Clothes make the man

Entrepreneur struggled to stay true to his vision

Andrea Gunn
Published on March 29, 2014

Gentleman B Lifestyle Apparel in Grand Falls-Windsor is a perfect example of how hard work, perseverance and staying true to your values pays off.

It’s grown from a small, 750-square-foot men’s clothing store to become one of the most popular apparel boutiques in the region with a 7,200 square-foot building and 12 employees.

And, after 14 years of serving the Grand Falls-Windsor area, owner Chris Clarke received the prestigious Business of the Year award at the Exploits Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual Business Excellence Awards last month.

But Clarke says he’d never have enjoyed success without the support of his family

Today, Clarke is doing well — his store stocks 50,000 pieces of inventory, including men’s, women’s and youths’ clothing and footwear, boasting one of the largest selections as an independent retailer in central Newfoundland.

Gentleman B serves customers, organizations, municipalities and businesses across the province. The company has experienced growth each year, and Clarke is in the process of expanding to include a 3,000 square-foot warehouse.

But things haven’t always been so peachy for Clarke and his family.

Clarke grew up in Grand Falls-Windsor, and following graduation from high school, completed post-secondary education to become a microcomputer specialist. He subsequently went to work with a national inventory company in Grand Falls-Windsor, and was promoted to area manager  — a position based out of Halifax. Clarke and his wife, Denise, were living in Dartmouth when their first child Brandon came along in December 1999.

“Being in the inventory business, that was my busiest time of year and required me to be away from home throughout Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec … (meaning) I would never be home for our son’s birthday,” Clarke explained.

Clarke and his wife decided to make a life change and move back to Grand Falls-Windsor — where they both grew up — to raise their child closer to friends and family.

“Giving up my position with this company wasn’t an easy decision, as it was a well-paying job,” Clarke said, adding he was unsure what he would to do to support his family back in Newfoundland.

“As a younger man, I was always an entrepreneur at heart and always wanted to be in charge and work for myself. My father was a retailer and a buyer for a regional chain of stores, and my sister ran her own business in retail as well, so I made the decision that I would go into retail and looked for a niche market in Grand Falls-Windsor.”

Starting off small

Clarke opted to open a retail store focusing on menswear. His goal was to offer a quality product that customers couldn’t get anywhere else in town.

His first step was securing funding to open his new store.

“First I needed a business plan and what would separate my business from other retail locations currently operating in (the area). I spent days and nights trying to develop a niche market business plan, and a 40-page plan later I went and tried to get financing,” he said. “My first stop was (Business Development Bank of Canada), who now is my biggest business partner.”

To his dismay, Clarke was turned down for his $50,000 loan request because the agency didn’t think his plan was viable in the area. He then approached the not-for-profit Central Business Development Corporation (CBDC) for a loan.

Clarke said they were reluctant at first, but he was eventually able to obtain a $20,000 loan for startup.

“Looking back now, I realize how lucky I am that my business even got off the ground,” Clarke said.

With funding in place, Clarke was able to secure a 750-square-foot rental location close to the Exploits Valley Mall, as well as a computer, fax machine, printer, a used sign to put over the door, used fixtures, hangers and other used items to get started.

“I then went to Montreal and hired a buying agency to take me around to vendors and purchased what I could to open my store — Gentleman B: Apparel for Men, in which the B stands for my oldest son, Brandon.”

Open for business

Gentleman B opened its doors  on Oct. 16, 2000. Though he was happy to have things off the ground, Clarke said it was a struggle from Day 1. With limited resources and a restricted cash flow, Clarke was the only employee. He worked in the store all day serving customers, and overnight doing orders, merchandising, opening freight, cleaning and more.

With little money for advertising, he said it was tough getting customers in the door.

Clarke said every dollar that came in went to pay bills and invest in inventory, to react as quickly as he could to serve his clientele’s needs. 

Down but not out

For two years, Clarke paid himself $250 a week — well below minimum wage. They lived with his parents and borrowed their vehicle for his family to get around.

He said he would have to call vendors daily to get extensions on post-dated cheques as there was never enough cash in the bank and he was unable to obtain a line of credit.

“I remember having days in the minus, (where) I had more returns than purchases. I remember closing the doors in the middle of the afternoon, frustrated a few times, calling my wife to pick me up and thinking I was finished, that the business would not succeed,” Clarke said.

“Fortunately for me, my wife encouraged me to stick with it. (She told me), ‘Things will come around,’ although I knew how frustrated she was with our financial situation. With no home and no vehicle, we pushed forward.”

Clarke said with hard work and dedication, things started to improve, little by little and year after year.

“Sales begun to increase as clientele grew. We focused on brands that were trending, and on the side I started contacting businesses, organizations, fire departments, municipalities (and so on), to see if we could source any apparel needs for them … with alterations, cresting and embroidery, which did help with cash flow.”

Clarke said he still remembers his first sidewalk sale. As the only employee, he took care of setting up and servicing outside, as well as serving customers inside.

“I’m a pretty determined guy when I put my mind to things,” Clarke said, laughing.

In 2003, they had an opportunity to move into a 1,500 square-foot building for a small rental increase that they could afford. Shortly after, Clarke hired his first part-time employee, and things grew from there.

“We were starting to get noticed with key brands, customer service and a friendly shopping experience,” he said.

“By 2007 my lease was up and my landlord advised another tenant would be acquiring my space, so we had to move again. We then moved to a 2,400 square-foot location not too far from our existing building. Business by this point was increasing 40 per cent (per year).”

Coming out on top

By 2010, business was going extremely well and Gentleman B had four staff members, including Clarke.

Soon after, Clarke decided he didn’t want to rent anymore. With financing from BDC, the agency that had first denied him a loan, he was able to acquire some land next to his existing location.

Gentleman B soon had a new home. Today it runs out of a 7,200 square-foot retail store located on Princess Drive.

“I really wanted to make a impact with my retail location … so I hired a retail store designer from Montreal to do interior design, store layout and electrical and lighting design. I have to say, we still get a lot of positive feedback on our store design and its modernness.”

Today, Gentleman B does retail sales 10 times Clarke’s original business plan. They have 12 employees, and in are the process of adding a warehouse. Clarke hopes to soon have a full online store to expand his customer base across Canada.

And although the operation isn’t without challenges — he still has to compete with larger chain stores and strive to offer the top trends and fashions — he said he’s confident that his practices will keep his business viable for years to come.

“I have a very high standard when it comes to servicing our customers. We constantly invest in new trends across Canada (to) offer them right here in Newfoundland. We invest into our employees to ensure we have a team that is keeping our original business practices, values and standards in place,” Clarke said.

“My mission has always been to exceed our customers’ expectations every time, and I still strive to hold true today. Without our customers we are non-existent,”

Clarke said if he had to advise other new business owners, he would tell them to stay in touch with customers, ensure high service standards and never underestimate the value of hard work and perseverance.

“I have learned so much since opening in 2000, and still learn things daily. Do not be hesitant in reaching out to professionals who specialize in different aspects of daily business practices. … There is a world of knowledge out there to help you succeed.”

Clarke said his Business of the Year award is a source of pride and feels like a pat on the back from the community he has worked so hard to serve.

Despite the challenges, Clarke said every day he is thankful for how things worked out, and for his family for sticking with him through the tough times.

“I appreciate each and every one of my customers and team of staff that enables me to do what I love on a daily basis, and to be able to live and raise my three boys right here in the town I grew up.”