By  on May 7, 2007

Although Zachary Belil enjoyed his work as divisional merchandise manager at Christopher & Banks for nearly five years, he decided last fall to leave the icy, brutal winters of Minnesota for New York. His mother, in ill health for some time, took a turn for the worse, and Belil wanted to be close by.

Now vice president of sales and merchandising at Pine Needles Apparel, a factory-direct firm focusing on sweaters and woven shirts that is coowned by K.H. Lam, Belil has returned to his roots in wholesale. He started as a product development director at Mitsubishi International Corp. before becoming president and co-owner of the Daggar Group, which manufactured sweaters under the label Work in Progress. After selling the company and a brief detour at Kellwood Corp., as divisional vice president of Vintage Blue Sweaters, he had the rare opportunity to switch sides and move into retail at Christopher & Banks.

Now that he's come full circle, Belil shares some lessons learned from being on both sides of the front line.

WWD: What was the major lesson you learned from your experience at the Daggar Group?

Zachary Belil: It was the need to focus on many different customers and their proprietary label profiles. I was looking at the trends and having to focus on the casual side for one brand manager, only to shift focus to the tailored, career version of the same trend for the next brand manager who is visiting. The challenge was how to make every proprietary label of theirs look unique.

WWD: How did that change for you at Christopher & Banks?

Z.B.: I learned that wholesalers are from Mars and retailers are from Venus. We try very little in general to understand each other. When I got there, the greatest thing for me was the ability to analyze classifications every day. When you're on the wholesale side, you try to pull information from your retailers about what's selling. Someone who's good will call customers once a week to find out. Most retailers have a "bestsellers" meeting on Monday. The reports tell you what's selling by classification, whether its short-sleeve, V-neck, basics or novelty. When you can see that every day, you have to be either living under a rock or totally not paying attention in order to not succeed. If you know what you were selling, then the challenge only is how does one get more of it.WWD: What caught you off guard following your switch to retail?

Z.B.: I was most unprepared for group decisions. Before that, I basically created my color stories, decided trends all on my own, and then suddenly I had to be part of a group making decisions. When I got to Minneapolis, I decided to join the human rights campaign and realized by doing that as an extracurricular, it helped me play nicer with the gang and work better with people.

WWD: What was the biggest lesson learned at Christopher & Banks?

Z.B.: Everybody needs to understand each other. Before I was in retail, I would try to get in touch with somebody and just get voice mail. When I finally heard back, I found out they were in one meeting and then another. I was thinking, "What were they doing all that time?" From my retail days, I learned that wholesalers have a very one-dimensional business. You make a product and put it in the store. In retail, you put it in the store and on a Web site, and you have to think of the visuals, how things end up displayed in the whole store. The real estate in the store is very valuable, but I had no idea when I was in wholesale. So I learned that the retail merchants have a far more complex day because they're not only buying and developing merchandise, they are also thinking about where it is going to be in the store, and later what classifications are moving and what merchandise already on order may be impacted by that.

WWD: What have you learned that helps you now that you didn't know during your first tour in wholesale?

Z.B.: Don't call your customers and start talking about the latest nonsense or "American Idol." If someone in retail merchandising is picking up the phone, make your point and get to it quickly because you can be sure they're off to another meeting after they hang up. As for e-mails, if there are a bunch of questions, gather all the information requests you need in one e-mail that you send at the end of every day so they only have to see one e-mail. They have busy days, so you want to make their communications with you easy. This is what most customers want.

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