I’m reflecting on that job this morning because I just read Sy Syms, the owner of that discount apparel chain, died yesterday.
Here’s some of his obit in the New York Times today:
He was born Seymour Merinsky, and grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of eight living children born to Russian immigrants. After serving in the United States Army and attending New York University on the G.I. bill, he joined his family’s retail clothing business in 1950.
Nine years later, he opened a store around the corner that competed directly with his father’s and brother’s establishment.
Yes, he competed directly with his own family. That seems to be the kind of guy he was. I remember him briskly walking up and down the aisles of the store where I worked. His arms were folded in front of him, inspecting every rack even though he had a store manager running the place. He would even talk to us lowly sales people about what we were expected to do. He ran a tight ship at all his stores and we knew it.
Thanks to Syms, I learned about retail up close and personal, and it served me well when I went on to write about the industry for a host of publications. I could cover Black Friday, for example, with an insider’s point of view.
I also remember having to punch that clock. It was the first time I had to do that and honestly, I didn’t like it much. Some fellow workers figured out how to get other people to punch in for them so they weren’t docked even a dollar of pay. I just disliked that metal box because it seemed to run my life for a while. I was always running to it in angst when I got to work, and then falling on it at the end of the day happy to be punching out.
That was a job, and I learned about hard work from my experience at Syms. I also learned about how mean and how nice consumers can be.
I’ve written a lot in this blog and for other publications on how important it is for teens to work. Many of the most successful people I’ve interviewed in my career point to early jobs as turning points, or at least learning experiences for them.
Matt Blank, the CEO of Showtime, told me about his first retail job and how it influenced him:
At the age of 16, Blank got his first summer job working for the flagship store at a long defunct department store chain in Queens called Gertz. His job was to move from department to department, handling inventory. One of his first assignments was in the lingerie department where he counted an array of intimate apparel. He was working seven to eight hour days making about $3 or less an hour, working his butt off when one of the managers who dispatched workers throughout the store depending on need, told him he would be moving to carpets.
“I went over to the department I thought I should be in and told them I was there to do inventory. They told me ‘great’, they had been waiting for the help,” he recalls. The work was back breaking since he had to climb on shelves, pull down large remnants and count the rolls. “I was hurting and covered with dust when the manager comes over and says “where were you all day?’ I said ‘right where you sent me.’”
Well, the mix up cost him his job. “He told me, ‘we’re not going to need you tomorrow so thanks anyhow,’” he says. “He was pretty mean about it. He, along with other guys who sat in the basement all day long dispatching workers, practiced karate all day, so I didn’t question it.”
It was a rude awakening for Blank. “I was devastated. I worked so hard and then got fired,” he says. While he believes the manager was a bit tough on him, he blames himself for not making sure he was in the right department before he plunged into work. “I suppose I wasn’t totally paying attention to the guy,” he laments.
He learned that the world wasn’t going to be as nice to him as his parents were, and he learned he had to pay attention and do his job correctly or he was going to be out on his butt.
This is my chance to thank Sy Syms for my early growth experience.
Tell me about your first job, even if you hated it. Those are probably the ones you learned the most from.