By Ann Meyer
— The larger Elaine Krieger’s business gets, the more flexibility she has. Choosing when and where to work are fringe benefits to owning a business, she said.
As an entrepreneur, “I’ve worked the hardest and the easiest I ever have in my life,” said Krieger, president of Krieger Kiddie Corp. in Naperville, which owns 12 franchised resale shops in the Chicago suburbs and is targeting more than $10 million in retail sales this year.
“When I started, I worked 100 hours a week. Now if I work 20 hours a week, that’s fine,” said Krieger, who spent 21 years in corporate jobs before she was laid off and decided to start her own business. She launched Krieger Kiddie Corp. with a single Once Upon a Child franchise location, then gradually expanded by purchasing Plato’s Closet and Clothes Mentor franchise locations. The U.S. Small Business Administration recognized Krieger’s achievement as a business owner Wednesday with state and national Entrepreneurial Success Awards.
By hiring the right people and establishing a solid business structure, the business owner’s job actually can get easier, Krieger said. She now employs 160 workers, but most work at the retail locations and are supervised by store managers. Krieger has promoted several of her most experienced workers to district manager and business operations manager positions. By giving them the authority to make most decisions themselves, Krieger has freed up her time to look for new business opportunities.
Instead of adding more stores of a particular franchise, Krieger branched into complementary store concepts to capture more sales from the same customers over time. “She has built a little empire out here of 12 stores and three different concepts,” said Nathan Baxa, brands operations manager at Krieger Kiddie Corp. in Crest Hill. Some customers who start out buying resale for their young children at Once Upon a Time graduate to Plato’s Closet, which targets teens and young adults, while also shopping for themselves at Clothes Mentor, which offers resale women’s apparel.
By purchasing franchises instead of starting businesses from scratch, Krieger said she gets the benefit of tried-and-true computer systems as well as marketing support. What’s more, she and other franchise owners share information about their businesses to help one another. “In the normal business world, you’d be more competitive,” she said. “We feel we’re all working together.”
Krieger has been adding a store a year to her company, Baxa said. Several of Krieger’s stores are located next to each other, allowing customers who frequent one resale shop to also shop at another. “They all play off each other. It really protects all three brands,” Baxa said.
Not only is Krieger a savvy businesswoman, she also understands how to manage workers, said Tina Whitten, district manager, who started working with Krieger at her first Once Upon a Child store a decade ago. “She’s available to us any time, yet she still lets us have our independence,” Whitten said. “She empowers us and is there to support us.”
Changing roles as business grows
After Krieger was a store manager for about six months, she started exploring new opportunities for the business. “I realized if I was going to be successful, it wasn’t going to be as a store manager. I didn’t have the temperament to deal with the customers,” Krieger said.
She also learned early on the importance of having sufficient working capital. During a slow period, she said, “I had to borrow money from my father-in-law to meet payroll. I learned from that.”
Over the years, Krieger also has become more aggressive about stopping shoplifting by installing a sensor-based security system. Despite that fact that items in her stores range from $4 to $10 on average, “we have just as much theft as (other) retailers have,” Krieger said. To reduce employee theft, Krieger and several managers have attended workshops to help them “read deception,” she said. The company also has added an anonymous hotline and encourages employees to report suspicious activity.