Painful experience: For millennial bosses, COVID’s effects may include laying off longtime employees — ‘genuinely family’

Behind the pandemic’s historic unemployment figures have been the numerous ill-at-ease conversations between employers and employees that nobody involved wants to be a part of.

Meet the twenty-somethings that have been there … on the employer side.

At 28, William Bauer, managing director of the longtime Secaucus-based Royce Leather, was suddenly thrust into the position of having to lay off employees, some of whom have worked for his family’s fashion business more than half as long as he’s been alive.

“Having to lay people off has been a difficult blow,” he said. “You don’t see them as employees or means of productivity but, for us, they’re genuinely family. And, as much as it’s difficult for them, you as a leader also feel like you’ve betrayed them — even if it’s in the spirit of trying to make sure your company as a whole continues on and others can stay employed.”

Don’t worry — it’s not revenge of the millennials.

Bauer said he’s not keen on shaving the most veteran talent of his business, which has a history that goes back several generations.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t want all millennials here,” he said. “To run a business, you need long-term business acumen and things that come with time and age — the contributions that come with life experience that I can’t always bring to the table.”

But the millennial business owner has had to make a self-described “terrible trade-off.” It’s a direct result of retailers closing to comply with state orders. Even with the businesses that sell the Royce products — mostly a selection of luxury bags and wallets — reopening, Bauer expects only he’ll be lucky to see 50% of last year’s business.

One of the biggest issues for the company was the overnight destruction of its events-based line of business. Royce was collaborating with brands and corporations to do pop-up shops and other sponsored activities. Some of those partnerships have been suspended until 2022, or sometimes indefinitely, Bauer said.

Like many, the business had to make a quick pivot to e-commerce transactions when department stores canceled orders through the fall. For at least three months, the luxury fashion brand became a purely digital business — perhaps benefiting in the process from having a tech-savvy millennial at the wheel.

Bauer expects digital, direct-to-consumer sales will remain a main driver of the company’s revenue for quite some time.

“Foot traffic in stores is still a fraction of last year’s right now, and I don’t expect customers to all return at once,” Bauer said. “People are going to be reluctant to step foot in busy place for quite some time. … So, I wouldn’t say we’re overly optimistic. But we are cautiously optimistic.”

Even as luxury retail centers, such as the company’s new flagship Bloomingdale’s base on Lexington Avenue in in New York, have started to come back online — it’s a tenuous time for everyone, and the business has had to steeply mark down the price of its products in light of that.

When asked what might be in store for his business if COVID-19 surges locally once more, Bauer said he’ll have to do a lot of what he’s done since he first started working for his family’s business at the age of 16 …

Spoken like a true millennial, he said it’ll mean “hustling incredibly hard.”

“But, one thing I always try to keep in perspective is that, while we might always have a hunger for more, we’re not jeopardizing how we’ve done business all this time,” he said. “I think that’s something you hear from most millennials in business, because many want to go hard and fast and grow a business overnight.”

Spoken like an old soul, he said that means “upholding traditions.”

“Doing business the right way, not the quick way — that’s how I’ve tried to lead this business,” he said. “And we’ll continue to do that, whether the economy is doing well or not.”

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