WOMEN IN BUSINESS: Steel wool – How Sandra Plaga saved Traverse Bay Woolen Co.

TRAVERSE CITY – Growing up, Sandra Plaga remembers folding lots of sweaters at her family’s store, Traverse Bay Woolen Co. But she never pictured herself at the helm of the family business.

But since taking over in 1991 after her father’s death, business is thriving. In fact, she has increased sales by 39 percent. Pretty amazing for a person with virtually no retail experience.

It was 1947 when Sandra’s father, Luther Sanders, opened his first store in Traverse City. Known as the “blanket man” from Indiana, he sold quality wool blankets, fabric, sweaters and yard goods. Over the next two decades, Sanders opened 11 more stores. But in the 1970s, he became interested in real estate and handed control of the stores over to his nephews.

They began stocking the stores with acrylics and other synthetic fabrics, and covered the rustic logs with red siding. The stores began to resemble warehouses, Plaga recalled.

Business began to take a downward turn and, by 1989, the year Sanders died of Alzheimer’s, six of the stores had closed. That left six stores in Traverse City, Sault Ste. Marie, Ludington, Houghton Lake, Mackinaw City and Petoskey.

So Plaga, who inherited Traverse Bay Woolen along with her stepbrother and stepsister, stepped in to save the ailing company.

“After his death, I decided something had to be done,” she said. “The business was in pretty bad shape financially. The quality had gone down and people stopped coming.”

Plaga borrowed enough money to “change just about everything.” All of the company’s six stores were remodeled inside and out, and stocked with completely different merchandise, including home furnishings and gifts.

“What we had to do is find our niche,” Plaga said. “Our tag line is ‘Spirit of the North’ and all of our stores have the look, the feel and the smell of northern Michigan.”

In fact, all of the stores, except for those in Petoskey and Sault Ste. Marie, have been restored to their natural log state.

She also had the store’s logo completely redesigned, replacing sheep with birchbark.

To Plaga, who graduated with a fine arts degree from Michigan State University, “presentation is everything.”

This includes everything from the background music, cleanliness, the stunning flower arrangements Plaga puts together herself, and quality service and merchandise. When she goes on buying trips she is careful to choose items that fit her vision of what the store should carry.

“Everyone who works here has the vision,” she said. “It has to do with the presentation–that’s what it’s all about: quality service and quality merchandise.”

And Plaga isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.

“I do everything; I’ve even driven a truck,” said Plaga, who usually puts in 15-hour days.

But it’s the visual part she loves the most.

“I enjoy using my creative side,” she said.

She encourages that quality in her staff as well.

“I like the employees to come up with their own ideas,” she said. “I have definite ideas about how I want the store run and how I want it to look, and they develop their own ideas from that.”

When she became CEO, the management team was made up of all males. Now it’s mostly female, including the head of the warehouse.

Some other changes which have played a role in the company’s turnaround include keeping the stores open year around, except for the Houghton Lake location, and new advertising strategies.

“We used to do a lot of signs, but now we also do magazines, some TV and tourist bureau booklets,” she said.

This month, as the company celebrates its 50th anniversary, it looks like things can only get better.

Plaga’s goal is to double sales in the next five years without adding more stores. She is currently expanding the Mackinaw City store from 14,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet and hopes to eventually expand the Traverse City store to include more home furnishings and gifts.