They come in here because they want it."

In 32 years as a proprietor, Stein said, she has seen "a couple" downturns in the economy.

"The worst of them was probably in the early '90s," she recalled. "I bought a truck and cargo trailer, and took one of the gals that worked for me. We went on the road, selling stuff at craft shows and that kind of thing. That was probably the only thing that saved us at that point."

Barb Stein
Company:
Great Northern Trading Co.
Position: Owner
Age: 65
Birthplace: Orange, N.J.
Residence: Parnell
Family: Husband, John, aerospace engineer at GE Aviation; grown daughter, Beth.
Business/Community Organizations: Michigan Retail Association, Rockford Chamber of Commerce, Heart of Rockford, Downtown Development Authority, Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, Michigan Draft Horse Breeders Association, Belgian Draft Horse Corp. of America.
Biggest career break: Following her husband's advice to open a store and buy the building.

The economy is the top concern for Michigan retailers of all sizes, Stein said. The Michigan Business Tax, item pricing and the cost of health care are important topics, as well.

"Probably number two is the government and how we're taxed. … The new Michigan Business Tax has been a huge thing because Michigan retailers are paying a double tax. We're paying tax on tax. We pay Michigan Business Tax on our gross receipts, which includes sales tax. So you're paying Michigan Business Tax on your sales tax. That's not right. We're working very diligently to get that changed, and I think it's going to happen."

Retailers also would like to do away with a state law that requires a price on every item, Stein said.

"We're one of the last states in the country that has that type of a law on our books and it's archaic, with all the technology and everything else that we have today. That's something we're working to get repealed."

For medium and large retailers with full-time employees, the cost of health care is a major issue.

"To try to plan some type of health care for your employees, they've gotten priced out of the market," and some have dropped health coverage, said Stein. "Every year we see double-digit increases in the price, and now with the economy going south, it's going up while everything else is going down."

A long-time member of the MRA, Stein walked into the door of retail at the urging of her husband.

Back in 1977, Stein was working in the office of Muller's Family Shoes when her husband, John, presented her with an offer he didn't want her to refuse. Hoping she would spend more time at home, he encouraged her to open a shop. Her husband's boss at the time owned a building in a small artists' enclave in Rockford and asked the couple to buy it.

"I thought that was just silly, stupid," Stein recalled. "But we did it, and it was probably the smartest thing we've ever done. I didn't have to worry about somebody raising my rent every year. As this place grew, it became a pretty good investment."

Stein spent her early years in Glencoe, Ill., where she grew up with two younger sisters. Her father, Bill, was a salesman for a paper company, and her mother, Dorothy, was a church secretary. When Stein was 13, the family moved to Haddonfield, N.J., near Philadelphia, and she graduated from high school there. She took a two-year degree at Peirce College in Philadelphia and became an administrative assistant.

After moving around the country several times, marriage brought Stein to the Muskegon area. She arrived in Rockford almost 40 years ago and joined the office staff at Muller's. Stein said Wayne Muller served as her mentor as she struck out into owning a business.

After buying the building at 10 Squires St. in Rockford, Stein stocked it with the country décor and antiques that were trendy at the time.

"My husband wanted me to stay home more and quit my job," Stein said, laughing. "He wanted a stay-at-home wife, and what he got was one that worked a whole lot more, who discovered she really likes this."

The store's theme has been transformed several times, Stein said. She eventually left the antiques business because they became tough to find, more expensive and required too much work to prepare for sale. About a decade ago, Stein settled on the lodge and cabin theme that continues today.

"It's a warm, welcoming, comfortable feeling, and I think that's what people like about it," she said.

Several times a year, Stein travels to gift industry shows that feature the latest merchandise. How she picks out her stock remains mysterious even to Stein.

"Somehow I manage to be able to pick out most things — although, you screw things up occasionally. There's always that odd piece," she said. "It's luck, I guess, or a gift. I don't know whether I just have an eye for what the majority of people would like or what the deal is."

Stein chairs Rockford's Downtown Development Authority. Today, the town north of Grand Rapids markets a quaint vibe. The city's trademarked motto is "Good for strolling … great for shopping." But Stein said that at the time she opened her shop, city leaders turned a cold shoulder to retail.

"When I came here, I worked on a committee, and I came before City Council and I asked for something," Stein recalled. "And they literally laughed at me. And one of the City Council members told me that it was 'too bad we didn't take the urban renewal money when it was available and have all those buildings over there torn down, because you guys are nothing but a nuisance.'

"I'll still never forget that meeting. The people that were running the City Hall were nice people, but they didn't see the opportunity for increased tax base and everything else retail could bring to them if they treated us decently. I kind of made it my goal that something in that City Hall government was going to change."

Creation of the DDA and changes in city leadership have been key in turning Rockford into a model for small town re-invention in Michigan, Stein said. For example, the city's Economic Development Commission underwrites a joint television advertising campaign that otherwise would be out of reach for Rockford's plethora of small businesses.

"They've done an excellent job of improving the city," she added. "People every day come here from out of town and say, 'Oh, my gosh, what a fabulous town. I'd love to live here.' That's the ultimate compliment."

Despite her experience at the local level, Stein said she's turned down queries about running for office.

"Politics is not my thing," she said. "I've gotten involved on the local level, and I enjoy that. But on the whole, that's like hanging yourself up by your ears. It's torture. They don't do anything efficiently, and Michigan is so screwed up."

When she is not at the store, on buying trips or at city-related meetings, Stein is in the barn. Moose may populate her store, but Stein's true love is horses.

"I've always been horse crazy," she said. Her husband was supportive of her hobby and even took riding lessons. But one summer, he saw Belgian draft horses at the Ionia Free Fair and that sealed the deal.

For years, the Steins raised, bred, showed and sold Belgian draft horses that they kept on their acreage, first in Rockford, then in Parnell. They traveled around the Midwest for horse shows. Today, the stable contains just a couple of retired mares, but Stein remains active in state horse organizations. She eschews most jewelry, other than a silver horseshoe necklace.

Elected to the Michigan Retailers Association board in 2001, Stein has served on the Michigan Retailers Services Inc. board, which provides business services to MRA members.

"I'm really excited about the MRA job. It's a real privilege," she added.

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