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My instinct was to ignore him, but, my heart knew differently.

It was my very first wholesale show as a brand.  I had been before to scope things out, make some decisions on my merchandising and set up, and learn the basic wholesale lingo and terms.  I came prepared.  Life size posters, brochures, printed pens, catalogs, price lists, order forms, and samples from my first collection.  We spent most of the day before making sure everything was perfect for show day.  The set up was long and arduous, but, it was going to be worth it.  Towards the end of the set-up day, in flies this man with a single rolling rack, some tubs and a couple of wire grids.  He heads into the booth straight across from me, sets his things up in about 15 minutes, and starts to head back out.  On his way, he notices me and says, hello.  He introduces himself as Kenny and basically welcomes me as a newbie to the show.  He dashes out with a quick, “See you in the morning!”

The next morning arrived quickly, and I was dressed and ready to sell.  I started introducing myself to the other manufacturers around me, when I noticed a commotion behind me.  When I turned around, I saw Kenny from the night before. He had a bagel on a plate and was walking down the aisle with a big smile saying hello to everyone like he was at a family reunion.  When I looked over into his booth, there was this darling little woman, Betsy, straightening and preparing for the day.  Kenny got to the booth and he proceeded to immediately tell her about who he ran into, and what they were doing the last six months.

For the next four days, whenever there was a lull in Kenny’s booth, he would saunter over to mine and start quizzing me.  In a very gruff, Long Island, Jewish accent, he’d ask me things like, “do you give people terms? who does your sewing? why don’t you offer missy sizes? "  Betsy would have to reel him back in to get him back to their booth.  She was his saving grace.  She had heard and seen his banter before and knew how to head it off at the pass. It was just a matter of time before he started in with the advice, and bad jokes. Betsy would apologize for him, and we quickly bonded just over the laughter of it all.  I knew without question he had been doing this a long time and had seen lots of people come and go in this business.  It would have been much easier to dismiss him as a nosey busy body, but, my life changed because I didn’t.

At one point, he had me pull out a sheet of paper and he took out a list of names and numbers.  “Do you sell to (store name)?”  I responded with a no, and he immediately read me the store’s phone number, gave me the owner’s name and told me to tell them Kenny sent me.  My jaw dropped to the floor.  Who does that? Then, after he was meeting with some of his best customers in his booth, he’d walk them over to my booth and introduce me to them.  I couldn’t believe his natural generosity especially in an industry that can be so cut throat.  He had no idea if I even knew what I was doing and trusted me with his people.  He put his reputation on the line for me.   

By the end of the show we were fast friends.  He asked me if I was going to do the show again in six months and I told him I would.  He proposed that at the next show, we share a booth.  It made great sense to me and I welcomed the idea.  That proposal was the beginning of the most incredible relationship.  Each show, I would get there early and begin set up.  Kenny would roll in at the closing bell and drop his things off.  Betsy taught me the ins and outs of Kenny wrangling.  Our customers began to enjoy the witty banter that would go back and forth as I would imitate the things he would say with his accent.  I learned quickly what his "best sellahs" were and we could sell items in one another's lines. He would tell everyone who came by the booth that they had to buy my "5, 10, 15 Way Wrap thing", and then yell encouragingly at me to demo it.  They certainly make the shows so much more fun.

Kenny and Betsy have become like parents to me.  They check in.  They celebrate every win and accomplishment.  As a matter of fact, now, at the shows, when they introduce me to someone new, the person usually says, “Oh this is the Jill we’ve heard about! Nice to finally meet you honey!”  Meeting them, has not only changed my business, it has changed my life. I don't know what this dream would have looked like without them in the mix.

Someone once told me that you don’t “find” a mentor, a mentor “finds” you.  Kenny and Betsy are much more than mentors, they are family.

PS I put my life on the line posting the photo above.  When we took it, Kenny said to me, "I don't want to be on that Facebook stuff."  I responded, "Oh you're going to be on Facebook!", like any good daughter would.

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  • Elizabeth L Burton on

    Jill, it has been wonderful seeing you thrive as a “local girl makes good” taking it to the next level. Your talent, design prowess, drive, warmth and connection are the foundations of your success. All the Best to you, Kenny and Betsy! Thanks for sharing this story with us.

  • Patty Walters on

    A lovely story. Thank you for sharing!

  • Linda Weilert on

    Love this story. I sold a menswear line for 10 years and had someone like this by the name of Ed Fassio. He is still in the industry and just pushes on. He introduced me to all the buyers and always set up a booth next to me. It was a lot of fun to just watch him make people laugh. Linda

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