Shyness did not keep dressbarn co-founder from big retail leaps

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Roslyn Jaffe and her husband decided to start the first dressbarn store in the early 1960s, it was a retail experiment.

Roslyn Jaffe is pictured in this June 2013 handout photo obtained by Reuters October 31, 2018. John Freeman via Ascena Retail Group/Handout via REUTERS

Discounting was new to the industry, but the Jaffes decided to try it out with one store in Stamford, Connecticut. Elliot kept his day job at Macy’s while Roslyn traveled around filling up the family station wagon with bargains.

They added on stores at a steady clip, raised three kids and now the business operates as the Ascena Retail Group, with son David as CEO and daughter Elise as senior vice president of real estate. The company, whose stock price has struggled in recent years like many American retailers, has some 4,600 stores in the United States and Canada among eight brands, which along with dressbarn also include Ann Taylor, Justice and Lane Bryant.

Reuters spoke with Roslyn Jaffe, 89, who concentrates her efforts now on philanthropic work. This includes the yearly Jaffe Awards from her family foundation to benefit women and children. The $100,000 grand prize winner this year is Generation Hope, a Washington, D.C. charity that fights poverty. The two $25,000 recipients are the Breast Treatment Task Force, which provides free screenings to women, and the Summer Learning Collaborative, which provides summer enrichment to low-income students.

Q: You met Eleanor Roosevelt when you were in high school. How did that inspire you?

A: I’m from Waterbury, Connecticut, which was a mill town. During the wartime years, Eleanor Roosevelt came to town, and there was a luncheon at a big hotel.

A friend and I just walked out the door of school and walked downtown to the hotel. We never expected to achieve much, but I guess at that stage we were young and foolish.

We managed to get in a side door. When Mrs. Roosevelt walked out eventually, she stopped, turned around, and she greeted us. She never asked us how we got there. She was delicate about the whole thing. We answered and keep staring in awe. She was just remarkable.

I think what she did was show me that I could do things. I was very shy. People always commented they couldn’t hear what I was saying. I wasn’t conscious of it then, but as time went on, I did things I didn’t think I could do and it was because that gave me a lot of courage.

Q: What mistakes did you make in the early days?

A: I’m not going to admit to any mistakes! The only thing was we moved very slowly. We opened one store a year. We had three kids and a house. If a store failed, it could almost take the whole thing down. It was slow, but it was very steady.

Q: When did you first feel like you had a success on your hands?

A: When we reached six stores. It was great and they were all working, and they were all in Connecticut. Then we started spreading out.

Q: Did your views on investing change as you made more money?

A: We invested everything back into the stores. At first, we owned two buildings in which our stores were involved. Then we decided that we either had to do retail or real estate. We decided we wanted to be retailers. Then we never owned real estate after that.

Q: How did your charitable interests develop?

A: As a child, my grandparents on my mother’s side lived with us. They had come over from Europe. They brought with them the (Jewish) idea of “tzedakah” – you have a little box and put change in it. These traditions have always stayed with me.

Q: What money lessons do you want to pass on to your children and grandchildren?

A: I think with all three (of our children), the work ethic was very important. They lived in the house with us, they saw how we operated. We put them to work. On Sundays, they’d help open boxes and put things on hangars. They’d play with the tickets and sort them by color. They knew red was size 9.

We have a foundation, and we plan on taking the grandchildren into it, but for the time being, it’s just the three kids and us.

Q: What legacy do you want to pass along with your business, especially as retail companies struggle?

A: I’m concerned about the next 10 years. What’s going to happen to retailing? I have no idea. What’s important is that we maintain our attitude and approach with our customers. That has always been very important to me.

Editing by Lauren Young and Frances Kerry