In It For The Long Haul: Why I Believe In Evergreen

Lisa Rissetto, G. Hensler & Co.

April 06, 2015

I guess you can say I’m old-school. I still send printed invitations via snail mail, I prefer handwritten notes over email, and I shudder when I think about wearing patent leather after Labor Day. I chose my college major (bachelor of science in textile and clothing merchandizing) because I liked to shop — to see, touch, and feel beautiful products — and felt that degree would lead most quickly to a career. I am also a creature of habit. In any new situation I start with the assumption that everyone around me knows more than I do, and I strive to learn from them through practice, patience, and perseverance.

These personality quirks help explain why the “Evergreen” path works for me. I’ve found that a clear purpose, the relentless pursuit of learning, and pragmatic innovation are vital to building a long-term, successful growth business.

I started my work life in retail, quickly moving from the sticky, calorie-laden world of a Dairy Queen counter girl into menswear retail, where I learned the intricacies of high-quality fabrics, fit, and customer service. Throughout high school and college I had the privilege of working around the finest Scottish cashmere, Sea Island cotton, and Italian leather accessories, which took years to truly understand. Rather than hopping from one mall store to another, I chose to master the category and truly learn about one very specific market segment: handbags, belts, and small leather goods.

After college, I worked for a group of department stores and chose to work with the saltiest, most experienced senior buyer, because I knew I would learn more from her than from the young, fun boss. My boss pushed me hard, but my perseverance paid off with a rapid promotion and comprehensive knowledge of the handbag industry, which I am still a part of today.

Several years later, in 1987, I moved from New York to San Francisco and joined Esprit de Corp. Having grown up with this casual, fun lifestyle brand, I couldn’t miss this opportunity.

However, Esprit did not grow and innovate quickly enough, and competitors stepped in, copying the formula at lower prices, and eroding market share. I learned two things from this experience. First, that keeping an eye on advances in your industry while still addressing your core market is essential to building an Evergreen company. No matter how brightly a company blossoms in its youth, if it does not develop the flexibility to change along with its customers, it will suffer. Second, the painful separation of its founders, which carried over into their business with disagreements about growth and innovation strategies, undermined the cohesive purpose of this once-great business.

When the opportunity came to join a fashion accessory startup with my mentor from Esprit, I reluctantly took the leap. While I had mastered many of the skills necessary to design, produce, and procure product from overseas factories, I still had doubts about some of the logistics and operations that I had never been exposed to. But I decided to jump in and once again learn by doing, so that when the time came to hire additional people, I could honestly say that I had done every job in the company.

When my mentor retired, an easy path would have been to allow him to sell the company and enjoy my share of the proceeds. However, rather than take this windfall, I made the decision to bootstrap the purchase of the company, mortgage my house, and pour everything I had into the business. Having mastered the core skills to run the business, I found this decision an easy one. I understood the purpose, I had persevered through the learning curve, and I had experienced enough bad partnerships to know that I wanted to do it on my own.

It has been ten years since I became the sole owner of G. Hensler & Co., and I don’t regret my path for a minute. Keeping it private has allowed me the flexibility to take calculated risks such as the introduction of our branded line, 49 Square Miles. It allows passion, not profit, to be the driving force. Profits are important to keep the business running and growing, but they are not our purpose. I am able to focus not only on growing a great business but also great people. I want to build a company that will flourish and embrace innovation in order to adapt as the market evolves.

I guess I really am “old-school” — I’m in it for the long haul. I choose Evergreen as the only path for me.

Lisa Rissetto designs and manufactures private-label fashion for large specialty retail chains. She also designs and sells high-end accessories under the 49 Square Miles label. Lisa has worked in fashion since age 15 and was at Esprit before co-founding G. Hensler & Co.

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