Entrepreneur Ceci Johnson Shares Her Most Important Business Advice

Photo by Allan Zepeda Photography

There’s a lot that goes into running a successful company and Creative Director and Founder Ceci Johnson of Ceci New York knows just what it takes. The Southern California native has positioned herself as an expert in the design field since 2004. Her company, Ceci New York specializes in custom invitations, not just for weddings but for all kinds of special events. She launched CeciStyle Magazine in 2010, a resource for invitation inspiration and style tips, plus she has been recognized as “Invitation Innovator” by WeTV and named Tory Burch’s “Woman to Watch.” Her client roster ranges from entertainment, corporate companies and A-List celebrities.

Ceci Johnson is a risk-taker, trendsetter and philanthropist. Johnson also uses her passion for design to give back to charities that are close to her heart, like Dress for Success. Our 20th Anniversary “Celebrate the Journey Gala” save the date and invitation are all thanks to her and her commitment to helping others through her creativity. Johnson is a mother, designer, entrepreneur, and a mentor all while running a luxury design empire and donating her time to worthy causes. We tapped Johnson for her business savvy tips and how she’s kept her company on the path to success.

Q: Were there some risks that you had to take when you first started Ceci New York? What are some risks that you feel every entrepreneur might have to take when launching their business?

Ceci Johnson: In order to launch your own business, I feel you have to always take a risk. You have to muster up the confidence to go for it and not look back. Sometimes, that’s really hard and truthfully, really intimidating – especially when you’re on your own. But it also could be incredibly rewarding at the same time. When I started, it was about passion and a relentless drive to create something special for my clients (truthfully, that’s what still drives me today). I studied the event industry and realized there was a niche I could fill with my couture invitation design, so I risked everything, and focused on this full time. However, before I did, I had been designing on the side and people kept telling me I should really think about doing this as a business because there was no one doing what I can do. After hearing this so often, it gave me the confidence I needed to take the risk and start my business.  

I think you have to always try otherwise you will die wondering. “Life is all about taking risks. If you never take a risk, you will never achieve your dreams.”

Photo by Allan Zepeda Photography

Q: What quality do you believe that those in leadership roles should possess in order to run a successful and thriving business?

CJ: Being a good leader is about confidence and decisiveness. If you’re lacking in those departments, you better brush up on those skills if you want to be a strong leader. Lead by doing and always lead by example. Be the kind of entrepreneur that inspires your own self. Someone you are actually proud of and respect and others will too. I am right there in the trenches with my team helping out, supporting and collaborating every step of the way. It’s not about micromanaging, it’s about empowering and working together like a well-oiled machine. I think it’s also about honesty, listening to your team and being fair. Treating others with respect and common courtesy goes a long way in life and in business.  

Q: What would you say is the driving factor behind the success of Ceci New York?

CJ: Well, despite the fact that I live and breathe my business and will always be pushing it forward trying to achieve my dreams for the company and my team, Ceci New York is made up of extremely strong, talented and smart people. Without them, we would not be able to be the company we are today. Each client is special and treated like they’re our only one because we truly want and know how important each experience is. Reputation is everything for a small business. In our business, and in many others out there, you’re only as good as your last client says you are so you better make sure they’re singing your praises!

Q: How do you create a business that attracts and retains talented and motivated employees?

CJ: I believe in work hard, play hard. While we hustle every day, I also believe in stopping to celebrate the little things in the office too, like birthdays, baby showers or company milestones met. Ceci New York is a team of A-Team players that if the company wins, we all win. We’ve cultivated a unique environment of top talent, the best of the best, that not only gets to make our clients dreams come true every day but we actually enjoy working together and coming to work each day. That’s special and rare. I’m very proud of that. This is more than just a job for Team Ceci.

I think as a business owner and even a senior manager, while it may seem really hard, you must take time to take care of your people. Set up consistent reviews and career objectives for your employees. Help them to understand the vision you have for the company and how their role really helps to make a difference each day. Make sure you have an open communication policy that you always make time for them no matter how busy you are. I will always drop everything to listen to my employee. Team happiness is a top priority for me.

Q: What are the values that are instilled in Ceci New York that you believe are imperative to its brand?

CJ: Aside from what I mentioned above, our logo is made up of 4 C’s that interlock and represent our core values. Ceci New York offers more than groundbreaking designs, we provide an enjoyable and unforgettable experience. An exceptional passion for creativity, color, customer service, and care has resulted in our own exclusive version of The 4 C’s. These standards have defined the unmatched level of service we strive to provide for each client, every day.

The 4 C’s of Ceci New York:

  • Creativity – We are pioneers of Innovation – we always look forward.
  • Customer Service – We cater specifically to your unique requirements and wishes.
  • Color – Be Bold! We aren’t afraid to make a statement with color.
  • Care – Our passion is what drives our perfection.

To learn more about Ceci Johnson and her design work, follow her on Instagram @cecinewyork) or visit www.cecinewyork.com. Take a look at 20th Anniversary save the date and invitation by clicking here

Behind The Seams With Kleinfeld’s Mara Urshel

Mara Picture

Mara Urshel is assuredly a highly respected executive, having co-founded and managed Kleinfeld Bridal, New York’s iconic and the largest bridal boutique in the country for 17 years. Urshel began her journey with Kleinfeld as a business consultant from Gordon Brothers. Six months in, she brought in a proposal that required a crucial amount of spending to be made, but the management at the time decided to put the company up for sale instead. Urshel saw this as an exciting opportunity to take a chance and to revive Kleinfeld, shaping it into a massive bridal retailer that would eventually make the dreams of thousands of brides-to-be come true. She brought up the idea of buying the company to Ronnie Rothstein, her business partner and together, they’ve established Kleinfeld into a renowned bridal retailer, where brides-to-be travel from all over the world to receive the ultimate wedding experience.

Kleinfeld carries the largest selection of bridal gowns from top American and European bridal designers. They receive new styles nearly every day and Urshel says that they are constantly searching the world to seek out designers to add to the merchandising mix. They are staffed with close to 200 dedicated professionals which includes on-site stylists and bridal consultants, and custom fitters, sewers, beaders, embroiderers and pressers. The bridal store also has its own reality show on TLC­­, Say Yes to the Dress, a series that allows viewers to witness the private experience of the bride’s search for the right dress.

With around 10,000 gowns sold a year, Kleinfeld is unquestionably a leader in the bridal industry under the leadership of Urshel and Rothstein who call the store and its employees, their family. Urshel recently sat down with Dress for Success to discuss how she revived Kleinfeld to become a leader in the bridal industry, the growth she experienced as a senior executive at Saks Fifth Avenue and the importance of the customer experience when a bride-to-be shops for that perfect wedding dress.

Dress for Success: You were the Senior VP at Saks Fifth Avenue for 19 years prior to Kleinfeld. Did you find yourself having to fight for this role at first? Were there difficulties to overcome in this position? How did that experience influence your role when you took ownership of Kleinfeld?

Mara Urshel: My 19 years at Saks were exciting and gave me great pride in the initiatives I started and left behind. I was extremely dedicated and driven to success never realizing any obstacles. Promotions for Assistant to the VP of Couture to Senior VP of 55% of the stores volume came as anticipated. In my sportswear divisions I developed a strong classified business that led me to one day desire a “niche” business in a classification. Then one day I received an offer to be a business consultant for Kleinfeld in a turn-around situation. And voilà there was my classification waiting for me. I am as excited about Kleinfeld’s development and growth as I was in all my years at Saks.

DFS: What strategies have you implemented over the years in order to establish Kleinfeld as the leading brand for wedding fashion? How have the designers you carry and invested in influenced your growth as a major retailer?

MU: Strategic merchandising and unparalleled customer service are the most important strategies at Kleinfeld. It is important that we stay ahead of the market and competitive by offering the largest selection of designer bridal gowns in the U.S. The designers we carry directly influence our growth. We travel the world to seek out exclusive designers you can only find at Kleinfeld in NYC. This, plus our customer service, positions us as the leader in bridal retail.

DFS: Kleinfeld is known as the largest bridal retailer, catering to more than 17,000 brides a year. You’ve said that a reason for the success is the customer service, that you give clients your cell phone number to ensure that they can reach you at any time. What other ways do you continue to establish a service that is satisfactory for your clients?

MU: Every day we discuss new ideas and suggestions to improve the Kleinfeld experience. We are dedicated to making every bride happy and to stay on the pulse of bridal and listen to our customers. We are currently building a new website which will be optimized for mobile – since 60% of our web traffic is mobile. We are also working on creating more content to position ourselves as the leader in weddings – not just bridal fashion.

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DFS: When a client walks into the store, walking out with a wedding dress is the obvious goal. You’ve said that it’s the wedding dress that can bring tears to the client’s eyes and a fluster to her face. How do you and your sales team help identify the right dress for the customer?

MU: Sales consultants must be great listeners and know their product! The conversation our bridal consultants have with the bride is very important. The consultant must listen to the brides’ requests and how she envisions herself on the wedding day. Taking her requests, wedding location and budget into consideration, the bridal consultant must find the right dress to say ‘yes’ to.

DFS: When your clients leave with the wedding dress, what do you hope they take from their experience working with your staff?

MU: We hope the bride remembers us as the first and last (and favorite) stop of her wedding preparation. After a bride purchases a dress at Kleinfeld, she has at least 3 more visits to the store to alter her wedding dress. Along the journey she meets with a team of  Kleinfeld employees to bring her vision to reality – from her bridal dress selection appointment to her accessory selection, her fittings and her press and pick-up appointment – all 200+ employees are involved in making the process memorable.

DFS: How has the success of Say Yes to the Dress impacted the brand and your business? Are you grateful for the continued success of the show? In your opinion, what has made the show so successful?

MU: As we enter into the 16th season of SYTTD, we believe that the success of the show is not only because of the talented production company and network, but because of the brides and the dresses they select. The dress is the ‘star’ of the show. We are thankful that the show has turned a national brand into an international brand promoted in over 200 countries around the world.

DFS: Your business is continuously expanding into product offerings outside wedding fashion. What are the areas you have expanded in that you are most proud of? What more do you envision in terms of expansion? What’s next for Kleinfeld?

MU: Kleinfeld continues to expand our exclusive and private label dress brands. As well as support Kleinfeld Hudson’s Bay located in Toronto, Canada. We also have expanded into stationary. Kleinfeld Paper offers wedding invitations, save the dates, thank you cards and day-of stationary such as escort cards and menus. Kleinfeld has also added a hotel room block booking service – Kleinfeld Hotel Blocks. They find and negotiate the best rates for your out of town wedding guests. As well as, Kleinfeld Name Change, Hitch Switch, a unique free service to easily change your name, driver’s license, credit cards, etc.

DFS: What does it mean for you to take part in the experience of finding the dress for a woman in such a monumental stage in her life? And is there a particular client’s experience in the store that is most memorable and why?

MU: We are honored to be a part of the most important day in a brides’ life. We meet with over 17,000 brides annually and we love receiving wedding photos from every one of them!