Golden Boy

What happens when a first-generation retailer can’t entice his eldest son to run the family business? Like Vito Corleone in The Godfather, he makes him an offer he can’t refuse


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When the kit finally arrived, Richard Golden couldn’t have been happier. At 12 years old, he was selling greeting cards door-to-door and doing a brisk business. Never mind that his father, Donald Golden, was operating a successful chain of optical stores in the late 1950s. The son, it seems, was on to something.

“No one knew what an up-sell was at the time — at least it wasn’t called that — but I sold holiday cards all over Detroit and, when I got a sale, I’d ask people if they had any stationery,” Richard recalls. “You’d be amazed at how often that worked. Once I got people’s trust, I’d give them options.”

While today Richard Golden operates Southfield-based SEE Inc., a chain of 24 optical stores that recorded $17.5 million in revenue last year, his success wasn’t preordained. In fact, Golden says he initially turned down several offers to join the family business, preferring to make a name for himself in advertising.

That family business was D.O.C., which, at the time it was sold to the Italian house of Luxottica in 2007, had 105 stores and revenue of $100 million.

In 1977, when Golden finally joined his father in the business, the eyeglass retailer was a regional player with 27 stores and $9 million in revenue.

The fact that annual sales jumped nearly tenfold over the 30 years Richard Golden presided over the firm isn’t a testament to raw business instincts or a Harvard education. Rather, D.O.C.’s rapid expansion could be attributed to a string of memorable advertising promotions — from the initial “You have my word on it!” to a silky-smooth James Brown slide to an early appearance with the rap group Run DMC to the mother of all slogans, “Sexy Specs” — that propelled the retailer to record revenue and profits, year after year.

“It’s always a challenge when the company president doubles as the pitchman, because if it doesn’t work, it’s hard to recover,” says Ed Nakfoor, a retail consultant based in Birmingham. “Richard had that unique talent to pull it off — he could deliver those memorable lines, but he never got so caught up in being a celebrity that he took his eyes off of the business.” 

The Son Also Rises

While he didn’t know it at the time, Golden’s knack for up-selling greeting cards was a skill that was easily transferable. Once a salesman, always a salesman, as Golden can now attest. Instinct and vision also played a part in his business success, but getting there wasn’t a straight shot from college to a position in dad’s company.   

Like most childhood passions, Golden gave up on the greeting card business to focus on his future. Striving to follow in his father’s footsteps, he entered the pre-optometry program at Michigan State University in the mid-’60s. And while he posted good grades despite a rigorous dose of algebra, trigonometry, chemistry, and biology classes, his heart wasn’t in it.

“I dreaded doing it. So after about a year or so of taking classes, I confessed to my mom that my schoolwork was making me miserable,” Golden says. “She was really the one who guided me. She reminded me how happy I was selling greeting cards. So I thought it over, looked through my course manual, and I got into the advertising program at Michigan State and just loved it. I mean, I couldn’t wait to go to class.”

Following graduation in 1969, Golden considered joining D.O.C. He also weighed taking an entry-level position with an ad agency. But with a starting annual salary of $7,500 at the agency it would be tough making ends meet, especially since he was about to be married.

For the second time, he passed on the opportunity to stand side-by-side with his dad in business. He also nixed joining an ad agency because the money wasn’t there, either. Acting as his own business coach, Golden played to his strengths and began offering his services as a salesman.

The only problem was, no one was biting.

“I figured I’d use my sales skills and sell air time to radio and TV stations,” Golden says. “I called everyone in town, and the same answer came back: They wouldn’t offer a job to someone without experience. It was the old catch-22. So finally I told the lady at WNIC-FM to write my name down and to remember it, because they were going to regret not hiring me.”

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