American Dream Achieved
IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability. In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories. It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The Story of Michel Brotman (Simply Seattle)
By Nesha Ruther
For Michel Brotman, retail runs in the blood. Not only has Michel worked in retail his entire life, but growing up, his whole family was in retail –his brother was even one of the original founders of Costco.
After college, Michel went into advertising for five years but always felt the pull of retail calling him back. He joined his brother in the clothing business and operated several different chains of men’s and women’s clothing stores.
After a few years, however, Michel decided he was ready to forge his own path. “I just felt like I needed to get out,” Michel asked his family to buy him out of the company, and they agreed.
On the lookout for a new venture, he reached out to a friend from college who owned a successful business that distributed t-shirts and sweatshirts. Today that company is SanMar, one of the largest clothing distributors in the world.
In addition to SanMar, Michel’s college friend had inherited a bankrupt chain of t-shirt operations that he didn’t want. Michel bought them in part and agreed to help revitalize them. “We were partners for a very long time and had about ten of these t-shirt operations throughout the Northwest,” Michel said.
One day, Michel read a book that discussed the economic impact of the aging baby boomer population. He realized that specific industries would benefit directly from the aging generation, tourism being one of them. “The older people get, the more time and money they have to travel.” Michel went to his partner and suggested buying a location in downtown Seattle, at the heart of the local tourism industry.
They bought a building right across the street from Pike Place Market, which spans nine historic acres in the center of downtown Seattle and has been a defining feature of the landscape for over a century. It was the perfect spot. Pike Place Market was the epicenter of Seattle tourism, right on the water with a view of the surrounding mountains. The only problem was that the building was three times the size of their t-shirt shops, and they didn’t know what to do with all that space!
Michel, always the forward thinker, had recently been to a trade show in Chicago and fallen in love with the concept of a high-quality souvenir operation he had seen. Instead of just t-shirts or cheap, kitschy items, this store had gourmet food and high-quality merchandise. He explained the concept to his partner, and the two agreed to try it.
Their store across from Pike Place Market became the first Simply Seattle. Michel and his partner added a coffee bar to the space; they sold gourmet foods native to the region, such as smoked salmon.
Michel’s background in clothing gave him a more sophisticated business taste, so rather than simply selling snow globes and keychains, he selected high-quality merchandise with a distinctly Northwest feel. Simply Seattle was an immediate success.
“We discovered right away that not only were we very attractive to tourists, but locals liked the idea because they could send Seattle stuff to relatives and their kids at college.”
Another part of their concept was selling merchandise for local sports teams. This also contributed to their success because when the Seahawks did well, Simply Seattle did well. When any college team performed well, Simply Seattle made a lot of money.
All of this was in the 90s, before the internet. Simply Seattle didn’t have a website or any digital footprint. Their success was built off word of mouth, popular locations, and high-quality inventory.
With so much success, they were immediately approached by the owners of the biggest mall in Seattle. They wanted Michel and his partner to open a Simply Seattle in their mall, which was away from the heart of the city towards the airport. Although the location received less tourism than their original store, it provided a way for Simply Seattle to further grow their local clientele. Michel agreed.
They opened just in time for Christmas shopping. Gift baskets of gourmet food were especially popular for the holidays. The store was a huge success.
Michel and his partner built a third Simply Seattle at the Seattle Waterfront, another considerable tourist attraction. Around this time, Michel’s business “spidey sense” started tingling again. He became convinced that Seattle was going to become a popular cruise ship destination.
At the time, Alaskan cruises were very popular, but legally, they were not allowed to leave from an American port, forcing many Americans to cross the border into Vancouver and leave from there. Michel knew that people in Seattle were trying to change the law. Sure enough, within a few years, the law was changed, and cruise ships began leaving from Seattle.
This increase in tourism was a boost to business, and the cruise ship representatives even came to ask about installing a Simply Seattle at the ship terminal. Ultimately that idea was less popular because vacationers didn’t want to shop for Seattle merchandise on their way to Alaska. “80% of people who take a cruise from a city don’t actually spend any time in the port city,” Michel said.
But for the 20% that did, Simply Seattle was there to welcome them with open arms! That boost benefited not only the Waterfront store near the terminal but also uptown in Seattle’s primary shopping area.
Michel loved his work. Because they had multiple stores and were selling such large volumes, it was worthwhile to manufacture the products themselves. Michel’s responsibility became curating products he liked and organizing the manufacturing.
For example, if he saw someone selling embroidered shirts at Pike Place Market, he might approach them and say, “I love your art! If we partner, you can design something exclusively for us, and I will manufacture, say, 1,200 of your shirts.” In this way, Michel was able to uplift local artists while cultivating the high-quality brand of Simply Seattle.
Michel had a relevant background with the men’s and women’s chains he had owned with his brother, but more importantly, he loved the creative opportunities that sourcing products for Simply Seattle provided.
“It was second nature to me. I just loved doing it.” He said, “I find retail to be a creative process. The store was my canvas, and the merchandise was my paint.” For Michel, deciding what to fill his stores with was a way of telling a story.
“When you go into a store, and they’ve got a little of this and little of that, it’s very confusing. What is the statement? What are they trying to say?”
Michel was committed to creating a collection of products that had a cohesive meaning: the taste, beauty, and style of the Northwest.
For years Michel had been getting offers to sell the company but doing so never really resonated with him. It either didn’t feel like the right time, or he wasn’t comfortable handing his life’s work over to a stranger.
Through that process, however, he met Gregory Kovsky of IBA. While Gregory was not involved in the eventual sale of Simply Seattle, he became a close friend and advisor to Michel, offering business advice, feedback, and insights on the market. “Gregory was more than a strategic resource and sounding board. He also became a friend who genuinely cared about what I was up to.”
For Michel, Gregory became a trusted advisor on matters of business; “His candor was just what the doctor ordered, and I never felt he was afraid to speak truth to me. His feedback was especially useful since he clearly knew a lot about our market and how my business fit into that space. For a relatively young man, he had clearly “seen it all”, but he was always careful to listen before he spoke. The desire and ability to listen to your clients is extremely valuable to someone in his position.”
One day, Michel hired a young man who, like himself, was an entrepreneur. He was energetic and a self-starter. He had a truck out of which he sold sports-themed clothing. He impressed Michel. At the time, Michel’s general manager had just resigned from her position in order to take care of her kids.
Michel offered that the young man bring his merchandise to Simply Seattle and work as a general manager. In addition to his salary, he would take a percentage of the profits from his apparel sales. The young man agreed and joined the Simply Seattle team.
Around six months later, however, he came to Michel and said, “I really like working here, but I don’t want to work for somebody else; I want to have my own business. How would you feel about selling the company to me?”
By then, Michel was 70 years old, and while he still had plenty of energy and creativity, this offer solved all his previous hesitations about selling. He would be bought out of the company slowly, over the course of five years, so he could adjust to a new stage of life, and he would be giving the reins over to someone he knew and trusted, someone who understood the behind-the-scenes details of how the business was run.
Michel recommends that anyone looking to sell their business should focus more on the workplace dynamics than the bottom line. The person buying your business should possess an intimate knowledge of it.
In the past, potential buyers had never asked Michel questions about who the customers were or what the best-selling product was and why. “If I was going to buy a business, I’d want to go work in it,” Michel said. “The dynamics of the health of the business, the marketplace, competition, the customer… There is so much to learn that you don’t get by reading a brochure.”
Michel wanted to protect his employees and vendors. He didn’t want to hand the business over to someone he felt wouldn’t take care of it. The original Simply Seattle had sat on the same corner for over thirty years. Michel wanted to make sure the business was sold to someone who valued and understood the brand that Michel had built.
“That was my baby – I’d built it from nothing. I had a loyalty to the brand that I hoped that he would maintain. I knew he understood the power of the name and the business.”
Not long after, the young man approached Michel, asking to expedite the five-year buy-out. He wanted to buy him out in full now. Not wanting to lose the offer, Michel agreed.
In retrospect, Michel may have insisted on taking more time to ease into his retirement. Like any major change in one’s life, it takes time to adjust. “The analogy I give is that you walk out onto the porch, and the door slams behind you, and you go, “Now, what? Where am I going?”
It was not a financial issue–Michel was happy with the size of the deal–but a direction issue. He had worked in retail all his life; what was he supposed to do now? He missed the creativity and the opportunities to form relationships with vendors that his old job had provided. Finding a new direction after dedicating your life to a single cause was challenging.
Not long after, Michel’s family experienced a tragedy. His brother died suddenly in his sleep. Aside from the natural grief of losing a sibling, it was shocking because Michel’s brother had been in pristine health. The entire situation left Michel feeling unmoored: “I walked away from that very insecure about the future.” For the first time, he had to seriously contend with the fact that he might not have much time left.
Despite his grief and the difficulties of transition, Michel was able to get out of his head and focus on making the most of the moment.
“I think most people don’t have that epiphany or don’t feel it as much because everybody thinks they are going to live forever. If you know for sure in your mind, I’ve only got five, six years; you wonder what you are going to do with that time. That really motivated me to stop worrying about it and just enjoy it and make the most out of the next chapter.”
While he recognizes the decision to be bought out at once may seem impulsive, Michel had always had the tendency to shoot from the hip and follow his instincts. These instincts were what made Simply Seattle what it was and had never led him astray before. Rather than be overly critical of his decision, he thinks of it as an opportunity that has not yet revealed its full benefits.
For Michel, the American Dream is all about moderation. Rather than a single-minded focus on success, Michel sees it as hard work that then allows for balance. “My American Dream revolved around having enough money to be very comfortable yet also to have balance in my life as well as a career that I enjoyed. There are lots of people who have plenty of money but don’t have a balanced life.” Michel loved his work and worked hard to make Simply Seattle a success, but he also appreciated that his job allowed him to have a life outside of work, one that is full of children, family, and friends.
In the two years since Michel sold his business, he has settled well into retirement and is very active in his community. Although he sometimes threatens his wife that he will start another business where they live now in Palm Springs, California.
Michel spends his days hiking, biking, playing pickleball, and volunteering at a local hospital and food bank. He remains an avid reader of the New York Times Business Section and sees every store he passes through the eyes of a retailer rather than a shopper. After all, retail is in his DNA.
Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.