Back to school is big business, and no where bigger than at Liebman’s where late August there is a palpable buzz, children jumping about modeling new school uniforms: dress shirts, blazers, pants, jumpers and pleated skirts.
Located at 510 Main Street in New Rochelle, Liebman’s has been a fixture of the downtown since 1926. In the early days the store sold fine children’s clothing manufactured on site. In the 1950s the store expanded to camp and scout uniforms, focusing on school uniforms in the 1960s.
Jonathan Newman is the third owner of Liebman’s, a family-owned business for 86 years. He joined Liebman’s at age 15 as an after school job, working through college, and taking over when the owner retired in 1980. As a teenager he was immediately noticed by then owner James Stillman, who saw in Jonathan all the skills of a successful business person: a hard worker who is creative, organized and customer focused; a great marketer of his products and not afraid to cold call. Jonathan took over in 2008.
At a time when the school uniform business is being rocked by Catholic school closures, Jonathan’s business is growing. Liebman’s is adding schools each year and is entering the charter school market. With a crucial loan from Community Capital, Jonathan expanded his inventory of christening, first communion and confirmation wear. Thanks to the loan, the seasonality of the school uniform business is balanced by the new inventory, better serving the needs of the local neighborhoods and building year round traffic.
How did you get into the retail business?
It was an after school job to make pocket money, for the movies and jeans, and then I would work whenever I was home from college.
How did your business evolve?
Having had the extraordinary experience of working for a family who then gave me the opportunity to purchase their business, I can highly recommend this type of business venture. It has taken a few years for it to truly feel my own, in the earlier years even though I had new responsibilities and obligations I rarely felt like the business was mine. Only recently have I come to consider Liebmans my shop. Working for someone who then sells you their business is a wonderful way to own your own establishment. Who better to learn from than a fellow entrepreneur? Learning the ins and outs of the school uniform business through my former mentor, James Stillman, was an invaluable experience that has helped me achieve the success I have so far. Even now, four years on, we are still in constant contact and I often run my ideas or plans by him to see his take on things.
What’s the best advice you got along the way?
Never stop trying to improve. You have to be proactive about your business. James Stillman pushed me to go out and try and get new school accounts. At first I had no idea what I was doing but he kept encouraging me and after some trial and error, I developed a plan which I then go out and work very hard at. Make sure you foster good relationships with anyone or anything associated with your business. Go out of your way to make yourself available and helpful to those who frequent your business. The competition is always working very hard to take away your customers so you must never give them the opportunity by upsetting any of your clients.
What advice would you offer?
Although owning and operating your own business that is open seven days a week can be grueling, the satisfaction that can come with success is truly fulfilling. It takes a tremendous commitment to work for yourself and not everyone is cut out for it. To anyone looking to open any sort of retail establishment, the best advice I can give is to make sure that whatever product or service you plan on selling, make sure that it fits a particular need or niche for your customers. Competition for everything is unbelievable, and if you don’t differentiate yourself from your competitors you’ll never achieve any success. Be different, focus on the customer, and work harder at it than you have at anything else in your life.
Every year for the last three we have added new accounts. Last year was our most successful to date, but I never want to feel complacent. There is a ton of competition and you always have to strive for success. Nothing comes easy.