Experience the best teacher for retailer

Posted: August 12, 2014

Rick Forman wanted to pay attention in class at Rutgers University, but he just couldn't handle it.

"I was crawling out of my skin," said Forman. "I'm like, 'I have to get out of here,' because I'm in the back figuring out how many thousands of dozens of T-shirts I needed to buy for the flea market."

Forman, 54, who started selling T-shirts at flea markets while he was still in high school, never graduated from college.

But he did graduate from flea markets to run Forman Mills, a $275 million retail chain with 2,700 employees, 31 stores painted an aggressive yellow, and a loudmouth ad campaign: Stretch those bills at Forman Mills.

"Remember that book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? he said. "Everything I know, I learned in the flea markets."

Question: For example?

Answer: It's where the rubber hits the road. When you are going face-to-face with the customer, and you are seeing supply and demand right in front of your face - there's a lot of wisdom to that.

Q: What else?

A: Location, location, location . . . if you had a good spot in the flea market, you could do three times the business.

Q: And?

A: Competition. My whole stand was 3 [shirts] for $5. So I'd have these guys with bullhorns at the table, screaming 3 for $5. One day, my big competitor, him and his father - they actually carried guns. They showed me their guns.

Q: What else did you sell?

A: Hair blowers . . . store returns. We'd plug them into the wall and some of them would catch fire. We bought them for 50 cents and we sold them for $5 - blew them out. But I didn't know anything about product liability. We didn't think what would happen if somebody came by with a scalded head next week.

Q: You opened your first store on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia.

A: Nobody knew the prices. We didn't have registers. We didn't even have things ticketed. I didn't know any better, because I was in the flea-market business. I was the cashier. I had my stupid little money belt from the flea market that had Pepsi Cola on it and I was stuffing cash in my belt. I had $15,000 stuffed in my pockets. The next week I had a body guard.

Q: What's your day like?

A: I'm not an office person. I can't focus, it's like ADD, so I drive around - I'm a little crazy. I don't always like to go in [the store] because things get to me and maybe I'll close the store.

Q: What gets to you?

A: If I come in and the store's dirty or there's people waiting in line. Everything bothers me. Half the time, I call in from the parking lot and say, 'Hey, you got dirt in the parking lot.' "

Q: Do you drive your employees nuts?

A: Oh, yeah, definitely.

Q: Do you miss the flea market?

A: I think it would be a great retirement. Instead of fishing, go back to the flea market and just like smoke a little pipe or something. I don't smoke, but maybe just sit there. Maybe I'd be a little more relaxed. There is something relaxing about where the rubber hits the road, not worrying about the other obligations.


RICK FORMAN

Title: Founder, chief executive, Forman Mills.

Home: Cherry Hill.

High School: Cherry Hill West.

Family: Wife, Donna; children, Lindsay, 24, Karly, 20, Sydney, 17.

To relax: Jogging on the beach.

To avoid: Golf - "Golf to me is the same like being locked in an office all day. I couldn't take it."


FORMAN MILLS

Headquarters: Pennsauken.

Business: Deep discount retail, mostly apparel.

Revenues: $275 million.

Employees: 2,700.

Stores: 31.

Where: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Maryland, Illinois, Delaware, Washington .

What's new: Pennsauken store reopened Friday.

History: In 1977, Forman's father lent him $80 to buy shirts to sell at area flea markets. Opened his first stores in 1981 in Frankford and in 1985 in South Philadelphia.


MORE ONLINE

Rick Forman's philosophy: Rat hair in the chocolate. www.inquirer.com/jobbing


Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769

@JaneVonBergen

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