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Belair '69 instructs Lehigh's young entrepreneurs to 'think backwards'



Scott Belair '69, shown here speaking at the Next STEP awards back in February, 2008.

In a speech to Lehigh’s Association of Student Alumni last week, Scott Belair ’69 offered some unconventional wisdom for young entrepreneurs. In order to succeed, he said, “You need to think backwards. Think about what you should do and then at least consider the complete opposite.”

Belair is willing to admit that his advice might seem counterintuitive to most, especially given the current economic climate. But for the co-founder of Urban Outfitters, which includes Free People and Anthropologie, its popular sister store, it’s a life lesson that has reaped a lifetime of rewards.

Belair returned to his alma mater to talk about a career that was launched over 30 years ago in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with fellow Lehigh alum Richard Hayne. Belair was a second-year grad student at Wharton Business School and needed a project for an entrepreneur workshop he had taken.

The rest is history. Belair and Hayne launched a retail empire that relied on the counter-culture attitude of the 1970’s youth. That time was also a period of economic contraction.

“We bought surplus long underwear for less than a dollar, tie-dyed them in the bathroom, and sold them for $10... and we couldn't keep them in stock!” he said. "Our goal was to create a store aimed at college students. You'll find very few stores that are targeted just for you. And we wanted to do that."

Belair has since followed a more traditional, if not extraordinary, career path while his partner grew the business. He currently sits on the board of directors of Hudson City Bancorp, and previously served as principal at Morgan Stanley, a vice president at Goldman Sachs and a managing director at Drexel Burnham. He is a Certified Public Accountant and has established a career in financial advisory services.

But even though he left Philadelphia for Wall Street in the 1970s, he says he’s still an entrepreneur at heart. He is a long-sitting member of Urban Outfitters’ board of directors and has seen the company—and an entire retail clothing industry—undergo a continuing state of change, saying that globalization and the internet “are the greatest opportunities we’ve experienced recently.”

Belair’s story is defined by the risk he was willing to take, says Ashley Chase, president of the Association of Student Alumni. “Scott’s experience with Urban Outfitters is really a story of how they came to observe something, namely the lack of stores for college students,” says Chase. “They then went out to create their vision of a business to fill this need, helping to redefine a generation in the process.”

And in that sense, these two Lehigh grads were ahead of the curve. Urban Outfitters has never advertised its companies—30 years later its traditional advertising budget is still virtually $0. They relied on word of mouth and, more importantly, their merchandise to speak for itself.

It’s a strategy that has worked. Thirty-eight years after opening as “The Free People Store”—the named changed to Urban Outfitters in 1976—the retail giant has 144 locations across United States, Canada, and in Europe. Anthropologie has 120 stores, while Free People as a store was reborn in a New Jersey mall in 2002.

“You’ll always find people to work with who have radically different ideas and perspectives,” he says. “And that’s a good thing. Only when you open yourself up to different approaches, do you open yourself up to success.”

And as for Belair’s final grade on the entrepreneurial project at Wharton that helped launch one of America’s more successful retail concepts? An “A.”

--Tom Yencho

Photo by Lisa Getzler-Linn


Posted on Tuesday, May 05, 2009

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