New Gottschalk eyes Clovis

FRESNO — Joe Levy wants to begin reviving the Gottschalks brand in Clovis, opening the first in a chain of "leaner and meaner" department stores Nov. 1.

The former Gottschalks store would become the flagship store and corporate headquarters for Gottschalk by Joe Levy Inc., a company created by the defunct retailer's former chief executive officer.

Levy uses a variant of the Gottschalks name to avoid legal concerns. He promises to bring back the kind of store many valley shoppers still love.

Offering details of his plan Tuesday, Levy said he has financing from venture capital groups but is hunting for additional money. He said he will ask cities, counties and economic development agencies for employment incentives to help.

"This venture is going to need whatever help we can get from the cities of Fresno, Clovis and surrounding communities," Levy said.

The Sierra Vista Mall space in Clovis, at just under 100,000 square feet, has been empty since Gottschalks shut its doors in July after a liquidation sale of merchandise and fixtures.

There's no lease deal for the Sierra Vista Mall site, but Levy and mall officials say they are optimistic.

"We're going to work extremely hard to do everything we can to help them," said Jim Huelskamp, one of the principal partners of LandValue Management, which owns the mall. "We think it makes a lot of sense."

Levy, 78, said he's focusing initially on smaller communities in the valley and foothills where Gottschalks had profitable stores and, in most cases, was the only department store. Levy cited Oakhurst and Auburn as examples of places where developers have approached him to fill spaces left vacant by Gottschalks' demise.

"We're starting out small, putting our toe in the water," Levy said.

Plans may include opening one or two other stores in the valley at about the same time as the Clovis site.

"We're seeing where it makes sense to bring this company back to life," he said.

Gottschalks had two stores in Modesto, at the Vintage Faire Mall and in Century Center. Forever 21 moved into the three-story mall location, but the Century Center space in east Modesto remains vacant.

In Merced, the former Gottschalks store in Olivewood Shopping Center also is vacant. Levy said that, too, could be a future consideration for the new company, "if we can get a good deal on a lease."

Levy plans a product mix that emphasizes clothing, cosmetics and a large shoe department, as well as housewares, gifts and small appliances.

Gottschalk by Joe Levy Inc., while stocked with a cadre of former Gottschalks executives and merchandise buyers, is not formally related to its Fresno-based predecessor, which is going through a federal bankruptcy process in Delaware. Levy, who joined Gottschalks in 1956 and eventually became chairman and CEO, had relinquished day-to-day control of the company several years before the bankruptcy.

"What we're kicking off today is the start of going back to our roots," said Levy, whose great-aunt was the wife of Gottschalks founder Emil Gottschalk. Tuesday's news conference included historic photos of the original Gottschalks building in downtown Fresno.

Advantages in vacancies

Lingering Gottschalks vacancies in California and other states may prove advantageous for Levy, said James Tensor of Arizona-based VSN Strategies, a retail consulting firm.

The commercial and retail real estate market "has been slammed" in the recession, Tensor said, so Levy "could be in a position to negotiate some real favorable leases."

Levy said he's counting on customer goodwill from Gottschalks' 104-year history to bring people back.

He believes Gottschalk by Joe Levy can avoid the same fate as its predecessor by staying small, concentrating on what its customers want and providing solid customer service.

Gottschalks, Levy said, was burdened with a "top-heavy bureaucracy that was too big to support." It had about 5,200 employees spread among its 58 stores and about 300 people working at its corporate headquarters in Fresno.

"We're going to be very thin," Levy said. "Our executives are going to be doing multiple jobs, and we won't have five assistants helping us."

Robert Wiser, who will be CEO and top merchandising manager, reinforced the austerity theme.

"There's not going to be any jet planes, no big perks," said Wiser, who was with Gottschalks for 22 years, working as a senior vice president and general merchandising manager when it closed last year. "We're going to be leaner and meaner."

Although a small company doesn't have the volume buying power of larger competitors, "we have friends out there among vendors who are looking for distribution for their products," Levy said. "They will help us get products at the right price."

Wiser said he and his core of former Gottschalks buyers "know what our customers want, we know how to negotiate and we have some well- established relationships" with vendors.

The lackluster retail economy may make vendors more aggressive in getting their products into the hands of more people through smaller chains, said consultant Tensor.

"He may be able to find some buying leverage," Tensor said about Levy's plan, "even if it's nowhere near the volume clout of Macy or J.C. Penney."