Robert Grimmett knew at an early age that he wanted to be a merchant. When his peers were asking for toys, Grimmett’s Christmas wish lists included adding machines and business telephones and inventory for the many shops he started out of his parents’ home.
At six years old, Grimmett started a jewelry store in their garage with baubles an aunt gave him. Every day after school, he would put signs by the road and thoughtfully merchandise his wares.
“While the profitability was questionable, it was the business and serving the public aspect that excited me,” says Grimmett.
In 1992, he launched Robert’s Design Studio −now known as Robert Mason− which sold not only flyers, brochures, and business cards designed by Grimmett himself, but also basic office supplies.
“This was still out of my parents’ basement,” he says. “Therefore, I could only add a very select assortment. I became obsessed with this business model and spent every moment thinking through the marketing, merchandising, and expansion.”
It wasn’t long before the city of Ravenswood, WV, approached Grimmett’s parents, as he was not paying business and occupation taxes, and was operating out of a residential area. After presenting his business plan to city council, he was awarded a business license− all the encouragement he needed to grow his enterprise.
At 14 years old, Grimmett negotiated an agreement with a cellular company that gave him space in their retail center in exchange for his graphic design services, and the first official Robert Mason store was born.
To learn more about the brand and Grimmett’s entrepreneurial journey to date, keep reading.
The Metropreneur: What kinds of merchandise and services do you offer at Robert Mason?
Robert Grimmett: Since we are unlike any other concept, this is the million dollar question, and I am so glad that you asked it. Robert Mason, by definition and our trademark tagline, is “A New Way to Work.” Our new Columbus store, that will open in late 2013 or early 2014, will feature all of the business units that together make up Robert Mason.
Our Columbus pop-up store is a preview of what Robert Mason is as a brand and product offering from the retail side. In our small 208-square-foot-space, we stock the high-fashion, high-demand office supplies and lifestyle items that represent Robert Mason ranging from journals, notebooks, file folders, envelopes, our famous pen bar, leather bags, padfolios, iPad cases, Kindle cases, our signature scent RM Candle, RM home light fixtures, and offer services such as custom printing of businesswares, like business cards, brochures, sales sheets, post cards, etc., and higher-end printing, such as stationery, announcements, weddings and more.
In providing “A New Way to Work,” we are an office supply company. Therefore over 100,000 office supplies are stocked at our fulfillment center on Robert’s Road in Columbus, which is the future site of our e-commerce fulfillment center once our new website goes live toward the end of this year. Since we only have 208 square feet to operate out of until our new store opens, we offer pick-up and delivery of these items out of the pop-up store.
It takes us only one business day to receive product if ordered within our time window. We’re merely transferring stock from the fulfillment center to downtown. This allows for us to offer downtown a full-service office supply store in the heart of the city. We pride ourselves on price and offer a Low Price Promise on everything we sell. We will not be undersold by the big boxes that dominate the category.
[M]: Both your parents have worked for you. What are some of the challenges to working with family and how have you dealt with those challenges?
RG: The challenges of a family-owned business are complicated. Nearly all family-owned businesses face them. The goal is to find a way to work together, understanding that the business’s best interest must always persevere. Not ego, not winning or losing, and certainly not throwing family titles around.
In my case, it was my parents. Therefore I had some challenges to work through. Typically a parent gets the final say. We had to work around that. They did an amazing job understanding this. They too are business-minded and knew that the business must succeed. It took many years to find balance within our processes, daily jobs and roles within the company. Most was learned as we went along.
The rebranding of the business in 2009 and my coming back into the business from a distant role of marketing meant that we must split our roles into divisions of responsibility. This defined what our place was and that we are also responsible for those things that fall under our umbrellas.
For example, my mom knows her customer better then anyone I know. She’s an amazing buyer and naturally fell into merchandising. My dad runs the store from open to close every day, and knows the demands placed on the store. Therefore he naturally fell into operations. Nobody can predict a customer’s next move better then he can. My name is on the building and I never relinquished control of the brand, even after selling. Therefore I took on marketing. Each of our roles involve the others. Therefore we must work together for the brand to be successful.
[M]: During your college years, you worked for several major retailers, including Bath & Body Works, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Bombay Co., and Pizzeria Uno so you could learn more about service, brands and customer service. What were the most important lessons you learned?
RG: I learned a great deal from every brand I worked for and touched. When I sold Robert’s in 2000 to go to art school, the experiential part of this chapter in my life was just as important as college. In the year between my leaving Robert’s and moving to Chicago for school, I worked for the Bath & Body Works division of then Intimate Brands, a division of The Limited Corp. I learned brand while working for The Limited.
As a store-level associate at a Volume A store in Charleston, WV, I learned that brand is an immersion of the experience and activation of the senses within the in-store experience. The brand must be present in everything from the music to the marketing to the smell inside the store, the persona of the signage and every customer-facing element. This was enlightening for me as I started the next phase of my business plan and what Robert’s would someday become. How could I do this with office supplies?
That continued to evolve on paper from that point through the next 12 years. After moving to Chicago, I used my time outside of school working part-time jobs at the store level of many brands. My goal was to learn. Abercrombie & Fitch was my next job in Chicago, and also a critical point of my learning. At A&F, I learned from [CEO] Michael Jeffries that the brand was actually a living and breathing thing. You must always treat it as if it was, and if disregarded as such, it could die. I have seen many brands die in my lifetime, so I can respect and appreciate that lesson.
Brands become stagnate if not properly manicured. A&F took the in-store experience to a new level that a small town West Virginia boy had to very quickly learn. It was never OK for the store to not be 100 percent. Like Bath & Body Works, the scent, a staple brand element of A&F, was critical. I had the job of spritzing the clothes each day with the cologne sold at the store. That created a signature experience.
I worked in fashion for J.Crew next, which showed me a higher tier retail where “less is more” in presentation and the product is the star. After converting out of softlines and into hardlines at The Bombay Co., I decided to stay put for awhile and learn more from higher level jobs. I became very intimately involved in the business.
I was exposed to new business units for the company, such as Bombay Kids, a division of Bombay that became separate stores, an online business and niche furniture retail operation, as well as a growth strategy for older stores to pair up in a new build-out and become a one-stop furniture and accessory shop. I stayed with Bombay longer then any other brand, climbed the ladder within the Midwest region of the company, and had many experiences including store openings, closings, hirings, firings, company tests, and endless learning.
The company was good to its employees and that stuck out as a key component. Many of Bombay’s store employees were also their best customers. The company had attached a percentage of business expected from employee sales. I thought that was smart and a simple formula. Take care of your employees, and also do business with them.
Everyone that worked at the stores loved design, furnishings, and Bombay as a product brand. Passion was shown through the employees to the retail customers, and customers see that. We all discount how smart a shopper can be. This is an instinctual trait, and a customer can detect when someone doesn’t want to be there or hates their job. You can most likely think back to experiences where you really enjoyed your sales associate. Companies like Trader Joe’s have dominated the customer service area of retail, and that comes down to how you treat your people.
In my next adventure, I worked in food service. I will always say, “Everyone should have one food service job at onee time in their life to appreciate how difficult and demanding it truly is.”
Pizzeria Uno was expanding. I opened a new store and learned how much detail must occur in customer service in the services industry. Everything from the time from napkin on the table to drink hitting the table to check-back after food, and not taking the check presenter until after the customer has left, were details that were force fed in training at Uno. I learned what happens when you have a difficult guest and how to remedy difficult situations.
I’ve never encountered a company so well prepared for all training scenarios and providing an experience that, in summary, keeps the guest coming back. It was a great learning for me and I still use all of those details today at Robert Mason.
[M]: Is there anything else you think we should know?
RG: Robert Mason is entering it’s 20th year of business in 2013 with a clear commitment to our growth in Columbus. Our concept is unique. There is no other store that can be compared directly to what we will build in Columbus next. We are actively seeking investors for this business opportunity.
Our new concept store is targeted to locate in the Discovery District near the new Hills Market so that we may be a synergy between the nearly 40,000 college students off of Grant Avenue and the community east of Grant. This area is rapidly growing with the addition of condos, apartments, and anchored by hotels with transient guests to Columbus. We are thrilled to be here and would like to become a part of the Columbus culture, providing a unique experience found nowhere else.