Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Rick and Danna Atherton
Evereve, Hammer Made, Agra Culture—these on-the-rise Twin Cities startups have something in common beyond a focused idea, good timing, and perseverance. They share a secret weapon: Rick and Danna Atherton.
The Athertons aren’t just investors. They’re more than consultants. This enterprising duo loves the business of shopping—everything about it, from identifying trends to store design to consumer psychology to raising the capital and signing the lease agreements necessary to get the doors open. While they don’t have the kind of instant name recognition of, say, the Daytons, the Athertons have quietly become Minnesota’s retail power couple. They are the first—and perhaps most important—call among local retail and restaurant entrepreneurs. They have an uncanny ability to recognize concepts with the potential to blossom from single store to national brand.
That’s because they’ve done it themselves. Danna Atherton grew up in a retail family. We have her father, the late Tom Dekko, to thank for the 24-hour supermarket—an idea he pushed for in the 1970s as a vice president of Supervalu. Danna started her career in advertising at Campbell Mithun but went looking for a franchise opportunity after having children in the early ’80s. “In those days, bosses and babies didn’t mix,” she says. Danna’s mother Dottie Dekko and sister Lezlie Dekko Bork found the perfect opportunity on vacation in Sanibel Island, Florida. That’s where they discovered a little clothing store called Chico’s. They were struck by the easy style and comfort of the cotton collection and were certain Minnesotans would agree. The Dekko women made a formidable team: Dottie was a published author, chairwoman of an annual March of Dimes gala, and co-founder of the Minnesota Kicks soccer team; Lezlie had an M.B.A. and department store experience. They, along with the Athertons, convinced Chico’s owner to sell them franchising rights for Minnesota. The family went on to open a dozen stores that did more than $18 million in annual sales. They ran their Chico’s division, helping to raise the retailer’s national profile, for more than 20 years, finally selling it to the parent corporation in 2007.
Prior to joining Chico’s full time as chief financial officer, Rick Atherton ran Midwest sales and distribution for Steelcase Inc., overseeing franchises and contracts. That experience serves him well at Atherton Retail Consulting, but Rick actually speaks more fondly about his years as a dealer development manager for Ford Motor Co. “I loved working with the dealers—their passion, excitement. They put their money on the line every day,” he says. “It made me realize: If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to own it.”
The Athertons office at home in Excelsior. “He gets the west end of the house; I get the east. We meet in the middle for lunch,” Danna jokes. The couple often takes meetings while cruising Lake Minnetonka on their wooden Skiff Craft. They enjoy strolling Excelsior’s Water Street, home to more than one retailer that has sought their counsel, like Big Island Swim & Surf. “There [was] such a hole for resort wear in this town,” Danna says. “Try to find a sundress in January.”
Even if you catch them out to eat on a Saturday night, chances are, they’re talking shop. “The day doesn’t end at 5 pm,” Rick says. That might sound like a bummer to some, but Rick and Danna thrive on their shared passion. “When you work together, you share experiences. You’re always idea building,” Rick says. “And you learn about your partner—things you wouldn’t get to see if you went off to work separately.”
The husband-wife partnership was one of the many things that appealed to the Athertons about Megan and Mike Tamte, founders of Edina-based Hot Mama, which is now Evereve.
It was shortly after the Athertons sold Chico’s, and just a couple of stores into Evereve’s epic ascent as a national retail brand, when the Tamtes approached Rick and Danna for advice. Danna says she saw herself in Megan, a young mother of two with a vision for a store that would appeal to other moms—from trendy clothes to a play area for the kids. It was Chico’s for a younger generation, with jeans and blouses in place of cotton separates.
“There was magic in the store. The customer service. The social connection,” says Rick, who related to Mike’s handling of the contracts and finances. “The key to being a husband and wife in business together is having different talents so that you don’t get in each other’s way.”
The Athertons were early investors in Evereve. They both sit on the Evereve board of directors.
“They’re a wise counselor for us,”
says Mike, who serves as Evereve’s executive chairman. “They’ve helped us make good decisions, and steered us away from bad ones.”
Early on, the Tamtes considered franchising Hot Mama stores, but the Athertons talked them out of it, saying it would reduce the value of the company, which has surpassed $50 million in annual sales. The Tamtes also found themselves tempted by the frequent requests to open a men’s store. The Athertons said no—emphatically.
“Be exceptional at what you do really well. Don’t do any more than that,” Rick preaches to entrepreneurs. It was essential advice for Jason Hammerberg, founder of men’s shirt brand Hammer Made.
Hammerberg was selling private label, European-cut dress shirts out of the trunk of his car when he met Rick. “Jason’s understanding of design was spot-on. The shirt is the easiest thing to do—it’s a fashion statement for men,” says Rick, who serves as chairman of the board for Hammer Made. He assured Hammerberg that his best chance to make it big was by staying small: small stores, hyper-focused on men’s shirts—like they do in Paris. Five years ago when Hammer Made opened its first store, that approach was practically counter culture here in America, where bigger has long been considered better. Rick and Danna convinced the Galleria to give Hammer Made its original closet-sized storefront after Hammerberg had tried, unsuccessfully, to get in to the Edina center for two years. Now, Rick points out, you’re seeing more and more retailers downsizing—or as he describes it: “right-sizing.”
“He was instrumental in our first lease at Galleria,” Hammerberg says of Rick. “He has helped me dissect parts of the business that my creative, entrepreneurial mind doesn’t gravitate toward naturally, specifically in leasing and data mining. He is a ready, aim, and fire person where I tend to be ready, fire, aim.”
The success of Hammer Made’s second and third stores, at Mall of America and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport tells Rick that Hammer Made is ready for a national stage. “I’m a strong advocate of getting operational excellence at home. Run three or four stores really well, and then move outside the market,” Rick says. “We can go to the top 50 markets in the next two to three years.”
And that’s not all the Athertons juggle. Danna is helping Hope Chest for Breast Cancer build its third store and connect with a broader audience interested in both upscale resale bargains and the mission to support Minnesota families impacted by breast cancer. Rick is on the board of advisors for a new app that you’ll probably be hearing about. Advance buzz for PurchaseBox has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s an app that keeps customer receipts and serves as a single hub for retail promotions and tracking shipments. Rick is also working with the founder of the healthy fast-casual restaurant Agra Culture on a new “play café.” Expect to see the entertainment food concept soon at a mall near you. “Malls need a draw for families,” Rick says.
“What they really need to do is turn themselves inside-out,” adds Danna.
With that, the duo is off on a topic they could deliberate for hours. And probably will.