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Training Program Reweaves the Fabric for Small Businesses

Beyond the barbershop, the bodega, the custom cabinetmaker and the jumble of other storefronts on the west side of the 5900-block of South Pulaski Road is the unassuming entrance to Private Label Linens. It’s the kind of place you’d walk by a million times without even seeing.

And even if you saw it, so what? Just another Chicago Lawn business among the thousands that line Pulaski and many of Chicago’s other main drags, far from the shadows of the downtown skyscrapers, the spectacular lakefront, and the renowned cultural institutions that give the city its juice.

But behind the door at 5954 S. Pulaski is what really fuels Chicago and everyplace else – people working. In this case, about 15 of them – mostly Latino women who live within a one- or two-mile radius – cutting, sewing, folding, mailing, washing and drying fabric. Fabric that will become tablecloths, napkins, drapes, uniforms.

It’s exactly the type of business – in operation for at least two years, with annual revenues between $150,000 and $4 million – that Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program is designed to help. The program, led by Goldman and administered in Chicago by City Colleges of Chicago, focuses on giving small business owners (from metro Chicago and surrounding areas) greater access to business education, financial capital and business support services.

Participants in the training program (a total of nine classes, one day every other week) gain practical knowledge and skills that can be put to work immediately, such as contract negotiation, marketing, accounting and people management.

Richard Schneider and his wife, Susan, run Private Label Linens, where Maria Espinoza works a sewing machine.

Gordon Walek

Small businesses, according to Goldman, have generated 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years. They represent 99.7 percent of all employer firms, hire 40 percent of high tech workers and produce 13 times more patents per employee than large patenting firms. Who knew?

Presiding over the operation at Private Label Linens is Richard Schneider, a recent graduate of the Small Businesses program who, with wife Susan, runs the business.

Learning the ropes
Schneider comes by the work honestly. His grandfather, Sam Schechter, began selling bridal veils 82 years ago. As a youngster, Schneider hung out at Schechter’s store, first in the Loop and later at 64th and Halsted, helping out here and there, learning about sales, products, customers, deliveries and everything else that goes into running a business. Not that he identified it as his life’s work.

“Always thought I’d be a college professor,” said Schneider, who, among the bolts of cloth and cutting machines and industrial-sized washers and dryers in his chaotic Pulaski Road operation, looks more like an academic than a textile industrialist. But after studying the classics (translating Beowulf, transcribing Gregorian chants) at Lake Forest College, living in Europe for a couple years, working as a waiter and maitre d’ in the International Club at the Drake Hotel, and as a private chef, he never got around to the Ivory Tower life.

In 1985, after his grandfather succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, Schneider took over the business and has run it ever since. The Pulaski Road operation handles linens. His related business – in bridal veils and novelty fabrics – is Supreme Novelty Fabrics on West Fulton Street in Chicago.

The nondescript exterior at Private Label Linens opens into one of the many small businesses that fuel Chicago's economy--and that the Goldman Sachs program is designed to help.

Gordon Walek

Note that nowhere in his quixotic journey from classics student to European Dharma Bum to private chef to small business owner was there a stop at the Harvard Business School or Kellogg or Wharton. Schneider matriculated at the school of hard knocks and by his reckoning was at the top of his class. His MBA equivalent was on-the-job training at the feet of his grandfather.

And he had the customers – for tablecloths, table drapes, napkins, you name it – to prove it, ranging from Chicago’s finest hotels to the White House. Indeed, just the other day, he said, Susan Schneider was en route to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the family Prius, delivering a custom order of White House linens.

No, Schneider didn’t apply for a slot in the Small Businesses curriculum – which came to his attention through an ad in Crain’s online edition – to brush up on his business skills. He applied because he thought it might lead to low-interest loans from Goldman. Money, not training, was his interest.

The money hasn’t happened. But something almost better did. He learned he didn’t know everything.

Getting with the program
“It was a really cool thing to have this learning experience,” he said. “The application alone was thought-provoking. It helped me learn a lot about my business. They asked me what my greatest business accomplishment was. My answer was, staying in business.”

Lucia Flores (left) and Gladys Sanchez are among the 15 or so employees of Private Label Linens, who spend their days cutting, sewing, folding, mailing, washing and drying fabric.

Gordon Walek

When Schneider showed up for the first day of class on the 10th floor of the Harold Washington College (one of the City Colleges of Chicago) in the Loop, he felt like the instructors, based on his detailed application (which included two years of tax returns and operational financials), already knew his whole story. The instructors, incidentally, come from various business backgrounds and academia. They function as coaches and advisers.

“They taught me about accounting, about balance sheets, about profit and loss,” he said. “I didn’t know any of that – had always run things by my gut. Learning about all that really helped and it actually got me interested in parts of the business – like financials – that I’d always avoided. Now I’m on it every month and that will lead to something better.”

The classes also included meetings with the mayor of Chicago and Penny Pritzker, the business leader and philanthropist. “Just talking to them was fantastic,” said Schneider. “The mayor was very sympathetic with the difficult process of acquiring small business licenses. He wants to streamline it.”

And Schneider said the classes made him feel much less cynical and, well, alone. “You get really close to people in the class,” he said. “You learn everyone’s in the same boat 90 percent of the time, dealing with employees, overhead, etc., regardless of the type of business. It helps to know the suffering is shared by others.”

So far, about 90 Chicago-area businesspeople have completed the curriculum here – about 800 nationwide. Last fall, in Chicago, there were 160 applicants for 35 slots. To be eligible, a business must have been in operation for at least two years, with annual revenues between $150,000 and $4 million. And no “recreational” owners welcomed.

Private Label Linens sells tablecloths, napkins, drapes and uniforms. Among their customers: the White House.

Gordon Walek

“We’re looking for owners with a fire in the belly and an equity ownership stake in the company,” said Bral Spight, executive director of Chicago’s 10,000 Small Businesses program.

“It was a great luxury,” said Schneider, “to have someone come into my business and give me advice. I look at the program as a sort of reality show. What was happening in the classroom situation was very similar to what was happening in my business. And that gave me a new kind of energy.”

If Schneider’s energized, you can bet his employees are, too. Private Label Linens has a striking whistle-while-you-work vibe that could become even more cheerful if Schneider’s newfound skills result in greater efficiency and profitability.

“It’s like I was the old Richard before the program, and the new Richard now,” he said. “I’m just a lot more open-minded about how the business works.”

LISC Chicago is a community partner in the Goldman Sachs Small Businesses program. For more information, contact Bral Spight, executive director, 10,000 Small Businesses, (312)553-6087, bspight@ccc.edu.

Posted in Economic Development, Chicago Lawn

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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