Bonnie Bickel offers tips on attitude, lifestyle and fun the second time around.
"It is is my dream job. There's nothing in the world I'd rather do. Playing with color and pattern -- I can't tell you how much fun it is!" Blonde, petite, chic in fringed black, Bonnie Bickel, CEO of B.B. Bargoons, made her own fashion statement in the midst of January's record-breaking Toronto International Home Furnishings Market.
She's experienced a more than ordinary entrepreneurial roller coaster ride. From age 22, after studying fashion design at The New York Fashion Institute of Technology, she's been a confirmed entrepreneur, first as a manufacturer of men's designer ties. Six years later, she and a partner founded Fashion Party, a direct selling operation that marketed discount fashions, and six years after that, in need of a change, sold out to her partner and plunged into the decoration of her home. "I seem to work in six year cycles," said Bonnie.
Bonnie is married to David Russell, and they have two daughters, one studying hotel management, the second in grade 13.
Her decorating efforts hit a snag when she couldn't find appropriate and pleasing wallpaper and accessories. The answer, after a day of intense research, was to invest $60,000 (some of her Fashion Party profits) in opening a retail store on Queen Street East in downtown Toronto. She says she ran out of money, so only stocked one side of the first B. B. Bargoon's. That was in 1981.
For six years, Bonnie had fun, buying up manufacturers' clear outs and end of lines,
adding fabrics to her merchandise mix. Sales were $165,000 in her first year. By the end of year two, Bonnie had two stores and sales reached $650,000. Year three saw $1.2 million in sales and $5 million by that magical sixth year.
Molson's, Canada's giant brewing company, had been watching her progress. Bonnie wasn't interested at first. "It was a time when it seemed I could do no wrong," she said. But she knew she was reaching a dangerous plateau, and that she could benefit from Molson's business expertise. She sold half of Bargoon's to Malsham, Molson's retailing arm in 1988.
Bonnie added a free shop-at-home service. Consumers could order fabrics and wallpapers direct from her trained staff, use Bargoon's "how-to" brochures, choose custom draperies, bedding and covers and reupholstering and restyling of sofas. Eight months after the purchase, Molson's ground rules changed. They'd raised their sights to companies doing $500 million or more. Characteristically, Bonnie chose to meet their challenge, "With Molson's help and a push into the U.S."
B. B. Bargoon's had grown to 22 stores, including six franchise operations, by 1990. The U.S. was definitely in the picture, and Bargoon's name was registered both in Europe and Australia. Sales projections were $22 million. Then, as we all know, recession struck.
Bonnie was desperate for help, but Molson wasn't the helping parent she had hoped for. In fact, the Molson name became a liability when she tried to renegotiate rents on stores, the large Markham head office, and the 25,000 square foot warehouse. The recession deepened. Bonnie realized that Molson's was actively trying to unload their half of the business to other buyers. Sales dropped to $14 million. She bought back Molson's interest and its loans to Bargoon's in December, 1994, by setting up a numbered company. Soon after, the new company called in the loans, and she forced Bargoon's into receivership.
Leases were renegotiated, and Bonnie kept all but one of the remaining 11 stores. If she had been able to keep sales at the $14 million level, she feels Bargoon's could have made money. But recessionary times caused sales to drop l6 percent more and in 1995 Bargoon's lost $1 million.
Just last spring, Bonnie placed Bargoon's into receivership again. She trimmed her sails, cut staff from 150 to 30, warehouse space from 25,000 to 4,000 square feet and moved the head office to a new location where rent dropped from $25,000 to $2,000. Sales at the two remaining stores are now up 30 percent over 1995, and Bonnie projects $5 million in sales this year.
"The changeover was a fair nightmare. When you go from a head office staff of 25 down to six, what you don't at first recognize is that every single thing you did at 25 staff, you still need to do with six staff, a huge work load! Physically taking the stores down was a huge job, too. We did lose a few people who couldn't cope with all the upheaval. The staff I have now are such survivors, they are so flexible. They are incredible!
"We've gone heavily into furniture and fabric, otherwise our product mix is very similar, and we've doubled our inventory. Our old customers are still coming to us and we're gaining new ones. There's been a turn around in the economy, and decorating is strong. Consumers are spending more money on these items. Timing is an issue as well.
"We never hire designers in our stores. It's important that staff love people and the retail situation. Then you can teach them the business.
"To be a success in home furnishings retailing you should find something that really turns you on, a place where there's a hole in the marketplace. You should have a good feel for finance, marketing, buying, management. And there must be strength in color and design." She smiled, "We're completely computerized and we're getting a new system right now. I've always hired people to do it, but I'm going to learn the new computer."
She warned, "The biggest single mistake an entrepreneur can make, a major downfall, is that they refuse to give up, sell everything they own to pour money into the business. At some point they should draw the line, not get beyond that point, know when to fold the tents and leave."
Might she ever consider another career path, we asked. "We love adventure travel. We're planning to go sea kayaking in the Exuma Cays. We've been fly fishing, white water rafting, rode horseback across the Rockies, went on an African safari. If I could make money doing it, that would be my next career!"