When the owners of a clothing store in Historic Savage Mill wanted to boost their business, Steven Adler was the guy they called to help.
The two owners of Vibrant Art Wear, a shop that sells clothing adorned with hand-designed art, turned to Adler for all kinds of advice. He taught Joan Becker and Lee Andersen how to market their products, how to buy for their store and what hours and inventory to keep.
"Any time we had a question or a problem we would say, `Let's see what Steve says,'" Becker recalled.
Why not turn to Adler? After all, he's the man who turned an after-school job at a clothing store into a Big, Tall success. And he turned the struggling Historic Savage Mill into a successful center of retail, entertainment and crafts.
Next month, Adler, 47, will be named the Howard County Chamber of Commerce's businessperson of the year for 2000-2001. The award goes to a local business leader who shows success and growth in business as well as a commitment to the community.
"Steve has made tremendous contributions both from a business perspective and a community involvement perspective to Howard County," said Ken Williams, president of the chamber.
A native of Prince George's County, Adler got into the retail business at age 17 as a stock boy at George & Co., a Washington "big and tall" apparel shop where his father worked.
During the three years it took him to earn his associate's degree from Prince George's Community College, Adler worked full time at the store. And after years of honing his skills in the business, he decided to open his own shop.
His first Steven H. Adler Big & Tall Men's Apparel opened in Timonium in 1983. Others quickly followed in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware. "By the time I had been in business seven years, I had nine stores," Adler said.
In 1990, Adler acquired George & Co.'s nine stores, which had been suffering as his flourished. In 1992 he added four He-man Shops, a troubled New York chain, to his portfolio.
He had, in less than a decade, built a Big and Tall empire - an $18 million company with 22 stores and 155 full-time employees. It was an empire he worked tirelessly to create, never taking a day off since he first went into business, Adler said.
But in 1993, he sold it all. Edison Brothers Stores Inc. gave Adler an offer he couldn't refuse. He signed a five-year, noncompete agreement and signed over his stores, which Edison renamed Repp Ltd.
On the first day of his retirement, Adler borrowed a set of golf clubs from a friend and set out to pick up a new hobby. But he was terrible at golf - and apparently not so great at retirement either.
"At least when I went to work, I knew what I was doing and I was good," said Adler, who lives in Clarksville with his wife and one of his two sons.
He took golf lessons. And at the request of friends and business contacts, he began consulting. Sometimes he would advise people for free on how to help their troubled companies. In 1995, he decided to help the owners of Vibrant Art Wear.
Andersen and Becker were new to the retail industry. Adler became their mentor, helping the women turn their small shop into a successful business at Savage Mill. The pair now also have a wholesale art clothing business, Andersen Becker Inc. in Laurel.
"He was just always there for us, anything we needed," Becker said. "Anybody that had a question would go to Steve."
While he was helping the owners of Vibrant Art Wear, Alder met the partners of Historic Savage Mill. They hired him to be a consultant for 90 days for the entire mill, which was 40 percent vacant and not profitable at the time, Adler said. When the 90 days were up, he agreed to stay on for a small salary and an equity interest in Savage Mill.
In addition to his job at Savage Mill, Adler has opened five new Steven H. Adler Big & Tall stores in Maryland and Virginia. The stores opened in October, after his noncompete agreement with Edison Bros. ended.
Since Adler came to Savage Mill in 1995, gross sales have gone from about $10 million to about $25 million, he said. Thirty businesses have been added to the property, making for a total of 75 shops and attractions. And Savage Mill, which had about 400,000 visitors annually when Adler first started working there, now has about a million visitors a year, he said.
"It's like if you build it they will come," Adler said. "If you fill it, people will come."