How Secondhand Clothing Gave This Woman a Second Chance

This story appears in the January 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
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Rita Cortese
Image Credit: Illustration by Alexandra Compain-Tossier

Rita Cortese was a divorced single mother struggling to make ends meet as a full-time insurance underwriter. Wracked with concern about raising her 2-year-old daughter, she sought a career change that would give her more flexibility. That’s when she learned about Plato’s Closet, a secondhand clothing and accessories franchise. She fell in love with the concept and thought it would be a great fit for her southern New Jersey location. Within days, she was on a plane to the company’s Minnesota headquarters.

Once there, she was sold -- literally. She refinanced her house and investment property, borrowed money from her parents and maxed out her credit cards to purchase a unit, which she opened in April 2006. With massive inventory and just $2,500 left in the bank, she told her parents to get ready for permanent houseguests if the endeavor didn’t work out.

But it did. Cortese blew past her first-year projections by 35 percent. Even though she was working longer hours than she wanted to, she loved the business. A self-proclaimed micromanager, she worked closely with her 12-person team, training them carefully in her way of doing things.

Then, in September 2007, she got a phone call: Her house was on fire. She says she ran out of the store and “didn’t return for a month—I just didn’t care about anything but my daughter and my family.”

Cortese lost almost everything and had to move into a hotel for seven months (manageable through her insurance payout). She says she took time to refocus her priorities. Meanwhile, with her employees pulling together and keeping everything going, the business continued to thrive. In fact, even when the recession hit the following year, the business didn’t falter. Suddenly thrift was trendy, and people were looking for inexpensive ways to get the things they needed. Cortese wanted to expand, but banks weren’t loaning money. So again she borrowed and leveraged what she owned, managing to double her space to 8,000 square feet and hiring about 10 more people.

While the fire was traumatic for Cortese, it did create some unexpected benefits. Stepping back from the business gave her employees a chance to thrive, which they were able to do because of her earlier meticulous management and thorough training. Today at least half her staff members have been with her for more than 10 years. They’re more like family than employees, she says.

“I learned to trust and not be so overwhelming, not to micromanage them,” Cortese explains. “It changed my personality. Now my employees run the store like a well-oiled machine.”

Edition: November 2016

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