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On the Job with Bruce Bitterrman

Photo by Barry Levine

Photo by Barry Levine

"On the Job with ..." is a weekly feature of Sunday Inc. Today's article is on Bruce Bitterman, who owns Friedman's Clothing with his wife, Janie.

Q. What was your first job?

A. I first started working in the family business when I was about 9 years old. I worked at my grandfather's store, Globe Department Store in downtown Albany. Even at such a young age, I would assist customers and ring up sales. Back then the cash register had a hand crank and was huge. Everything was done manually. I still look back at those times as a great learning experience, and actually a lot of fun. All members of the family that were old enough were put to work during the busy seasons. The Globe was a true department store of the 1950s. We sold everything from overalls and work pants to ladies dresses and shoes.

Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first paycheck?

A. Back then I liked baseball and clothes, so I saved up to buy a baseball glove and clothes, of course.

Q. What's the single most effective technique you found during the past two years for keeping employees motivated?

A. Keeping employees up to date with what is happening in the business is the best motivation. Get them to understand where the business is going and what part they play. Let them feel their contributions are a vital part of the business.

Q. What led you to your current position? Why did you want to operate your own business?

A. When I graduated from college in 1970, I went to work for Southern Bell in Atlanta in their management training program. I worked there for three years and felt very unchallenged. I wanted a job that was more exciting and that I could really sink my teeth into. I wanted a situation where the harder I worked, the more I would reap the benefits. At Southern Bell I felt like just an employee. I wanted more. I wanted to immerse myself in a business. About this time, my father decided to retire and was going to sell his clothing business. I talked with my wife and we decided to move back to Albany and go into the clothing business with my brother, Alan. So, in October 1973 I began my new career in the clothing business. As far as wanting a demanding job, I certainly got one.

Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?

A. I don't really have a mentor, but I have had a lot of teachers along the way. Over the 38 years in business, I have learned from numerous other store owners and sales representatives. Most stores face the same type problems and similar situations, so it's good to compare notes and share ideas with each other.

Q. What is the biggest lesson you as a business leader learned from the recent recession?

A. Without a doubt, these two phrases come to mind: Nothing lasts forever, and save for a rainy day. You should enjoy the good times but always prepare for the bad times. I learned this from my father-in-law, Philip Friedman, who ran a very successful shoe business in Atlanta for many years. That was his philosophy then, and it's as true today.

Q. If you could turn the clock back on one aspect of technology - examples e-mail, automated phone systems, cell phones, PDAs, etc. - what would you most like to see go away?

A. I really don't like automated phone systems. Maybe they are a necessity, but they certainly are aggravating. I would much prefer to talk to a real live person.

Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?

A. I spend most of my time in the office at the store on the computer or on the phone. When away from the store, I enjoy having access to my emails and calls via my smart phone.

Q. What is your favorite tradition?

A. My favorite tradition is when Janie and I meet our two daughters, their husbands and the grandchildren at the beach for a week. Since everyone lives so far apart, its great to get everyone together. We have been doing this for many years.

Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have things you read daily or regularly?

A. I just finished reading "First Family" by David Baldacci. I read a lot of fiction books by authors such as James Patterson, Nelson DemIlle, John Gresham. I also read three retail business publications and, of course, The Albany Herald.

Q. I'm up and going by? And what is your morning routine?

A I'm up by 6:45. I have my coffee with Janie while watching the news and reading the paper. I work out, have breakfast and get to work at 9:30.

Q. What famous person would you like to meet and why?

A. What I would really like to do is meet and talk with all the members of the U.S. Congress. I'm afraid most of them don't understand at all small business and our problems. Most members have never been in business and it would be my honor and pleasure to put in my two cents.

Q. Favorite hobbies or activity outside work?

A. I enjoy playing golf. I like to spend time with friends and family, but I really love to be with our children and grandchildren.

Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?

A. I have no regrets about any particular business decision I have made. Things have worked out for the best.

Q. Best thing about your job?

A. Having been in the same business for 38 years, I have met and helped many wonderful and interesting people. They have become more than just customers; they are dear friends. I particularly enjoy doing this with my wife.

Q. Worst thing about your job?

A. The job requires long hours and can be very demanding.

Q. The most beneficial course I took in school was?

A. Accounting.

Q. What would be your dream job if you were able to pick a position outside your current career path?

A. I think it would be very interesting to be involved in some aspect of sports at any level. Golf and football would be my favorites.

Q. Finish this thought: "On the first anniversary of my retirement, I see myself ...

A. I could see Janie and I just getting in the car and traveling. No schedule, no destination, no commitment. This would be completely opposite to my present very structured life.

Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?

A. He must have integrity, honesty and a strong sense of fairness.

Q. Crystal ball time: What's your call on when the economic recovery for our area will be in full swing?

A. Unfortunately, I think it's a ways off. It takes more than wishing and hoping. We have to give industry and employees a reason to choose Southwest Georgia.

Q. What kind of music might I find on your list of most played on your iPod?

A. I like almost all kinds of music; however, nothing is better than the music of the 60's and 70's. There's nothing like the golden oldies.

Q. What do you think is the biggest change Albany will see in the next 10 years?

A. I hope we will see Albany return to the stature it once held years ago. Hopefully our education, employment, leadership and other community problems will have been solved and Albany will shine again.

Q. What was the best vacation you've ever taken? Why?

A. The best vacations Janie and I take are the ones with our daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. It can't get any better than that.

Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line of business during the past few years?

A. Unfortunately the era of the independent men's store is coming to an end. Fewer of the younger generation want to go into the family business. I remember at one time Albany had seven or eight great men's stores. It appears the family-owned businesses will continue to become fewer and fewer.