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Interview with: Robert Sakowitz
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: July 9, 2008
DG: Today is July 9, 2008. We are in the home of Robert Sakowitz who is being interviewed for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Mr. Sakowitz?
RS: I am very well. How are you, David? It is nice to see you.
DG: I am doing great. Thank you. You, too. Thank you for making time for us. Let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell me about your origins and how you came to be?
RS: How I came to be? O.K. How the family first came to be which is by way of my great-grandfather coming to the United States from Northern Ukraine. He came from North of Kiev and his name was Shaikevitch and they could not read Cyrillic Russian at Ellis Island, so they said, “I guess that is an S, that looks like an A and that is a K.” There are 33 sounds in the Russian language. They are not letters. So, hitch and vitz and witz all got created because of that where people were trying to Anglicize it. So, Sakowitz was actually a created word because it was “SHAIKEVITCH” and they just created it. He was in New York for a short period of time when a group from Galveston came up. The rabbi from Galveston, Dr. Henry Cohen, was part of the group with the Kempner and the Moody families who came up and set up this, I think it was called the Galveston Experiment or something where they were trying to bring people down and colonize, so to speak, in Texas. It was the pearl of the Gulf of Mexico at the time. Galveston had an opera house, as you know. It was very sophisticated. And I think my great-grandfather immediately grafted onto a relationship with Rabbi Cohen because they were both from the same region; actually, Rabbi Cohen was from an area not far from where my great-grandfather had left. He had left with one son, left two other sons and a daughter and his wife, came over, as they did in those days, to make enough money to send back over later and bring them back over. So, went to Galveston and started a ships chandlery business, ship supplies. Then, ultimately brought over my grandfather, Tobias, and my great uncle, Simon, and sister, my great-aunt, Becky Nathan, who was part of the Nathan family then in Galveston. The two sons that then came over, Tobias and Simon, when they were 21 and 19, respectively, went out on their own because the little ship’s chandlery business could not pay for everybody so they had several jobs in Galveston, they went out on their own, and started their own gentleman’s haberdashery business roughly about the same time as the recovery from the great Galveston storm in 1900. So, even though 10,000 people were lost and Galveston tried to recover, built a seawall so that they could survive it again, my grandfather and great uncle started out on their own. When Spindletop was hit, everyone started talking about this little bayou city and talking about a boom town, so Grandfather felt that Houston was really going to be a major growth area and they started a suburban, believe it or not, equivalent of a branch store. They only had a gentleman’s haberdashery. They weren’t in the ships chandlery business. That was Great-Grandfather’s and his son, Samuel. So, they started off and created their own little business, both in Galveston and in Houston, that was just shirts and all of the findings of a haberdashery. Started a small little store on Main and Preston in Houston and Simon ran that store and Tobias ran the “bigger store” in Galveston until 1915. They prospered and both operations grew, and when the second hurricane came in 1915, which was actually a larger scale storm on the way that the hurricanes are measured, it did not lose as much in the way of economic losses and loss of life as 1900 because they had built the seawall and that seawall worked but it did flood and at that point, Grandfather said, “That’s it, Galveston is never going to come back again. Let’s pack up everything.” They had an old Rio automobile and they moved everything to Houston and expanded the Houston operation to Main and Prairie. So, the old Kiam Building as it is called now, was the home to Sakowitz for Sakowitz Brothers, as it was called, until 1929 and in 1929, actually, several years beforehand in 1927 or so, they bought a piece of property on Main near Walker. And there was a big battle as far as real estate in Houston which I am sure you have done a lot of research on and know that the Sterling family wanted Houston to grow along Texas Avenue. And so, they bought all the property up and down Texas Avenue to develop. They thought it would grow with the bayou; whereas, Jesse Jones thought it should grow north/south rather than east/west, and that would delineate Main Street as the Main Street. He wanted, in his words according to my grandfather, Uncle Jesse as they called him – no blood relation but everybody called him Uncle Jesse, he was the godfather, so to speak – wanted to “end this nonsense once and for all” was the quote. And so, he decided to build the Gulf Building as it is now called.
But, at the time, it wasn’t quite yet the Gulf Building. It was the tallest building west of the Mississippi to be built by Jesse Jones and he came to my Grandfather Tobias and said, “Tob, I know you bought a piece of property to build a new store,” and he said, “Yes, Mr. Jones, it is on Main Street though,” and he said, “Yes, I understand it and you hold onto that because that is going to be a valuable piece of property for you. I don’t want you to build your store there. I want you to build your store inside the building I am going to build and I want you to take 5 floors, the first 5 floors of my new, tall building.” And Grandpa said, “Mr. Jones, what are we going to do with 5 floors? We can’t possibly,” even though we are now a men’s and boys shop, by that time -- instead of a gentleman’s haberdashery, they were men’s and boys – “what can we possibly do?” And he said, “I’ll make the terms enough to your advantage that you just rent out to other people but you sublease it but under the name of Sakowitz Brothers.” And so, they started and they leased a millinery floor, an entire floor for hats, believe it or not – they were that popular back then – an entire floor for women’s apparel, ready to wear, and they expanded, Sakowitz Brothers, expanded into children’s and I remember the Boy Scouts shop as I was growing up so I remember they did all sorts of things like that. Had women’s accessories and that was a big expansion at the time, the largest expansion they’d ever had. They opened their doors in July of 1929 and the important thing which I neglected to say just now was that Jesse Jones said, “I am going to give you a very advantageous lease and I will build your furniture and fixtures for you. So, you use your money for your inventory” and incidentally for what we now call accounts receivable, credit, for peoples’ charge accounts. Had he not done that, Grandfather, I would have never been in the retail business, it would have died in the 1930s along with so many others when the crash came, but because of that advantageous move, Sakowitz was able to give credit to a number of people who they knew were good customers, they knew they were good for it, they knew they had people of integrity, but just were going through some bad times, even though Houston did not have as bad a time as New York and other eastern cities because it was still growing. So, in the 1930s, there was considerable growth in any case and Sakowitz Brothers was able to handle that.
I came along towards the end of those 1930s and I guess my . . . it is very funny – we grew up, the first years, they had a house on Sunset Boulevard but when I was born, Lynn was born in 1935 and when I was born (my sister, Lynn) in 1938, they figured we’d better have a larger house because it was too small of a house and they built in Riverside on North MacGregor Drive. Back then, there were still some religious prejudices. Needless to say, we have not gone totally past that today but they were a lot worse then and they are a lot better now than what they were, so that there were no Jewish members of the community that could go into River Oaks or certain areas. So, they started their own area and a lot of the more successful people of the Jewish faith moved into Riverside along North and South MacGregor, and they built a beautiful home on 6 acres. Joe Finger, the architect who had built a number of great edifices in Houston was their architect. It was a white Colonial home. And no sooner had they built it and we moved in, then my earliest memory actually is lying on the grass or a blanket on the grass in the backyard, my father reading the newspaper on a Sunday morning, or it was Sunday afternoon I guess it was, and my mother running out of the house with this panicked look on her face that I had never seen before which scared me which is why I remember it as my first sort of vivid memory, and I have even tested my memory and they told me, yes, that is exactly how it happened and what happened. She ran out and she said, “Lover,” because that is what she used to call dad, she said, “Lover, Lover, the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. What does that mean?” And my father put his paper down and he said, “That means we have war.” I never forgot that. My father enlisted, even though he was older, he enlisted and they wanted him because my grandfather was on the Selective Service board and he could not stand by even though he was running the stores and all of that, he could not stand by and watch them draft other boys and not be part of it, so my father enlisted and they put him in charge of post exchanges, base exchanges because he was a proven merchant, he was older and therefore, they needed people for logistics and all of those other things. So, we moved to San Angelo, Texas and were there at Concho and Goodfellow Field until the end of the war basically and then came back to Houston where I attended Sutton School and have very fond memories of the fun club on Saturday morning at the Delman Theater and then, of course, the downtown store on Main and Rusk was right across from the Majestic and we used to go there for the movies because it was air-conditioned. It was fun growing up. Along North MacGregor, there was a bayou that separated North and South MacGregor, sort of like now it can be told and my kids are old enough so I can say that. We would swing on the grapevines over the bayou. You know, if my kids ever did that, I’d have a fit, I am sure. So, all of that is gone now but there were snakes and alligators and all of that sort of stuff. But we did all of that and had a great time. And then, in 1951, when I got out of Sutton, going into the 7th grade, my sister had gone to Albert Sydney Johnston Junior High and then on to San Jacinto High School but this new school had been created and had a great reputation for education. Mom and Dad came to me and said, “There is this new school, St. John’s, which is a really good reputation as a Houston prep school for good colleges and we would really like you to consider going.” And I said I did not want to do that because all my friends were going on to Johnston. I remember Mom saying, “Maybe give it just 1 year. Just try 1 year and if you don’t like it and you don’t think it is the right thing to do, we will let you transfer next year but just try 1 year.” And so, I did and stayed there the whole time and that was a whole series of other stories. That is a long answer to your question.
DG: That is a great answer. That is an interviewer’s dream answer. Let me see how far down the page we got. You mentioned swinging over the bayou on vines which, of course, we will keep a secret from your kids. What else did you do for fun?
RS: Oh, gosh! I remember they were building some homes in the streets behind us – Southmore in that area – and so we used to . . . there was a lot of vacant land and so we used to play war all the time. Guys around the neighborhood. I remember we would get into mud fights and get into . . . create these lumps of what became clay but it was mud. They would be hand grenades and we would throw them at each other and we would shoot bee-bees. I mean, you know, all the things that every parent is always afraid of . . .you know, you are going to shoot somebody’s eye out. Yes, we had the bee-bee guns and we did all the fake gun fighting but bee-bee guns, too. Used to shoot squirrels in the backyard. I mean, you know, there were all kinds of things. We also had in the backyard which was unquestionably very privileged . . . I mean, we weren’t what you would call rich from the point of view of having a lot of available cash because everything went back into the business so, you know, everybody who said, well, you were born with a silver spoon, you know, the book I am writing and will one day finish is called “The Silver Spoon Was Always Part of the Inventory,” because I did not have a silver spoon. We were very comfortable but it wasn’t quite the same thing as oil money or other wealth. But we had ducks in the backyard, we raised chickens, we raised giant white homer pigeons, and I used to collect the eggs. And after we had enough chickens so that we had many more eggs than we could possibly consume, I would go gather the eggs in the morning and put them after school . . . I would put them into a brown bag and put them in a little basket I had on my bicycle and delivered eggs. I would check the Weingarten’s Grocery Store ads in the morning in the Post or the Press or the Chronicle and I remember they were 31 cents and I would charge 33 or 34 cents and they would all say, when the ladies would say, “Well, now, you know, these are 31 or 32 cents at Weingarten’s,” or wherever, Henke & Pilot, and I said, “Yes, I know, but these were laid this morning and I am delivering them to your home.” And they would smile and say, “O.K.” So, I used to sell eggs and with my egg money, I opened my first bank account at Second National Bank. Clarence Malone was the banker who was obviously a good friend of Mr. Bernard’s, my father’s, and incidentally, I refer to him as Mr. Bernard because in the store, there was Mr. Tob, Mr. Simon, Mr. Bernard and Mr. Robert at one point so instead of saying Mr. Sakowitz, they always referred to us by our first names as Mister. And I never called Dad, dad in the store. I always kept business and family separate because growing up in a family business, there are two ways, I think, that you can go. You can take it for granted and become quite a profligate, I guess, or you can really feel as though you have an obligation which is what my parents taught me. You have to give back to the community and if you are privileged, then you have to pay for that privilege. So, actually, I started working in the store, and I am digressing but I started working in the store at the age of 9 in the summertime marking shirts in the receiving room for 10 cents an hour and I always felt that whatever anybody else did, their 100%, I had to do 125% because otherwise, they would say, “He’s the boss’ son,” and I just hated that. And so, it was always sort of proving myself. And that just sort of stuck in just about everything that I did, that you just felt that you had to prove yourself.
So, back to what I did for fun, all of that was kind of fun. I played football. I played baseball. As a matter of fact, one of my great associations was with Dick Johnson of the Chronicle. Richard J.V. Johnson. Dick Johnson and I used to joke all the time that he, one summer, was the coach, the baseball coach at Sutton School for one summer, so he was actually my coach when I was . . . he was a young guy, I think, U of H and I was in Sutton School, but it is something we used to joke around about all the time. They were really good years. I mean, I remember spending hours when Houston’s many days of rain . . . I remember playing Monopoly and building log cabins. I had a collection of model airplanes, G&G Model Shop, and I used to take the sandpaper and balsa wood with these kits and make these airplanes. And then, I would suspend them from the ceiling. My father would walk in, “What are you doing?” I had this huge table. I got a huge piece of plywood, put my electric train set on it and built this war field and all. You know, kids play war. I mean, that was one of the things. I grew up with it. The Cold War was there and so we did those things. But sports. I used to bicycle around a lot. Back then, kids always bicycled and I would bicycle to Sutton School but also I would get my bike after school even when I was at St. John’s when I would come home and I would go bicycle to see a girlfriend or see some buddies and we would play football in the backyard. That North and South MacGregor Drive bayou that I just was talking about – there was a railroad trestle right across. As a matter of fact, you would go down North MacGregor and the Schlumbergers lived just before that railroad trestle and the Tellepsens lived across the way from Timbercrest which is right down from us, and I would walk across that railroad trestle or walk my bicycle across because a lot of my buddies lived across the way. And we played basketball in their backyard, we played touch football – had a lot of fun.
DG: Somebody who knows the story would say that your early efforts at selling eggs showed a propensity for not just retail but for merchandising to a higher ended clientele. Finding a rationale to charge more. Was there anything else, looking back, that you could see in your youth? Was the attraction to the family business more out of the family relationship, desire to be with your dad or was it because you really had a sense for wanting to sell stuff to people?
RS: No, it wasn’t so much wanting to sell stuff. It was family obligation. The sell stuff sort of seemed to, I don’t know, a little bit be in my blood. Another story. My parents were out of town on a buying trip and I loved Fannin bread and butter pickles. I just love pickles. To this day, I still like them. They had left money for groceries with a lady who was cooking for us and housekeeping and looking after my sister and I while they were gone, and we went to the grocery store and I wanted to get some of those pickles and she said, “No, we don’t have that in our budget for that.” I think she wanted to buy some cigarettes or something instead. Be that as it may, I did not get my pickles. So, as I said, they were always building things and constructing things, houses in the neighborhood, and back then, you could get 2 or 3 cents for a Coke bottle if you took it back to the store. And Guys Food Market was right on the corner of Scott and North MacGregor and that is where we used to go do the around the corner shopping, even though my mother’s sister was married to Abe Weingarten and we were part of that. So, we had to shop at both Guys and Weingarten’s. But I started collecting Coke bottles and I remember the Fannin’s bread and butter pickles were 38 cents and I collected enough Coke bottles, 20 Coke bottles I guess at 2 cents apiece, to get my 40 cents so the next time we went shopping, I turned in the Coke bottles and bought my pickles. Well, Jeanette, who was the housekeeper/cook, told the story to my parents when they came home and my father used to tell the story and say, “From that point on, we did not think we had to worry about him.” So, I guess that answers it a little bit. It was really a lot about family heritage and family and I remember at one point, after having worked summers and Christmases and every holiday and literally growing up in the business and working in the store, crawling all over the building when they were building the white marble store on Main and Dallas when we opened that in 1951. I remember constructing it from 1949 to 1951. It took 2 years. All of those things. When we opened Gulfgate and the decision about Gulfgate and how that came about and Post Oak, sitting on the corner of Post Oak and Westheimer and counting cars with my father for a sophisticated traffic count back in those days but that is what we did. There was nothing there. It was part of my life. It was part of the fiber.
When I was in college, you know, when I graduated from St. John’s, I was accepted at Harvard and went to Harvard and they say it takes a lifetime to get over a Harvard education and it is true . . . there are certain things that are sort of taught you there aside from the education in general, the “book learning.” The sense of accountability, of giving back, of community service, all of which is part of that education, even on top of what I had with my parents. Plus the roommates that I had who were very much like that, a whole another story, from Boston and New York. But I was about 18 or 19, I guess, I was a sophomore and I remember driving up to the ranch and going through this sort of stage that all kids go through, sort of revolting. This was not a big revolution for everybody else but for me, it was sort of big and I said that I was not sure that I really wanted to go into the family business. We were driving in Mom and Dad’s Lincoln, it was a blue Lincoln. I was sitting in the back seat leaning forward talking. Mom was driving and Dad was sitting in the passenger seat. And he turned to me and said, “Look, you just tell me if you don’t want to go into this business. Just make up your mind and tell me. Because if you do want to go into it, I will do everything I can to keep it going and to have you come in and be part of it. But if you don’t, just tell me so I can sell it because I am not going to spend my life knocking myself out for nothing.” And it was such a shock. It just jolted me. So, it was kind of a fish or cut bait at that point in my life and I thought about it and thought I did want to do it because it was a fascinating business. I had one of my roommates who was very, very old New England family confront me right at the graduation time, saying, “Sack, you are not really just going to spend your life selling shirts, are you? What good are you going to do for mankind by selling shirts?” And it just threw me back, again, another kind of a thing. And I said, “Sam, it is not just the selling the shirts. It is the selling of the shirts that makes jobs that creates money for other people to be able to donate to other things. There is a lot more to it than that.” But it still made me very defensive. That added to kind of the social responsibility feeling and even more so.
DG: Your dad’s position in the community, the friends that he had, it must have afforded you the opportunity to meet some interesting people.
RS: That is an understatement.
DG: Would you care to share some of those moments with us?
RS: Oh, gosh! There are a lot of them. Well, one of them I remember was Uncle Tommy. Uncle Tommy was Tommy Dorsey, the band leader. Dad and Mom were really good friends with them. They would come down and play in Houston at the Shamrock on his big bus, The Sentimentalist, and I remember he then took us out to San Jacinto Battlegrounds. We had a huge picnic out there on The Sentimentalist, the bus. We went on their yacht up in New York. There were just a number of situations like that. Mom had done a lot of work after having been contacted by Marion Preminger, Otto Preminger, the director’s wife. She was working in L’Ambriney (sp?) with Albert Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer needed some clothing and towels and sheeting and all of that for his leper colony and his people over in Africa. Mom went to Wamsutta and Martex and a lot of our resources and said, “Look, whatever seconds or whatever you have that just is not merchantable, could you donate them to Albert Schweitzer?” And so, she had a close relationship there. It is very broad. I don’t even know where to stop and where to start because there were so many celebrities, luminaries, personalities – I don’t know what you would call it – but lots of people that I guess you could say I became very comfortable with because I was always being introduced. They would always trot my sister and I out and you know we would be introduced, we would talk for a few minutes when we were little kids, all the way up through adulthood. But gosh, there are many, many people in politics, in movies. I mean, Kirk Douglas was a good friend. And then obviously people in the fashion industry. When we first launched Estee Lauder in Houston, Mom and Estee Lauder became very close friends. Estee asked her to come behind the counter and help because we still had an overflow crowd and Mom and Estee Lauder both had their shoes off at 6 o’clock -- we were supposed to close at 5:30 back then – at 6 o’clock still taking care of customers. It was really fun. I guess I have had a rare opportunity to meet a number of people.
DG: Of course, a lot of those moments are wasted on us when we are young because we don’t really understand the significance of the people we are meeting until later and we are looking back. Was there anything that you were aware of when it was happening?
RS: I have to disagree with your premise. I think I was pretty aware that these were significant people in their fields. I might not have understood how significant but I knew they were personalities. You know, the funny thing about celebrity personalities, people who are names, is that they are not names or personalities because they don’t have anything. They are personalities because they exude their talent, their strength, their intelligence, their being whatever it is, and that comes across usually one-on-one, so that you get that feeling from them, not that they are special but that they have a talent, they are someone unique in a field, and I think that came across.
DG: Of course, your personal story is an important part of this archive but the story of the brand, of the stores, has been such an important part of Houston for so long. Can you give us some of the chronology? You made reference to different branches opening: the Gulfgate, the Post Oak, the others. When you went to work there, just sort of take us through the chronology of how you expanded.
RS: Let me start where I left off. In 1956 . . . we opened the downtown white marble store in 1951 and that was a huge expansion even beyond Main and Rusk because we added gifts and linens and fine jewelry and lots of other departments, so that we became a kind of hybrid. The uniqueness of Sakowitz was that we did not carry appliances and we did not carry furniture and we did not carry hard goods other than diamonds. We did not carry hard goods. But we did carry all the apparel and the accessories and home accessories and things like that, so that it was a fashion specialty store but it wasn’t all high fashion. It sort of was from the middle up, so much so that when we moved into the store in 1951, the millinery department and the women’s apparel department that had been leased, we took over and we started operating them ourselves. And we had no big names, like the Smart Shop at the time or Ben Wolfman’s Fashion which is why Niemen’s bought The Fashion in 1955 to move to Houston. They did not come in as Niemen Marcus, they came in buying The Fashion because Ben Wolfman was a woman’s shop and he had all of the exclusivities. Back then, they had exclusivities, the exclusivities of women’s apparel that Niemen’s had. Otherwise, Battlesteins women’s also had a number of exclusivities and we did not have too many of those. It was very, very locked in. So, we had men’s better than anyone and we had the exclusivities on Hickey Freeman and Louie Roth and a number of those people. But we did not have the women’s exclusivities at all, so that in 1951, we started off and we were growing into that, learning about it, and a fellow by the name of . . . right after Niemen’s bought The Fashion in 1955, Battlesteins moved to Shepherd. The first major suburban store in the area that we knew were our customers, the heart of our customers. So, we knew we had to go out there but along came a fellow named Ted Berenson from Boston who said he was going to build the first major shopping mall, again, west of the Mississippi and a big open mall, and it was going to be the gateway to the Gulf Coast and Galveston and he called it Gulfgate. And he came to Mr. Bernard, to Dad, and he said he wanted to build us a turnkey, meaning I’ll build it, just like Jesse Jones had done, I will give you a favorable lease, I’ll build the furniture, fixtures and equipment. Just put in your merchandise and your charge accounts and carry. That is what you will need. And you need to be there because I need you and I need a department store. And we want you to be the lead and if you are in, then I will get the other people. So, in 1956, we decided to do that. Dad decided to do that. That 2 or 3 years hiatus was just enough with the huge growth of Houston in the 1950s to convince my grandfather, my great uncle and my father that Shepherd and Kirby weren’t right for the rate that Houston was growing. And so, they started looking beyond that, further west, where they heard there was going to be a freeway, this area around the city, was going to loop the city, and this now 610 Loop was the area that was going to be a good communicative link for the city. And they started looking at that point.
In 1959, Sakowitz Post Oak opened in a cow pasture. There was nothing across the street on the south side. On the east side, Farrington had build the Farrington Center which was Weingarten and actually that was a whole family story but that is a whole another subject. Weingarten went on that location where the Container Store is right now, for instance, in that center and we went west of them on the other side. So, Sakowitz Post Oak opened in 1959 and Weingarten’s and Sakowitz were just out there and there wasn’t much else. There were even statements by friends who said . . . I remember Mr. Bernard saying . . . people made mention of “the Sakowitz boys are going to lose their shirt. I don’t know why they are building that far out. It is going to be awful.” And, of course, history has proven that was not true. So, that was 1959 and then Joskes built diagonally across shortly thereafter and the Galleria was built. After that, Gerry Hines went to Niemen’s who were going to build further down on Westheimer, further into town, and made a deal with them to put them into the Galleria and that made it. When Joskes opened, we had a 25% increase that year, just showing the old thing about you don’t want to be next to each other because you will drain each other – it disproved it because back then, that was common knowledge or supposed to be, what was the given at the time. And critical mass has long since replaced that as people understand critical mass. So, 1959, we opened there and then in 1960, I had graduated from college, went to work for a short time at Galerie Lafayette in Paris for their bureau d’etudes, their research department, came back to go into the Air Force Reserve and was in for the 6 months active duty and 5-1/2 years of Reserve and went to New York, was at Macy’s for 2-1/2 years, and then came back on an agreement with Mr. Bernard on a sink or swim basis for a department called The Young Houstonian. As a matter of fact, I remember being in The Young Houstonian office, had just come back and we were talking about the possibilities of another location and I got very much involved in that. And my first store of planning and departmental layout, architecture and the whole thing was Town & Country Village when Dan Moody and Joe McDermott bought 77 acres and wanted to develop it and said, we could either go on I-10 or we could go on Memorial. Well, back then, Katy was not really an upscale kind of a location whereas Memorial was so we wanted to be on the Memorial side. And I remember going to town meetings with Dan Moody out in the Villages area in Memorial to explain to them that this was not going to be industrial looking, it is not going to be commercial, it is going to fit right into this residential feeling, we will build a country club looking building and it was. It looked like the front of a country club for the area. So, we opened there in 1967 but meanwhile, we had started some things that I kicked off that were the Sakowitz festivals, we started doing salutes to countries and to themes, different than what Niemen would do with their fortnight. We would take a theme which was very unique and had never been done. Started the Sakowitz Ultimate Gifts. A lot of things that made Sakowitz a unique operation in the country and that is why Johnny Carson used to have them on the Great Carnac would be guessing some of the things for the Sakowitz Christmas catalog and the Today Show. We had national recognition for our Christmas catalog items. You know, the gift of knowledge, the gift of health, the gift of . . . different ways to do that. The first wine auctions in a store. We flew Michael Broadbent from Christie’s in London for 22 years, different auctions that we would have. Some of the best wine sellers in the city of Houston. Even today, people will come up and say, “We got our first start buying bottles of wine at the Sakowitz wine auction.” So, we created some fairly unique things for Houston but it is because Houston has a unique personality. Houston is a very special blend of people. It is very different from Dallas, for instance. When we built stores in other cities and especially in Dallas, I looked at the culture of that city and Dallas is a marketing city. Houston is a production oriented city. So, you have a totally different sense of values and a purpose and a use of product. Houstonians are more independent. Dallas, once it has been recognized as the fashion trend, they buy 3 times more of an item than Houston will because they will flock onto it. But Houston will accept something faster because they are more independent thinkers in many ways.
DG: How else would you describe a Sakowitz customer, a typical Sakowitz customer?
RS: A typical Sakowitz customer would have been someone who appreciated personal service, appreciated the care and concern not only for the way in which they were going to be treated but also the product itself as being something a little different, something a little unique. When we launched the first European boutiques in America with Andre Carej (sp?), we actually were bringing something innovative, so the Sakowitz customer sort of appreciated something and expected something just a little different than any other store, something that not on a snobbish basis but just was different. There was a story behind it. There was something to tell about this as to why it was of value as well and they expected to get good value and the things that would last. I will never forget – I was probably 16 or 17 in the men’s department selling one Christmas – it was either Christmas or a summertime – and a man came in with a pair of absolutely beat up, worn out Johnson Murphy shoes, which was a very good brand and very durable and he wanted his money back. He said, “These haven’t held up well.” So, I took it to the buyer. I said, “Yes, sir. Just a moment, sir.” We were taught never to say no. Never say no to a customer. Always go ask a buyer, go have someone else . . . the sales staff could not say no. You have to say, “Let me check this out for you.” And so, I went to check with the buyer and the buyer went back and got his Johnson Murphy book and not only was the pair not in the book, but it was not in the book that he had had from 5 years ago. It was probably at least 10 years that the guy had bought them. And the buyer was about to say, “Look, we bend over backwards for our customers but this is a little much,” and at that point, as fate would have it, Uncle Simon, Simon Sakowitz, walked up and he was always kind of going like this and he said, “What seems to be the question?” And so, the buyer told him and I told him and he looked at the shoes and he laughed and he said, “Give the man a new pair of shoes.” I said, “Mr. Simon?” and just looked at him like that and he looked at me and he said, “Bobby, that man is going to go out and he is going to tell everybody in the city of Houston about this. Now, you can take that 2 ways. He will tell all his friends. They’ll either come back and try and take advantage of us, which not that many people want to do, or they will say, ‘My goodness, what a great store. They stand behind their product. I like to think they will do the latter.’” Taught me a great lesson.
DG: So, you are expanding and you have added stores and you are across the street from the Galleria. What happened?
RS: The world changes and what happened was that people started expanding in everybody else’s backyard. Niemen’s was here, Saks came in. In other words, everybody was in everybody else’s backyard. Competition got much more fierce. We became much better known. We became a fashion name because we launched Carej, St. Laurent, Zania (sp?), Fiorucci – a lot of European product. Because I could not get New York – do you remember I told you before – I could not get the designers from New York, we focused on some in California and Europe because I had worked in Europe, and because of that, I was able to steal the march on Niemen’s before they knew what had happened and we got a number of exclusives of European designers and became extremely well recognized for that but it became very competitive and so in order to expand which we had to do in order to be able to keep our lines because in order to keep the lines, you have to sell more product, you have to keep your customers by being able to grow, you have to keep your sales staff by having . . . not only sales staff, all staff . . . giving them an upward path for people to be able to become sales and assistant buyers and associate buyers – a growth path for your leadership. So, in order to do all of those things, we needed to expand. We decided in the very beginning – this is a whole long story but, to be brief, we were going to try to create as my dream a new Federated department stores but not department stores of fine fashion specialty stores. And at various points, I had negotiations and deals with Frost Brothers, Bergdorf Goodman, J.P. Allen in Atlanta, Jacobsons -- we had a number of people we were talking to about this. For various reasons, each one very unique, it did not work, but it taught us during the course of all that experimentation that we would be good if we stayed in the southwest. Our whole southwest regionality was our growth pattern. So, we could go as far north as Denver or Kansas City, as far east as Atlanta and as far west as Phoenix, and that was our plan. We were able to build a beautiful store in Scottsdale, Arizona and expand there, Midland, Texas, which was booming and going and blowing, but the first place outside of Houston that we went, believe it or not, was Amarillo, Texas because Mr. Bernard was on the board of Bank of Southwest and one of the bankers up in Amarillo had come down to talk to the bank and there was a firm up there called White & Kirk which had been there since the 1880s and White & Kirk was the store in Amarillo and it was in trouble and when I had been looking at these acquisitions and mergers, Mr. Bernard came and he said, “Close the door, son.” I closed the door. He said, “There is an opportunity for us to acquire an operation in another city as our first stepping out of Houston.” “Where is that, Mr. Bernard?” “Amarillo, Texas.” I said, “Amarillo, Texas? You must be kidding!” And he said, “No,” and he explained the circumstances. He said, “Look, after you go up and look at it, you tell me no, we won’t do it but I want to tell you that it is big enough to catch our attention but it is small enough so that if we stumble and we fail, it won’t bankrupt the company. Just go ahead and look at it.” Well, I went up and it was a little gem, as he said. So, that was our first expansion outside of Houston. And ultimately, it was Houston, Dallas, Midland, Scottsdale, Arizona and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Back to Harvard. I had majored in history and economics and I remember reading in Economics 1 with Paul Samuelson that primary industry like Houston – production and raw product – there will always be a need for it, and I thought the energy business was just, you know, the perfect model. It is something that had energy and some other things. So, of course, Amarillo with its agribusiness and energy, Midland, Tulsa – these were all great places that also understood the energy business as well as having other industry. It turns out I made a mistake. Come 1985, the energy business goes to hell and in every city where we were, people were devastated. Not just by that but by lots of other consequences. So, we had to restructure because I was actually sitting as chairman of the Houston branch of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank at the time and so I knew what was happening in the banking industry. We had a consortium of 5 banks and 3 of the 5 were under water, and because of that, they needed cash, they called their notes, we had a bad 6 months and so we were under our loan requirements for that time for the first time, and they called the note. So, we had to restructure, filed a Chapter 11. We were the first successful retail establishment to emerge from a Chapter 11 successfully, with a partner from Australia. The Australian partner had acquired 100% of Bonwit Teller in New York and 100% of B. Altman and a number of other operations and did a joint venture with us. As luck would have it, the 1987 Wall Street crash hurt Australia and other countries more than it did us and had consequences that were very dire, especially to this one company, a $2.5 billion company. And so, it had to file a Chapter 11 and we were caught in the middle of it. So, my parent was now in a chapter even though in 18 months, I had turned Sakowitz around and it was successful again. And so, in 1990, Bonwit Teller, B. Altman, Sakowitz – their whole operation was liquidated and that is when I looked around and said, O.K., where do I go from here? I saved it once and then it went under so I started a consulting practice.
DG: How did your customer base react? I mean, you are still in the city, you are still highly visible. Personally, I remember the closing of the store and sort of something without paying close attention to the financial pages and whatever – it is just something you just never, ever expect.
RS: And it was very, very difficult. First of all, Houston had gone through this wrenching, what I call Depression. It wasn’t a recession because a recession means it recedes from something and goes back, and this was a Depression. I remember being in a luncheon for the Chamber of Commerce board of directors in 1983 and the then chairman, it might have been Woody – I am not sure who was the chairman in 1983 – but he said, “I want you all to tear off a piece of paper and write down when you think we are going to get out of this little mess,” and that is where the phrase “stay alive until 1985” came about because everybody said, oh, we will be out of it by 1985. And, of course, as you know, in 1985, oil hit $8 a barrel as opposed to coming back – it got worse. So that instead of cutting to the bone a lot of the industries and businesses in the city, you know, obviously cut fat, cut a little bit of muscle during the 1983, 1984, early 1985 period, because they thought it was going to just turn around. And when oil hit $8, I think everybody was so flabbergasted and the financial institutions so harsh that that is when major surgery started with all the companies. So, Houston was really in a state of shock as you recall. 125,000 families left. It was really a disaster. Our economy had been almost 80% energy oriented so we were not as diversified because the boom had gone like this. And, you know, it is really nice if you really understand a tiger by the tail and can ride it up like that but please, dear God, let me just have something that is like this. I mean, stair steps are far better so that you can digest things because you cannot plan a business like that, when you have this kind of a spike and obviously, it did not bode well for us. We are now in a fortunate position of being less than 50% energy and yet, it is booming. But because the Houston economy has focused upon diversification and because we have a huge diversity of peoples more than any other in the country, I think, which is something to be really proud of . . . I mean, I sit on the board of the Jefferson Awards for Public Service in Washington and last year, Mayor Daly from Chicago was the honoree of the greatest public service by an elected or appointed official, and we are having dinner together at the event, I was sitting next to him and he was lauding his city’s diversity, and I said, “With all due respect, Mr. Mayor, most of your diversity is eastern and western Europeans. Yes, you have lot of Poles and Slovaks and all of that but they are all Caucasian based, they are all very, very similar Europeans. We’ve got 33% Hispanic, we’ve got 23% African American, we’ve got 11% Asian from all over, we’ve got 125,000 or 130,000 East Indians, we’ve got a huge number of Vietnamese. Now, that is diversification.” And he looked at me and he just said, “Hmmm, O.K.” This city is fabulous. It is a microcosm of America and it is a great experiment.
Again, back to your question about the economy and Houston. The 1980s were boom and bust and so, the city had a substantial change in its whole psychology, a real comeuppance. There are lots of good business people who are better business people today in managing their affairs because they have a pretty strong memory of what happened then.
DG: Yes, sometimes I think that that experience defines a lot of the people’s business philosophy, that having gone through that, they vowed certain things to never ever do again.
RS: It was a seminal period and, of course, for me, a seminal period because unfortunately, although I was able to find someone to help us start all over again, when my senior partner, so to speak, went under, that was it. There wasn’t anything further to go from. So, people were surprised because we had turned it around. We had closed all of our operations outside of Houston. I will really never forget -- Kathy Whitmire had called me and since I was chairing the sesquicentennial, both for the city and for the state and I was going through this restructuring in 1985, I offered my resignation to the mayor and she said, “Why should I do that? You are announcing that you are closing all your stores outside of Houston, you are going to regroup in Houston and you are going to start from your roots and just build back up again from your roots.” She said, “We can’t ask for anything more than that. No, I want you to stay on.” And it was a great vote of confidence for me. She probably never really understood what she did for me but she did a great deal, both personally as well as business/psychologically in saying, no, you know, Houston wants Sakowitz to succeed, it wants you to succeed. Stick with it. And I did. And we turned it around. So, I think everybody was sort of trying to help us and pulling along with it and then when my senior partner was in trouble and everything there, all of their companies – Bonwits and B. Altman and all the rest of them were in a Chapter 11, Sakowitz was not in a Chapter 11 because I would not let them hypothecate our receivables. That is a whole another story. But I would not let them do that. So, here, you know, I had been on the board of Continental Airlines at the time and I told the guy who was in charge of turning around the hooker organization which was all of their company retail and shopping centers, I said, “Look, I have been in the board room in a Chapter 11 with Continental Airlines and I have been in the trenches in a Chapter 11 with my original Sakowitz but I have never been in the DMZ and that is where you put me because my parents are in a Chapter 11 and I am not. I have all of the disadvantages of a Chapter 11 and none of the advantages.” And ultimately, they had to liquidate everything, so he did not do a good job in turning it around. And so, I was as surprised as many Houstonians when they said, “We are liquidating everything” because I could not have survived alone anyway. We tried. I tried to find people. I was given 90 days to try and find somebody to buy myself out of that position and Texas was redlined at the time by all the financial institutions, so we could not get people to invest in it.
DG: So, you find yourself, at least by my own personal perspective, sort of the victim of some cruel circumstance, having come out of an economic downturn that a lot of people did not recover from and you have the floor pulled out from under you. You would be excused if you sort of went to your cave and licked your wounds. That is not what you did. So, what happened next?
RS: Oh, what happened next? I started a consulting practice for business strategies in marketing. Very diverse. Not just retail but shopping centers and some retail, some software companies, a coffee and vending company, just involvements with companies being sort of a . . . I like to say I am a cross between a white hunter and a business doctor. White hunter because I have to stalk my prey and then eat my prey, so to speak, which is what a consulting firm, I guess, has to do, as well as just help companies not that are sick necessarily although I do turnarounds, but companies that just need help getting to the next step in their business. And they can be very, very successful. I mean, IKEA, Saks Fifth Avenue, a couple of the Mills Corporation – several of them – Highland Village. I have had a lot of different clients where I was traditionally known for shopping centers and retail but also our coffee affiliation, my involvement with the coffee companies, the supplier for Continental Airlines, both in-flight as well as the President’s Clubs, Memorial-Hermann Hospital Systems – a lot of different restaurant and hotel companies. So, it is very diverse and I love that because, in a way, it is very similar to what I did at Sakowitz which was a lot of different areas. I mean, I was involved in the advertising and promotion, the merchandising, the marketing, the design –a lot of different disciplines and that is what I like. I like new challenges and I like innovation and I like to try to see how something can be done differently. So, I guess, to some degree, you would say I am a quintessential Houstonian because Houstonians don’t say, “Oh, that’s been tried before and it failed so please leave my office.” They said, “Yes, that was tried before, I understand it didn’t work, but I think because of this and this and they could have tried this and this, or maybe this is” . . . Houstonians are just . . . I mean, maybe it is from the bayou, I don’t know, but it is something in the air in this city. It is something in the spirit of this city that, in my estimation, is that sort of can do, don’t quit, create something different, be unique, be your own person kind of a city. And I have traveled all over the world and worked with lots of different peoples, and am a strong believer that unless you understand the culture of someone in their business environment, you cannot do business with them, which is one of the reasons I have been such a . . . from its inception, the beginning of the Houston International Festival, why I have been such a great believer in it because that multiculturalism and learning about those other cultures is so very important that people understand in order to do business and to not just get along, but to do business and thrive. A lot of people don’t understand incidentally that that was an outgrowth. The Houston International Festival is, for the 4th largest city in America, it is the first, it is the largest multicultural festival in the country. Minimum $4 million dollar budget but by the time you do all of the additions of everybody with their contributions in kind, it is $9 million to $10 million of contributions in kind. But, how did it start? It started because Chamber of Commerce of the City of Houston, in 1969 and 1970, said, “How do we bring more businesses to Houston?” and we said, “What attracts businesses?” and we ran a study, and I was sitting on the Civic Affairs committee and the study showed that companies are interested in cities that have obviously safe and secure, low crime rate, good mobility, quality of life and education, and culture, and we said, “Hmm, wonder what percentage we actually give to the cultural organizations.” So, we ran another research study and I was asked to chair the Cultural Affairs committee. They created one. Larry Marcus was the first year and the second year, I was asked to chair it and we found that less than 3% of the big 7 arts organizations budgets came from corporate contributions and companies, and that was embarrassing.
And that was then the foundation for the corporate arts campaign, the Combined Corporate Arts Campaign, CCAC, it was called, and also I went across the street to talk to Stewart Orton at Foleys and Milton Berman and I said, “If Sakowitz puts nothing but art, paintings and sculpture in its windows on Main Street, will you do the same thing for a weekend and have a Main Street happening that salutes all the cultural organizations, performing arts in the city? And we will close off Dallas and we will close off McKinney, and we will put a stage here and a stage here on Main Street, and we will have the ballet and then the symphony and the opera, TUTS, we will have the big 7 all performing, 30 minutes here, 30 minutes here, 30 minutes here, and do that.” And they agreed and the committee was put together and I chaired that and it was called Main Street One. Ed Wolf was on the committee, Diane Rudy was her maiden name –I don’t remember her married name, but she was on the committee. Anyhow, we started this first Main Street event. We are doing all the planning and I remember Mayor Louie Welch saying to me because I was on the Houston Municipal Arts Commission, had been appointed to the Commission – I was the youngest commissioner by a long shot and I went to the mayor and told him what we were doing and he said, “Robert, there is a city ordinance against closing Main Street,” and I said, “Mr. Mayor, we’ve got all this planned. It is for the city. It is to promote the arts.” He said, “It is a great, great story and it is something that needs to be done. I’ll tell you what –we did not have this meeting and I will slap your hand on Monday and we will see how it works out.” And we did it and it was very successful. And so, we had our second one there and then we went out to Hermann Park for the third one, and then across from the museum and then finally came back downtown, and it segued from the Main Street Happening to the Houston Festival and then the Houston International Festival focusing on multiculturalism. I am really proud of that. I am proud of the city. I am proud of the way it has grown because it is such a perfect expression of what Houston is and what it stands for.
DG: There are people who appreciated the Sakowitz stores because of your level of service, there are people who appreciated you because of the products that you brought to the city, there are people who appreciated you probably just because you were such a familiar landmark in their lives for so long. What do you think the store’s contribution to Houston was and ought to be? What are you proud of in that respect, in terms of what the stores meant to development of the city?
RS: Good memories. I think people have warm memories of that lady who took care of them in that certain department; that gentleman who did something for them that was beyond the call. Our people were a family. I mean, we had 2,230 people at the high point but they always knew not only it was a family business of the Sakowitz family but it was a family business that was them. They were the family and customers wouldn’t think of buying certain things without that particular salesperson in that department being there. I remember one of the reasons we fought the blue laws change of having Sunday openings was because that meant we had to have a whole staff change, a whole split shift, so that when, you know, Mrs. Jones would come in to see her salesperson, she may have been off that day. Under normal circumstances, no, we had six day weeks and that was it but when we went to seven days, that all changed. It was that kind of a feeling. Things change but I think everyone has a memory they will come up to me about. I mean, guys come up all the time and they take their ties and they will flash their tie or they will show their coat. “This is something I still have from Sakowitz.” My kids say I always use the same phrase but it is because I truly and sincerely mean it and believe it and I say, “I am glad you have great memories of the store. I am glad you have those good memories” because, you know, at the end of the day, remember, that is all we’ve got and if you can give someone a lasting memory of something that was a great experience, that’s worthwhile.
DG: There is probably not a retailer on the planet who does not try to instill that in an operation. What was the secret?
RS: I guess delivering on your promise. Trying to be innovative and innovating. Trying to serve someone and serving them. Trying to think about them and actually doing it. When someone, you know, needed a pair of tuck shoes and it was 6:30 at night that they had to be in a wedding or whatever, go down and open the store. I mean, deliver on the promise, deliver on the expectation even more than that.
DG: But how did that get down to all 2,300 of them?
RS: Because that is the way we treated all of our people. They knew the message. It is not fair. Let me rethink that. When I say they knew the message, they did not know the message from me alone, they did not know the message from Mr. Bernard or Mr. Tob or Mr. Simon alone although they would see us walking the floors and I think that had a lot to do with it. We were on the floor. We were taking care of customers. And, to this day, I will have people say, “You know, I remember you were actually walking around taking care of me,” or “You’d come down and look at my bridal gown for my daughter,” or whatever. It is the people who were there had been there for a number of years. The turnover was not great because we had really good relationships with our people and they sort of would be the trainer for any newcomers. I mean, it is kind of like saying, you know, you have just joined the sales staff at Sakowitz. This is not just a job. This is an institution in Houston. And they would say this. It is not something that we would say. Their fellow workers would say, “I like working here. This is a special place.” And it was, you know. They really cared. They also knew that probably one of the things I was a real stickler on was product knowledge. I really wanted them to know the product. I really wanted them to be excited about what the advantages were, what the benefits were. I did not want them to sell an item. I wanted them to explain and sell the benefits and the experience of what they were getting. That was the fun. Do you know what this is? Do you know why . . . let me tell you the story behind this. People like to know things and I think they liked being informed. Sure, there are people who really don’t care but it was there for them to know.
DG: The success of the Sakowitz brand and the growth of the city of Houston was sort of a happy marriage or a happy coincidence, depending on how you look at it. Could you have done what you did, could you have achieved the success you did in any other city and if not, what was it about Houston that . . .
RS: Well, I think I said a few moments ago, sort of covered that saying what I said about Houston and its uniqueness, and how unique a city it is and how we tried to tie into that. Yes, Sakowitz was quintessential Houston and Houston was Sakowitz. I mean, they were tight together, even though we went to Dallas and we went to Tulsa and we went to Scottsdale – we were still known as that store from Houston because it was something to be proud of, and we were tied to the fortunes for better or for worse, as it turns out of Houston. So, when Houston had its worst, we suffered for it and when it had its best, we enjoyed it.
DG: So, what do you see for the future of our city?
RS: I think Houston has a great background and has great challenges that its citizens literally have to face up to. I think we have the potential for not just being the 4th and the 3rd and 2nd largest cities but it is not the largeness of the city, it is the quality of life and the excellence of the city. We are in an extremely spread out city. That has been a great advantage to us in many, many ways, but with the energy challenges that are out there, with the price of gasoline and the price of mobility, Houston has to face up to some infrastructural changes and be willing to have the taxes, the whatever, to be able to step up to the plate. Nobody ever wants to pay more taxes. Nobody ever wants to spend more money unless it is on something that is theirs. They like to gore somebody else’s ox. But we have to focus on the improvement of the infrastructure, the improvement of the mobility, the improvement of our education system and not in that order, because our education system is extremely important for our future in this city. We have some great universities which is absolutely a strength of this city and we have had great leadership. I mean, it is not like the 8th floor at the Lamar Hotel although I remember my father telling me about various meetings at 8F, I guess it was and the Lamar Hotel with Gus Wortham and all of the lions of those days. Dad was chairing the Chamber of Commerce in 1970 and 1971 and I remember a lot of that discussion, and to say that, you know, gee, we don’t have that same leadership as before – we do. It is not a small group and they don’t meet together the same way but the Greater Houston Partnership is working on a lot of those things. It is just a bigger, more complex, more diverse city, and we are trying to grapple with all of that and I think we do as good if not better a job than any other city in the country with the diversity that we have in getting along and understanding one another or trying to understand one another and building on that instead of, you know, I want mine and to hell with you. So, it is going to take some good leadership and it is going to take some people looking past their own self interest alone but for the interest of the city. There are going to have to be some people who have as much love and pride in this city as a lot of us who have lived with it and helped see it grow.
DG: Are you optimistic?
RS: Oh, yes. Yes, I am very optimistic. I am quintessential Houston.
DG: Was there anything that I wasn’t smart enough to ask you?
RS: Oh Lord, I could go on for a long time is the only problem.
DG: Well, we want to capture the story of the stores and of you personally and of the relationship with Houston. You have certainly made a lot of contributions to the city beyond the stores and you have mentioned a few of them with the International Festival. Is there anything else that the people who watch this 10 years from now should know about you, about the city?
RS: I am sure I will think of that tonight when I am tossing and turning or so. One thing that comes to mind is, again, the pride of the city that is handed down from your parents. My mother and father were extremely zealous Houstonians. They believed very strongly in this community and inculcated that to both my sister and I. One thing, I think on a personal level that was unique for a father/son relationship that you do not usually see in a family business is that my father was extraordinarily supportive of some new things that I would try to innovate and would say, “O.K., bring me all the information on it, bring me why you think it should work, why you believe in it, give me the numbers, give me all the facts,” and then, unless he could shoot holes in it badly, he’d say, “O.K., go ahead and try it.” So, it was always sort of . . . and that is Houston in its own way. But he would say, “O.K., let’s try. You go ahead and do it.” If it did not work and fortunately, there were very few of those and I don’t mean that in a braggadocio way at all, I just meant as it worked out fortunately, there were few but there were, he would always say, “Well, we made a mistake.” And if it worked, he’s day, “Don’t compliment me, Bob did it.” That is unique. That is a very special thing that I think few fathers would do. And it is one I would urge every father – it is a lesson I learned from mine, for my son and my children and it is one I would urge a lot of people to try and take a lesson from because egos get in the way all too often in family businesses and it is not the way they succeed, but it is a lesson I would like to share.
DG: That is a great story. Mr. Sakowitz, thank you very much for your time.