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Mark Rickers Retires From Stout Brothers After 45 years

Jobber Industry Changing Due to Ecommerce

October 20, 2018

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Mark Rickers recently celebrated his 70th birthday and will soon retire from Stout.
Mark Rickers recently celebrated his 70th birthday and will soon retire from Stout.

By RAY PARKER

COLMAR, Pa. – Partner and Buyer Mark Rickers has spent the last 45 years working at Stout Brothers, and in less than two weeks, he will retire.

Rickers keeps active, and says he is blessed with good health, so will continue with many of his hobbies: taking bicycle tours of beautiful countryside, for one. And he plans a greater role in his five grandchildren’s lives.

Barbara Godwin, a longtime Stout employee, will become the new buyer on Nov. 1.

Rickers grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he received his bachelor’s degree with a major in economics and business. Afterward, he managed seven retail stores selling audio equipment. In 1973, he joined Stout.

We caught up with longtime Pennsylvania resident to learn how he built his career as a jobber and what keeps him going each day, as well as what advice he would offer to the next generation. The following interview has been edited for context.

Question: How did you make your way to Stout?

Answer: “After moving from Michigan, I began in the cutting room for Stout when they were located in Center City, Philadelphia. I received a small territory shortly thereafter. My territory expanded to seven states and traveled extensively, which continued for 17 years. Mr. Stout retired, and I began to do the purchasing and the book layouts, which continued for another 28 years.”

Q: You’ve remained at the company for 45 years, why?

A: “I wanted to be part of a family organization. A family business looks out not only for their own but cares for the wellbeing of others. I think that speaks to the entire industry. Vendors and customers alike become friends as well as business partners. There is a feeling of continuity in this business, not a ‘quick one-time sale’”

Q: What’s the greatest challenge faced by Stout during your career?

A: “When Stout was first started, we sold only upholstery fabrics and supplies: needles, cotton, webbing, etc. We recognized the number of upholsterers was dwindling, so the challenge involved transitioning to the decorative trade, changing how we did marketing to interior decorators, designers, and changing sampling and salesmen. That began in the early 1990s.”

Q: What have been the top changes in the industry during your career?

A: “What we’ve noticed, and hear from vendors as well, is the number of buyers has shrunk. And it’s not just the people buying decorative fabrics, but the number of American converters has shrunk. It’s the shrinking market we’re looking at today. Young Americans are not into home decorations but traveling and electronics. When they do decorate, they want a package and they go to a package. Go to a website and buy chair and/or matching set.”
“However, I do think there’s still a future for this industry. We’re in a very tactile industry. People want to make sure the color is correct or the texture. That’s not changed.”

Q: What do you see as the biggest changes coming in the next few years?

A: “Tariffs: It hasn’t settled out yet. Some of our suppliers are sharing the full amount and others are absorbing it. Some are waiting to see in January. We’re holding prices until we see what happens. It might be a game-changer. We’re going to see how that all plays out. (Secondly,) the whole ecommerce picture. We don’t know if there will be virtual sample books, but there’s been a huge increase in memo samples. It’s very expensive to pay for shipping and handling. It’s become a large part of the expense of business.”

Q: What advice would you give yourself 45 years ago, knowing what you do today?

A: “It was hard to see this rapidly changing market in technology and I would have spent more time in computer programming and marketing and using the computer and reaching our customer base. And cell phone technology. When I was in college, there was no computer training at all. Even in our age of technology, though, people still want a relationship with their salesman, with the inside office, and it’s still very important to our customer.”

Q: What’s your average work day involve?

A: “My job entails meeting with vendors, samples, planning out new programs, pricing manufacturing of books with bookmaker, so many details. And customers will have an issue, so they ask us technical questions.”

Q: What else should we know about you?

A: “My passion has been this business and I shall miss it. I have a number of hobbies, like bicycling, skeet shooting, boating, carpentry, and traveling. I will become the family handyman. My children and grandchildren live in New Jersey, New Hampshire, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and I hope to see much more of them. I feel I have been so blessed and I want to give back to our church and community.”

Q: Who will fill your Stout position?

A: “Barbara Godwin. She has over 40 years in the industry. She has been with the company for years: seven part time and three fulltime. She’ll be taking over the buying role. Our goal is to turn over the company to the fourth generation at some point.”

Q: What have been the top changes in the industry during your career?

A: “I believe the top changes to be the growth of ecommerce and the popularity of social media. How we address this in the coming years will be crucial. The younger generation shops differently than does the older generation. We are fortunate to be in an industry which is tactile and color sensitive. There will always be those who want their home environment to be ‘just right.’ That is where Stout fits in.”

 


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