He persuaded his father to take an equally risky route. The company closed under-performing stores and invested $500,000 in a computer system that made it possible for the first time to track sales and inventory daily. Until then, the Zekaria brothers said, the company relied on hand-tallied quarterly reports that made it impossible to quickly reorder popular items or mark down poor sellers.
Besides closing stores, the brothers also shook up Windsor's corporate staff. About 10 of 25 headquarters employees were let go, including most of the buyers. It was a painful episode for a company where many employees had worked for decades. Recalling the event, Maurice is pragmatic. "It was necessary."
Leon and Ike, 29, instituted training and development programs to build loyalty and expertise among employees. In a brave step, the brothers opened the company's books so employees could see the performance of each store. They started a program where store clerks and managers share in a store's profits. Regional heads share in the profits of their divisions.
And employees attend training sessions as part of "Windsor University," where they can pick up skills to enable them to advance within the chain.
The recession, which claimed such chains as Judy's and Lanz, also taught the Zekarias to look beyond California. Hoping to reduce its dependence on the state's economy, Windsor worked with mall developers to open stores in affluent locations. Of its 25 stores, nine are outside Southern California: in Nevada, Texas, New Jersey, Michigan and Connecticut. Five more are scheduled to open in the next 10 months.
The Internet, while accounting for a small percentage of Windsor's sales, has expanded the company's reach to Alaska and Montana.
"I would never imagine that girls would buy prom dresses over the Internet, but they are," Leon said.
The Zekarias say their strategy is paying off. Sales in 1999 totaled $35 million, up from $18 million in 1996, when Windsor had 21 stores. Profits have steadily climbed since 1995, when the company first broke even after suffering losses in the recession.
Significantly, Windsor has become less dependent on proms and other teenage events, such as homecoming. The Zekarias say 35% of sales come from special-occasion dresses, including prom gowns, compared with 50% in the early 1990s.
For all the change, Windsor maintains its traditions. Each employee receives an anniversary card on his or her hiring date. And each store has a budget for a Christmas party; managers are flown to Los Angeles for a party where Maurice's wife, Alice, prepares Middle Eastern food.
Montclair store manager Natalie Smykla says she appreciates the nightly call from Maurice; his sons say he interrupted a family Seder last month to make the calls.
"It would take a lot of money for me to work somewhere else," said Smykla, whose resume includes stints at Wet Seal and LA Fitness. "There is a real family feeling here."