Before founding Charles River Apparel, I started my career in 1948, upon graduating college, in my family's business – The Central Steel Supply Co. in Cambridge, MA. At that time, the Central Steel was in serious financial condition. Bankruptcy proceedings were being considered and the fo
ur family owners offered to sign over all ownership to me. At twenty-two years old and having only $1,100 in the bank, what did I have to lose? First off, I contacted our local banker, Mr. Carlson, to arrange a meeting, and I had our accountant prepare me with an up-to-date financial statement. This meeting proved to be the most memorable and important event in all of my 60 years in business. Mr. Carlson gave me a chance and because, as he later told me, I demonstrated four key characteristics that were important to him in making an evaluation of a prospective customer. Since that date, I have adopted the same four standards when interacting with customers, suppliers, advisors and especially employees – work ethic, honesty, sincerity and competence.
These four attributes are the cornerstone of the foundation for both family businesses – Central Steel Supply and Charles River Apparel. Today, strong leaders are driving both companies forward, through both the up and down cycles of our economy and it is evident how frequently these four characteristics come into play, such as when one needs to build a team, lead a team, and collectively overcome obstacles.
Although I am now retired, I am still heavily involved in the hiring decisions of prospective managers. My experience and guiding business philosophy have enabled me to recognize an individual’s work ethic, honesty, sincerity, and competence through careful observation during the interview process, which I believe are the most predictive signs of future performance.
Once that new manager is in place I have found that it is important that full support and autonomy be given to the individual. No one is perfect and everyone has an individual style to achieve results. I prefer a hands-off approach accompanied by encouragement,nurturing and mentoring. Alongside autonomy comes responsibility, nonetheless knowing that managers possess those aforementioned four characteristics, it becomes much easier to have trust in both the process and the corresponding results of your team. Managers with these qualities become natural leaders, creating effective teamwork and high morale within a company by establishing a strong work ethic and effective communication. Honesty and sincerity goes a long way in developing high morale in a company with happy employees and a fun atmosphere.
As I reflect on the critical, and in some cases, nearly insurmountable challenges, that we had to overcome throughout these many years, it was this business philosophy that contributed to our survival. It seemed every ten years or so there was a crisis of momentous consequence. For example, at Central Steel alone, there has been a destructive fire that destroyed all of our most valuable assets, an unexpected steel shortage that caused steel to increase from 10 cents to 25 cents per pound within a three week time frame that happened to occur during a transition period for the company, and an eminent domain relocation process that placed us in limbo over a twelve year period. By ultimately being able to overcome these challenges, we became a stronger unit and were presented with new and unique opportunities as an organization.
Over the years, I have seen independent companies managed productively in an entirely different fashion from Charles River and Central Steel. In many cases, micromanagement proved to be the key to success, yet I will always maintain a contrasting prospective, adhering to the dictum preached by Andrew Carnegie, “When catastrophe occurs, you can take awaymy equipment, my building, my inventory and my customers, but give me back my people and I will be right back where I was in six months”.
I have been so fortunate in being able to achieve goals I never dreamed of for both my business, and more importantly, my family. It gives me great pride having so many family members involved in both companies; my son Barry, daughter Julie, daughter-in-law Debbie, are at Charles River while my son-in-law John is at Central Steel. This year happens to be the 30-year anniversary for Charles River Apparel, and this fall, my grandson Jason entered the company, officially making us a third-generation family business. Accomplishments like these have brought me immeasurable pleasure. What do I contribute to our success? Three seemingly simple, yet essential, principles: 1) focusing on the four underlying principals of business - work ethic, honesty, sincerity and competence, 2) never deviating from one’s core beliefs, and 3) being steadfast in one’s convictions.
About Walter Lipsett and Charles River Apparel
Walter Lipsett is the Founder of Charles River Apparel, a leading producer of performance apparel, based in Sharon, Massachusetts. Though officially retired, Walter is still involved in the business and currently serves as Chairman of the Board. Walter's son Barry Lipsett is now President & Owner of the third-generation family business, which has been recognized with numerous industry awards and has pioneered remarkable charitable programs for cancer-related causes and families in need. For more information on Charles River Apparel and Walter Lipsett visit www.charlesriverapparel.com