Retailer Probert Fits a New Line

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The teacher in Bill Probert jumps out at you, just as the teacher in Larry Webb does, but Probert's retailing background might be even more important to John Laing Homes' success.

December 01, 2003
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The teacher in Bill Probert jumps out at you, just as the teacher in Larry Webb does, but Probert's retailing background might be even more important to John Laing Homes' success. For 11 years, starting in 1974, Probert ran Tahoe Clothing Co. in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., where he learned the importance of research and staying close to customers.

"We started as a discount store, selling discontinued lines of active sportswear," Probert recalls. "I'd go down to L.A. to buy sweaters, jackets and flannel shirts for 10 cents on the dollar. Eventually I moved into more upscale lines, although I still used the discount stuff as loss leaders to get people into the store."

It was a great way to learn sales and marketing, says Probert, whose academic background in sociology and psychology also helped. But the growing age gap between him and his customers threatened his business. "I was buying stuff I liked, and it wasn't selling," Probert says. "I was no longer part of my target market. So I started taking kids with me on my buying trips to show me what they liked. It turned my company around. That's a lesson I've never forgotten - talk to your customers."

He also learned how to do direct mail promotions, a big part of Laing's success today. "In a resort area, you learn about selling seasons," Probert says. "Getting caught with too much merchandise at the end of a season can kill you. When I needed to move inventory, I'd do direct mail promotions off my 'database,' which was a card file of past customers."

Additionally, Probert learned to make his store a place for customers to pass time, a lesson that shows today in JLH sales centers. "We put comfortable chairs into the store," he says. "I'd let people listen to music and have a party with their friends. I'd serve hot apple cider. These are things we still do."

The store closed soon after Probert and his first wife split up. He moved on to selling houses in Reno, Nev., and then Las Vegas, where he met current wife Barbara, an interior designer working for Yeiser-Garland & Associates. "We met in a design-team meeting," Probert says. "I met [marketing consultant] Sandra Kulli at the same meeting. Sandra later introduced me to Larry Webb. Our industry really is a small world."

Probert's spare time today is a jumble of sports and family activities. A daughter from his first marriage, Christina, remains very much a part of his life. "She's in nursing school," he says, "but she grew up skiing with me. She became a professional and placed second in the world in extreme skiing one year."

Son Logan, 11, also is immersed in sports, starting in soccer and then adding baseball. "He's an all-star, so every weekend we go to tournaments," Probert says. Daughter Allison, 15, got her first horse at 8 and gravitated to hunter jumping. "She's moving away from that now," Probert says. "She's following her mother's lead into more artistic pursuits. She writes and paints."

Probert works out with a personal trainer, runs, lifts weights, skis and surfs. He also reads voraciously, but that's more business than pleasure. "I love to study the selling process in other industries," he says. "Much of what we do is based on ideas I picked up from Saturn and Southwest Airlines."

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