Cold Coca-Cola and snacks drew Clay Cavender ('91) to help out as a child in his family's original western wear store in the small town of Pittsburg in northeast Texas. In the summers, he worked with his big brother at their "big-city store" in Tyler.
He saw new stores being built across East Texas and even pitched in to dig in the dirt, prepping foundations in 100-degree temperatures. He watched the raising of roofs and stocking of merchandise.
"Now, that is exactly what I do," says Cavender, vice president of merchandising at Cavender's Boot City — the family-owned chain of western clothing retail stores in six states. "I design our stores from the ground up, choosing everything from wall colors to signage, and supervise the fabrication and installation of every fixture. And then I merchandise them."
Cavender grew up in a world of western retail as the son of James Cavender, the founder. He honed his skills and developed a deeper understanding about the business of the retail industry at UNT, where he earned a bachelor's degree in merchandising and learned from such faculty as Christy Crutsinger.
"I just connected with the subject matter and the curriculum," Cavender says. "UNT helped me focus on the merchandise planning, and I learned a lot about textiles."
Crutsinger remembers walking into an early morning class in Wooten Hall to find Cavender having an "animated conversation" with a student whose relatives were in the boot industry.
"You could see the traits of a successful retailer emerging," Crutsinger says. "He was closing the deal in class at 8 a.m. His charisma and passion were matched by his business savvy and strengthened by the networks he developed in college."
After graduating, he oversaw stores in South Texas. Now, in addition to planning and opening new stores, he oversees and develops all private-label clothing. His brother Joe serves as the company's president, and his brother Mike is vice president of operations and oversees real estate. The family business began as Cavender's Dairy Mart in 1957 in Pittsburg and became a western clothing store in 1965. Today, Cavender's has 57 stores in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, with five more planned for 2014.
"The majority of our competitors were at one time family businesses, and pretty much all have been bought out by venture capitalists," he says. "We are proud to be family-owned and operated."
Cavender's is the "bell cow" — the leader of western retail, says Sharon Carpenter, national sales manager of apparel and denim for Ariat International. Carpenter, who has worked with Cavender on developing Ariat's denim line, says his business savvy contributes to the store's success — and he knows what customers want.
"Every western retailer in America looks to Cavender's for product leadership," she says.
For Cavender, the reward is the same as it was in his younger days — seeing an empty lot of dirt developed into a building full of quintessentially Texan western wear.
"The majority of our locations are free-standing buildings and people get in their cars and drive to us to shop," Cavender says. "It doesn't get any more rewarding than that."