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
CLEAR VIEW: Richard Golden sold radio ads before joining D.O.C. in 1977 as an executive administrator. Photographs by Erik Howard

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.”

The Salesman Strikes Back

Today, Golden laughs at his brass tactics. But his aggressiveness at the time still didn’t solve the problem at hand. He needed a good-paying job, preferably in sales, and he was getting desperate. Ultimately, he lowered his aim and searched for a startup opportunity.

As it turned out, two sales positions were available — one at a TV station with a UHF signal, and the other at a radio station that had just switched to a progressive rock format. Golden says he was concerned that both operations had weak signals and modest audiences, but he plowed ahead and joined radio station WABX-FM.

“The owner paid like $60,000 for the station, so there wasn’t a lot going on,” Golden says. “But was I excited. It was just me and another guy, and I just took off selling. I went to head shops, concert promoters, record stores, the hippie shops, and all the boutique stores. And I was making sales.”

But there was that weak signal to contend with. When clients asked why they couldn’t hear the radio station inside their stores, Golden suggested the ceiling tiles, fluorescent lights, or roof (or a combination of all three) were blocking the signal.

Eventually, as the radio station invested in equipment and the signal improved, Golden drew more accounts. After a few years, he introduced a 13-week advertising contract that was non-cancelable. The hook was that he would offer the contract at a low rate — $6.50 per minute of airtime — and if the client renewed the contract, the rate would stay the same.

Before long, Golden was appointed sales manager, which brought with it a host of perks. “I could come and go as I pleased. I was going to concerts and sitting close to the front. I was getting backstage and hanging out with Jethro Tull, The Who, and the Rolling Stones. It was a great life.”

Life was so good, in fact, that when Golden’s father approached him again about joining the family business, he declined. Part of the challenge was the pay. Quite simply, Golden wouldn’t be able to take a commission, and the salary at D.O.C. wasn’t enough to match his annual earnings at WABX.

As fate would have it, Golden’s success drew attention from the competition. “The single most gratifying moment of my career at that time was when John Small at WNIC-FM called me up and asked for a meeting,” Golden recalls. “At the time, I had all of the concert promoters locked up. He offered me a very lucrative position, but I turned it down and told him the story of when I was trying to break into the business. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

Father Knows Best

By 1977, Donald Golden was in a tight spot. He wanted to groom Richard to run the business, but there was little he could do to persuade him. After mentioning his dilemma to a fellow board member at D.O.C., Milton Fisher, the pair came up with a final offer.

Because D.O.C. was a public company, with many of the shares held by the family, Donald was concerned about the future direction of the business. When Fisher heard how Richard had declined his father’s previous overtures, he stressed that Donald needed to tell his son, in so many words, that if he declined to join the company, someone else would be hired to run it.

“After I heard that, I’m thinking to myself that some hired gun is going to come in and who knows what is going to happen,” Golden says. “As I started thinking about it some more, I knew I didn’t want someone outside the family controlling my financial destiny. So I took a cut in pay and went to work for my father.”

Golden was executive administrator at first, but quickly became director of advertising. One of his first acts was to fire “the Mickey Mouse ad agency we had” and bring in someone else to oversee the company’s print, radio, and TV campaign.

The company’s early ads were effective, but not what Golden would refer to as memorable. The need to strike a lasting chord with consumers was becoming ever greater as D.O.C.’s main competitors — Luxottica, LensCrafters, Sears Optical, and Pearle Vision — were getting bigger and growing more aggressive.

After being named president and CEO in 1986, Golden hired pitchman Alan Sussman to dream up a new ad campaign. During a brainstorming session, Sussman suggested Golden appear in a series of TV commercials wearing a conservative suit, a white shirt, and a red tie. The straight-laced businessman would appeal to family values and conclude the address with one of the most memorable lines in local advertising lore — “You have my word on it!”

The slogan was quick to resonate with consumers, who were used to standard appeals centered on price and quality. “No one was doing iconic branding at the time, but we were tracking the ads and people were recalling D.O.C. more so than other brands because we had that personal appeal,” Golden says.

Beat ’Em to the Punch

The Rickshaw Inn at Maple and Orchard Lake roads in West Bloomfield Township was a popular Chinese restaurant in its day, complete with an oriental punch loaded with rum and exotic liquors. It was 1993, and Golden and Sussman were struggling to reinvent the D.O.C. brand.

Appealing to family values had been working for five years, but the pair was looking to mix things up and create a new buzz for D.O.C. “I don’t know if it was the punch, or just the night itself, but Alan was going on about how we needed to take things to the next level,” Golden recalls.

Sussman’s idea of giving D.O.C. a measure of sex appeal was immediately shot down by Golden. But Sussman was persistent. The final campaign involved filming people of different cultures dancing at various locations in metro Detroit. The 60-second spot would end with Golden sitting on a Harley, wearing a black leather jacket with the words “D.O.C. Sexy Specs” stitched on the back. Filming began in the fall so that the ads would be ready to show to the sales reps in January.

Following a client lunch, Golden decided to check on the filming. He watched from his car as a group of actors danced in an alley in downtown Birmingham, a block north of the Townsend Hotel. Things were progressing well until Sussman approached Golden and encouraged him to jump into the dance scene and do his best James Brown slide.

“I was like, ‘No way,’” Golden says. “I told him, ‘I will be the laughingstock of the world. They will take me away in a paddy wagon.’ I was sitting there with my car window open, and everyone overheard what’s going on. I figured it wouldn’t work, so just to shut everyone up, I jumped in and did the slide.”

Looking at the rough tape a few minutes later, Golden noticed how his dance routine was drawing rave reviews. “People were going crazy because I was dancing in the commercial, and I thought they were pulling my leg.”

The footage also drew an impassioned response from the office workers. When the ads finally hit the commercial airwaves, customers came pouring into the stores. Golden says the spot took the company to another level. “It was viral before anyone knew what that meant,” he says.

In subsequent years, D.O.C.’s ad kept the sexy specs tag line, but with a different theme. One year it was a Western motif; another year it was reggae. Golden even sprung for the cost of hiring Run DMC, and filming took place at the Royal Oak Music Theatre.

Golden and Sussman were even working on bringing in James Brown to star in a series of commercials, but because the self-described Godfather of Soul would have to travel (with his entourage), Golden decided it would be less expensive to shoot the commercial in Augusta, Ga.

“I remember we were sitting in my office planning the final details when Alan gets a call,” Golden says. “Suddenly, I see his face go white. So he hangs up the phone and he says James Brown just ran over his wife. We obviously nixed that idea.”

Can You See the Real Me?

Golden eventually hung up his dancing shoes. Running a major retail operation, plus starring in all of the company’s commercials, was beginning to weigh on his personal life. Plus, Golden liked to visit the stores on weekends, when most people were shopping.

But a bigger challenge was playing out. Randal Golden, Richard’s younger brother, says the drive to provide cutting-edge designer eyewear was driving up prices beyond the point of what most people could afford. It became a major issue when the lowest price for a pair of quality glasses was $600.

“One thing that made us stand out from our competitors was that we could make executive decisions a lot faster than anyone else,” says Randal, now SEE’s executive vice president, who started working at D.O.C. as a teenager. “Being a family-run company, we could respond very quickly to trends and what our competitors were doing. But Richard was right; we were losing customers because of economics. Even our employees were having trouble affording glasses, and that was with their employee discount.”

Enter SEE, in 1998. The store concept was to offer designer eyewear direct from factories in Europe, which was much less expensive. At first,Golden set up what was envisioned to be a retail test lab. The first location was in downtown Birmingham. It was an immediate hit. Golden decided to expand the concept, albeit slowly. Once he got the bugs worked out, Golden noted the stores worked best in progressive retail centers like Ann Arbor, the Somerset Collection in Troy, and Rochester Hills, as well the East Coast, in the Southeast, and in the Midwest.

“Now I’m running two retail chains, I’m still doing all of the commercials, and I have absolutely zero free time,” Golden says. “Plus, it was so competitive that we were only as good as our sales that week. I was looking to get out. To make a long story short, we sold D.O.C. to Luxottica (in 2007) and kept SEE, plus the real estate we had from D.O.C.”

What’s next for Golden? In addition to running SEE — the business is fairly recession-proof, given the stores are located in upscale areas (annual sales were up 6 percent in 2009, and are on pace to rise 10 percent this year) — Golden is looking at investing in the film industry, and is researching a new retail concept he’d like to try once his five-year noncompete clause with Luxottica expires in early 2012.

“We plan to grow SEE to 100 to 125 stores,” Golden says. “We’re not Rodeo Drive, but Melrose Drive. As for the movie business, I’m looking to back winners with proven track records. I can’t say much about our future (retail) plans because of the noncompete clause, but come see me in a couple of years.”

The Hard Sell

It takes time to sell a business. Just ask Richard Golden. In the spring of 2006, the Italian eyewear group Luxottica approached Golden about buying D.O.C., which had 105 stores and revenue of around $100 million.

But following six months of due diligence, the deal appeared to cool. By the fall of 2006, Golden was wondering if the deal would ever be consummated.

“They were dealmakers,” Golden says of Luxottica. Before considering D.O.C. as an acquisition target, the world’s largest eyewear company had purchased LensCrafters. In subsequent years, Luxottica also brought intots fold Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut International, Sears Optical, and Target Optical.

“Things were pretty crazy at the time. There was a lot of stress because things were getting more competitive and the insurance industry was changing, so you had to be concerned by a (possible) health insurance audit,” Golden recalls. “Plus, if one of our competitors did a two-for-one deal, I had to go into the studio the next day with a competing commercial.”

As luck would have it, another suitor entered the picture. “We were approached by a health organization that wanted to buy D.O.C., so we had some talks. But we had come so far with Luxottica that I didn’t want to go through all the due diligence again,” Golden says. “I was anxious to sell, so I could get my life back.”

While attending an optical conference in New York, Golden ran into Claudio Del Vecchio, a Luxottica director and son of company founder Leonardo Del Vecchio. Golden says he told Del Vecchio that D.O.C. was in play, but he declined to reveal the rival suitor.

“I wasn’t trying to snowball Claudio; we really did have someone else after us,” Golden says. “Obviously the message got through, and they called two days later, and the negotiations started back up again. We finally signed all the paperwork in spring 2007. So it took a good year or more to sell D.O.C. I don’t think anyone was happier than me.” — R.J. King