Kearney’s Buckle is making billions on blue jean fashion
One of the missions of Nebraska Rural Living is to report on entrepreneurial success, so at some point it became too hard to ignore the elephant in our own back yard and we arranged a two-part look at who Buckle is and what they do. Last month, we reported on the retail experience of the brand with the help of two 14-year-old, twin fashionistas. This month we look at the business side of Buckle and find out how — and why — it thrives in Kearney.
A little history
A little history might be in order. Buckle’s story began in 1948 when David Hirschfeld purchased Mills Clothing, a conventional men’s clothing store. In 1967, a second store was purchased and operated under the name Brass Buckle, expanding the operation into selling casual men’s clothing. Brass Buckle had evolved into a denim-based store, feeding a denim frenzy that started in the Summer of Love and kept right on growing.
In 1977, the company introduced and promoted a line of women’s jeans and clothing, and they opened their first mall-based retail store. Brass Buckle continued to grow and moved to a new office and distribution facility in west Kearney in 1988. In 1991, the name changed to The Buckle, Inc, the company went public on the NASDAQ exchange as BKLE, and the next year opened its 100th store and reached sales of over $112 million.
Since then Buckle has played its cards right. It moved to the NYSE in 1997; developed its own branded merchandise which accounted for approximately one-third of sales in fiscal 2012. Buckle entered into e-commerce in 1999, and continues to expand this sales channel — keeping pace with the shifting trends in fashion.
A bit of Nebraska
One wonders if Buckle’s success might be because of rather than in spite of its Nebraska roots. Dan Hirschfeld is now Chairman of the Board and current president and CEO, Dennis Nelson, began his career with Buckle in 1970. Nelson worked part-time during school and after graduation from college in 1973, he was hired full-time and began a career climb that led him through all phases of the company’s operations and development. He was named Buckle’s president on April 19, 1991.
We didn’t have the opportunity to chat with Nelson, but judging from the organization he’s built, some of Buckle’s success has to do with having a strong central core of employees who were raised with a Midwest work ethic. In addition to Dennis Nelson, Buckle can point to a number of its current leaders that joined the firm two or three decades ago as UNK grads and rose up through the ranks.
Order in, order out
We talked to 33-year Buckle veteran, George McHargue, Online Fulfillment Center Personnel Administrator: “Kearney is the distribution center for Buckle,” McHargue said. “With over 450 stores in the United States, distribution is a huge part of what we do whether it’s for our retail stores or Buckle.com orders.”
“Our system is highly automated and very efficient. It’s sophisticated enough to ensure that orders are filled quickly and accurately and then automatically moved to packing and shipping to get them out the door and on their way to Buckle guests.” McHargue said the complex three-level system of bins on conveyors allows Buckle to ship large volumes of merchandise but still control the flow of orders. He pointed out that orders with a single item are processed separately, while orders that need expedited shipping are filled from bright orange bins to make them stand out.
“We continually track our efficiency and accuracy in order to improve the shopping experience for our online guests and to support Buckle stores throughout the United States.”
Hiring and keeping talent
“Our work force in Kearney includes over 600 people and we’ve recruited many Buckle teammates from the University of Nebraska at Kearney,” she said. “Buckle sponsors internships in a number of different areas and we often hire the interns on full-time after graduation.”
Buckle also recruits nationally for qualified candidates; we asked how people from metropolitan cities adjust to life in Kearney. “Many who move from very busy and large cities appreciate the lifestyle we have here and enjoy the freedom of life in rural Nebraska,” she said. “Kearney is a very progressive community.”
Buckle has a highly collaborative environment designed to enhance teamwork and Buckle’s culture encourages input among many work centers. ”Because speed is of the essence in modern “fast fashion”, Buckle teammates communicate quickly and efficiently via their internal intranet.”
The one downside to Buckle’s Kearney location, she admitted, was the limited access to air travel. Buckle’s business is national and international and travel in and out of Kearney is essential for team leaders as well as outside vendors.
“I do feel our location in rural Nebraska is an advantage,” she said. “It makes us unique and the central locale is ideal for a distribution center.”
The online advantage
Though rooted in Nebraska, Buckle’s website, Buckle.com has the look and feel of any sophisticated fashion retailer.
“The Buckle website continually works to improve the online shopping experience,” she said. “Guests have a positive experience when the site anticipates what they like, suggests related accessories or other similar products, and shows them what others who shop similarly selected on Buckle’s site.”
Buckle.com also provides tools to personalize the shopping experience and get help finding the style and size that fits them. Guests may read and post reviews and rate the products and their experience on the site.
Buckle’s plans for the future, it would seem, are to keep growing in Kearney. The Buckle, Inc. is set to begin construction on a new, approximately 80,000-square-foot office building, expanding its existing headquarters into a multi-building facility. The new building will be located west of the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Pending weather and construction drawing approval, Buckle plans to break ground later this fall with occupancy anticipated for late summer or fall of 2014.
Buckle proves that a successful fashion sense isn’t found only in New York, Chicago or San Francisco. The mere fact that Buckle can compete on an even footing with other big-name brands from a headquarters in Kearney, Nebraska is testament to the company’s visionary leadership and to the hard-working Midwest staff that carries out their vision every day.
In the end, we think Buckle does succeed not in spite of being in Kearney but because of it. And there’s a lesson there for other companies.
For more information…
The Buckle, Inc.
2407 W. 24th Street
Kearney, NE 68845