In the late 1930’s, John H. Epp supplemented his income as a full-time warehouse worker at Piggly Wiggly/Safeway by selling watches and men’s shavers door-to-door. With his inventory in a briefcase, he sold out his first batch in a week. Encouraged by the swift sales, John left the nation’s first self-service grocery store and sold his wares door-to-door full time. In 1939 he opened a small shop. Three years later he moved operations to the Notre Dame Avenue location, where the store still operates today. John’s son Ernest joined the family business in 1970 along with his brothers John and Alfred. After working outside the industry, Ernest’s sons Jonathan and Jeremy are bringing in the third generation of the family business leading with a new mall-based store that opened in 2009. With new anchor stores opening in 2011, the Epps are looking to make their Polo Park Shopping Centre store location a jewelery store that specifically caters to a younger clientele for the family business, leading with high brand recognition watch lines and bridal jewelery.
Jeremy Epp, 32
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Notre Dame Avenue and Polo Park
Jonathan Epp, 25
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Notre Dame Avenue
Ernest Epp, 63
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Notre Dame Avenue
In the Beginning, …
Ernest: After graduating from the university, I began working in the family business doing whatever I could do to help, from licking stamps and sweeping floors to running errands. One of the first things I noticed about my father and the way he managed the business was his unique soft-sell approach. And, I always noticed that my father hired good people, one of which was a store manager who became my mentor. He taught me more about the business than anyone else in the store – including my father. I respected this manager a great deal and eventually he came to respect me. He worked with us for 37 years and retired in 1991.
Jeremy: I’ve only been with the family business for about 18 months. After I graduated from the university I stayed there with a faith-based group, working in a mentoring role. After that I worked in a retail fitness store. It was a one-man-show, so I also did the marketing, shipping and receiving, deliveries: I did everything a business owner would do except pay the bills. It was at this job where I learned about how to be an effective salesperson. At Independent, we have staff members who have been with us for 5 to 40 years. Being relatively new, I can work alongside many of our experienced staff. This is a great environment in which to learn about the family business and the industry. But, it’s a challenge walking that fine line between being the boss’s son and being a staff member when working with so many experienced people.
Jonathan: In my mind I had, early on, made a decision to join the family business. This resolve was strengthened during my years studying Commerce at the U of M [University of Manitoba]. But, there was always a love/hate relationship with the family business for me. I loved the idea of being my own boss, and the travel involved really appealed to me. What I hated was putting all of my eggs into one basket. This business is risky. With a recession, there’s down times and then it takes a while to bring sales back up again. I wasn’t entirely sold on it. My dad told me you had to be 150 percent in, but I was only about 60 percent in. At one point I told myself to forget the torment and make a decision. So, I decided to roll the dice and go for it.
Ernest: Both boys have different management styles and talents that complement each other. As a parent and a small business owner I feel great about where the family business is going. Jeremy and Jonathan are my oldest and youngest sons, the only two children who expressed interest in being active in the family business.
Jeremy: Jonathan is more measured in his responses to all parts of the family business. I have a lot of ideas but I don’t always have the most viable or best approach in executing them, such as the best ways to invest marketing dollars. That’s where Jonathan comes in. He helps to keep me grounded and not bankrupt.
Jonathan: Jeremy always has a lot of good ideas. He’ll have about five to six good ideas and share one or two with me. Together we’re always thinking of what can be done for the store. And, we’re good sounding boards for each other. Jeremy is a better salesperson than I am. I can learn a lot from him.
Ernest: We’ve been in the Polo Park mall location since the early 80’s. For many years it was mainly a watch and clock store, but that changed in 2003 when we doubled the size of the store and made it into a full-service jewelry store. We’re committed to staying in the mall because it’s a good location and we think it’s a store that has potential to reach a younger demographic with an emphasis on watches and bridal. When Safeway took out its 40,000-square-foot store the mall owners wanted to widen the hallway to make room for new anchor stores. They asked if we wanted to move the store so we took that opportunity to relocate it closer to two popular fashion outlets Forever 21, Max Azria and others. There’s a good synergy in the new location. The store was totally redesigned last year by GRID/3 International with an interior design theme to attract younger customers. For now it’s getting some traction, but when the new anchor stores open late 2010 or early 2011, this mall-based store will prove to be more beneficial to the business.
Jeremy: We’re putting in brands that will attract younger customers, such as Scott Kay, Hearts On Fire, Canadian Ice and a Swarovski shop-in-shop. We still have a lot of watches at this store, but my brother and I will have to figure out the best inventory balance for this store. For now we have an inventory mix we think works well. But we’ll know more when we know how the anchor stores will impact inventory decisions.
Jonathan: The success of the Polo Park store comes down to having a good staff. Once we get a good product mix for this store and put in place the right staff to educate, inform and convert bridal and watch sales, this store will be a tremendous asset. But getting that right inventory mix is critical because there are no high-end jewelers in this mall. In addition to the anchor stores bringing in more traffic we’ll also have to figure out how the foot traffic flows in and around the store surrounded by popular fashion outlets. Our goal is to not only make Polo Park a destination store for mall visitors, but to make it a destination store for people in the area. This store has many opportunities.
Ernie: My sons are talented guys who are doing more than I could ever do to improve the family business, especially online. The website has been completely redone, the boys have been actively capturing more customer data to send out more e-newsletters and they’re doing good things with the social media websites.
Jeremy: One thing I’ve learned from my dad is his sense of calmness. Every day something urgent always comes up. I’ve observed him with suppliers, staff members and customers that when these situations come up, dad always has a measured response.
Jonathan: One lesson I’ve learned from my father is never to burn bridges. You never know when you’ll need someone or they’ll need you.