ANGELS IN AMERICASMART
WWD GOES BEHIND THE SCENES TO CHAT WITH TWO OF THE MART’S MOST BELOVED EMPLOYEES.
Byline: Georgia Lee
Writing about Milt Crane, winner of AmericasMart’s first lifetime achievement DIVA award, can make a journalist lose all sense of objectivity. He has that disarming effect on most people.
As executive director of mart relations, Crane is the only person that no one has ever said anything bad about. Ever. Just ask his boss, Peg Canter, general manager, AmericasMart Apparel.
“Every year, when I do Milt’s performance evaluation, I can’t think of any weaknesses, because he has none. I just check the ‘excellent’ box all the way down,” she said. “He’s perfect.”
To achieve perfection in a job like his isn’t easy. In his official function, he serves as liaison between mart management and sales reps, manufacturers and buyers — a diverse group of strong personalities. He seeks out the best stores in the Southeast to shop in Atlanta and often arranges airline tickets, hotel rooms, even a table at a restaurant.
“I’m a reservations agent, concierge, and bellhop,” he jokes.
Before his current position, which he’s held since 1989, Crane owned and operated a multiline better apparel firm, as one of the Atlanta mart’s first tenants. Before that, he was regional manager of Aileen and Lady Arrow. He is a former Southeastern Travelers Exhibitors president and regional vice president of the Bureau of Wholesale Sales Representatives.
He has seen great changes in the industry, as much of his career took place when business was great, vendor loyalty was strong, and relationships were everything. Yet he encourages everyone to adapt to change, rather than pine for “glory days” that may never return.
Career accomplishments alone don’t give the full picture of Milt Crane.
He’s not your average almost-71-year-old grandfather. He runs, bikes and skis, avidly practices Tai Chi and models with a local talent agency. He recently ran a half-marathon. An impeccable dresser, he says in this business “you can’t go around dressing like a “preacher from Ellijay.” (A north Georgia mountain town.)
Other little-known facts:
He regularly sunbathes on nude beaches near his Miami condominium.
He has been caught in a showroom dancing the macarena after hours
He dropped in unannounced on a local late-night radio jazz deejay, who later described him on the air as “groovy.”
He is on a first-name basis with the Indigo Girls.
The special DIVA award was, amazingly, kept secret from Crane until the DIVA awards ceremony in October. Everyone knew about it, even his three daughters and three grandchildren, who were secretly in attendance with his wife, Evelyn. Only as the video tribute flashed onscreen, with pictures of his mother, father and childhood friends, did it dawn on him that something was up.
“I’m flabbergasted,” stammered the man who is normally never at a loss for words.
While everyone congratulated him afterward, his six-year-old grandson, Jordan, had a startling revelation. Pointing to his grandfather, he said: “You’re Milt Crane.”
After 50 years in the business, some might start to think about slowing down. But Crane isn’t ready to retire to his Miami condominium.
“Too many old people there,” he said. “Besides, I don’t even know what I want to be when I grow up, yet.”
A Woman Called Pepper
Like Cher or Madonna, the first female president of Southeastern Travelers Exhibitors (STE), has achieved one-name status.
Pepper (read on — her real name will be revealed later), a multiline sales representative, is the first woman elected to head the 60-year-old sales organization. With over 500 members, STE is affiliated with the National Bureau of Wholesale Sales Representatives. Both support the independent sales representative.
Most AmericasMart independent reps belong to STE. Membership is a prerequisite to exhibitors on the second-floor. Pepper, a veteran of the exhibition hall, runs a permanent showroom, Pepper’s Collection 9S119.
The Miami native began in retail sales at age 16 and by 18 managed three stores. She then switched to wholesale, learning from the ground up: modeling, selling, shipping, designing and bookkeeping.
“No matter what area, I always had an eye for color and presentation,” she said.
In the late Eighties, Pepper opened multiline Miami showrooms, eventually relocating to Atlanta and leasing temporary space . In August 1996, she opened the permanent showroom.
Life-size palm trees, bamboo shoots and a chair shaped like a giant stiletto are some of her showroom’s visual quirks, although the look changes every market. A strong design scheme complements 10 moderate-to-better lines. All are unique and not for everybody, she said.
As STE president, Pepper is bringing in creative ideas. To spice up visuals on the second floor, she is adding vignettes, displays and mannequins.
As STE president, Pepper lobbies legislators in Washington on concerns of independent reps. Primary issues involve pay and benefits for private contractors hired by reps, as well as tax write-offs for on-the-road business meals.
“Truck drivers deduct meals. I drive a 21-foot rig — a Showmobile — so why shouldn’t I get the same benefit?”
The apparel industry, once a man’s world, is drawing more professional women all the time, said Pepper.
“We have a natural advantage, because we wear the clothes, which I encourage everybody to do,” she said “That gives us credibility in selling a line.”
By the way, Pepper is her maiden name. Her full name is Marlene Pepper Berkowitz, which few people know, she said. Until now.