When Rick Sarmiento started out, he didn't know a bustier from a brassiere. Silk felt the same as satin. And for the life of him, he couldn't see much difference between a size 8 and a size 12.
That wasn't the worst of it, though. The real problem was this: Mr. Sarmiento didn't know what he was doing in the women's retail business.
Wasn't he a successful general manager of a thriving hotel? Didn't he like the six-figure salary? The community recognition? The company Cadillac?
So why, then, was he trading it all in to run a few tiny boutiques filled with white clothing, accessories and collectibles that everybody -- including close friends -- said would be a washout?
"I guess I was looking to prove something, maybe to myself," he says. "I wanted to prove that I could be self-sufficient."
Five years later, he's made his point. The White House has gone from being a Harborplace novelty to an 11-store chain, the latest of which opened last weekend in Boca Raton, Fla. By year's end, there will be 17 shops along the East Coast, and sales are estimated to exceed $6 million.
"Ten years ago, if anyone told me I'd be selling women's underwear, I'd have told them they were crazy," Mr. Sarmiento, 46, says with a laugh.
Even those who believed in the idea are surprised at how far he's taken it.
"He's gone way beyond our expectations," says Tony Hawkins, a group vice president for the Rouse Co., which owns several malls where White House stores are located. "Rick has very good business sense, and he's got the personality. People like him. That's the right combination for him to become a success no matter what he attempted."
Walking into the Owings Mills mall, he stands out amid the sea of T-shirts and shorts. Dressed in a loose-fitting tan suit, white shirt and woven Italian loafers, his face tanned and his hair slicked back, Rick Sarmiento doesn't look like any afternoon shopper you've ever seen. In fact, he looks like a movie star.
Others have noticed the similarity, too. Patricia Darrow Smith, executive vice president of the White House, says, "I've been out to breakfast or lunch with him, and people come up and say, 'Excuse me, are you Michael Douglas?' He says, 'Oh no, I'm just a local man.' He's real laid-back about it, but I'm rolling on the floor."
Company legend also has it that strange and wonderful things happen when he drops by a shop. "When he's in a store, sales go up," Ms. Smith says. "Women tend to walk in. It's not [that he's a] playboy. It's more just that he's friendly and open. He creates this atmosphere where you want to buy something because you're enjoying the person who's taking care of you."
He does exude warmth and charm, qualities that are partly natural to him and partly learned from his hotel days. Yet he downplays his personal magnetism, attributing the chain's success to the concept and packaging.
Walk into a White House store, and dramatic track lighting washes over bejeweled T-shirts. Lace ribbons are festooned around clothes hangers. And the sales staff is dressed in pure, pure white.
"You can buy what we have anywhere," he concedes. "We're selling feeling. We're selling romance. We're selling sexiness."
At one time in his life, Mr. Sarmiento thought the only thing he'd ever sell was the image of the Hyatt hotels. Looking back on it now, he's still not sure how he got up the nerve to leave his job as general manager of the Inner Harbor Hyatt Regency and become a retailer.
Impressed with his management skills, the Rouse Co. asked him to open an all-white boutique in Harborplace seven years ago. He and his then-second wife refined the idea and accepted, thinking the endeavor would be a fun hobby. But after creating a second store in the Owings Mills mall and a third in Georgetown Park in Washington, the pastime had become a full-time pursuit. By the end of 1987, he had to make a decision, and retailing won.
"Some people thought I'd lost my marbles," he recalls.
Like so many fledgling companies, the store faced tough times in the beginning. Mr. Sarmiento cashed in his pension, charged his credit cards to the limit and took out a $30,000 loan. Still on a shoestring budget, he lived and worked out of a house in Arbutus. (The offices have since moved to Linthicum, and he now lives in Otterbein.)
It didn't help matters that he was still dressing the part of hotel manager. He quickly learned that the starched shirts, sensible shoes and Prince Valiant hairdo that served him well in corporate life weren't going to cut it on Seventh Avenue.
While he's now willing to slick back his hair and don funky socks to do business, there are some sacrifices he simply won't make.
He absolutely refuses, for example, to consider wearing a ponytail or earring.
"There's still a corporate executive buried deep beneath this soul," he says.