Television commentator Andy Rooney once bemoaned what he dubbed the “Benettonization of America,” the growing phenomenon of retail homogeneity, in (dis)honor of the international clothing retailer that rapidly opened stores in American mall after mall after mall. Go to any marketplace, Rooney sighed, and everything looks alike.
This trend suits one Charlotte business family, however, just fine.
Bob and Nita Emory are the brains and heart behind Blacklion, a retail concept that could be called the “Anti-Benettonization of America.” Business is booming, and shoppers are clamoring for more.
Waving hello to a half-dozen people as he strides down a shopping aisle, Bob Emory pauses to straighten a knick-knack on top of an antique table.
“Isn’t this neat?” he murmurs, lifting and examining a handmade picture frame. In step with him on the other side of the aisle, Nita Emory smiles.
“I’ve got to come back here and shop,” she says. “There’s always new merchandise every day. I’ve got to come out here and look.”
Blacklion’s Park Road location, situated on the township line between Charlotte and Pineville, is 68,000-plus square feet of gifts, accessories, artistry and entrepreneurship. One minute you might be looking at hand painted children’s furniture, and in the next you might spy a dramatic wall hanging that would look perfect above your desk.
The concept is near-genius in its simplicity: gather 300 or so merchants—too small to afford their own stores—under one roof, in order to create a one-stop-shopping destination featuring upscale home accents, furnishings, lawn and garden items, and artwork. Charge the merchants one fee for rent and another for advertising, and allow them to control the display and sale of their merchandise. Pay the power and plumbing bills, to allow the merchants to focus on their individual businesses. Then, encourage and support their success, much like a business incubator space.
“From day one, Bob was interested in me as a person as well as a vendor,” says Jan Cooley, co-owner of Nature’s Impressions, one of Blacklion’s original merchants. An artist who once painted “on the side” of her day job, Cooley now wholesales her botanical prints and accessories to nearly 1,000 stores across the United States. Her line includes 100 items ranging from lamps, to wall art, to picture frames, to kitchen memo boards. She has licensed her prints to a national greeting card company and to a well-known carpet manufacturer.
Six years ago, however, she was exhibiting her artwork at small art shows.
“Opening a space at Blacklion was a big decision for me,” she recalls. “The company I was working for went out of business. I had no income. It was a big gamble for me to take the space, wondering if my work was even going to sell.” Bob Emory looked at her work, and assured her that she would be a success. Cooley agreed to lease a 10’ x 16’ space. As shopping traffic at Blacklion picked up, and as Emory introduced Cooley to some of his wholesale gift representative-friends, Nature’s Impressions blossomed. Today the company posts more than a half-million dollars in annual sales.
Blacklion, meanwhile, has just opened its sixth location—and has plans for 120 more across the country.
The Birth of a Dream
Bob and Nita are Charlotte natives who met through one of Nita’s college roommates. In the 1970s, during the early years of their marriage, Bob learned the retail furniture sales business, while Nita worked as an industrial arts teacher. Almost a decade later, Bob switched to the wholesale side of the business, eventually becoming the Southeast sales manager for a nationwide gift line.
By 1986, Bob had cultivated enough contacts to form his own company, Bob Emory & Associates, and began representing nearly 100 gift brands to 2,000 retail accounts. Nita left her job teaching drafting and architecture at East Mecklenburg High School to help Bob run the business.
Returning from his southeastern travels, Bob would take a shortcut through Pineville in order to avoid South Charlotte’s growing traffic. He kept eyeing the old Kmart building on Park Road, which had been empty for two years, after Kmart expanded to a larger store along Highway 51.
“There ought to be something we can do with this building,” Emory thought.
The Blacklion concept came together after he visited an Atlanta shop that specialized in high-end antiques. By gathering a large number of dealers under one roof, the shop generated steady traffic for all the dealers. About that time, developers’ plans for Ballantyne were announced, and a friend who handled demographic analysis for a Charlotte bank remarked to Bob that by 2010, Pineville was projected to be the eleventh-largest city in North Carolina.
In October of 1995, working on “faith, a dream and a vision,” Bob signed the deal for the empty building. Although they had some merchants in mind to be their first tenants, Nita says, they didn’t have any under contract.
For two months, the Emorys compiled savings and income from Bob Emory & Associates to hire an architect and builder to upfit the building—an effort that would cost $450,000 when all was said and done.
Setbacks and Success
Construction began in January 1996, and the Emorys quickly realized they would need more funding. Turned down by their bank of 15 years because the start-up was an unknown retail presence with no inventory or assets to collateralize the requested loan, Bob approached several private investors with offers of ownership of up to 50 percent. All declined to get involved.
The money ran out by the end of February, and construction ground to a halt. Bob gathered the family—Nita and their daughter Elisabeth, now 15 —for a serious talk.
“I told them we were going down,” he says, shaking his head. “We were going to lose our house, which was paid for, all our savings, everything.” He then called the 40 merchants who had committed to Blacklion, told them the project was on hold, and duly refunded their deposits.
After much soul-searching, Bob and Nita agreed that their vision was still viable. They called their mortgage broker and applied for an equity loan, which provided enough funding to finish construction and restart the business.
Bob called back the 40 merchants who originally committed to the project. All but three agreed to come back. Blacklion opened on May 31, 1996, with 70 of the total 330 spaces leased. Kmart agreed to renegotiate Blacklion’s lease, to abate the Emorys’ rent payments for a few months. (The Emorys decline to reveal what their monthly rent payments are, although Bob admits business.
Bob called back the 40 merchants who originally committed to the project. All but three agreed to come back. Blacklion opened on May 31, 1996, with 70 of the total 330 spaces leased. Kmart agreed to renegotiate Blacklion’s lease, to abate the Emorys’ rent payments for a few months. (The Emorys decline to reveal what their monthly rent payments are, although Bob admits they are “scary.”)
“We’re deeply grateful for that,” Bob says. “That allowed us to open our doors in the black, and we’ve operated in the black ever since.”
Emory declines to reveal dollar figures for the company’s sales. As evidence of strong growth, however, he points out that the company now has 170 employees in six stores in four states. “It’s all kind of ironic,” he admits with a laugh. “Our plan was to never, never have more than one store.”
Blacklion’s second location, at Lake Norman, came about when the shopping center’s developer called, saying that a tenant had vacated about 7,200 square feet. Would the Emorys be interested in expanding the Blacklion concept? They said no.
The developer came back three weeks later, warning that another retailer was planning on opening a Blacklion-type market in the space. Now were they interested?
The Emorys said yes, and quickly secured merchants for the store. The Lake Norman Blacklion opened in August 1998, with its 53 spaces fully leased.
In less than a year, the developers of Concord Mills approached the Emorys, seeking “something new and different for the mall,” Bob remembers. Four times, the Emorys rejected the opportunity. “Nita’s reaction wasn’t ‘no,’” Bob grins, “It was ‘Hell, no!”
“It was just too much for us to think about,” Nita explains. “We were running a huge rep organization, and raising Elisabeth.” Additionally, the family had just paid off the equity loan, and was feeling a bit of monetary security. Bob went up to the Concord Mills site as it was under construction, “to get the vibes ... It was just overwhelming.” Impressed by the number of tenants already committed to the project, Bob thought “They must know something.”
He signed a lease for 27,000 square feet, large enough for 125 merchant spaces. The store opened in October 1999, with 90 percent of the spaces leased. One month later, the spaces were full.
Soon the Mills developers again approached the Emorys to open a Blacklion at the proposed Opry Mills, in Nashville, this time to be an anchor tenant. They guaranteed a prime, 22,000-square-foot spot, between Bass Pro Shops and Off 5th, the Saks 5th Avenue outlet. The fourth Blacklion opened in May 2000, its 129 spaces full.
The fifth Blacklion opened three months later in Westborough, Massachusetts (outside of Boston). The most recent store opened last November (2001) at Discover Mills, in Gwinnett County, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta.
The events of September 11 have slowed leasing activity, Bob Emory says, but they have only “stretched out the timeframe.” He expects the newest Blacklion to be fully-leased within months, and for the Blacklion concept to expand even further nationwide. Already, he says, he is receiving phone calls from mall developers all over the country.
“Every mall has its established anchor stores,” he says, “and they’re the same everywhere. The consumer is not seeing anything new or different from location to location. That’s what Blacklion provides. Each store is different, the merchants within each store are different.”
To provide operational economies of scale, the Emorys are in the process of installing $350,000 in computer networking and reporting systems to link all six stores together, to be able to transmit daily sales reports for all the merchants. A corporate Web site, www.blacklion.com, provides company information and limited online shopping, although they don’t plan to concentrate on Internet sales.
“A lot of these things—lamps, mirrors, pictures—are things that people like to see and touch and feel,” Nita says. “They come to the store to go ‘treasure’ hunting, and get great decorating ideas.”
Some of those treasures come from within the family. Elisabeth Emory opened her own space, Ladybug Ladybug, in the Concord Mills Blacklion when she was only 13 years old. Long time veteran of gift trade shows and Charlotte’s Blacklion showroom, she approached her parents with a business plan to sell accessories made from recycled bottlecaps and license plates. Old hubcaps dot the walls, and used car bumpers serve as shelving. The location, near Lowe’s Motor Speedway, made her space an instant hit with race fans.
Asked if she’s making money, she smiles wide, revealing her braces. “Oh definitely. It’s not a lot for one really small space, but it’s pretty good.”
Elisabeth likely gets her humility—as well as her marketing savvy—from her parents, who disclose that their company-wide sales volume has quintupled from Blacklion’s early days.
“We’re not where we would love to be, but we’re not bad off either,” Nita Emory says modestly. Then she bursts into a grin: “We’re not disappointed.”