As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Frija, President & CEO, InGear Fashions.
Mr. Frija is a veteran entrepreneur with over 30 years of a broad range of experience, particularly in the areas of sourcing, manufacturing, supply chain management, marketing, advertising, and brand licensing. Mr. Frija’s entrepreneurial vision and spirit helped him to create and build InGear Fashions, Inc., a leading swim and resort wear company, and Flash Sales, Inc., a toy and novelty company, both based out of Miami, FL.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
It is my pleasure, Charlie. Jacob Levy and I started our business at the ripe young age of 18 — straight out of high school back in 1989. The year after we graduated, we decided to spend the summer in Hawaii. We had been working together at my father’s retail store together and worked well together, so we decided to take a business trip to Hawaii — we would pay our way by selling tie-dye t-shirts and beachwear once we got there. So, with 4 boxes of clothing we purchased from a Miami wholesale company and 2 suitcases, we flew to Hawaii without even having a hotel room or rental car booked. The adventure started as soon as we landed…and the rest is history.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Planning ahead is super important because as I stated above, we landed in Hawaii without a clue on how much a hotel room would cost, as well as not knowing that we couldn’t rent a car because we were under 25. We were young and green back then — we did not even have a credit card. We had to find our way around and learn the ropes by just talking and asking a lot of questions to the local people.
This is back before the internet — so it was not easy to get information in a new environment from halfway around the world. Things we know today from life experience and through technology were not as easily accessible or viewed as common knowledge back then. Today everything is “common knowledge” — you just look it up in Google on your smartphone, and you have so many answers and options at your fingertips.
So we land in Hawaii and put our luggage in storage at the airport lockers — all airports had lockers prior to 9/11. We hopped on a tourist bus to Waikiki Beach (we had to ask them where all the tourists went before boarding just to make sure it was the right bus) We were dropped off in the center of town and walked into a hotel to quickly learn we could not afford the $200/night beach front room. We then had to walk what seemed like miles until we found an extended stay condo-type hotel for $70/night. After telling the owner our ordeal, he was nice enough to let us use his small car anytime we wanted — included in our $70/night room rate. We stayed there for the first two months while we worked to save enough to rent a nice apartment.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I plan on writing that book one day!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our purpose when we started back in 1990 was simple — we were super young, but super driven to work as hard as humanly possible, with the hope that our success would provide us with enough money to travel and enjoy life. We probably were too young to be mindful of vision and purpose. But if I had to guess our vision back then was to work hard so we can play hard. As we got older with more responsibility of family and employees — our drive to succeed became even greater and continues to drive us today. Our purpose was to provide for our families, keep paying our dedicated employees and continue to grow our trustworthy relationships with our customers.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
If it’s not a life or death situation then do not worry about it. Tomorrow is a new day which translates into “don’t sweat the small stuff”. For the most part, we all strive for perfection but most days are far from perfect. What can go wrong, will go wrong, and even when you plan for everything — something can come out of left field and blind side you, like the COVID-19 pandemic has.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our challenges are the same as everyone else’s, and we see these challenges how most entrepreneurs see them — an opportunity to help our business grow, but more importantly to minimize any negative effects on our business and employees who are all like family to us. We still have the same employees working for us for the last 30 years and counting.
We got a call early on from one of our salespeople who had a relative in NY working at a major hospital and was in desperate need for face coverings, masks, etc. It was suggested that maybe we could help. We immediately got to work and designed a mask that was functional, which morphed into something more fashionable, and started offering these masks to all of our employees and selling them to our existing customer base. The opportunity during this time of the pandemic made us an essential business and allowed us to stay open, produce and sell hundreds of thousands of masks.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Fortunately, we made it through without taking too much of a hit. Production and sales for our normal product lines, however, just stopped dead in the middle of our busy spring break season. We were able to stay afloat economically by quickly shifting to production of PPE, and now with the country opening back up we can start up production and sales for our existing product lines pre–pandemic.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
In my opinion, the constant News cycle, watching it daily, and staying home all day (for those who did) was a major cause of the heightening of fear and uncertainty. Many people who were deemed “non-essential” stayed home for safety as ordered, which is understandable, but for us we always found a way to make sure we remained “essential”. As entrepreneurs, you know you cannot stay in business if you are non-essential and that rule always applies in general for any business or product. If no one wants or needs what you are offering, then you are not going to make it.
The risk of contracting COVID-19 is very scary, but I tell my loved ones and friends that are anxious to stay vigilant but remain positive, as the percentage of risk of death for most of us remains low. Wash your hands, wear a mask in public and do not put your guard down — doing all these things are a small sacrifice to pay to keep yourself and loved ones healthy.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Post-Covid, people’s habits may change for a long time to come. Work and school environments most likely will be different with new rules in place like face coverings and social distancing. However, we will continue to accommodate that change by providing the products that will not only create a sales opportunity for us, but allow consumers to go back to some sort of a normalcy. Our focus will always be to look at the consumer and provide them with products that offer safety, fashion and happiness.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think wearing masks when in public crowded places, temperature checks, and hand sanitizer will be the new normal going forward. I do not think anyone imagined this country would endure a pandemic that required people to stay at home for such a long period of time. Hopefully, this opened everyone’s eyes to be more aware and diligent in making sure they and their families are safe.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Online sales will continue to grow at an even faster pace for convenience and because people feel more safe buying from the safety of their homes. Online communication for school and work meetings is deemed more acceptable, with conference calls more preferred versus in face meetings. Some of our staff will remain working from home where deemed possible, while others that work onsite will continue to practice all of the safety protocols that we have in place to ensure our work environment is safe and healthy for all.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Always try and test new technology and methods for your business because it is not all about the product or service, but the overall consumer experience. Amazon has proved the products can be the same but it’s the shopping experience, logistics, trust and delivery that matters most to the customer. As I like to say, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you can just reinvent the store that sells them”.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It would have to be the most popular and well-known Latin quote “Carpe Diem” — Seize the Day. I apply this to my business ventures as well as my personal life. Take each moment of each day, find the opportunities, and put a plan into action — quickly.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I have always been a big fan of Linkedin for business — you can find me there!