A Story of Life and Luxury, or: How to Create a Great Brand

In response to the universal question about business, “How do you create a great brand?” I see the answers on the wall.

There, enclosed within their respective gold-painted, ornate wood frames, are portraits of three men, each regally attired – outfitted like the leaders they were, looking like Supreme Court justices or European ambassadors – with their eyes focused on the horizon; there, aligned chronologically from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century to the first decade of the new millennium, are the images of my paternal great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father; Mano Swartz, Jimmie Swartz and Mano Swartz II, the founder and inheritors of Mano Swartz Furs.

To know their stories is to know the history of America writ small, an epic chapter in an epic (and ongoing) tale about persecution, escape, exile, emigration, entrepreneurship, independence, success, luxury and a never-ending moral conscience to do good by doing well.

I write these words as the latest inheritor of this legacy, a chronicler of my family's journey and a recorder of the transcendent truths that exist among all great brands.

I compose this message with pride because, as society continues to devalue the currency of language, throwing around words like honor and integrity and excellence and wisdom like verbal confetti, when we too easily invoke these words, and assign these titles to the immodest and the undeserving, we undermine the ideals necessary to create – and sustain – a great brand.

And therein lies a related query, memorialized by William Shakespeare and voiced by Juliet to her doomed lover, “What's in a name?” Though she believes the passions of the heart shall triumph over matters of blood and loyalty, that a Capulet is indistinguishable from a Montague, allow me this one indulgence so I may say, “A name means everything. It connects a person or a business across the veil of years, bearing gifts and obligations of huge significance.”

A name can instantly resonate with people. The very signature of a name – and here, I recall the signage of Mano Swartz Furs (Est. 1889), the key-like shape of that storefront icon; each letter capitalized and set aglow in bright bulbs of yellow-white radiance – acting as a beacon, on Howard Street, for all of Baltimore to admire. I also recall the cursive sweep of the M and S, as well as the swoosh of the lower case z, stamped and stretched above the seven awnings of our store on York Road in Towson, Maryland.

That name evokes so many stories, for my family and our extended family of shoppers worldwide. To see that name is to believe it, a stitched emblem of authenticity; a classic, like a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL roadster, which, despite the passage of time and the advance of technology, is as stylish today as it was more than a half-century prior; when, with its silver silhouette and hand-sewn leather interior, in addition to its matching luggage (fastened and buckled against the rear window) and ivory-colored steering wheel, the car is always elegant but never ostentatious.

It is the sort of automobile that looks perfect on asphalt roads and cobblestone streets, as smooth in Venice as it is sleek in Vienna. The latter is where our story continues.

For great brands are exercises in great storytelling. They may be real or self-invented – mine is the genuine article – where the diminutive son of a house painter and a Belarusian mother recreates himself as the Jewish version of Jay Gatsby, forgoing his parents' dream of their boy studying the Talmud and, instead, changing his name (without shirking his heritage) into a house (of many mansions) of style: Ralph Lauren.

In my case, and to return to the imperial Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the truth is better than any fantasy. Rather, the truth is so fantastic – with my great-grandfather soldiering in the Carpathian Mountains, conversing in German and speaking English with a veteran of the U.S. Civil War, braving the Atlantic and disembarking in America – that its spirit imbues my own office with the energy of a life lived in full.

It is a life of adventure in Manhattan and the literal mayhem of the bullfighting arena, in the Midwest and Mexico, and prospecting for gold in California – the entirety of this journey, from Europe to the New World and back (and back to this land that I love, through the night with the light from above), is one man's memoir of history.

It is, moreover, a life of bravery and decency. That means doing the right thing, which is not often the popular thing, when, in the sweltering summers of segregation, you stand in the icy cold for integration.

You risk everything, as you hear the whispers and smears – the anonymous threats – that if you break the color line, if you afford the black citizens of Baltimore the chance to shop at your stores, we will break you. We will crush you with the might of our fists, or the silence of our boycotts. Either way, you will surrender because we will make it impossible for you to survive.

Well before any politician would say, “Yes We Can,” the Swartzes would declare, “Yes We Will.” And they did, greeting African-Americans with respect, pride and dignity.

That is how you create a great brand, by putting people ahead of profits. It is a creation story devoid of business school jargon and marketing catchphrases.

It is the story of one man's America, told by an old Union warrior to a then young boy, who imbibed battlefield accounts about slavery and freedom, to one day open his own stores, in “The Land of Pleasant Living,” for men and women of all races and religions.

It is, alas, a story not without its share of tragedies. It is to see the dissolution of political stability in Sarajevo, to be an eyewitness to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and to feel the winds of the Great War; to see Doughboys bound for France, and to read about the “war to end all wars,” while the economic consequences of the peace ignite the embers of the worst inferno to later befall the Continent.

This is the story of a life, and remembrance for the many lives lost (including those of my forbears), in which the preservation of one's humanity is the most important victory of all.

That humanity influences how you live your life. For, if you cherish the things that matter, and build a business based on these eternal truths, you will always succeed – morally, if not monetarily.

Or, to be rich in goods, but poor in spirit, is to sacrifice your soul and forfeit the world.

My advice about creating a great brand is, therefore, simple: Be a person of courage and character, who never compromises his values for a deal.

That is the story of a man – that is the story of three generations of men –behind the company I have the privilege to run. That story comes from within: It has no page number, graph, chart or index; it is the one example that will never be on any classroom exam.

And yet, it is the only test that matters because it is the only true test of a leader’s worth. It tells you, the reader and consumer, the burden a man will bear and the price he will pay . . . for your loyalty and approval.

Our employees also enjoy that loyalty because, when I hire someone I reciprocate in kind; I take the measure of that man or woman’s soul, the content of his or her character, since I want individuals who, though they may not share my surname, most certainly share my values.

With reverence for the past and respect toward the present moment, and with resolution and optimism for the future, Mano Swartz Furs is a great brand.

It is my duty to uphold, strengthen and defend that brand.

It is yours to emulate, in good faith and faithful execution.

Richard Swartz is President of Mano Swartz Furs, America's oldest furrier, established in 1889.

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