If you ever wondered about how an aging American would dive into a burgeoning “mafiaocrasy” where partners were killed, enemies “taken out”, money easily made and, frequently, stolen and line-tapping was common and lying was a way of life, then, you have come to the right writing.
The path that led me to spend nearly a decade of my senior years in Russia at its “liveliest” was circuitous and unplanned but, eventually, rewarding, for a man near retirement age.
The initial step occurred while I was in the advertising business with a “small but ferocious” NYC ad agency named, somewhat egotistically, Jack Byrne Advertising. The agency had built a strong reputation in retail store advertising, primarily due to a major-award-winning account, Barney’s (at the time the world’s largest menswear store). With about fifteen accounts, we had built a very positive reputation and, instead of our seeking accounts, mostly they came to us. One was Robert Hall, a tired, out-of-date menswear chain that wanted the “Barney’s” magic. We created a new store concept for them, directed at the pre-thirties crowd and named it Warehouse One. They employed an architect to design the stores and we worked with him.
Some months later, that architect was approached by two opticians who were planning to give up their Board-level jobs with Pearle Vision and start, again, their own chain. Their names: Bob Hillman and Larry Kohan. He talked to them about Jack Byrne Advertising as being the right agency to create new store concepts and follow through with ground-breaking advertising. So they came to visit my offices at 919 Third Avenue and we began a relationship on the spot. I then proceeded to do an analysis of the business of retailing of eyewear and found it to be one of the least modernized and most customer unfriendly businesses I had ever looked at. The opticians had “an attitude” (being mostly frustrated for not being doctors), their wares were usually displayed on walls behind the counter, blocking the customer from touching, their eye exams were mom-and-pop-ish even though new automated equipment was available on the market and they thought nothing of a customer waiting two to four weeks for the vision product he or she was offered. In discussing these observations with Hillman and Kohan, I found very sympathetic ears. They had long sought an idea of better customer service.
I took the opticians to Barney’s and showed them the power behind the store that was selling 10% of all menswear in New York despite the fact that they represented only 1 of 500 outlets in its metro area.That power was service, starting with friendly greeters at the doors, then, the personal attention of the salesman assigned each customer and culminating by the effective high-speed tailoring which (with over 100 tailors) often started just moments after the customer left the fitting room and was usually completed in two days or less.
We decided what the world need was an optical “Barney’s”. It would have an eye-exam center that moved the customer through seven different stations attended by seven different skilled technicians. It would be big enough to house, not 300, but 15,000 frames to provide the widest possible selection to suit all faces and all tastes. AND, it would have a full scale lens-grinding laboratory right on the premises, so that customers would get their filled prescription eyewear the same day or in as little as an hour. The opticians found a location of Route 4 in Paramus, NJ which was a perfect size for the concept, 15,000 sq ft. I named it Eyelab (partly because six letters maximized the size of the letters in roadside sign permitted by the square footage restrictions under New Jersey State highway law.)