In the universe of family businesses, some struggle to keep the family dynamics in check and others function seemingly effortlessly. The Benders seem to have things figured out pretty well.
Craig and Brian Bender downplay the success their family business has sustained over the years, but their story is remarkable. Let’s turn the clock back to 1973.
Roland and Angie Bender and their children Craig, Brian and Karen were living in Crystal, Minnesota. Roland worked as an Insurance adjuster while Angie worked in sales at Dayton’s department store. Angie’s brother, Les, was researching cities where he could open a shoe store. He narrowed his search to Virginia and Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Les chose to invest in Virginia. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Craig remembers the day in 1973 when his father surprised the family by announcing they would be moving north to start a shoe store in Grand Rapids. “Our parents had negotiated to purchase Nels Stenborg’s family shoe store in Grand Rapids. I don’t know if Dad had a mid-life crisis or what, but he quit his job, Mom quit hers and the whole family packed up and moved to Grand Rapids.”
Craig continues to explain what a really bold move this was for his parents. “Our family had never spent any time in Grand Rapids; we had only driven through the town once or twice. On top of that our parents had never run a shoe store. They had no fallback plan, they were all in. Fortunately Mom had worked for years at Dayton’s, and her customer service experience was critical to their success.”
In order to finance the business, Roland Bender applied for a loan at Grand Rapids State Bank. Clair Wilcox and Russ Holm managed the lending function at the time. They were very helpful in providing the financing to enable the family to move to Grand Rapids. This allowed them to buy the business and a home on Pokegama Lake.
“We were in our early teens at the time,” said Brian. “All we could think about was how cool it was to be living on a lake.”
Roland and Angie worked hard on the business together, and day by day they made it into a success. Angie handled the sales, and Roland worked in the back office (ordering shoes, managing inventory, tending to the physical needs of the building, etc.). “They did surprisingly well considering how little background the two of them had in selling shoes,” added Craig.
Business was good for Bender’s Shoes. Angie and Roland “worked things out” and didn’t suffer many down years. The Bender Family business held its own. Angie and Roland were doing something right. In 1976, just three years after moving to Grand Rapids, the business expanded when the Bender family bought a small shoe store located in Hibbing. The Hibbing store has also thrived and grown over the years, and continues to perform well.
After graduating from high school, Craig decided to make a career of working with his parents in the business. Brian chose to use his carpentry skills after graduating, working with local building contractors for ten years before joining the family team at Bender’s Shoes.
When Roland passed away in 1989, Craig took the reins as owner. Linda, Brian’s wife, has worked in the business since 1982 and is the sales floor manager. “The business doesn’t run itself,” Brain added “We’ve been fortunate to have a great staff. We have the utmost confidence in them and appreciate their dedication. They treat the business as if it were their own.”
In 2013 Bender’s Shoes expanded into the Duluth market with a store located in the vicinity of the Miller Hill Mall. GRSB was able to help the business with financing for the acquisition and renovations that were needed to move into the new space.
The third generation of the Bender family is now actively involved in running the business; Tara and Reed Bender are Brian and Linda’s children and Kayla Carter is Craig’s niece. Tara graduated from Bemidji State University with a bachelor’s of science degree in design technology and is enjoying working in the Duluth store. Kayla graduated from Concordia College Moorhead with a bachelor of art degree in graphic design and has been spending a lot of her time in the Hibbing store. Reed is working on a business degree at The College of St. Scholastica and is working at the Grand Rapids store.
“We’ve learned that we need to give each other space to do what we do,” said Craig,” but at the same time we’re there for one another. We try to instill confidence in our employees because we know our customers will have a better experience if the people waiting on them behave and think like owners.”
The Bender family believes that being involved in the community is good for the community as well as being good for the business. Craig said “We love it here and feel very privileged to live and work here.”
“With the next generation involved in running the business, we have every reason to improve and grow the company. We are constantly trying to enhance the stores with a better selection and strive to exceed customers’ expectations. Even though we have grown over the years we realize it happens one customer at a time.
At Bender’s Shoes they realize there is a lot of competition out there. From big shopping malls to the internet. They still believe there is a place for a ma and pa shoe store, where quality merchandise and customer service are valued.
When I walk into Grand Rapids State Bank,” said Brian, “It seems as though any one of the workers there knows me and greets me personally. That makes an impression. We believe we offer that same level of service to our customers, and that is part of what makes a difference to them.”