GJ shoe store owner’s business style earns him national honor

Winston Churchill liked shoes with zippers for their convenience, according to biographer John Keegan (“Winston Churchill: A Life”).

Style was optional for the British prime minister.

Bruce Benge likes shoes with comfort for their style.

Style is not optional for the Grand Junction businessman. It’s part of how he makes a living.

Which takes us back to Churchill.

“You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give,” is a quote often attributed to Churchill, although whether he actually said it is of some debate.

Nevertheless, the quote’s point is still valid and one Benge takes to heart.

“Be a giver,” he said while sitting in Benge’s Shoe Store, 514 Main St. “Play the game right.”

That means providing excellent customer service, standing beside his employees, being available to mentor other businessmen and women in Grand Junction and being involved in the community.

For these things, Benge, 60, was named the 2009 small business champion of the year by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and Solveras Payment Solutions, a leading payment processing company for small businesses. The store is a 55-year member of NFIB.

Tony Gagliardi, the Colorado director for NFIB, was in Grand Junction two weeks ago to present Benge with the award.

“We were in his shop for about an hour and, I swear, every person who walked through those doors he greeted by first name,” Gagliardi said. “You don’t see that anymore.

“Small business is not just a smaller version of big business,” Gagliardi said. “Small business owners have very specific and very strong ties to the community and are the first ones to stand up when their community needs assistance.”

Benge and his family have been standing up in Grand Junction for many years.

His grandfather, Bertrand Benge, opened the shoe store at 422 Main St. in 1911. The store moved to its current location in 1921 and later passed from Bertrand to his son, Harry Benge, who passed it to Bruce Benge in the mid-1970s. It was Harry who recommended that Bruce narrow the store’s focus to primarily women’s shoes.

Bruce Benge thought he would be able to “master” the business in a few years and then only work a couple of times a week. That didn’t happen, he laughed.

“If anything, it’s gotten harder,” Benge said.

Benge is in the store nearly every day it is open, said Shelly Ramos, who has worked at Benge’s Shoe Store for nearly 16 years.

It’s partly to better manage employee hours, one thing Benge has done in reaction to the recent economic downturn.

But honestly, “I really like being here,” Benge said of the shop. “You can only play so much golf.”

Golf and reading — he’s going through a series of novels by Wilbur Smith — are spare-time activities.

Probably the best thing about being in business for so long are the customers he has met, he said. He has watched daughters become wives and mothers and gotten to know their life stories.

He also likes it when a customer tries on a stylish shoe, then looks up at him in amazement at how comfortable it is.

It’s only been in the last seven to 10 years that comfort became the No. 1 selling point for shoes, he said.

It’s why many of Benge’s shoes are “Euro comfort”: quality, comfortable, stylish European brands.

He does a fit trial for every shoe sold in the store. Well, actually his sweetheart of 26 years, Vicki Cowan, does the trial. She has worn thousands of shoes for the sake of good business.

“If it doesn’t fit her foot, we usually don’t buy it,” Benge said. “You develop an eye for what things work.”

Benge and his staff try to maintain expertise on their inventory so that when a customer with limited time walks in the door, they can recommend what best fits her needs. It’s the kind of customer service you can’t get online, looking at an impersonal photo, Benge said.

Customer service at Benge’s Shoe Store also entails being in step with the community.

“I think it’s important to have community involvement, to be a player,” Benge said.

Supporting good causes is a way to “play the game right,” he said.

On http://www.benges.com, there is a list of nearly 30 groups and nonprofits the store supported in 2009.

Over the years, Benge has served on a number of boards, including the Downtown Development Authority, Downtown Association and Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce boards.

Peggy Page has served with Benge on a couple boards and shares with him the distinction of owning one of Grand Junction’s oldest family businesses. Page-Parson Jewelers, 444 Main St., opened in 1895.

Benge’s energy, particularly considering the number of years he has been in business, is remarkable, Page said.

He is positive, personable and “it’s just really nice that he’s interested in supporting the community and the downtown. There are a lot of businesses that don’t realize they need to pay back the community,” Page said.

Benge is consistent in caring about the community and business, said Gregg Palmer, owner of Brown Shoe Fit Co., 425 Main St., and a friend of Benge’s.

When Palmer came to Grand Junction and opened his shoe store 30 years ago, “it would have been easy for Bruce to deliberately not associate with me.”

Instead, Benge was “congenial and kind. It’s just the kind of guy he is,” Palmer said.

Palmer is a partner in eight Brown’s stores in the nation, and “even my business partners out of state know and like Bruce.”

“They will call and talk with him. His reputation goes well beyond the borders of Colorado,” Palmer said.

“My business is better because his business is downtown,” Palmer said.

Benge is humble about his role as a mentor.

“Yes, I’ve been asked questions,” he said, simply.

Usually the questions are about advertising, probably because people often feel it is what they know the least about, he said.

Benge does his own advertising, and it is his voice in store ads. It makes them more personable, he said, then pointed out that he was doing it before former Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Lee Iacocca starred in commercials for cars, and Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas pitched burgers.

While Benge wants to sell shoes, he’s not going to get caught up in hard competition, Ramos said.

Other owners of shoe stores come into Benge’s with business questions and it’s “no big deal ... which I think is pretty cool,” Ramos said.

When Miss Marie shoe store opened, Benge and Cowan took a bottle of wine over to the owner “just to welcome her here,” Ramos said. “They didn’t look at it as competition.”

As a boss, Benge is “wonderful,” Ramos said.

“It’s kind of like being one of the family” along with Benge’s son, nieces and nephews. It’s why she and several others have worked at the store so many years.

When it comes to benefits, “people would be amazed at how much he offers us here,” Ramos said.

It’s good pay, and there’s profit sharing and health insurance, among other things. Her husband works for a large corporation, and his benefits are comparable to hers, she said.

It says a lot about her boss’ character, Ramos said.

On this subject, Benge again was humble. “I’ve got great employees,” he said.

He always has offered health benefits to employees working at least 25 hours a week. “I just thought it was what was right,” he said.

But providing that benefit has gotten much more difficult.

“When you’re paying on a monthly basis for health insurance what you used to pay a few years ago for your home mortgage, it is a double whammy,” Benge said in a news release from NFIB.

Gagliardi agreed.

In Colorado, businesses with fewer than 50 employees must be part of a “small group” market and “your insurance premiums will be 18 to 30 percent higher for either the same coverage or less coverage than if you were in the large group market,” Gagliardi said.

Insurance aside, we have got to get control of the cost of health care, Benge said.

And while health care is a “huge issue,” it wasn’t a subject Benge wanted to dwell on long.

His business is shoes.

“The harder I work, the luckier I get,” Benge said.

Selling shoes is most difficult when “people who have a certain foot that won’t fit in the shoes they want to wear,” he said.

Not everyone has Churchill’s approach to shoes.

Then again, Churchill may not have worn shoes with zippers if he had met Benge, who can be seen wearing well-fitting leather shoes, no zippers, no laces, no Velcro.


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