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Dorothy Roberts, or Dot, as she is lovingly called by her family and the industry, continues to be a force in the company her parents founded. Here, a conversation with the 84-year-old grande dame of the Echo brand.
This story first appeared in the September 23, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: Dot, what is your earliest memory of Echo scarves?
Dorothy Roberts: My parents started the business on their wedding day. My father had been a salesman for two veiling companies that both went bankrupt and didn’t pay him, so he said, “I am going to do it myself.”
We talked about Echo at every meal. They used to take me to the office and I started traveling with them. When I was seven, they took me to Europe with them. We went to London, Paris and Lake Como in Italy. I knew all the buyers. My mother and father’s first three accounts were Saks Fifth Avenue, I. Magnin and Marshall Field’s, three of the best stores.
I knew from early on that I would work at Echo, as I worked here on holidays and vacations. I went to college — the first two years to Carleton in Minnesota, but then I met my husband and transferred to Connecticut College. I graduated on a Sunday; the following Sunday, I got married; two weeks later, I came back on a Sunday, and I was to report to work on July 7. I had no time in between.
Steven [Roberts, her son] tells me my life was so simple because I always knew what I wanted to do. I always knew I wanted to work here.
WWD: What was your role?
D.R.: They gave me a clipboard and said, “Do anything people want you to do.” I was so excited and walked around with this clipboard. Whether it was a big store or specialty store, every account had their own little white card. I did all the white cards.
A year later, the showroom girl left and I became the showroom girl. I worked with every customer who came into our showroom.
RELATED STORY: Echo Design Group’s Colorful Past >>
WWD: What did you love the most, and still do, about working at Echo?
D.R.: That it’s a family business. My father and mother, my aunt, then, years later, my husband. Then my children Lynn and Steven came in. Now we have my grandson Charlie, who has been here a year and a half, and my granddaughter Lily, who was here for the summer. That doesn’t happen to many people. Half don’t even talk to their family. We all love each other. We go away together. I would always love them to come in, but it’s their decision. There is no begging them or asking them, no family expectation or obligation.
When you come in as a young person into the family business, you have to be better. You have to be respectful to everyone, and you can’t think you know it all. Success is based on their own performance. Charlie has been here for a year and a half, and everyone wants him to work for them.
When you love what you do every day, you never “work” another day. My friends now don’t understand that I am working. A lot of people say, “When are you going to retire?” And one friend said, “You know, you’ve missed things because you’re still working.” What have I missed? I have a lot of interests. I love art and go to museums and galleries, shows, the theater. I travel. I love to exercise. The day is never long enough.
WWD: Were there any low points?
D.R.: The low point was when my husband, Paul, died in 1978. He was 50. My father had been the president, then my aunt had been president and my father became the chairman.
[After both had died,] Paul became president and I was the secretary of the corporation. We each ran half the business. He did all the financials and operations and human resources, and I did the sales, advertising, publicity, design and product development. I was able to do it on three days a week until my children went to college, except during market week or when I traveled to Europe or Japan. When Paul died, I had to take over.
WWD: How has the business evolved?
D.R.: There’s been a lot of change. We have added many new product categories. We had scarves, hats and gloves. In 1976, the Smithsonian came to us and asked us to do a bandana to commemorate 1776. They were a big part of our business. Soon after, the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] wanted us to do private-label scarves for them. We had been asked to do licensing with people and always said no, but when Ralph Lauren asked us, Steven said, “We might as well go with the best.”
Gradually, we got into other businesses like home with wallpaper and fabrics, bedding and bath, and tabletop. We’ve also expanded into outerwear, some ready-to-wear, pareos, and four years ago we started swim. In home, we are looking to expand into furniture and table linens and paper goods. We’re also reintroducing Echo handbags.
WWD: What’s your role today in the company?
D.R.: My role is more in sales and in working with customers and then supporting each of the businesses. I still want to know about product, what we design and product development, and I’m interested in the colors. I kind of work with everybody, I just go wherever I want.
WWD: What still motivates you to come to work every day?
D.R.: I don’t know. Maybe drive? I read an article about people who age and live a long time, and sometimes it’s their consciousness. That whatever they do, they are very conscious, and you know and work hard at it.
WWD: What’s your favorite Echo product?
D.R.: I wear all of it. I wear the scarves, I wear the wraps, I carry the bags. I wear the cover-ups, and I was afraid to get the bathing suit, because I didn’t think it would fit me, but then I ordered one and it fit, so now I am going to order some bathing suits. And then, of course, the touch gloves.
WWD: What are you most proud of?
D.R.: I’m proud of the four generations. First, second, third and fourth. I am most proud to have Echo celebrate our 90 years. We have been an important and relevant resource to the retail community all these years.
And now on to another 90 or more years — and I am also not just proud of the family, I am very proud of all the Echoans, as we call them.
WWD: Do you never think of retiring?
D.R.: I am in the right mind and I’ll know when I am not, then I shouldn’t be here. As long as I feel like I can offer something to the business, I am going to be here. You know how many people say to me, “Did you start the business?” I think, “My God, I’d be 120.”