Cece Schulz, Director of Student Services at Warrington’s David F. Miller Retailing and Education Research Center, hears a popular pledge from fashion-minded students before they begin their retail careers: They promise to open their own boutiques in New York.
Seldom do those dreams become reality—which is why Nicole Panettieri’s (BSBA ’01) entrepreneurial success with her boutique, The Brass Owl, is cause to celebrate.
“Nicole left UF understanding the value of experience and dedicated herself to learning about her industry before jumping into her own business,” Schulz said. “The result of her patience and resilience was the creation of a business that her community craves.”
Panettieri’s success shouldn’t be surprising considering her entrepreneurial bloodline. Her great grandfather opened a shoe retail and repair shop in Teaneck, N.J., in 1928, and a family member has managed the store for three generations. Panettieri’s parents have owned Flip Flop Alley, a Boca Raton-based shoe store, since 2004.
Despite the family’s business accomplishments, Panettieri, 36, was fearful about taking the entrepreneurial leap. She had a well-paying position as a Buyer for Ross, and was hesitant to give it up.
“It was a huge risk,” Panettieri said. “Ross was growing like crazy, I was on track for a promotion, and the salary and benefits were great. But I don’t ever second-guess what I did. After doing this, I can’t imagine being back in a corporate office.”
Two major factors that have led to The Brass Owl’s success are Panettieri’s experience and her store’s location. Panettieri spent a combined 13 years as a Buyer for Macy’s, K&G Fashion, and Ross, where she developed foundational knowledge of and key relationships in the fashion industry. Also, The Brass Owl resides in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, which has a plethora of bars and restaurants, but few retail shops. That makes The Brass Owl a popular destination for shoppers not wanting to trek to Manhattan.
But the most important reason for The Brass Owl’s success may lie in Panettieri’s community involvement. Despite being one of Astoria’s newest business owners, Panettieri has been incredibly active. She established the first-ever Astoria Retail Crawl, which gave much-needed promotion to the neighborhood’s retail shops, as well as the Ditmars District—a merchant group for area businesses. She even hosts monthly “Night Owl” workshops where customers gather for everything from fashion trends presentations to tarot card readings and mini manicures.
“Part of my business plan was I wanted to be tied into this community,” Panettieri said. “I want this community to be a place where you know your neighbors and shop owners. My ties to the community have gotten stronger with every step I’ve taken.”
Panettieri’s leadership has not gone unnoticed. The National Retail Federation selected her as a “Retail Champion,” and she visited lawmakers in Washington D.C. to discuss the challenges facing small business owners. She convened with the staffs of New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as personally met U.S. Representative Joe Crowley, who represents New York’s 14th Congressional District, which includes Astoria.
In addition to discussing key issues with lawmakers, Panettieri met with small business owners from all over the U.S. She called the experience “life-changing.”
“You can’t do anything if you’re not involved,” Panettieri said. “That’s how you make change. It was inspiring to work with lawmakers, and bounce ideas off small business owners across the country.”
Panettieri’s business approach combines her corporate experience with her neighborhood intuition. She relies on her analytical training from Macy’s and product development and pricing knowledge from Ross to create financial reports to gauge performance. But now that she doesn’t have access to the same market research she used at major retailers, Panettieri relies on her instinct to decipher her clientele’s tastes.
“Before I was buying based on what the country wants,” she said. “Now I’m buying for my neighborhood. I get to buy what I like.”
That’s the freedom only an entrepreneur can enjoy.