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6.25.99  
Makeover Artist to the World of Small Biz
Gloria Mitchell helps fellow entrepreneurs — often when success hands them an outdated image

You have to feel sorry for some entrepreneurs these days. They've gone from rags to riches so fast that they've left their images in the dust. It can be a big problem. Honest.

Take Randy Kemble's image crisis. Three years ago, the president of Kemble Electrical Service Inc. in Greensboro, N.C., was out there with his guys on construction sites in muddy work boots. Then, success struck. Suddenly, he was wiring rich folks' homes and doctors' offices, and consulting -- teaching other people about running a construction business. His revenues jumped 30% in three years. Clients loved Kemble's way with fuse boxes, but found his attire -- to say nothing of his crew's -- well, lacking. "They didn't care for people to come in there in their cut-off blue jeans," he says.

Kemble felt helpless: "It just seems I put on a pair of socks, and when I look in the mirror, they are not the socks that go with those pants and those shoes." He did what any late-'90s entrepreneur would do: He turned to a consultant. It was someone he knew -- Gloria Mitchell.

Mitchell, a Greensboro-based entrepreneur herself -- armed with an MBA and 18 years of corporate work experience -- knew what to do. Kemble looked small-time. He needed to gain stature. She headed straight for his closet and gave him a fast, remedial fashion course. She showed him what went with what and chucked stuff he didn't wear. "My gift is understanding what works and doesn't work on the body," she explains.

Then Mitchell tackled the rest of Kemble's men: "I said, 'Let's talk about a corporate uniform,' and he said, 'No, no, no...They don't want overalls.'" Who said overalls? Kemble's employees now sport olive-green polo shirts (that hide dirt), embroidered with the company's logo (an advertising opportunity) and khakis. Kemble is on notice to keep a blazer and dress shoes in his truck. And he's happy now: "Since we do work that is a cut above, I wanted a look that is a cut above." Not only are new members of Kemble's crew getting the company's standard-issue image but he's recommending that firms he consults for pay Mitchell a visit as well.

Mitchell is a makeover artist to the small-business world. She knows the life -- her three-year-old business, Visual Resume, which has clients in Boston and Greensboro, only takes in about $100,000 in revenues annually. Part personal shopper, part marketing specialist, Mitchell, who also gives seminars on the topic, says her years in the corporate finance departments of Monsanto, Singer, and Avon give her business credibility. But, she also has fashion bona fides: For six years, she designed a line of women's lingerie, a skill she got from her mother, a talented St. Louis dressmaker who cut clothes without patterns and designed from descriptions. "I learned at my mother's knee...about fabrics and constructions," Mitchell says.

Image consultants have been around at least since World War II, mainly serving politicians and Fortune 500 executives, says Diana L. Kilgour, an image consultant based in Vancouver, B.C., who also advises small-business owners on the move. Now the explosion of entrepreneurs -- including young ones making the leap from the T-shirt-and-sneakers world of a startup to a buttoned-down image that plays well with investors and clients -- provides new challenges for people like Kilgour and Mitchell.

What can an entrepreneur expect from a Mitchell makeover? Some probing questions, initially: Do people assume you're much older -- or younger -- than you are? Do they ignore you in social or business settings? Are you where you want to be professionally? After that, she asks clients to wear a favorite outfit so she can gauge their tastes. She can spend weeks on an overhaul -- depending on the scope. She charges up to $100 an hour but will work with the client's budget. She has pulled together a new look in hours. Once she knows what's needed, she'll arrange visits to department stores and even designers.

So what are the most common mistakes entrepreneurs make? Outmoded styles and the wrong accessories. Mitchell recalls a young man who showed up for a consultation in a beautifully tailored suit -- dripping in gold jewelry. "I looked down, and he had French cuffs with gold cuff links, a thin gold chain, a chunky gold watch and a ring," Mitchell recounts with some amusement. She advised him to tone it down a bit.

Developing clients' trust is a delicate process. One woman recently asked Mitchell for her card after one of her seminars. The woman, who had seemed disinterested, confessed she was unhappy with her image. Such breakthroughs are only a first step, says Mitchell. Next she has to "earn the right" to tell the woman some hard truths about her looks.

Can image consultants make much difference to up-and-coming entrepreneurs? Leslie Hitch thinks so. Hitch left the tweedy world of college administration less than a year ago to start a company in Boston advising colleges and universities on strategic planning. She was in business -- she didn't look the part though. She enlisted Mitchell's services, but skeptically. "I wanted to be able to have clothing that would allow me to be both approachable and authoritative," Hitch says. Mitchell told her to try lower necklines, jackets with single buttons at the waist, silver jewelry rather than gold, and lighter fabrics instead of the heavy wools she favored. The ratings: "One day, you go out, you have the colors and style that are right for you, and you go into a meeting and five people tell you how terrific you look. Then you have to say: Hey, this must work," says Hitch. The proof of the pudding for Hitch: Her clients react much more enthusiastically to her ideas than they used to.

Of course, an ego boost is one thing. But will an image update pay off where it counts -- at the bottom line? Consider the alternative. Not paying attention to your image is sure to cost you in the long run.

By Jeremy Quittner in New York
jeremy_quittner@businessweek.com


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