HALL OF FAME LAUREATE
• Served in the U.S. Army from 1962-64, during which he served as an aide to the top general for President John F. Kennedy
• Purchased S&S Sporting Goods—now Lipsey’s—in 1977 and grew it into one of the nation’s largest sporting goods distributors and a Business Report Top 100 company, with 2010 revenue of about $80 million
• Purchased the Haspel brand of tailored men’s clothing in 1996
• Received numerous honors, including the Anti-Defamation League’s Humanitarian Award for leadership after Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 Golden Deeds Award
The stories of Richard Lipsey’s many successes tell you a lot about the local executive, philanthropist and civic leader.
The stories of his struggles tell you more.
In the late 1980s, for instance, Lipsey’s family-owned sporting goods store, Steinberg’s Sports Center, found itself losing market share to big-box retailers, as did many other local retailers in the depressed economy. Compounding the problem, Lipsey owned a wholesale business that supplied many of those retailers. When they started going under, he began to lose not only his customers but the money they owed him.
Compounding the problem, Lipsey owned a wholesale business that supplied many of those retailers. When they started going under, he began to lose not only his customers but the money they owed him.
Lee Griffin, a 40-year-friend of Lipsey’s and the former CEO of Louisiana National Bank, was the companies’ banker at the time. He remembers the way Lipsey dealt with the adversity.
“I saw Richard with his back up against the wall, when he was really struggling,” Griffin says. “But he never tried to sugarcoat anything. He told you the bad as well as the good, and was very up-front about it. It really showed how honest the man is and also how smart and tenacious.”
Honesty. Tenacity. Intelligence. They are among the traits that helped Lipsey turn his problems into prosperity. Today, the wholesale business that Lipsey restructured back in 1989, Lipsey’s Inc., is one of the largest wholesale firearms distributors in the country, with sales last year in the $100 million range.
Those characteristics apply to the way the 73-year-old Lipsey has run his companies, his charitable and philanthropic endeavors and his personal life. Those who know him will tell you he has a tireless work ethic, an innate entrepreneurial streak and insatiable intellectual curiosity, all of which have served him well in his decades-long career in the retail and wholesale businesses.
They will also tell you he is a genuine, down-to-earth, no-nonsense guy, who puts his money where his mouth is and gives generously of his time, talent and resources to the countless charities and philanthropies with which he has worked in the Capital Region.
“Richard is a guy who has done more than any other person I’ve met in Baton Rouge—and I’ve met a lot of great people,” says former LSU baseball coach and athletic director Skip Bertman, who met Lipsey when he moved to Baton Rouge more than 30 years ago. “Many people are willing to give money, but few are willing to work to raise money, and even fewer are willing to do both. Richard does both.”
From a young age, it was clear Lipsey would be a go-getter: the guy, Bertman says, you’d want on your team at the bottom of the ninth when the bases are loaded. A well-circulated family story recounts how a 10-year-old Lipsey convinced his father to let him sell Coca-Colas from an ice chest in front of his house to the workers who were transforming Stanford Avenue from a gravel road into a paved street.
Lipsey further honed his entrepreneurial impulses as a teenager, working the floor at Steinberg’s in the summers and after school. Retail came naturally to him, and he loved interacting with the customers, selling the outdoor merchandise that was Steinberg’s bread and butter. He continued to exhibit that enthusiasm for sales through the 1980s, even after he had been running the company for two decades.
“I remember as a child how Dad would meet and greet people in the store, and people would always tell me how gracious he was,” says daughter Laurie Aronson, who now works alongside her father as president and CEO of Lipsey’s. “He was there all the time, and he wanted to be the face of the store. It was important to him to be able to thank people for coming in and to always be kind to them.”
In the 1960s, when Lipsey returned from a distinguished tour of duty in the U.S. Army—which, not incidentally, included serving as an aide to the top general for President John F. Kennedy—he took over Steinberg’s from his father, Joseph Lipsey Sr. He recalls those years fondly and attributes his “business ethic” to his father, who died in 1973. He also credits his brother, Alexandria attorney Joseph Lipsey Jr., with guiding him and helping him over the years.
“He’s always been my adviser,” Lipsey says. “Whenever I’ve had a tough decision to make with regard to business or any other thing, he’s always been there for me.”
Under Lipsey’s leadership, Steinberg’s thrived and expanded to four outlets in Baton Rouge and Lafayette.
But Lipsey was shrewd enough to recognize that for the family business to grow, it would have to branch out beyond retail. In 1977 he purchased S&S Wholesale Sporting Goods and began supplying his own stores as well as hundreds of others with a variety of outdoor merchandise and athletic gear. Over the next 10 years, sales at the wholesale company more than doubled.
Those who know Lipsey attribute the success of his companies in those years to a combination of smart business decisions, good instincts and a willingness to roll up his sleeves and work hard. His wife of 47 years, Susan Haspel Lipsey, says in nearly five decades of marriage Lipsey has never complained about his job or going to work.
“He has a zeal and an enthusiasm for what he does,” she says. “He loves what he does. He just bounces up in the morning and is ready to go. He’s really an inspiration.”
Lipsey doesn’t deny that he loves his work. But with characteristic modesty, he credits his employees with helping him grow and run a successful business. Key to his business philosophy is treating his employees with respect, something he has always tried to do.
“You hire good people, people who are smarter than you, and you treat them well,” he says. “You’ve got to have partners. Everybody who works for you has to have a proprietary feeling of the company. You’ve don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do.”
Though Lipsey always worked long days, he still managed to make time for family. Aronson recalls how her dad treated her and her younger sister, Wendy Lipsey Shiroda, like daughters as well as like the sons he never had.
“We grew up as his girls but also as his boys,” Aronson says. “We went deep-sea fishing with him, and the three of us would go hunting at our camp. We really got the best of both worlds.”
In the late 1980s, when the price of oil fell through the floor and the state economy tanked, some local retailers shuttered longtime family businesses. That affected not only Lipsey’s Steinberg’s outlets, but also his wholesale business. Yet he demonstrated his ability to adapt to change and set about restructuring his operations, closing the four Steinberg’s stores, paring down his wholesale business and concentrating on a single, niche market: sporting guns.
“He decided it was time to really move away from retail and concentrate on wholesale,” Aronson says. “Firearms made more sense because the margins were so much higher. It was easier to make money selling a rifle for $500 or $600 than a $10 fishing reel.”
A few years later, Lipsey changed the company’s name from S&S to Lipsey’s. About that same time, Aronson moved back to Baton Rouge with her husband and joined her father in the company, first as its badly needed credit manager, then as chief operating officer. In 2002, Lipsey named Aronson president of the company, giving her control of day-to-day operations; she became CEO three years ago. He remains chairman of the board and still works alongside her most days.
“We have as many traits in common as we do different, and I think that helps us make joint decisions,” Aronson says. “We still don’t agree on all the decisions, but he is smart enough and trusting enough to let me make my own decisions and my own mistakes.”
The two also run Haspel, a high-end line of tailored men’s clothing that Lipsey purchased in the late 1990s. Coincidentally, it’s the same company Susan Lipsey’s family owned and operated in New Orleans until 1977, when they sold it to the first of several unsuccessful owners. In 1996, Haspel declared bankruptcy and was put on the auction block. Lipsey went after it, in part because of the family history and in part because he relished the challenge of trying to turn the company around.
“I read about it in The Wall Street Journal and decided I should try to get it,” he says. “The bankruptcy court let me bid on it, and I won. I literally got a box of labels. That’s it.”
In the 15 years since, Lipsey has been trying to rebuild the Haspel brand from the bottom up, traveling the country looking for manufacturers and importers. He and Aronson finally settled on a small manufacturer in New York, to whom they license the Haspel name. Other licensing deals are in the works, and though the company admittedly is not where he and Aronson would like it to be, it’s growing and Lipsey is optimistic about its future.
“Laurie will get it where it needs to be,” he says.
That Lipsey should be so successful in his professional endeavors—he also owns Connectivity Source, a chain of 33 cellular phone dealerships run by his cousin—comes as no surprise to Susan Lipsey. She describes her husband as someone who always does the right thing and succeeds when he puts his mind to something. He exhibited that determination on their third date, when he asked her to marry him. (Just 19 at the time, she demurred but acquiesced a few months later after he persisted.)
“He always chooses the right thing,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything but that in him, and he doesn’t fail because he knows how to go about getting the means to the end.”
That philosophy might also help explain Lipsey’s successes in local philanthropic circles. Over the past 30 years, he has raised untold millions for countless charitable organizations in the Capital Region, sitting on their boards and, in many cases, chairing them.
His résumé is a virtual laundry list of well-known nonprofits: Capital Area United Way, Congregation B’nai lsrael, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, Istrouma Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Baton Rouge Rotary and Tiger Athletic Foundation, the last of which he founded. The list goes on and on, and it speaks to an adult life of service that is deeply ingrained in Lipsey’s DNA.
“My parents set a great example,” he says. “Both of them were very active community leaders, and they passed that tradition on to us. I remember, literally, the first day I went to work for my father after getting out of the army. He’d been on the Boy Scouts board for 20 years, and he said, ‘OK, it’s your turn now.’”
Lipsey jokes that people run when they see him coming because they know he’s going to hit them up. But friends and colleagues say he is widely admired for his persistence and is successful at charitable fundraising because he is so passionate about the causes.
“He gets committed to an effort and is just so very, very tenacious in making sure it gets done,” Griffin says. “If he believes in something, it’s going to get done.”
These days, Lipsey estimates he spends about 75% of his time on charitable endeavors. His wife and daughters are also heavily involved in volunteer activities. It’s a way of life for the family and something he hopes to pass on to his three grandchildren, Aronson’s two daughters and Shiroda’s son.
“I believe in giving back,” he says. “It’s just the way we’ve always lived. I believe it’s important to model that behavior for young people … to teach them about working hard and giving back.”