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Vicki Marsha Soars Under New Ownership

Does it really take a rocket scientist to re-launch a school uniform company? In the case of Vicki Marsha, the answer may be yes.

Tim Cologne left his seven-year post as a rocket scientist launching satellites for DirecTV and other commercial enterprises to head up Vicki Marsha, and hes bringing new ideas, new technology and a new management style to the 60-year-old company. This new post wasnt on the radar as part of Colognes career plan. In fact, he hadnt even heard of the company.

Vicki Marsha was originally a girls party dress business, serving such clients as Neiman Marcus and I. Magnin. In 1947, Wallace and Camille Crook bought the business, but after World War II, the manufacturing focus turned to more practical applications school uniforms. The business was passed to the next generation when son Buck took over Wallaces role as vice president of operations when Wallace died in 1976. Then, in 1990, when Camille passed on, daughter Sherry assumed the role of president.

My wife, Diane, and I were longtime social friends with Sherrys daughter, but I really had very little idea of what the family did for a living, Cologne says.

The conversation between the old owners and the Colognes began at a Christmas party in 2005. The initial invitation to work for the company went to Diane. Prompted by her daughters recommendation, Sherry invited Diane to leave her job in the digital printing industry and come on board as her head assistant. Sherry explained that she and Buck were getting ready to retire and needed trustworthy help to run the company.

Not long after, Sherry and Buck approached Diane about buying Vicki Marsha. She brought the idea home to me, says Cologne. Did we want to? Could we do it?

The answer was a resounding yes. I have immense respect for what the owners created. It was a viable business; a lot of good choices were made over the years, Cologne says.

But beyond the businesss stable foundation, he saw it as an opportunity to put management ideas into practice that hed been thinking about for a long time.

When we came in, we wanted to make a lot of changes we wanted to do things differently, he says. At 49, I had been punching the clock, as they say, for a lot of years, and I thought I was pretty keen on what a good environment would be for employees. It was a chance to work at a different level. I could be the person to help create a better environment for employees.

In April 2006, Tim and Diane were the new Vicki Marsha owners, and Tims focus was on people first, profits second. Your company is only as good as your people. If youre not allowing them to be good, then youre limiting your company, Cologne says. Ive seen it happen. Perfectly good people are not allowed to take the company to the next level.

Even though he came from a background in satellites, Cologne believed the challenges would be the same in the apparel and uniform industry, and in all industries for that matter. With any job, only 20 percent is the skill to actually do the job, he says. The other 80 percent is attitude: wanting to do the job, wanting to learn new things, willing to be accountable. A happy employee is a productive employee.

So, to optimize conditions for his 35 employees, the first thing Cologne tackled was the physical environment. Work is an extension of your life, and I wanted the workplace to have the same creature comforts as home: good lighting, a clean environment, places to relax, easy parking, all the simple things that create human niceties, he says.

That turned out to be a consuming challenge. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of man hours, says Cologne but added that it was not much of a capital investment. A brighter light bulb does cost money, but it wasnt a lot of money. If you need a new sponge in the kitchen, you dont think about the extra dollar.

The most visible sign of change was a brand new break room. Cologne knocked down some office walls to create a large, inviting, comfortable place for employees to gather and outfitted it with tables and chairs, a stove and a refrigerator. He invited self-proclaimed cooks to create their culinary masterpieces, and delicious, festive lunches are now regular events at Vicki Marsha.

Cologne wanted to improve the building layout to increase productivity, including finding space to handle larger rolls of fabric. In the process, he polled employees about where they wanted to work and granted their requests. One cutter asked if he could be more isolated, further away from group conversations. His productivity has gone up about 40 percent because now he can focus on his work better, Cologne says. Other people wanted to be closer to their friends. Now everybody sits where they want to sit, and theyre happier and more productive as a result.

Next on Colognes list was improving the technology. He added cable lines for more cash registers to reduce wait times, and he upgraded to a more efficient networked computer system, including a cradle-to-grave system for inventory control. The old technology was fine for where the company was but not for where we want to take the business, he says. My top three or four managers were slaves to the old software, consumed with repetitive work. I need them to be done with their job by lunch and spend the rest of their time to be creative, to brainstorm and think about how and where we can take the company. I need them relaxed, happy and leading.

He also created the companys first website, paying tribute to the history of the Cadillac of Uniforms with photos from the 1940s while providing sophisticated online services for clients. I dont expect a lot of online business, but you have to have a website for credibility these days. Its impossible to get new business if you dont have a website that potential new clients can go to, he says.

Cologne is turning to employee benefits now, sourcing insurance providers to present a wider range of offerings to employees. Im looking for more of a smorgasbord because different people need different things. Some employees dont have a doctor because they dont need one. Others have kids on medications. Were going to figure out new options and educate employees on how to make the most of their benefits, Cologne says. Cologne also is adding direct deposit and flexible hours as employee options.

The employee roster is the same that Cologne inherited plus a few more testament that his management style is quite agreeable with his employees. Only one person has relocated, and even that person has remained with Vicki Marsha by working remotely.

I announced that if you have any family, neighbors, anybody you want to recommend working here, tell us. I got quite a few good new employees that way, he says and wants his employees to know theyre a part of the long-term business. As long as youre getting a paycheck, that means youre doing a good job. Youre going to retire here. As far as Im concerned, were all going to grow old together.

Cologne is proud that his wage rates are at the top of the industry, and he encourages employees to buy homes. Its important for us to do it the right way. I want our employees to have a warm, dry house to go home to and enough food in the refrigerator, he says.

He also wants to offer good-paying opportunities to seasonal employees and actively recruits both college students and retired people for peak periods. Diane and I both were starving college students, and we both have elderly parents, so we understand, he says.

For everything that Cologne gives to his employees, what is he looking to get back? Accountability. I think our society has undervalued personal responsibility; its not encouraged in most people. Thats what Im trying to instill. People in all industries are treated like replaceable parts. Theyre made to believe that what theyre doing is not that difficult; theyre just cogs in the wheel, says Cologne.

If somebodys accountable and theyre given the authority and responsibility, good things will come out of it. Thats the formula for success. If they get out of their league, they can come to me for help. But otherwise, they can take care of it among themselves. A lot of things are self-mitigating. If you empower people, theyll come to the right conclusion, he says.

One example he offers is the production supply area. Before I got here, if employees needed something, theyd have to come and get it belts, elastic, zippers. But nobody was in charge of monitoring the supplies, so I asked for a couple of volunteers. I said, Ive got a roomful of buttons and zippers; theyre your buttons and zippers. Who wants to take ownership of this? I reorganized the area with new cabinets, and now employees have new channels for ordering, based on who wants to take responsibility. When they run low on something they let me know.

Cologne also encourages creativity among employees for new product ideas. Its just fun for us, he says. We take our plaid fabrics and use the remnants to make hair accessories, hand bags for parents, scarves for dogs, dog beds, book covers, you name it. Its something different for the employees to do. We put them up in the front of the store, and customers love them.

So does it take a rocket scientist to do what Cologne is doing, to think the way hes thinking? His experience certainly helps, for several reasons. Im more unafraid, I think probably from my rocket launching days. We took on very entrepreneurial projects. We had to create from the start every day, all day, for five years on one particular project. I think thats what empowered me to do what Im doing, he says.

Anticipating alternatives is another skill he learned launching commercial satellites. In the rocket business, youve got to calculate all the time. Of all the things that could go wrong, whats the worst that could happen? Are we going to ruin this, is something going to blow up? Cologne says. I may appear to have a very cavalier attitude sometimes, but Im always calculating what Im going to do and how Im going to do it. If something goes wrong, no problem, its recoverable. Ive got Plan B, and Plan C. Im doing a lot of things people tell me I cant do, and it seems to be working.

He also takes a certain amount of comfort in the 60-year history of Vicki Marsha. While he lauds the good choices made along the way, he also knows there were some bad ones, and yet the company has managed to survive and thrive consistently. So even if he doesnt make the right choices right away, it will still be open tomorrow to make the changes needed to correct anything.

As a rocket scientist, hes also learned to look at things from a different perspective not from the problem in this moment, but what the ideal outcome should be. Whats the conclusion I want to have, that Ill be comfortable looking back to in five days, five weeks, five years? How do you find the win-win in the situation? says Cologne.
Does he have any advice for others in the industry who may not have had that rocket science background? Your employees are running your company. Give them the authority, responsibility and accountability so that they can grow. Theyll grow just like I did, and theyll grow your company. Do it your own way. And if you want to talk, give me a call. Its a tough business, and were all in this together.

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2007 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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