As his company expanded, Nathan Gordon of Christmas Central found new ways to manage employees and foster a desirable company culture.
Editor’s Note: We had the opportunity to attend the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition this year in Chicago. There we met with Nathan Gordon, Chief Information Officer at Christmas Central, who shared insight on leadership and the dynamic of a family business.
Gordon has navigated through online retail for Christmas Central taking it to become one of the fastest growing wholesale companies. In the second of three part series, Gordon explains how every employee plays an important role at Christmas Central.
Forefront Magazine: Can we keep this topic going, I’m interested in hearing about how your role within the company has shifted. You said you’re kind of letting go of things?
Nathan Gordon: Yeah.
Forefront: And you’re taking more of a “Hey I trust you to take on this role,” and you’re trying to, again, have everything be busy all year round, and one of the biggest points was, well one: It’s a headache to retrain, but two: You want to retain your employees. So, explain to me how you try to manage and lead your team and what you look for in people, especially the one’s that you’re like, “I’m not going to be heavily involved in this”?
Gordon: Well, it’s a lot easier when you only have to interact with a small number of employees. The joke in my office was that it was becoming a revolving door. Every time something would happen, someone would be standing in there, and then if someone stands there someone else would be coming in. That was killing a lot of my time, so by bringing in key people to run it, it really limited that. So now I could focus on those other things to really grow the business.
If I go back to the warehouse, when you’re selling online, the back end is just as important as the front end. They really go hand in hand. As we grew, we were having people grow with us. When you talk about having 300 thousand square feet of distribution, you really need people who know what they’re doing. We shipped half a million packages last year. That’s a lot of packages, that’s a lot of stuff going through the building. A big problem was that the manager who was running the warehouse at the time was really inexperienced. I admit I had good ideas, but logistics wasn’t my area of expertize. So this January, when we were twenty thousand orders behind, that can’t happen. I had to go out and find a qualified warehouse manager who deals with the big distribution. He was shipping, year round, thirty thousand packages a day. This is a guy who really knows what he’s doing and knows how to bring the temps in. He’s experienced, so it’s helping save me costs. Even by saving the costs I can retain the people.
It makes more sense, especially in my off-season, if I can retain those good employees. Just retraining them and keeping them busy will save money going forward.
Forefront: Yeah, isn’t it interesting how it’s counterintuitive at first? Sometime people think, “Well let me cut some payroll, because then I can ramp up again.” But there’s a lot of other tangential costs that come with it.
Gordon: Right, and this is especially when you’re very seasonal, and you have a high payroll cost in your warehouse, but you’re not shipping that much. That’s really where trying to break that seasonality comes into play.
Forefront: And it’s an interesting evolution. It seemed very opportunistic because you’re like, “Okay I’m doing very well in the Christmas market, how can I address the other challenges of the business?” So you’re not necessarily just trying only to focus on the Christmas market, you’re trying to address many different areas to make the business sound all year round and more diverse.
Gordon: The nice thing is, the Christmas market is the easiest thing for us. We know it inside out, backwards, forwards. The only thing I’m really trying to do is find the new products, find it cheaper so I can pass that cheaper cost onto the customer, and then just push the volume. As we’ve grown, we’re not that niche little store anymore. We really carry everything, and by carrying everything and having such a vast array, we’re competing with the masses now. We’re competing with the Targets of the world, the Wal-Marts of the world, and all those big major stores, which means the only way I can really keep competing is to bring that price down. So that’s what I’m trying to do there. And yes, most of my time now is spent on that other seasonal aspect, trying to source those new products, trying to find the resin wicker furniture, the statues, anything you can put inside or outside your home year round.
But at the same time there’s always a challenge with that too, and that’s the fact that my Christmas merchandise ships in the summer, so to rise in the summer. So it’s also a trade off. I can’t let that stuff sit in the warehouse and take up space because unfortunately space is at a premium for us right now. 300 thousand square feet is a ton of space, but we don’t have enough room.
I have no idea where we’re going to put everything. We’re scrambling to find extra space. And I look at it everyday. I know there are 300 containers all getting ready to set sale, and that doesn’t include everything we bought domestically. There’s a lot of merchandise coming in.
Forefront: I’m sure with your ingenuity, you’ll figure it out. Right?
Gordon: That’s the thing. When we get concerned, we’ll figure it out. We always do.
Early on we were growing a 100, 200 percent a year. But even in the past four years, as the company’s been maturing a lot, we’re still growing at this fifty percent rate…
Which is crazy if you think about it. So every year we basically have those same problems. We get jammed up at Christmas, we have a space problem, but you know what, every year we find a way to overcome it.
I think having the better people—like the girls in the office—can help make sure the office is all figured out. I’ve been watching them and giving them so much more control; they’re dealing with the hiring, they’re bringing the people in, they’re making sure they’re trained, and they’re doing it earlier than they ever have.
Forefront: How does that help in the functionality of Christmas Central?
Gordon: I mean, in the past if they wanted to make a change they used to go through me. Now I kind of told them, “I’m hands off, you’ve now dealt with the problems.”
Returns are a very tricky thing for our industry because it’s a very short window. If someone buys something the week before Thanksgiving, and they want to return it the first week of December, great, I’m not going to sell that item for another year. Even if it comes back perfect, it’s just not going to sell for another year. So we used to have a very strict return policy, and it used to make customer service very difficult because customers didn’t like it. We used to do, “You have three days to figure out: Do you want it or not?” Because it’s seasonal. It was a policy set forth by myself, trying to watch our own costs. But now, I gave my girls the ability to change the return policy, “You set it, you’ve seen all the issues now, you set the return policy that’s going to make customers happy.”
Just giving them that authority made it easier for them to work. It made them feel better and know that I trust them.
Tomorrow, we’ll share the final part of Nathan Gordon’s interview, where he shares how to balance family and business… especially when you see family every day at the office.