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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Judith West

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-01-04

It is not that Judith West doesn't like Dallas.

"It's just that I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks," the founder and CEO of WestCo, said yesterday. "I can still hear the train's whistle - and I still think of how much I wanted to get away from it all."

Her departure for New York from Dallas, Ms. West said, was the first step toward a successful career in the retail business. Now, heading a privately held company that supplies high-end fixtures to companies such as Disney Theme Parks, NBC, Universal Pictures, and Caesar's Palace, she often reflects on the route she took.

"I'm a poster girl for the American Dream," Ms. West said.

The American Dream for her did not mean simply physically moving out of the modest circumstances into which she was born, one of three children of a veteran of the battle of the Bulge, Edward West, and his wife Ethel. It didn't mean just putting herself through Southern Methodist University and then Hunter College. And it didn't only mean obtaining a master's degree in psychology and counseling from Fordham University.

"For me, the American Dream became a fire," Ms. West said. "I resolved early on that I would never ever allow myself to be in poor circumstances."

A high-school teacher spotted that fire early on, and steered Ms. West to a part-time job at Neiman-Marcus in Dallas.

"I learned to put things together on the sales floor, I sold handbags from behind the counter," Ms. West said. "I also learned how to cultivate that certain business-like yet elegant look."

While she couldn't have anticipated it then, that look would catch the eye of retail tycoon Milton Petrie years later when Ms. West approached him for a job. She had already worked for another retailer, Jamesway, and, earlier, taught in Yonkers, and at Hunter College High School.

Petrie wasn't interested in her resume.

"I'd rather talk to you," he said to Ms. West. "I want to know all about you. I only hire people whose personal lives are stable."

Ms. West did indeed have a stable family life, with a supportive spouse, Sanford Edelman, and two children, Lynn and Mark.

"I learned that Milton Petrie not only liked to hire people with stable backgrounds, he also like to hire petite, pretty women," Ms. West said, adding that she and his wife, Carroll, often joked about his soft spot for the female sex.

"Actually, Mr. Petrie was very canny when it came to hiring - women have always been good at retailing," Ms. West said. "He knew that women have greater sensitivity toward customers. Women are also hard workers. He knew that customers don't just shop to shop. They usually shop for the experience."

Petrie had more than 1,000 stores across America and in Puerto Rico.

"It was an extraordinary experience to work for him," Ms. West said.
The experience lasted three years. She traveled widely. She visited not only Petrie's retail stories but also vendor factories. She learned well from him - one of the most useful lessons being, as she quotes Petrie, that "A messy backroom is a messy store."

Her stint with Petrie ended with her decision to go solo. (Disclosure: This reporter has undertaken unrelated and nonjournalistic writing assignments for a communications representative of Ms. West.)

"I said to myself, 'If I can make so much money for someone else, why can't I make it for myself?'" Ms. West said.

So she summoned the courage to inform her boss that she would be leaving him.

"I am ambitious - and I want to model myself after you," Ms. West told Petrie.

Petrie was at once encouraging, even though he was predictably saddened that one of his stars was moving out of his firmament.

Ms. West was not really abandoning the cosmos of fixtures, however. She'd gained a humongous number of key contacts, she'd obtained insights about supply and demand - and, most of all, she knew how to produce quality goods.

Those goods - metal stands to hold merchandize, tables, wall installations - are manufactured in upstate New York and in New Jersey.

"I've worked hard to develop a new niche - entertainment retail, which had the money and the attitude to support product of top quality, top design made in America," Ms. West said. "That decision garnered clients for me such as Disney Theme Parks, Universal Studios, NBC, and others. However, emerging countries are catching up fast in quality and innovation while still keeping their price points lower."

Such competition doesn't unsettle Ms. West.

"I'm continuing to hold my own," she said. "Do you think my American Dream is going to be derailed by a little competition?"

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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