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SMALL BUSINESS STRATEGIES | BUSINESS MAKE-OVER

The Vision Thing

She built a successful trade in exotic jewelry. But when business began to fade, she did too.

October 14, 1998|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During her first six years as an entrepreneur, Alicia Bleier grimaced whenever weekends and holidays interrupted her passionate quest to turn her vision into reality.

"I couldn't wait to make that next telephone call or write that next letter," said Bleier, whose downtown Los Angeles-based company distributes exotic jewelry to upscale shops nationwide. "I lived for work and really didn't even want to take vacations."

But the 38-year-old businesswoman's intensity began to fade early this year after the Alicia Bleier Collection's main line of imported jewelry suddenly stalled.

As she pondered the daunting task of revitalizing sales, Bleier uncharacteristically found herself savoring weekends away from her stylish showroom.

Faced with a growing list of things that needed to be done, Bleier began prioritizing. She knew she needed more time to court new customers, particularly department stores like Neiman Marcus. And she had to spend more time communicating with designers, including important artisans in Israel, who craft her company's products.

But there were also time-consuming but necessary trade shows where she could strike up relationships with potential customers. And she needed to spend more time schmoozing with editors at major fashion magazines, people with the power to make or break jewelry lines.

There were also the myriad details associated with hiring and supervising employees, working with a part-time accountant and running the small office and showroom on the 11th floor of the New Mart Building in Los Angeles' fashion district.

What Bleier realized was that the Alicia Bleier Collection needed a whole collection of Alicia Bleiers capable of keeping the business afloat.

But when Bleier sat down recently with small-business consultant Michael Russo, she began to realize that the odds of finding a cadre of Alicia-think-alikes were next to zero.

Russo advised Bleier to forget about recruiting an army of clones and instead build upon her entrepreneurial skills by learning how to become a leader.

"Leadership means empowering people," Russo said. "And, for an entrepreneur like Alicia, who's done such a fabulous job of building this company, the hardest thing to do is empower others."

Having poured their hearts, souls and savings accounts into their businesses, Russo said, entrepreneurs are loath to turn power over to "people who by definition aren't going to do the job as fast, quick or good as the founder."

"Entrepreneurs are, by definition, 'doers,' but if they keep it up, they're going to burn themselves out," Russo said.

"Out of nothing, Alicia took an idea and turned it into this fabulous business," he said. "But now it's time to redefine that vision."

Like most entrepreneurs who hunker down and scramble to keep their companies moving forward, Russo said, Bleier has not stepped back and reformulated her vision. He urged her to establish a new vision of where her company will be in five years. The absence of that, he maintains, is hurting Bleier because she lacks the fire needed to spark passion in her employees--particularly the salespeople who can build revenue.

"The collection is at a ceiling that Alicia can't seem to move above," Russo said. "She's kind of lost the vision that served her so well early in the company's life.. . . It needs to be updated."

Bleier, who senses that she's being burned out by the constant pressure, acknowledges that the collection is merely "treading water. . . . We're at a plateau from a sales vantage point."

But Russo suspects that it's more a case of being bored than burned out. And he credits Bleier with taking an important first step toward growth.

"Her willingness to say that she's 'treading water' is profound because she's saying that she doesn't want to knock her head against the wall anymore."

From his perspective, Russo sees a relatively healthy business with several hidden assets. He describes Bleier's distribution system as "the real jewel" of the company that Bleier launched in 1991 with little more than a vision of a jewelry line that would make exotic and ethnic jewelry available to upscale customers.

With a keen instinct for what customers like to wear, Bleier has cobbled together a list of 1,700 current and past customers. The collection wholesales hand-crafted rings, bracelets, necklaces and accessories to about 200 small retail shops, which sell them for $70 to $7,000. Overall sales rose by 12% to $1.4 million in 1997, but dropped early this year when the main line crafted by an Israeli design team stalled.

Bleier's firm has been successful largely because of exotic jewelry from the two Israeli designers, who distribute their Ilan-Oded line in the U.S. exclusively through the Alicia Bleier Collection. But demand for the line, which accounts for half of Bleier's sales, plummeted in January, with orders falling by about half. The unexpected drop underscored the need, Bleier said, to sit down and begin contemplating a new strategy.

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