By Lian Dolan Images by Shannon Cottrell and Brooke Mason
The headlines are grim. Staving Off the Demise of Mall Retail. No Bright Lights in Retail Dark Days. Who Will Survive the Retail Apocalypse? While nothing’s guaranteed in the changing economy, three women running retail businesses in the San Gabriel Valley are bucking trends and defying conventional wisdom. Meet this year’s Women in Business: Emilie Davidson Hoyt, the CEO of Lather, a skin care and wellness company; Daisy Rivas, the CEO of Rivas Sports Inc. and owner of seven Pro Image Sports franchises, a licensed sporting goods retailer; and Allison Hill, the CEO of Vroman’s Bookstore, a local treasure and the largest indie bookstore in Southern Cal. All three of these executives love what they do, understand the challenges of staying relevant in an increasingly online world and believe in creating a unique retail experience with great product, great people and great customer service. Though they sell different merchandise, from Bamboo Lemongrass Foaming Body Scrub to UCLA-branded barbecue tongs to bestselling fiction and baby gifts, they share a key characteristic in leading their profitable businesses: constant personal growth that they can bring back to the company.
Strategic Partnerships that Resonate When Emilie Davidson Hoyt, a Pasadena resident, founded Lather in 1998, “Become Pioneer of Natural Skin, Body and Hair Care Products” wasn’t in her mission statement, but creating products without synthetic perfumes and artificial ingredients was. Hoyt, a lifelong migraine sufferer, knew that the fragrance in most soaps and shampoos triggered her headaches. She set out to create a simple line of products with essential oils for people who wanted to make a healthier choice about what they slathered on their skin. At the time, the only place to find those sorts of products was an “alternative” health food stores, back past the wheatgrass. Hoyt wanted the good stuff to go mainstream for consumers like her who understood the health implications and wanted clean packaging and modern retail outlets. “Why wasn’t this the standard? Why don’t people make that connection, that what you put on your skin goes directly into your body?” Lather now boasts a robust hospitality business in hotels around the globe, an online store, a Signature Spa in Hawaii and five retail locations across the US, including the flagship store on Colorado Boulevard in Old Town.
Hoyt spent a few years in PR after graduating from Pepperdine working on public health initiatives like HIV/ AIDS prevention and teen pregnancy prevention. She credits that time as an important building block for her career, “It taught me how to communicate to people about how a change of behavior and making choices could impact their health.” To create her first product line, she learned whatever she could about natural ingredients, taking her inspiration from foods like mint, thyme, honey, coconut and apple. Hoyt also reached out “to everyone I knew” and worked with chemists making small batches of products, experimenting and tweaking ingredients. Twenty years later, she’s still deeply involved in creating the products, seeking out new ingredients and advocating for wellness and health on a level that is both good for business and important to her personally. She is as authentic and true to her mission as the company’s bestselling Sweet Almond Face Moisturizer. “It’s important to love the intention of the product. It’s important to be able to stand behind the quality of it. It’s easier to sell the product if you use it and love it.”
For Hoyt, being an Accidental Pioneer doesn’t stop at the creation of the Lather line. The success of the company and its ability to grow despite overall recent retail trends is due in large part to Lather’s well established strategic partnerships with hotels. These days it seems like every top hotel boasts a signature scent, but that wasn’t the case when Hoyt started Lather. She saw an opportunity that wasn’t obvious to the big beauty brands, “We had to be creative about ways for people to discover our brand. Hospitality is an area that touches people when they are very vulnerable. Often the travel is for a high stakes situation like a job interview, a wedding or a vacation a family has been saving for. The wrong shampoo can make you feel awful.” Hoyt zeroed in on the idea that providing consumers with the right shampoo or body lotion at a moment when they are standing, in her words, “naked in a strange city in a strange hotel room” could make a big impact.
Lather’s early hospitality clients were the Hotel Elan in West Hollywood and the Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa in Atlantic City a connection that lead to a call from Elaine Wynn, co-founder the Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas. Could Lather make Wynn-branded signature products for the hotel? The order was a game-changer. Lather products are now in 50,000 hotel rooms world-wide. (That’s 6 million guests a year Lathering up in the shower.) As other brands fight their way into the hospitality business, Lather was already established when an opportunity to work The Four Seasons presented itself.
If a strategic partnership with the Four Seasons sounds like a dream, Hoyt confirms that it is. (‘It requires a LOT of research on the properties,” she laughs.) Lather first worked the Four Seasons on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai, which had been recently purchased by tech magnate Larry Ellison. The Four Seasons asked Lather’s team to not only create a signature scent for the property, but to allay the fears of islanders concerned about displacement. Hoyt reached out to a local farm to buy kukui nuts, pressing the oil for use in the “beautiful” products. They’re branded Four Seasons and that works for Hoyt. “This is what they needed. A special island, a special property and special products. I felt passionately about that.” Hoyt says it was one of her more memorable work experiences because of the connection between the people, the place and the product. Her creative team has introduced signature products for additional Four Seasons locations including Maui, Scottsdale and Jackson Hole.
In October, the Lather partnership with the Four Seasons moved closer to home. The hotel launched new wellness rooms at its Beverly Hill location, providing an oasis for health-conscious travelers with Circadian lighting, sleep, stress and nutrition programs from the Cleveland Clinic, guided mediations by Deepak Chopra and Lather products, of course. The Wellness Rooms feature the new collection called Baobab+Shea, an example of the company’s commitment to conscious sourcing. Both baobab and shea are sustainably harvested from native African trees and the job of collecting the tree’s fallen fruit lies with the women of their respective communities. Lather chose socially-conscious suppliers who work directly with local women to ensure maximized support and economic opportunity. “I’m proud to launch a collection that gives back both socially and environmentally,” Hoyt says. From the enthusiasm in her voice, it’s clear this may be a model for future partnerships and products. “We are always going forward.”
Stepping Up to the Plate The Pro Image Sports store in Westfield’s Arcadia Mall is a sports fan’s paradise, stocked with everything you need to fulfill your fandom to the fullest from Dodgers onesies to wall clocks and trash cans for the Raider Nation. Name almost any item and Pro Image in Arcadia probably carries it with a Lakers logo. The 3,000 square foot flagship store is one of seven Pro Image franchises owned by Daisy Rivas, the CEO of Rivas Sports, INC. (The other locations are Glendale, Montclair, Ontario, Montebello, Downey and Lakewood.) There are 132 stores in the Pro Image family. Rivas is the largest owner in terms of volume of total sales with $7.3 million in 2017. She has five of the top ten Pro Image franchises and is the only female Hispanic owner. The success of Rivas Sports, Inc. is the product of Rivas’ three decades in retail, learning the business inside out. But it’s also the product of her toughest personal transition, from running the business alongside her husband (and high school sweetheart) Eddie Rivas to running the business alone after Eddie’s death three years ago.
Now a Pasadena resident, Rivas’ retail resume began in New York City as a student working her way through the Fashion Institute of Technology. She was hired at Saks Fifth Avenue, starting in the clerical department and promoted to Assistant Buyer before her graduation. Then it was off to Bergdorf Goodman, the gold standard of fashion retail. A move to California followed and since then, she’s worked in buying, selling and everything in between. She’s learned the analytics of planning, distribution and understanding the margins at Robinsons May, then used that knowledge as a buyer for 300 Contempo Casuals store. A jump to Liz Claiborne flipped the script and Rivas spent five years as a sales rep, using her buying skills in her sales pitch to clients. Later, Rivas spent 14 years at Luxottica, the luxury eyewear company, in various management roles, including training merchandisers for key brands in key markets. A final move to the Vice President level at Pearl Vision, a retailer that operates a franchise system, proved to be the last piece of her resume she would use to run the Pro Image stores. With every new job, Rivas said the key to making it work was leveraging experience and building on her knowledge.
Twenty years ago, Rivas and her husband bought their first Pro Image franchise and set up shop in the Arcadia mall. It was clear that Eddie had the passion for sports, so Rivas opted to become a silent partner, concentrating on her own retail career. Together, they raised three children, worked long retailers’ hours and their individual careers thrived.
When her husband became ill, Rivas stepped back into the day-to-day operations of Rivas Sports Inc., now a company with 7 stores and 50 year-round employees and dozens more seasonal workers. Two weeks after her husband’s death, Rivas re-opened the bigger Arcadia location as previously scheduled and called an employee meeting. “I had to pull up my big girl pants. I couldn’t give myself the time to say ‘poor me’ or even grieve. I said to my employees, ‘This is what needs to be done.’” On the back wall of the Arcadia store, there’s framed Dallas Cowboys jersey and photo of her late husband, a lifelong Cowboy’s fan, on the field at Texas Stadium. He’s always there.
Three years after her that first all hands meeting, sales are up 22% overall and Rivas herself has been recognized as Pro Image Retailer of the Year twice. Talking to Rivas, it’s clear is that while the last few years have been a difficult personal journey, she has poured herself into her work, using every bit of acquired knowledge from her deep retail career to re-imagine the Pro Image stores. “Eddie was a one man show, doing everything from accounting to ordering to fixing the toilet.” While Rivas may call the mall maintenance for plumbing needs, her employees know she is a team player, “When we get the delivery in for fourth quarter and we’ve got to get it out on the floor, I’m tagging product, I’m hanging product, I move product from one store to the other in my own truck.”
But Rivas has learned that focusing on her strengths—data-driven buying and creative merchandising—is a better use of her time. To that end, Rivas has broadened the product mix to accommodate for more female consumers, a growing category for Pro Image. She’s experimented with custom merchandise, like creating a retro Brooklyn Dodgers cap that caught fire on social media. “We’re trying to tell stories and expand our colors.” She has a sports news app on her phone for up to the minutes scores, the lowdown on rookies to watch and new players in town to inform her buying decisions. (Welcome to SoCal, Ohtani!) Plus, she’s spent more time studying the different demographics at each store and customizing the product mix to better suit the location. For instance, the Glendale store is a Dodger’s pre-game destination for team merch but, Rivas says, “We can’t sell a stitch of Angels gear there.” She repeats her mantra, “The right product for the right store.”
In terms of merchandising, Rivas has gone back to her Bergdorf Goodman days, organizing each store in departments like Women’s, Kids’, Men’s and Tailgating, as opposed to merchandising the stores by product type or team. Taking a page out of her Luxottica handbook, some stores feature a trend wall for shoppers as they enter. And she’s staying on top of the shoe releases, a product Pro Image doesn’t even sell, so she’ll know that when a new Jordan drops in red, she should feature a coordinating cap or jersey in the same color with the Dodger’s logo. Rivas even buys the new Jordan from a nearby Footlocker to feature in the display. “It puts the idea in the customer’s mind.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, like the 2015 Big Blowout for Inventory Reduction. Or the idiosyncrasies of the sports world that can tank sales, like key player injuries, mid-season trades and missed play-off opportunities. And there are the usual headaches of running a retail business– from lease rates to online competition to employee engagement and retention. But after an emotional three years, Rivas seems to surprise even herself when she says, “I’m driven by the business aspect of it. Managing a business, being successful is what fuels me. I’m constantly thinking, ‘What’s the next thing? How do I need to think differently?’”
Back to School In a city that values tradition, Vroman’s Bookstore, founded 1894, sits near the top of the list of Things That Must Be Maintained. It’s more than a bookstore; Pasadena people count on Vroman’s to keep the city civilized. That sense of mission might be what kept Vroman’s afloat during the global recession and the Amazonian demise of bookstores all over the country, both chain and indie. Nowadays, when publishing experts point to the new Bookstore Renaissance, the phenomenon of bookstores retuning to a vital and central part of a town’s intellectual life, Vroman’s makes that list, too.
Allison Hill, the CEO of Vroman’s for the last 14 years, also has her eyes on history. “I think about it all the time. Mr. Vroman’s standing in his little bookstore in 1894 in what was the Wild, Wild West of Pasadena and he could not have imagined this.” She waves her hand to indicate the 32,000 square foot emporium that is Vroman’s Colorado Boulevard flagship store. “And then I think about 100 years from now. There’s something really moving about being part of something that has this rich history, that might stand the test of time.”
Allison Hill has been the CEO of Vroman’s for the past 14 years, lured over from Book Soup (“A magical place.”) where she had been the manager. Hill’s responsibilities include running three stores—the main store, Vroman’s Hastings Ranch and Book Soup in West Hollywood, acquired by Vroman’s in 2009, much to Hill’s delight. She’s also the Vice President of Vroman’s Real Estate, a non-book related entity. Hill answers to a Board of Directors and shareholders, manages 200 employees, and negotiates strategic partnerships and contracts. She describes the business decisions as “complex.” This is not the sleepy, movie-version Notting Hill bookstore people fancy running.
The last five years have been the best in Vroman’s history, a testament to decisions Hill and her team have made. “You’re always thinking about how to move forward while honoring that sense of tradition. We wouldn’t be surviving and thriving if we weren’t constantly changing. It’s a balance.”
Significant changes include closing the stand-alone stationary store and folding the department into the main store; re-organizing and combining the paperbacks and the hardbacks (gasp!); working with her buying team on the product mix to find the balance between books and gifts; bringing Jones Coffee onboard at the flagship store to set the right tone and aroma; maintaining a robust calendar of over 1,000 events between the three stores; high profile off-site author appearances; licensing the Book Soup name for stores at LAX; and creating Vroman’s Ed, in-store writing classes. “The landscape has changed so dramatically over the last twenty years. You just always have to be moving. “
To that end, Hill, an English major at Tufts who had a minor in Peace & Justice Studies, took the plunge and enrolled in the Fully Employed MBA Program at UCLA Anderson School of Management in the fall of 2017. The schedule is demanding, weekend classes and seminars on financial policy and statistics after a full week of work. But Hill wanted to get out of her comfort zone and interact with other business leaders outside of the book biz, from tech to finance to entrepreneurs of all stripes.
Hill says she has a natural curiosity about business, picking up the phone and seeking answers to problems from new contacts. “But you still only reach for things that are comfortable. The book business is isolating and I was seeing everything through that lens. I wanted to get out of my own head.” She said she needed to learn the new language of business to talk to bankers and investors to ensure that the Vroman’s legacy continues. It’s been an invigorating intellectual and creative experience, even if, as Hill says, “It’s humbling to sit down and take a three hours statistics exam as a book nerd.” Thanks to the conversations with her classmates and professors, she now walks the floor at Vroman’s and thinks, “What are our underutilized assets and how could I be monetizing them?” That’s a reach statement for a book nerd. And good news, Vroman’s fans. Hill’s answer to that question in two words: Wine Bar.