It may have seemed an unlikely change when Sandy Herle sold off her share in a group of bicycle shops and opened a lingerie boutique.
But while her clientele may have changed, the principals of succeeding in business remain the same.
“I really had to go to a different place,” said Herle, who means it literally — she signed a non-competition agreement with the buyer of her bike stores in Courtenay, Nanaimo and Port Alberni. “I was a bike mechanic; I had done it since I was 17. But it’s been exciting and I’ve learned so much. Working with people is working with people. Whether you’re working with staff or working with clients, you treat people the same.”
Those people seem to have approved. Close to You, the small lingerie shop originally located between a barbershop and a real estate office on Craig Street in Parksville, has grown into a full-line women’s clothing and shoe store in its fourth location, a 4,300-square foot building in Corfield Plaza. Herle is celebrating her 25th year in business.
The business has succeeded and expanded even as Herle has thrown herself headlong into the larger business community. The former mayor of Parksville (2005-08) is currently head of both the Parksville Downtown Business Association and the Parksville Qualicum Beach Tourism Association. The former chair of the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance (VIEA), Herle was recently elected to her seventh year on its board.
“I have a massive background in getting involved,” she said. “I find business exciting. I put my actions and support behind business and I’m so fortunate I’ve got my (husband) Gil to support me doing that. And my staff, because I spend a lot of time running out the door to meetings.”
So how has the owner of a small, local shop managed to become the owner of a large, local shop during the period when Internet shopping and big-box stores emerged as commercial leviathans?
“I hate to use the word service, because it’s so overused,” Herle said. “But I’ve been involved in the community since the get-go. I think a lot of people appreciate that and support you because of that.
“Nobody’s obliged to shop with you because you’re local. I struggle with that at times, the shop local program. You earn the business; you earn the loyalty.”
And, she adds, there is a tactile element to women’s clothing that a photo on a computer screen cannot replicate. For about two years, Herle said, Close to You actually had an e-commerce platform, and it did relatively well. But she shelved it anyway.
“I don’t like it,” she said. “We just enjoyed more the interaction with people and didn’t find we were missing anything in not doing it. I think people love the tangibility; they love to be able to touch the piece. Even my (wholesale) reps, they can send me a book, or I can look online, but I want to see it. I want to touch it, try it if I can.”
To feed that desire, she makes sure to stock the store with large amounts of inventory from more than 200 suppliers. She can afford to do so because Close to You’s customer base includes not only local shoppers, but other “regulars” from across Vancouver Island and even repeat tourism visitors.
A consulting firm based in Toronto monitors her inventory, expenses and income and sends regular reports.
“And they’ll say, ‘Sandy, next month you have this much to spend,’” Herle said, then leaned forward conspiratorily. “And sometimes I’ll listen to them, sometimes I won’t. That’s the beauty of it being my store.”
It’s her store, but she has plenty of help, particularly from within her own family. While she chatted in her office last week, Gil was in Vancouver purchasing racks to use in the secondary outlet store Herle has opened in her former location across the Corfield Plaza parking lot.
“He’s the lightbulb-changer, he goes to the bank when we need change, and if we get bogged down in pricing, he’s here with me at night pricing things,” she said. “It’s quite a team.”
The team includes Herle’s sister, Debbie McDonald, the office manager, and her daughter, Kim Jury, who runs the Close to You website. They are part of a staff of 12, in addition to her consulting team in Toronto.
“I know what I do well, and that’s hiring people to fill in my blanks, what I need to know,” she said.
She even hired a designer when she moved into the current store, and had the Close to You name and logo engraved right into the painted concrete floor, just inside the entrance.
“I told Gil I did it so we wouldn’t have to move again,” she said with a laugh. “I picked out my floor and we built the store around the floor.”
At the least, Close to You will remain on that floor for another four-and-a-half years, as Herle just signed a new five-year lease last October. She admitted this lease came with a bit of trepidation, as she will turn 64 this year and Gil, a former mill worker in Port Alberni, will be 70.
“I’m now at the age where you do read the obituaries; it is people you know,” she said. “You’re supposed to have a work/life balance, and I don’t. I have a work/work balance.”
So is she contemplating retirement after the current lease ends? Or, for that matter, anytime?
“I doubt it,” Herle added with another laugh. “I’m looking at ‘Freedom 95’. For me, everything I do is involved with business, so if I don’t have my business any more, the other things I do would probably cease as well.
“The decision will be at the end of these five years. I’m here now, and I love this business.”
To learn more, call 250-248-3781 or visit www.closetoyou.ca. To see and touch, stop by the store at 174 Corfield Street in Parksville.