Store’s footing is in real-life education

Two former University students have turned J Hunter into a successful store, learning on the job.

Bryce Haugen

For avid music lovers Trey Paterson and Jon Shane, selling Bob Marley brand shoes and kicking it with the Marley family was a dream come true.

Five years ago, using Paterson’s father’s connections, the two then-University students and high school pals from Brookfield, Wis., received exclusive rights to sell Bob Marley Footwear. Over several years, they built their business into a million-dollar operation, selling shoes online and at their Minneapolis store next to Target along Nicollet Mall.

But as quickly as it began, their dream unraveled in January 2004 when the Marley family pulled the plug. This nearly killed the store.

“We were weeks away from closing. We couldn’t pay our rent,” said Shane, a 25-year-old who returned to manage the store in November 2004 after spending 18 months at the company’s now-closed Minneapolis warehouse.

Shane and Paterson decided to reinvent the store as a fashion boutique, renamed J Hunter, where shoppers peruse brands and styles unavailable at most department stores.

“When they’re gone, they’re gone,” Shane said, pointing to Bob Marley brand sandals on a nearby table.

Now the store sells a more diverse selection of merchandise, from Gentle Fawn jackets to Puma shoes.

Shane, who borrowed $50,000 and has put thousands of hours of “sweat equity” into the store’s resurrection, said the Marley family increasingly became more interested in making lots of money – sometimes at the expense of product quality.

“We were worried that the credibility of (Marley’s) name was at stake,” he said. He said the difference of opinion eventually led to the unexpected split.

The Marley family was not available for comment.

But Bob Marley, who pays occasional visits via the store’s public announcement system, remains an important presence at J Hunter. His mythic guise graces a good portion of the store’s shirts, placed on tables throughout the building, and the awning outside the store still displays the deceased reggae artist’s name.

Shane said the store’s transition has been tough but successful.

“We’re having the best quarter we’ve ever had right now,” he said.

Instead of business school, Shane said he received most of his business education though personal experience and from his mentor Jim Paterson, Trey’s dad, who rescued Harley-Davidson from bankruptcy in the 1980s.

“The book smarts, the skills – (Carlson School of Management) would have been great, but I had to learn these things on my own,” said Shane, a 2005 American studies graduate. “It’s tough; it’s scary. You lose a lot of sleep.”

He said he might enroll in graduate school to study organization management and prepare for a career in human resources.

These days, Trey Paterson, who dropped out of Carlson in 2002, spends most of his time working for his own real estate firm. He remains co-owner of J Hunter with his father and Shane, but leaves the day-to-day operations to his best friend.

University retail merchandising senior Ada Ojiaku, one of five employees, tended the counter Friday. She said this job will prepare her for her ideal future career: “buying” for retailers.

“I’ve only been here for a month,” she said, filling out an order form for T-shirts. “But I’ve already gotten to make important decisions.”

She said she tries to select items that will appeal to J Hunter’s 20-year-old to 35-year-old target demographic, including Jeannette Haines, 22, who lives downtown and works in the Target Office Towers.

“These shoes have been in the window all summer,” she said after purchasing them from Ojiaku. “I walk by and stare at them.”

Shane said the key to offering a good product is developing relationships with clothing company sales representatives. Cheryl Atkinson, a sales rep from Decadence – a Puma, Gola and Gentle Fawn distributor – provides unique, trendy clothing that has sold quickly.

“We’ve been helping out the small, independent retailer, and Jon’s been great,” Atkinson said from her Chicago office. “It’s a good store.”

Shane said he hopes to one day become the premier specialty fashion store in Minneapolis.

“I’m definitely afraid of winter,” he said, recalling a few days last year that yielded no sales. “But I think we can do it.”