Back when I had hair and my biggest responsibility was making sure my car was clean for Saturday night, I wasn’t too sure what the future would hold for me. I was a marketing student in my Junior year at the University of Florida with no clear direction. It was the 80’s, so advertising sounded pretty cool. I remember attending (more like stumbling into) a networking event where I met a professor that asked me a question that would change everything for me. “Have you ever thought of a career in retailing”, Dr. Bart Weitz asked me. “No”, I replied emphatically. “Well, you should. A career in retail can take you in many different directions- and teaches you just about all business functions- planning, managing people, budgets, time management and more. The first step is signing up for my class. Then you can make up your mind.” I thought about it and figured it couldn’t hurt, and hey, how hard could a retail class be? As a strong C+ student, my GPA could only go up (I should note from experience, that isn’t true, it can also go down).
I showed up for class and was pleasantly surprised. Dr. Weitz, confined to a wheelchair, moved about the room asking thought-provoking questions and began to broaden our young minds. He had great energy and passion, unlike the boring economics and finance lecturers. He was writing a textbook and we would help him. We would conduct research, spend time in stores and do some buying exercises. He put us in groups and assigned different projects from which we would make presentations. I had to admit, I was hooked. My initial experience in the local JCPenney store was a bit nerve-racking, but I enjoyed learning about all the “behind the scenes” things that made the store run. I was especially intrigued by where all the merchandise came from. I got an A in the class, and for that matter, all A’s and B’s for the remainder of my time in Gainesville.
Midway through the semester, several retailers came on campus to interview candidates for their summer internships. I had several very strong interviews with Macy’s, Kohl’s and a few other Florida department stores that no longer exist. But the interview I was most looking forward to was JCPenney because they were offering an internship on the buying side. I showed up late, and the gray-haired gentleman who (was supposed to) interview me spared no expense in letting me know it. I blew it and I knew it.
As I was deciding which opportunity to accept, I received an offer from JC Penney. I knew it had to be an error. I talked with Dr. Weitz who coached me on how I could possibly turn a negative into a positive. He said just be honest, show flexibility by offering to return the invitation-doing the right thing while at the same time letting them know if they would make an exception I would perform better than others, go the extra mile, work longer and not make them regret the chance.
Long story short, as you may have already figured out, they did let that offer stand and it was an incredible experience. I worked very hard, as I had more to prove than the other interns. It led to a full-time job offer after graduation, and then some. The rest, as they say, is history.
I lost touch with Dr. Weitz for several years, but out of the blue in 2009, after I had already started ERS, he called and invited me to lecture in his class. What an experience it was to catch up with him 20 years later and see the thriving Retail Center he helped create with David F. Miller, a former JCPenney Executive, who endowed the center. Today ERS is a proud sponsor of the Miller Center for Retail which educates and prepares students for careers in retail. And of course, all our interns come from the center.
Last week I learned that Dr. Weitz had passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s. I admire his courage, intellect and most of all his passion. If it was not for him, I simply would not be where I am today. The joke in our family is that the only person more thankful to Dr. Weitz than me- is my mother! She had to be nervous in those days of my direction. So, thank you, Dr. Weitz. You will be greatly missed. I will continue to follow your example by promoting retail education with young people.