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Monday, July 8, 2013

MOVERS and SHAKERS: William R. Follett, President of the Belleek Group Our Coverage Sponsored by Paul Mayer Attitudes

William R. Follett

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Perhaps his maternal grand and great-grandparents’ wholesale and retail businesses meant his future was pre-ordained. Coming out of college in Vermont, William R. Follett, President of the Belleek Group certainly didn’t see a clear path forward. A college friend of his knew the owners of B. Altman & Co and suggested that William pay them a visit. So he did. Back then he was aware it's not who you know, it's whom you know and the chairman took William under his wing and he had a job. After 2 years as assistant buyer in domestics, William became the buyer of the Silver & Metals Department. He then spent 2 years in this role then he resigned to work with his largest vendor, the venerable Massachusetts-based Reed & Barton.

Reed & Barton moved William to Chicago and he traveled a 3 state region as a sales representative. He worked with regional powerhouses like Marshall Fields and Carson Pirie Scott and small fine stores throughout Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. William was then moved to represent them in New York City and eventually promoted to regional sales manager. He worked with Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, Saks Fifth Avenue, Michael C. Fina and many other excellent merchants. During this time, Reed & Barton took on licenses to produce flatware and gifts for Ralph Lauren and Waterford. These collections expanded business dramatically through the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

In 2006, William left Reed & Barton to become National Sales Manager at Juliska. He had noticed this brand at a New York City store and thought it was dramatically different from the mass of cut crystal in the market….something quite unique, familiar and beautiful. Little did he know, this brand was just being loaded with rocket fuel. Over the next 5 years, their business expanded by significant double-digits every year. Working with Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys and other top tabletop and home décor retailers across the country provided William with an excellent opportunity to travel to most states with his sales representatives to see visuals, events and meet the fashion-drivers first hand. In 2009, he launched Juliska at Bloomingdale’s. The GMM/EVP once said “I’ve only seen one other line take off like this in all my years of retail”. A multi-million dollar business developed quickly.

In 2011, William was looking for a new challenge. He accepted his current position as President of Belleek Group. The group includes Belleek, Galway Crystal, Aynsley China and Newbridge Silverware (jewelry and gifts). His responsibility was to develop business in North America. Within this domain, William works closely with product development, marketing and other aspects of the business in Ireland but directly related to driving sales here. They ship containers into Port Newark to their US warehouse and his team of 22 sales representatives sells their line on the road and at the New York and Atlanta gift shows. They also display at 2 Irish/Celtic trade fairs.

They've enjoyed decent double-digit growth in the past 2 years but, there is more to come. Their continuing efforts to develop their lines, both within the Irish market and selling into the broader market, is moving forward. Their goals include continued expansion of their distribution to fine independents and launching into department stores and other large-scale retailers. With several brands and many categories within each, there are lots of opportunities for William and his team with a variety of retail partners.

In his spare time, William is involved with several charitable endeavors that include: Past president and current board member of The Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York; trustee and chair of building & grounds at their historic Wilton, CT church; board member of the Old Black Point Association; volunteer at Weir Farm National Historic Site; volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and spending time with his family in Connecticut and, with his extended family on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont. We could not be more thrilled to present William R. Follett as our latest Mover and Shaker. Peachy Deegan interviewed Bill for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: What kind of retail business did your grandparents have and what are your first retail memories? 
William R. Follett: My great-grandfather started with a dry goods wholesale operation. I have a photograph dating to the 1870’s showing him on a large wagon, filled with wares, pulled by 2 sturdy horses. A few years after that image was taken, he opened an apparel/accessories store on Church St in Burlington VT. Later, he owned other stores around Vermont and upstate New York. He passed the business to his son, my grandfather, who passed it to my uncle, who passed it to his son-in-law. My first memories were of his staff, very nice ladies, and watching them interact with customers. Of those early retail memories, I don’t recall too much except that I was impressed that my uncle ran the place and traveled to New York to trade shows.

What did the Chairman of B. Altman and Company teach you? 
 John Burke was a reserved figure, very formal but he didn’t miss much around the store. He liked the classic nature of the place, the building, the merchandise, staying close to what his father learned from Benjamin Altman. He taught me to be even-handed, fair, not to get overwhelmed, just lean into the wind.

Looking back at your career, did you imagine it would have evolved the way it did-why or why not? 
 I’d like to say there was a roadmap…but there wasn’t. Looking back, it all worked out very well and I think my drive, positive attitude and ethical approach carried me toward good things. I was fortunate to have mentors along the way and hope, to some degree, I have acted in that capacity for others.

How has the retail business changed for the better and worse over your career? 
 B. Altman was the classic “carriage trade” retailer. Some fashion…perhaps trying to be a more traditional version of Bloomingdale’s. They catered to a more mature audience but were careful to add important new designers too. After I left, they were acquired by Hooker (who also owned Sakowitz, Bonwit Teller and Parisian). Altman needed a financial investment and new vision to be relevant to a younger audience. Unfortunately, the economy soured plans. From my early perch at Altman’s, I saw little of what retail is today. Years later, it is remarkable how catalogs, the internet, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and other tools have become standard ingredients for success.

How do you execute a successful brand launch? 
 Belleek has a solid foundation, very authentic, a great story to tell. This needs to be fine tuned, addressed to the North American consumer in a fresh, compelling way. Those who know the brand, have to think beyond hand-painted shamrocks and fussy, older designs. We are working very hard to rethink our strategy, update our outbound message to a younger demographic. We have a US-based marketing/pr firm that is helping to message through the newer internet-based media and more traditional magazine editors. The short story speaks to our heritage as an Irish manufacturer of fine quality, hand-crafted products for your home but, we’re now talking about casual dinnerware, updated home décor, clever Christmas ornaments and many other products that speak to a wider audience. We can’t survive by selling Irish/Celtic stores alone. We need to sell fine gift venues, select department stores and online merchants that appeal to younger shoppers.

What would you like to do to change the retail industry if anything and why? 
 I think buyers can be overwhelmed. There is so much going on, so many facets to manage…there’s less time to be a merchant. At Altman’s, I loved to get in early and merchandise the selling floor at the 5th Avenue store. I loved that space and loved the sales people, real professionals who had experience and dedication. I think they liked to see a buyer who didn’t mind getting his hands dusty too. Perhaps I am my great grandfather, reincarnated, wanting to run retail like he did. I suppose this is a value fine independent stores can bring. Shoppers often look to great local stores for that old-fashioned, personal approach….

What is the key to being a successful brand in the luxury market? 
 Authenticity, staying close to your heritage, developing ways to use it in modern, relevant ways. Belleek has been “relevant” for 157 years. Every day, I think about how I can partner with the team in Ireland to evolve the business in the US. I want Americans of Irish decent to love this brand but, I also want Americans of German/Italian/Jewish/etc decent to say “ah, what a nice product, it’s something I want and it’s well priced…oh, and it’s also hand-crafted in Ireland – perfect!!”

How do you identify department stores that would be a good fit for the brand you are working with? 
 Any department store that carries European brands, should have Belleek. We are different from Wedgwood, Royal Copenhagen, Vietri, Juliska, etc…different in a good way. The warm tone, durable material…the quality. Pricing is very good, lower, in many cases vs. competitors. Marshall Fields had a 7 digit business with Belleek in the 1990’s. When Macy’s bought the company, they didn’t pick up Belleek. I’d love to sell Macy’s – even if only in the Chicago-land area, a very good market for us. I sent an email to the DMM at Bloomingdale’s last fall suggesting a 6th floor gallery of Belleek’s iconic baskets featuring replicas of baskets made for Obama, Reagan, Kennedy, Clinton, Bush and Queen Elizabeth. Showing images of Price Charles at our pottery, sitting down with craftspeople attempting to make flowers from clay. A compelling display, I though. We have product that would sell very well at Bloomingdale’s. She didn’t sign on but I’ll keep trying!

What do you love most about our favorite state, Connecticut and why? 
 Well, I’m from Vermont. I think of my home state the way many Americans of Irish decent feel about the Emerald Isle. We settled in Connecticut because it was close to both our families and, as kids came along, we wanted to spend time with as many uncles/aunts/cousins as possible, as often as possible, to give our children a solid family foundation. Fairfield County is a bit crowded and expensive. If I didn’t need to be close to NYC, I’d move toward Hartford or eastern coastal areas of this beautiful state.

What should all New Yorkers know about Connecticut? 
 It’s a healthy dollop of New England style - stone walls, white-steepled churches, quaint downtowns…close to the city and very commutable. 

We are very impressed with Belleek-what should the world know about Belleek? 
 Very fine people. The pottery is a bee-hive of activity located in a very small, unpopulated area. The pottery gets 150,000+ visitors every year. Belleek has a wonderful pottery tour, a restaurant with great food, a visitors centre…all this is great but every person you meet there is wonderful…authentic smiles, they love what they do, their association with a great brand!

What do you love most about your job and the brands you represent? 
 Variety. Every day I’m involved with sales, product development, marketing, finance…it’s challenging but enjoyable. I wake up every morning excited about the challenges of the day.

What do you like to do the most when you travel to Ireland? 
 The people, the countryside are beautiful. I travel to Ireland about 4-5 times a year. Each visit is focused on business but, I always take a little time to see something new – Dublin Castle, St. Patrick’s Church, the Cliffs of Mohr… There is so much history and culture to explore. 

Recently, Peachy went undercover to one of the biggest prestigious department stores in Manhattan and asked if they carried Belleek and they snapped back that they only carry English brands, not Irish. Does anyone ever say this to you and do you encounter this kind of ridiculous prejudice today?
 Sometimes. Interestingly, because Belleek is in Northern Ireland, it’s actually in the UK but we view our brand as being very Irish and it certainly is unique relative to old English brands. Unfortunately, there aren’t many “English” brands, at least not “made in England”. Belleek owns Aynsley China Ltd (Stoke on Trent) and they still make a great deal of fine bone china at that pottery. So, we can have it both ways – we make commemorative-ware for the Queens Diamond Jubilee and statues of St. Patrick and are very happy to do both. 

What fuels your interest in history? 
 It was instilled in me from my maternal grandmother and my mother, both members of every genealogical and historical society ever invented. I grew up learning about US history, loved it and continue to read and learn about it today. My wife jokes that I can’t recall what I ate for dinner last night but can describe in detail the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence? 
 No one person. From my parents to various superiors that impressed me with their ethical approach, their drive to achieve…. I have a hard time sitting still. 

What are you proudest of and why? 
 Well….my family. My children, my wife.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do? 
 Launch Belleek at a major department store. 

What honors and awards have you received in your profession? 
 Other than some sales awards, nothing of note.

What one word best describes you and why? 
 Dedicated. I like my bushes to be nicely trimmed, my cars to be clean, my office to be organized…. I’m dedicated to the things around me, family, home, church, work…all of it and I make a serious effort to make it all a bit better today than it was yesterday.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan? 
 The Racquet & Tennis Club…a big block of old design, the rooms within, with high ceilings, enormous fireplaces…so calm, amid the rush and modernity outside. Wonderful contrast!

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan? 
 William Wayne – fun to look around, find unique things.

If you could hire anybody who would it be and why? 
 Duchess of Cambridge. I want her to hold our products, smile and be photographed by the world doing so.

What is your favorite drink?
 Cape Cod on a hot summer evening

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party? 
 My wife and I were at an event in the Union League Club and a nice elderly speaker (former judge) read a speech starting on page one, then forgot to turn the page, read page one again…that was sad, not funny…the funny part was when this bazaar lady turned suddenly and stared at my wife. She had a classic Castleberry Knit suit on, pill-box hat covering a mass of hair, enormous glasses and a huge teetey grin….my wife could not control herself, began shaking as her laugh surged up, I had to escort her into the hall to recover.

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan? 
 Blue Fin always pleases, love that there is Times Square bedlam outside and so peaceful inside

What is your favorite Manhattan book or favorite character in Manhattan literature?
 I love Washington Irving. His humor is wonderful. I sit down and re-read his Sketch Book every year.

Who would you like to be for a day and why? 
 Someone who owns an Aston Martin….just because….

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why? 
 The 1776 foot tall spire on the new tower downtown because it’s a powerful message to our enemies that, while we can be bruised, we will rebound stronger, we will not live in fear, we will not diminish our beliefs and our drive to share justice with the darker parts of the world.

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience? 
 Dinner at the Sea Grill followed by watching our kids skate at Rockefeller Ctr (ok, I guess that’s their athletic experience….)

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else? 
 Walking up to the crown at the Statue of Liberty (when it’s open)

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why? 
 Lincoln. I’ve been fascinated by him, his life, that period of history for most of my life. I even started parting my hair when I was about 10 because his hair was parted….

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience? 
 Concerts in the park with friends and wine.

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world? 
 Smile, be optimistic, give a little of our resources and time to causes I believe in and raise my children to be good citizens

What do you think is most underrated and overrated in Manhattan? 
 Underrated, the NY Historical Society, overrated, Madame Tussauds (really don’t like that place)

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it? 
 I could have, should have been a hotelier, so Haute Hotels…. Love a great hotel/resort and try to stay at different places when I go to cities often so I enjoy your articles on hotels

Have you tried The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not? 
 I have not, will get on this immediately!

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you? 
 Hmmm….I may have typed too much useless stuff above….

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers? 

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