After more than 25 years at the helm of the Comfort One retail chain, founder Maurice Breton kicked off the new decade by naming son Garrett Breton president. What the two didn’t anticipate, however, was being faced with one of the industry’s biggest challenges ever: the COVID-19 crisis.
Here, the elder Breton reflects on changes in the business over the years and what the future holds for the independent retailer.
The shoe industry has faced many obstacles. What’s different about the coronavirus pandemic?
MAURICE BRETON: “I started this business in the early ’90s at the tail end of a recession, so we’re accustomed to operating with head winds. We’ve overcome 9/11, the great recession, multiple government shutdowns, market fluctuations and the like. However, everything’s been different about COVID-19, particularly its constant changes and unpredictability. It’s the first time we’ve ever closed all our stores for more than a day or two, and those occasions were due to bad weather. It’s the first time we furloughed the majority of our wonderful staff. Last year, we spent a great deal of time, effort and money revitalizing our online business well before the pandemic hit. In hindsight, that was a very good move. We’re optimistic sales will return to prior-year levels in 2021.
What guidance have you offered Garrett and the Comfort One team as they steer the chain through this event?
MB: “Earlier this year, we were in the best financial shape ever with little to no debt, lots of cash in the bank and a very strong balance sheet. We had come through over three constant years of positive sales growth. By early March, comp- store sales were up double digits and triple digits for our online business. Garrett is well prepared to face the current challenges, and more importantly the opportunities. We also feel certain that [retail] acquisitions will provide an excellent growth vehicle to complement our existing brick-and- mortar stores.”
In what ways will the role of the independent change over the next decade?
MB: “They will have to become a more important part of their communities. Customers need to know what social causes a company stands with. Also, in- dependents will have to become more efficient in every way: smaller stores with higher sales per square foot and only the most highly trained and performance-oriented staffs. Retailers that will be successful long term currently perform in the upper quartile of our industry. There will be no room or chance of survival without strong leadership.”
What was the biggest surprise when launching your own company?
MB: After roughly 20 years in corporate America, I was surprised at how much I didn’t know, even though I was a partner in the 100-plus store chain Hofheimer’s in Norfolk, Va., before opening Comfort One Shoes. I’ve learned about managing people, dealing with difficult landlords, construction, financial management, the necessity of upselling, the importance of training, marketing and maintaining very high standards and visual presentation.”
What will you miss most about the day-to-day store operations?
MB: “I always took it upon myself to manage by walking around the stores. I will miss talking to sales associates, stock personnel, ware- house [staff], drivers, etc., who are at the ground level and know what’s going on. We’ve gotten some of our best ideas from some of the least- expected sources. My new role as chairman will keep me engaged and active at just the right levels for this point of my life.”
Given the chance to do it all again, is there a business decision you would change?
MB: “I would have started buying commercial owner-operated buildings earlier on. I started the company 26 years ago, and we would have had a couple of them paid off [by now]. Today, we’re looking at purchases outside of our marketplace — like-kind businesses that haven’t been as fortunate in developing the next generation. We feel this is our No. 1 store growth formula. Currently, our company is strong in many ways — i.e., sales were up 7% in comp stores in 2019, with very respectable profits and a strong no-debt balance sheet. All in all, it’s been one hell of a run.”