He's in a knotty business Selling neckwear, office to office.

Posted: December 03, 2006

For Shareef Ward, the entire city - more precisely, the Philadelphia office buildings containing tie-wearing lawyers and bankers - is his sales floor.

Ward is an "independent tie purveyor," a better-dressed version of the door-to-door salesman, who makes sartorial choices easier for busy professionals by bringing options directly to their cubicles and corner offices (or a few steps away).

"It's still growing, but it's a profitable business," said Ward, 25. "Just get me in front of 20 guys, and 15 of them are going to buy."

Ward displayed his sales acumen recently in a conference room at Zarwin, Baum, DeVito, Kaplan, Schaer & Toddy. Along with his father, Eric - his business partner and sometime traveling companion - Ward opened black valises to display a plethora of silk neckwear in nearly every color and pattern, from tiny dots and flowers to stripes, squares and abstract designs.

The lawyers filed in, some with cash in hand, and took only a few minutes to select their favorites. A few consulted with Ward, who was sporting a snazzy blue-and-white tie.

Buyers often go overboard: at $20 a pop, Ward's Eric Shareef line of ties (named for father and son) are inexpensive compared with ones with big designer names stitched in.

"I like that he has all these designs and colors and the fact that I'm supporting something independent," says lawyer Arthur Armstrong, who sought Ward's help in picking out a patterned tie to go with his light-olive suit (which he described as "the color of this chair").

While the collection has variety, some of the ties are similar to those found in stores. But Ward also puts his creative skills to work by selecting the color and patterns through the manufacturer.

"First of all, it's the convenience," said Mitchell S. Kaplan, another Zarwin Baum lawyer who has bought several ties from Ward. "Then it's the quality and price. You go into any men's store today and you'll easily spend between $50 and $100 for a tie."

For Ward, getting men like Kaplan - the true-blue suit-and-tie guys who sport sleek Movados on their wrists and sharp suits from Boyds on their backs - is a big endorsement. "One day, in just two hours, I made $600," Ward said. "They love the personal attention, but they also like the price."

The right price is just one component of the business plan Ward designed, he said, to "create my own destiny."

It didn't hurt that guys were reaching for ties again, as the fashion pendulum has been inching away from the 1990s onslaught of casual-Friday wear.

Ward has worn ties almost constantly since 2000, when he transferred from Murrell Dobbins to Roxborough High School for his senior year.

"I was always the best-dressed in school, to the point where people who didn't know me thought I was the substitute," said Ward, who stands 6-foot-3.

After high school, he tried studying business at Community College of Philadelphia, but abandoned it after a year to work for Citizens Bank.

Hired as a teller, Ward said he was allowed to dabble in investment marketing (primarily finding new business clients for the branch), a task he preferred because it took him out of the office and convinced him that he was a good salesman.

Still, he wasn't satisfied.

"I got so frustrated. I felt like I was in this rat trap when I knew I should be out there being an entrepreneur," he said.

While he was searching for an answer, Ward recalled visiting one of his father's associates, who manufactured ties in Delaware. That's when the idea hit him: Since so many men wore ties to work, why not sell them ties - at work?

His research showed that ties cost relatively little to make, but could be marked up immensely. As long as he had volume, he could make money selling them for as little as $20.

Some friends and family members warned Ward to stick with his day job, but he wanted to devote all his energy to his own business. His father supported him by putting $10,000 into the new venture and giving Ward a cold-call list of tie-wearing business contacts.

After making an agreement with the Delaware supplier, Ward quit the bank within weeks and jumped neck-first into entrepreneurship.

Officially running for about six months now, Ward's venture has also been propped up by a loan from the Philadelphia Commercial Development Corp. Sales average about 50 ties per week.

Clients are now referring new customers, and the people in charge of the offices have so far been willing to let him in.

One of those new customers, a lover of purple ties, recently benefitted from Ward's extensive collection. When the buyer asked to see a few purple ties, Ward brought in 30; he sold five on the spot.

Ward hopes to extend his sales reach through visits to area business schools and churches. He's also giving back through his father's "Keepin' It Real" tour that brings professionals (outside of sports and entertainment) to speak at local schools. During the "Dress for Success" segment, the Wards present ties to the boys.

"Some kids never get to hear the rules of corporate engagement and learn about the uniform of business," the senior Ward said. "They need to know how to get dressed for lunch at the Palm."

What's next? For the women who complain there's nothing for them when he shows his wares, a stylish line of scarves and blouses.

Said Shareef Ward: "We don't have to reinvent the wheel to be successful."

Contact staff writer Dwayne Campbell at 215-854-5315 or dcampbell@phillynews.com.

The Eric Shareef Collection is sold through appointments. Call 215-636-0313.

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