Family-owned Boscov’s still going strong

Time was getting short: We were due in Boston the next day to help Daughter No. 2 move from a summer

Time was getting short: We were due in Boston the next day to help Daughter No. 2 move from a summer apartment back to campus and I still hadn’t found the folding dryer rack I was to bring.

The laundry contraption that went with her to college as a freshman had broken piece by piece, its remnants finally tossed in May as her junior year ended.

But I wasn’t having much luck with a replacement. The ones I saw at the big-box stores seemed pretty flimsy — they’d never hold up to air-drying multiple pairs of just-washed jeans — and it was too late to order online.

So I decided to try my luck at Boscov’s and voila! The chrome-colored rack I found there was as snazzy as it was sturdy, and had none of the plastic parts or tiny screws that had doomed its predecessor.

Boscov’s came through once again.

The family-owned chain, started a century ago in Pennsylvania, still offers the kind of soup-to-nuts shopping directory that once characterized American department stores: cosmetics, clothing, electronics, housewares, appliances, jewelry. These days, those departments have their own popular niche chains — Sephora, Gap, Best Buy — but at Boscov’s they remain under one roof.

The Great Recession, though, was almost the company’s undoing.

Just as a third generation of the family took the helm and planned to expand to 50 stores by buying 10 locations from Macy’s, the financial meltdown hit. Boscov’s suddenly faced the dual challenge of tightening credit and cautious consumers as it tried to lay out money to enter new markets.

In August 2008, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and soon closed most of the newly acquired stores. By December that year, former executives Albert Boscov and Ed Lakin, son and son-in-law of founder Solomon Boscov, came out of short-lived retirement to help rescue the company.

Pulling together $300 million in private and public money — including some $40 million in loan guarantees pledged by Pennsylvania — Boscov and Lakin succeeded in holding off a suitor that might have liquidated the chain.

By September 2009, the reorganization was complete — with Albert Boscov reportedly shedding a tear as he attended the final technical hearing on the case to thank the judge and lawyers who had overseen the proceedings.

Next week, Boscov’s will open a new store at White Marsh Mall in Baltimore — at the same site abandoned when the company closed stores in 2008. It will be the second new store since the reorganization, following last year’s opening at Monmouth Mall in Eatontown, N.J. That store, not far from Asbury Park and the Jersey shore, also was a location closed by Boscov’s in 2008.

Next summer, a third new store will open at Woodbridge Center near Perth Amboy, N.J., bringing the Boscov’s chain to 43 stores in five states.

Toni Miller, who joined Boscov’s as chief financial officer in 2009, told me the company plans to open one to two new stores a year “where it makes sense.” Rapid expansion is not in the cards, she said, but stores will be added as they make “strategic, financial sense as opportunities arise.” With the White Marsh opening Oct. 5, Boscov’s will have 8,000 employees, she said. Sales, which were listed as $1.3 billion annually in the bankruptcy filing, should reach $1 billion this year.

Asked if that goal was realistic, given signs the economy may be weakening again, Miller answered confidently, “Oh yes.”

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