The banking industry brought James Szuch to Nashville, but he's now working in our city's largest industry — health care — while immersing himself if in the city's most exciting industry — fashion. Szuch got involved with the area fashion industry after connecting with Nashville Fashion Alliance CEO Van Tucker through mutual friends at Art Camp Nashville, and we caught him en route to O'More College of Design, where he teaches everything budding designers need to know about business models through courses Fundamentals of Entrepreneurship and Monetizing Design. Szuch is also overseeing the Nashville Fashion Alliance’s recently launched accelerator program, showing how the necessary business principles of corporate America can be applied to brands in our rapidly growing fashion industry.
How long have you lived in Nashville?
Been in Nashville a little over a year, I moved here from Cincinnati in August of 2014. I'm originally from the Pittsburgh area; I bounced back and forth between Chicago and Pittsburgh, then from Chicago to Cincinnati, where I've been for about 13 years. I was with Fifth Third Bank there, and then they laid me off — silly people that they are — and I did some teaching and consulting while looking for full-time work, and an opportunity arose at UBS down here in Nashville.
It's funny, I'd never been to Nashville before, but my friends said 'You are going to love Nashville,' and they were right! I am now working at Cardinal Health, managing a team in their third party logistics, providing warehousing and distribution for pharmaceutical products, another industry I knew nothing about before I got involved in it.
How did you get involved with the Nashville Fashion Alliance?
Once you meet Van, you don't say no. (Laughs.) I love her death! We connected and recognized kindred spirits in the sense of living in that space between the right brain and the left brain. I had been doing a lot of consulting in Cincinnati with arts nonprofits and was kind of shifting the model to not so much consulting, but coaching with artists and creatives here, and the Nashville Fashion Alliance kind of expanded that market. I love working with creatives; I love helping people fine-tune their business ideas, to get them to understand what they want to be and what they need to do. The artists I've worked with here really love working with the fashion community. I'm learning so much about the fashion industry, which, if you saw the way I dress, that's not really where I am. (Laughs.)
Despite the name of the organization, I don't think you're alone in that! There's a lot of creative business minds in the mix.
There's definitely a strong community with the NFA, and there's an ethos of helping each other rather than competing with each other.
What is the difference between consulting and, as you said before, coaching?
To me, consulting is kind of project driven, where I come in and help you do something, but coaching is more education, like mentoring or tutoring. As a consultant, I would go into an arts nonprofit and work with them to build a strategic plan. Now, part of my approach was always the, sort of, 'teach them to fish' approach. Showing them how to do strategic planning, how to think about your organization, your goals, and what you're trying to achieve. Shifting to coaching, that's more of a shift to working one-on-one with people, and mentoring them, and helping use the specifics of their business to pull in knowledge or tools or good practices and helping them apply them over the long term. It's a longer relationship.
You are leading the accelerator workshop that launched last week. What else are you doing with the NFA?
I'm on the education committee, so the accelerator has kind of become my baby, but I'm also working in a committee/advisory/’go do stuff’ capacity for some of the other educational programs. There's a huge, busy calendar planned for 2016, because education is a key component of the NFA. We're going to do some accounting, some legal training, marketing training.
The long-term vision is a variety of different kinds of educational opportunities, both large, small, classrooms, workshops, getting people together with mentors. We recognize that there are a lot of different ways that people want to learn, and a lot of different topics that they need to learn about. Some of these topics are foundational, like the accelerator, and some are more specific. As we get closer to the holiday shopping season, we're able to get people together and say, 'how do you prepare for that?' How do you market that? How do you do social media for that? So we want both the broad-based elements of helping your business get better, and very specific-themed topics.
What do you think people should know about our regional fashion industry?
That's a good question, because I'm still learning so much about our regional fashion industry! And maybe that's it; I think the thing that people need to learn is the breadth and depth of that industry; so, all of the different brands and the different products they're making. There's a huge variety. Also, to see where the holes are. There are things that we want help on. Some of the work that we're doing, working with sewing students, like with Omega Apparel, understanding where the opportunities are, not just with the fashion business, but for other businesses to participate.
I think the other thing is — and I hear this about Nashville all the time, I hear it about music, the healthcare industry, fashion — is that we're very collaborative. People in Nashville work together as a community, so that's another thing people need to understand about the Nashville fashion industry, that there really is a fashion community, and that everybody is working hard together to make this a better place.
Do you think that's unique to Nashville?
I really do. I like collaboration, I like when different groups get together to explore where strengths and weaknesses mesh, and how they can help one another, and it's definitely part of the soul of Nashville. I'd heard about it from the music industry and I've seen a little of it in the arts in general — it's definitely part of what's happening with the fashion industry. I've also seen it a little bit on the tech side. I think it's part of what makes Nashville special, and I've heard a lot of people say that.
What potential do you see in the Nashville fashion industry? Do you think Nashville is poised to be a player in the global fashion industry?
Recognizing that I'm no expert on the global fashion industry, but Nashville has not only collaboration, but it's also a one-day drive from like, 60 to 80 percent of the U.S. population, which is why all the distribution centers are here. So that's not just from a fashion standpoint, but I think we have some things going for us and we need to take our place on that stage, if you will.
We have some work to do to get the recognition from the brand and the style standpoint. ... When I first moved here, one of my friends said to me was, 'It's not all country music.' Yeah, it's not all country music, I get that, and to the same token, we need to get people to understand that Nashville isn't all cowboy boots. As we begin to push the brands that are here, we need the rest of the world to see that. It's important for our industry to maintain that diversity.
When we start establishing a presence in New York or LA, right now the distribution is very Nashville-centric. We're selling here. Selling in other places will make our presence felt in other distribution centers will be very important.
What is the biggest challenge we're facing right now?
Local manufacturing is a very big deal. I get the sense of it we need more local manufacturing to meet the needs of the designers. I think the governmental support is key, we need to get the government — state and local — to recognize that this is a part of the economy here. Also, getting those distribution elements outside of Nashville. I tell my friends in New York, Chicago, and other places, that they should be looking at what's going on in Nashville. Fortunately enough, they don't follow me for fashion advice, but it is something I'm always talking up to people.
With the brands, they need to see where the non-local demand is. And that's one of the great things with being online. We can develop brand awareness and demand outside of our region, and get a better sense of where the demand is based on online orders. We're getting write-ups in fashion magazines, there are fashion bloggers talking about us, but we need to get it beyond the buzz stage to the purchase stage.
You've made a couple of jokes about it, so now I'm curious. How would you describe your personal style?
Boring corporate America with a significant other that keeps trying. I'm wearing a pair of khakis and a button-down plaid shirt.
But in Nashville, it feels like anything goes, don’t you think?
If Nashville has a signature style, it's individuality. I think the music industry helps to give that to us, but when you have artists who are successful — there are working musicians here and they're not all stars, there are studio musicians who make their living doing that. That level of personal, professional and artistic success brings a level of, 'I do what I want, I like that and I'm comfortable in it.' We have industries here that accept that.
I got a lot of grief when I started working at Cardinal; they have 'jeans Friday.' Now, it's not that I don't have jeans, it's just for me, jeans are usually what I wear on the weekends when I'm tromping around the woods — they're not something I wear to work! So yes, we have this comfort with people expressing their individuality through fashion and style. We are comfortable being who we are.
What do you do when you're not working?
Photography is a hobby; I love being outdoors whenever I can. I love the area music scene, the theater scene, the opera, the symphony ... I'm still exploring Nashville.
Since this is for the NFA, we want to know: Is there an item in your closet that you just can't live without? Even if it's khakis?
Even if it's khakis? Hmmm ... my hiking shoes.
Special thanks to Heidi Ross for the beautiful photos!