Ferrall Dietrich has fond memories of growing up the daughter of a US Naval officer in Europe, moving every two years, and being home schooled alongside her younger brother by her mother, for whom adventure and family time was the priority. While her father commanded a US Navy ship that patrolled the coastal waterways, her mother commanded the family’s Series Land Rover that toured the windy coastal roads waiting for the ship to dock so the family could reunite.
“She would load us in the car and we would study in the backseat as she drove all over Europe,” recalls Dietrich. “We drove from port to port around the Mediterranean as well as up into England and Scotland.”
The car was old. There was no defrost, no AC, a heater that warmed only the driver’s right leg, and the windshield wipers were manual at best, but it didn’t matter. “It was such an adventure – driving all over Europe, staying in pensiones, exploring new towns, doing things a bit different,” Dietrich laughs.
In between trips, the family was stationed in Southern Italy, but, for Dietrich, the road trips were the most memorable times. Her mother — long before the days of cell phones and satellite navigational systems — managed to track the ship, route a path to the next docking station, and teach the children at the same time. For her mother, the hard work was a love story. “She couldn’t bear to be without my Father,” recalls Dietrich. But for her daughter, the lesson was “You learn a lot on the road, you take risks, life is an adventure.”
When Dietrich was in ninth grade, the family moved back to Washington, D.C. for good. Although now settled, Dietrich was left with a permanent sense of adventure. After high school, she attended Colby College in Maine where she majored in Russian and Soviet Studies, motivated in part by a desire to enter the clandestine world.
“Hands down, all I wanted to do was be a spy,” says Dietrich, who envisioned the career would come with a built-in travel and adventure schedule similar to the way in which she grew up.
But when she went down the path – from being interviewed to taking polygraphs – a realization seeped in that she hadn’t expected. Being a spy may come with adventure, but it also came with a structure and lack of freedom that was not appealing. “There’s a lot of control over your life that I wasn’t willing to give up. When it came down to it. I wanted freedom.”
So Dietrich settled on what she called a “very D.C.” career path — meaning she worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative correspondent and an assistant on the staffs of both a U.S. Congressman and Senator. From there she moved to the Japanese Embassy as a political consultant, the only woman at that time in a non-administrative role. Finally, she left the political world for small business, joining her father, who had built a financial engineering company after he retired from the Navy as an Admiral.
In 1999, now bitten by the business and entrepreneurial bug, the then-32-year-old decided to pursue a full-time MBA program at the University of Maryland to strengthen her business management and financial skills. Upon graduation, Dietrich decided to give a more traditional career path one last go, and accepted a position with Arthur Andersen in the Office of Government Consulting: “Amazing people and experience, but I knew within a year that the job was not for me, and I started to search for that next step, for inspiration for that next chapter.”
She and her husband, who had a similar upbringing of living overseas and traveling decided to hit the road. Amazingly, both of their employers agreed to give them one-year sabbaticals. “We put together a bucket list of places we’d always wanted to see and took off, spending a full year traveling the world. We spent a lot of time in Western China, climbing in the Karakorams and to the base camp of K2 from the Chinese side, and explored New Zealand, Bhutan, and Australia for months. We climbed and trekked and camped our way around the world and loved every minute of it.”
When the year was over, Dietrich returned to an Enron-scandal-plagued Arthur Andersen, and the company dissolved, relieving her of the decision to return or not. The adventures of the past year had solidified Dietrich’s resolve to move away from corporate life and seek a more entrepreneurial path. As such, she moved to the National Historic Trust for Preservation to run their start-up Corporate Good Neighbor Program. In the next couple years, she also became a mother to two boys, moved with her family to Boulder, Colorado, and then back to D.C. Throughout these years, she stayed rooted to the adventure of the outdoors through adventure racing, endurance riding, and trail running.
Dietrich always wanted to give her boys a taste of the kind of upbringing she and her husband had experienced. Starting when the boys were 5 and 7, every summer after school ended, she put them in the car with the dogs, threw a tent on top and hit the road. They camped their way across the country, with the West being the perennial favorite, and racked up 10,000 miles each summer. “I wanted to try and recreate my own childhood experiences as best I could for the boys. And selfishly, nothing made me happier than the freedom of no schedule, being outside, exploring and seeking adventure at every turn. It is so amazing and for the boys, such a wonderful way to grow up.”
All those miles on the road proved an invaluable incubator for entrepreneurial inspiration. As she drove (and drove), an idea started brewing. She knew she wanted to go back to work, but the idea of an office job in a big company was no longer appealing. She kept wondering “How do I bring a little bit of what I love about the West — the outdoors the energy, the laid back feeling of it — how do I bring that home?” One thing that always struck her upon returning to D.C. after a summer on the road was the lack of diversity in the women’s activewear and lifestyle market. Her road trips, her time in small towns and cities across the country, and her love of the outdoors exposed her to so many unique women’s brands, none of which could she ever find in Washington. As a result, Dietrich started toying with the idea of opening her own women’s activewear store. Initially, the idea seemed daunting – mostly from a financial perspective. However, after significant time spent researching the industry, its trends and the marketplace, combined with a deep personal understanding, she decided that if there was ever a time to do it, it was now. She decided to go for it.
And so began core72, a local, women’s boutique that not only features all the activewear and lifestyle brands Dietrich discovered and loved over the years, but also encourages local women to get out and be active through sponsored in-store and community events promoted via core72 social media.
Launching the business was a team effort as Dietrich’s husband took a year off to help her put the business together. “We both needed to be 100% behind it so we worked together on the financial and business plan and all the marketing research,” she explains. To fund the business, Dietrich and her husband used their own savings structured as a personal loan to themselves. They backed that up with a SBA small business loan for unforeseen needs.
Years later, Dietrich credits her MBA as being critical to her success in terms of helping structure the business and understanding the financials. Another key to her success? Research, research and more research. Dietrich talked to as many other small business owners and local retailers as possible and tapped into the experience of brand representatives at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Utah. She also read every book available on opening a store (Retail Business for Dummies anyone?) and planned as much as possible in advance to understand the flow of inventory.
But Dietrich stresses that even if you have the idea, the desire and the start-up capital, a solid business plan is absolutely critical to credibility for potential landlords and suppliers. “Every vendor we work with – and even the landlord of our store – required a solid understanding of why core72 should represent their company. People want to know you’re positioned for success, that you’re going to do a great job representing their product and be a viable, successful storefront.”
Dietrich credits LivePlan, a business plan software program, as well as available data from industry associations, with helping her establish benchmarks for the business, although she admits that none of it truly makes sense until you’re in the thick of it: “Every month is a lesson learned,” she says “For example, I’ve never paid as much attention to the weather as I do now — literally the city shuts down when it starts to rain or there is any inclement weather.”
Despite a slow March, thanks to late in the season freezing temps, the store, now entering its second year is exceeding planned expectations, and doing well enough that she is considering opening a second location. It turns out, as Dietrich had hoped, that people in DC do want to get out and look great while doing it. And she’s the perfect adventurer to inspire them.
Dietrich’s Tip on Launching a Retail Store
- Be passionate about what you are selling. I am intimately familiar with our brands and have personally “tested” many of them. I really believe in these companies, many of them women-owned and “Made in the USA”, I believe this knowledge translates into an authenticity that customers appreciate. While it is important that core72 is successful, it is also important to me to support these brands and introduce them to a new marketplace that I know will be as excited about them as I am.
- Know your customer base. Throughout our business plan, we tied in the theme of “They are Us”. I specifically opened a store in an area with which I was intimately familiar and could service a demographic I understood and knew very well. This familiarity made the initial buying process a bit less daunting and somewhat less risky. We build on this foundation of customer knowledge every day, tweaking our inventory buys, and delivering, hopefully, a more tailored, personal shopping experience.
- Prepare for rainy days. We opened the store in March, 2013 and met/exceeded planned financial projections every month that first year. We were confident in our business model, in the inventory we needed and our steady stream of customers. Then, in March, 2014, we met the winter that would never end. D.C. came to a screeching stop, and no one was in the mood to shop. People were done with the weather and either got out of town or stayed home. We had shipments of inventory coming in, bills that had to be paid and half the income we expected. It was a huge wake-up call. We made it through, but it was tight financially, very scary and I never slept. It was a reminder to keep the expenses down, rein in the big inventory buys (we can always reorder), and squirrel away as much as possible every month for that rainy day – because it WILL come.