Feature

A family affair: In conversation with Sol Michael

By Phoebes Garland, Garland & Garland Fashion

When we think of chain stores, we tend to think of the large, faceless multinationals with no personal touch to the business. However, P&S Michael has been family owned and operated since 1973 – when Sol Michael and his wife Madalena first opened a store in what was then the small industrial, blue-collar Sydney suburb of Granville.

Their story is as much about perseverance and family as fashion. I first met the Lebanese businessman at Fashion Exposed about 5 years ago. I was on one of my client’s exhibitor stands and had heard about his business through the grapevine from others in the industry.

With their head office and flagship store based in the melting pot of Lakemba, P&S Michael currently has five stores scattered around outer Sydney with two brothers and one sister running the business as well as a team of staff.

I had the opportunity to chat with Sol Michael about challenges, and the highs and lows of their business and the family’s humble beginnings.

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P&S Michael has a long retail history but yours is even longer. Take us back to the start…
I first worked part-time as a paperboy after school and on weekends to pay for my education, and to help my father Peter and my mother Karimie support our family of four sisters and two brothers.

When I was eight years old I would go to the local tip at Sanpan Creek every afternoon after school to scavenge for bike parts. It took me two years to finally put a bike together so that I could get a job selling newspapers. The only problem was I had no money for tyres, so I carried the bike to the local news agency. I waited patiently until the owner finished serving customers and I asked him if he needed a paperboy.

He said that he did but that I had to be 12 years old and with a bike. I said that I was 12 years old and did have a bike but it had no tyres. He asked me how I intended to do the paper run on a bike with no tyres! I asked him to lend me the money for the tyres and whatever money I earned he could take until the tyres were paid for. He said: “How do I know you’ll come back if I lend you the money for the tyres?”

I said, “Sir, we are honest people, but you can keep the bike here in your shop. I will take it out every afternoon to do the run and leave it here every evening.” After two weeks working the paper run I had paid for the tyres. He was so happy he increased the size of my run.

As lucrative as paper delivery was, you had other ideas…
I dreamed of studying medicine but it was beyond the family’s finances. We were immigrants with very little. We were living with four other families in ex-army barracks with outside rudimentary toilets and wood-fired bath heaters.

My job at home was to scavenge for wood for the bath heater and stove that my mother cooked on. In winter and when it rained using the outhouse posed a dilemma!

“The most influential books on my early working life were Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I was 17 years old and I read those books over and over again.”

My mother was the bond that cemented the family with one focus: to work together with love, to make a life in what she believed was a great country with opportunities.

My father worked a 12-hour night shift in a steel foundry and we hardly saw him. But our mother made sure we knew Dad’s effort and sacrifices for the family.

There must have been a lot of pressure on you all to succeed?
I focused on my own advancement with my mother’s encouragement. I began educating myself. I bought books on business principles and book keeping. However, the most influential books on my early working life were Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I was 17 years old and I read those books over and over again.

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Despite its humble beginnings, P&S Michael has moved with the times and now offers an extensive range of womenswear, menswear and accessories online.

Retail has been a constant in your life – but it’s not the only one…
I married Madalena in April 1973 and I was anxious to start my own business. I badgered my father to mortgage the family home so that I could open a shop in vacant premises that I had discovered in Granville. Dad was very reticent because of the risk, but I was confident and all of his objections and “what if’ scenarios were demolished by my enthusiasm and guarantees of success.

You must have put a compelling case – we all know how risky retail is…
Dad’s concern was over risking the only asset the family owned but he wanted to give me a go. He mortgaged the family home and we opened the first P&S Michael shop.

Six months later I convinced Dad to stop working: the factory job was killing him and he had sacrificed enough.

That’s a remarkable achievement in such a short time – what were you selling?
At first our stock consisted of school wear, work gear like overalls and very basic menswear. We were just doing OK, paying rent and bills and only drawing minimal expenses. Madalena and I were living with Dad and Mum, two sisters and two brothers (two sisters had married) in a Department of Housing house in Regents Park in outer Sydney. Dad and Mum gave up their bedroom for us – we were crowded but very happy.

In retail you should expect the unexpected – a leaking roof that destroys stock or an illness – but your ‘unexpected’ was truly tragic…
The Granville bridge disaster occurred two years after we opened. A speeding train from the outer Sydney suburbs left the tracks and demolished the bridge pylons of the road crossing. Eighty-three people died and hundreds were injured – it’s almost unimaginable. For us, the shopping centre was without access for two years.

We were in big trouble. We had a mortgage against the family home and sales had dropped 80%. I was desperate and my Dad wanted to help, so he took a stall at Paddy’s Market in the city and went down every Saturday with a cousin of his and sold fruit.

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And the store even has its own app!

The idea was that there was no difference in selling if you knew how to sell – and wow could we sell! I then convinced our bank manager to advance more funds instead of calling in the loan so that I could buy a ladies boutique in Merrylands, owned by one of our suppliers who came into it in lieu of a debt. He didn’t know anything about ladies wear (neither did I!) but my intention was to sell the stock and turn it into a menswear store.

This little shop took off like a bat out of hell! Very quickly I discovered I had a touch and feel for ladies wear. At this time my younger sister Claudette was working as a director’s assistant in an insurance company. I matched her salary and she came to work in the business.

Now it really begins as a family business, tell me how it progressed with other family members?
We ran this boutique for three years and in 1978 sold it to finance the opening of a new and much bigger store in the new shopping centre being built by Lend Lease in Campbelltown. This was a major step for the family and it was about this time that my baby brother Ray left school and came into the business.

His training started immediately and he showed an astounding talent. He was and is a people person. We opened in Campbelltown in 1979 and by this time our product range was changing – school wear and work wear were no longer stocked. It was menswear with a “passion for fashion”. We were doing well! I bought a small fibro home in Auburn and moved out of the family home. We now had two sons and the family home was full of love but too small. My sister Jenny was completing her fashion degree at East Sydney Tech and also wanted to join the family business, which she did.

The story so far is one of steady growth from seized opportunities – which explains your next step overseas.
I wanted to go to Europe to see what I could import direct. We were having problems with department store discounting.

A familiar story to this day…
I was feeling very frustrated so we opened a ladies boutique in Granville around the corner from the menswear store and we called it ‘Trojan Lady’. Because of our success in Merrylands with ladies fashions, we didn’t hesitate to try again.

This was January 1980 and my younger brother Tony who had completed an economics degree joined the company as our accountant.

In February I left for my first trip to Europe starting with the Interstoff Textile Fair in Frankfurt Germany. What an eye opener! I was a 30-year-old guy from the suburbs of Sydney as green as a Granny Smith. I’d never been interstate, much less to Europe.

“I decided my best option was to be honest with the exhibitors and voice my inexperience and, to my surprise, an exhibitor from London became my immediate tutor and confidant. I placed my first order for 20 rolls of fabric for men’s suits to be shipped by sea three months later.”

The lack of knowledge created a sense of intimidation that was obvious and extremely hard to cover up. A mindboggling fair for textiles was unbelievable for that time. I decided my best option was to be honest with the exhibitors and voice my inexperience and, to my surprise, an exhibitor from London became my immediate tutor and confidant. I placed my first order for 20 rolls of fabric for men’s suits to be shipped by sea three months later. Then I agonised as to who will make them for me in Australia!

As it turned out, there were many at that time in Sydney and Melbourne who made men’s suits. Mum’s prayers were holding up!

With your vast experience, what do you think is the biggest challenge for retailers?
Retailers need to maintain the one-on-one human contact that allows a retailer to offer a product in such a way that a customer will gladly open his wallet or her purse, and pass over what they feel is a low price for a great bargain.

After all these years, what strategies work well in retail?
Honesty, transparency, patience and discipline in merchandising. And of course an objective belief in your point of difference!

And what strategies don’t?
Discounting! The level of real value has been clouded resulting in consumer suspicion and cynicism.

What do you still love about the fashion industry and working in retail?
The challenges and the challenges. It gets into the bloodstream!

For information on P&S Michael, visit www.psmichael.com.au.  

Fashion Exposed comes to Sydney, 16-18 August 2014. For more information or to register, visit fashionexposed.com.

 

phoebe_soloAbout the author
Phoebes Garland is a Features Writer for EXPOSED Online and co-owns Garland & Garland Fashion with Robert Garland, a leading fashion agency based in Sydney. Phoebe also owns Fashion Initiative an online fashion destination covering business of fashion, fashion, luxury and events. Described as a” Power Agent” by Ragtrader magazine. Between the two of them, Phoebes & Robert Garland have over 50 years sales experience in fashion, publishing and advertising.

Garland & Garland Fashion is a respected leading boutique fashion agency based in Sydney, and they are regularly sought for comment from various media and the fashion industry on business fashion topics, fashion and issues. Phoebes was named as The Ones To Follow In 2014: The Top 20 Fashionista Hot List of 2013.

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