Real growth Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

Timing is everything. Just ask Donna Salyers, president of Donna Salyers’ Fabulous-Furs.

The faux fur company was set to make a splash when it sent out about a million catalogs to potential customers. The only problem was, those catalogs arrived at their destination between Sept. 11 and Sept. 13, 2001, and the response was less than stellar.

“That was a huge hit to recover from, a mailing of a million,” Salyers says. “You spent the money on the postage, you spent the money to build your inventory, and now you have zero pay-back.”

It took time, but after laying off people, selling items at half price and talking to banks, Fabulous-Furs rebounded and in 2005, generated about $10 million in revenue.

Salyers also credits a Wall Street Journal article about her company with aiding the company’s healing.

“It seems like something always comes along to save you just as your last fingernail is breaking,” she says.

Smart Business spoke with Salyers about how to handle bad decisions, take risks and deal with change.

Q: What is your process when taking risks?

Looking into past numbers and reading into those. Was it product? Was it the way we did the catalog? Was it our mailing? Looking at as many measurable items as possible. Getting lots of opinions.

We all talk about it. Everyone knows the numbers around here. Get lots of feedback from the people that talk to our customers on the phone. I’m out in the public a lot and talk to a lot of people. We all talk to a lot people around here. We take all that back and make decisions based on good information.

We don’t do focus groups as much as we get feedback from the people here who talk to customers all day. I get e-mails all day long saying, ‘A customer said he or she wants this.’ I put it on my list, and if (I) see that item pop up a couple of times, I say, ‘Oh, I think there is something there.’

Q: How do you rebound from failure?

You hope the cut wasn’t too deep, you stop the bleeding and you turn it around. Don’t do it again next year.

You might have to live with a decision for a season, but you will learn from that. Often, something really good comes out of a mistake. You analyze those problems. We spend a lot of time reviewing what we did.

A company will send us this, but we ordered that, or they send us an inferior product. We will call every customer, even if it’s 200, and say, ‘We’re so sorry this happened. Take a 20 percent discount off something else. We want to make it right, and this is not how we want to do business. We are as disappointed as you are. Let us turn it into something good.’

People respect that because everyone knows something will go wrong because that is the way of the world. But, if you correct those missteps, they respect that.

Q: How do you roll with the changes?

We don’t roll with them; we make them happen. We go after change, reinvent ourselves and are always setting higher goals. I don’t think a business can live if it’s not. You will quickly go downhill.

Even staying even is going downhill. I believe in being very aggressive and doing everything better. Every year, we have our best year ever and, even after I’m gone, I hope that continues. I don’t do dumb things like take these ridiculous risks. I would never want venture capital. I like safe, predictable growth.

Watch your numbers and understand them. How did you get here from there, and how can you make more of the good things happen and avoid the pitfalls? Being willing to work and to watch things and react to them.

And we are easy to work with. If you need it, I will sew it myself if we have to.

It’s always looking for opportunities and being willing to be able to change.

Q: How do you avoid those pitfalls?

Many pitfalls will be outside your control, like the hurricanes last season. Those impacted our business. Think of how many parts of the country weren’t even getting mail, and the rest of us were so horrified with watching it all, you felt guilty about indulging and shopping.

You will probably have some inventory issues because you were prepared for business that didn’t happen. You react. You do whatever you have to and get your inventory to where it should be.

Maybe don’t mail so heavy during hurricane season. There are a lot of uncertainties out there like gas prices. You try to be the absolute best, exciting and interesting.

HOW TO REACH: Donna Salyers’ Fabulous-Furs, (800) 848-4650 or