Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things: Kerstin Block, Buffalo Exchange Co-Founder

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kerstin_bio_lg“The first Buffalo Exchange opened in 1974 in Tucson, Arizona by Kerstin and Spencer Block. To our knowledge, this was the very first store that bought, sold, traded and took clothing items and accessories on consignment…the company that now has 46 stores and 3 franchises in 17 states, with $81.6 million a year in revenue (as of Dec 2012). Buffalo Exchange is an independent and privately held company and the founders manage the day-to-day business. Kerstin and her daughter Rebecca still own and run Buffalo Exchange out of Tucson.”–buffaloexchange.com/story

Could you tell us a little bit about your background?

I came from Sweden in 1960 to attend the University of Arizona. I had a scholarship to study Anthropology for a year. It was here that I met my husband-to-be. We married in Sweden and then I was able to move to the United States permanently. I got my bachelor’s degree in anthropology in Oregon and my husband got his master’s in counseling psychology.

What inspired you to start Buffalo Exchange?

I had always loved shopping at thrift stores and swap meets. We had two children and not a lot of money and I figured there had to be other people who were just as addicted to finding bargains as I was. So I started a store with my husband in 1974. He was working as a librarian at the University of Arizona so we had some income for this business at that point. Our first store was 450 square feet and located on the corner of Warren and Speedway.

What have been some of the challenges of running your own business?

Dealing with the people. Managing a business, buying for a store, the financials—that was easy enough. But hiring and working with people, and trying to get them to be the way you wanted them to be—that was difficult. For me, having the right people was the key concept. We had to be able to deal with people in a way that got them engaged and wanting to work there. My husband, with his degree in psychology, had good insight into people.

What was the experience like of taking a local company national?

We expanded really slowly so it was pretty easy for us. We first went to Tempe because we had a friend there who was willing to run the store. We then opened another in the Bay area, Berkeley, and then San Francisco. Expansion was about thinking of places where this concept would work. We needed places with lots of young working adults and students, places where people wanted to work and live; it wouldn’t work in small towns. We tried having a store in Boise, Idaho and it turned out to be the wrong environment. Location is really important.

What are your goals for the next five years?

My daughter Rebecca is helping me run the business and we are opening about two to three new stores a year. We are also always thinking about moving stores, always finding new locations. This is an opportunistic view of our business; we think about how our stores can always be in a better location, how they could be bigger or smaller. I don’t believe that our strategy will change a lot in the next couple of years though; things will keep going the same way.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

The best advice I can tell them is to go into a business where there is a need. Lots of people go into strange businesses and then they want to know why they can’t make it. In reality, not everybody will be as crazy about your idea as you are. If people don’t see it as a necessity, it will take time to convince them. I guess another way to put it is to avoid unrealistic expectations. We’ve been in business for 40 years and it’s not exactly like we grew fast.