George Wilder owns The Locker Room, an upscale menswear, athletic wear and footwear store with locations in Montgomery and Auburn.
Wilder began his career in menswear when he was a senior in high school in Columbus, Mississippi.
“The truth is, I was in the store so much, I was ‘hanging out’ so much that they finally offered me a job,” Wilder recalled.
While studying marketing at Mississippi State University, Wilder worked every four years at a men’s store in Starkville.
“After graduating, I was offered a job by Alex Gatewood, the owner of The Locker Room in Tuscaloosa, to run this store,” he said. “Alex moved to Jackson, Mississippi to open a shop in his home state capital. So in 1972 my new wife, Madeleine, and I moved to Tuscaloosa,” where the Wilders stayed for five years.
“In Tuscaloosa, I made friends with a great group of Montgomery folks who encouraged me that Montgomery needed a good, traditional men’s shop. So we raised some money and opened this store in September 1977. The rest, as they say, is history,” said Wilder.
live the dream
This fall, The Locker Room at 1717 Carter Hill Road in Montgomery turned 45.
After the store’s first 25 years, Wilder began to grow the The Locker Room brand.
In 2002, Wilder opened TLR Outdoors adjacent to the Midtown Montgomery location, which two years later moved to a shopping center in East Montgomery.
The Locker Room was expanded in 2004 to occupy the entire 6,500 square foot building in Montgomery’s Cloverdale neighborhood with nearly 3,700 square feet of retail space.
In the fall of 2010, Wilder opened The Locker Room at 127 E. Magnolia Ave. in Auburn, a 1,400 square foot store with 1,000 square feet of retail space. “That coincidentally coincided with a young athlete named Cam Newton and a national soccer championship, an obvious shot in the arm for our new venture in downtown Auburn,” he said. Two years later, TLR Outdoors and The Locker Room merged into one business in Montgomery.
In November 2019, the Auburn store moved down the street to 175 E. Magnolia Ave. “Ted Wilson of Wilson Investments, who incidentally was our first client in Auburn, came to us with the idea of taking over their space as they had outgrown them,” said Wilder.
Now, The Locker Room in Auburn is a 2,700-square-foot store with nearly 2,000 square feet of retail space.
“As a young man working with Alex in Tuscaloosa, my dream was to be like him and have my own store one day, but of course I now realize that the store is not mine, it’s ours,” Wilder said about his 15-year team of members across the two branches, most of whom have worked with him for 20 years or more.
One of Wilder’s favorite sayings is, “The well-dressed man will always have the advantage.”
experts in their field
“We’re the experts when it comes to helping men dress appropriately for any occasion: business, pleasure, or casual,” said Wilder. “Our clients rely on us just as they do on their lawyer, accountant, doctor, painter, plumber or electrician.”
The motivation for customers coming into The Locker Room remains constant. “Our client is looking for help to make them look and feel better,” Wilder said.
“Boys certainly dress more casually, but it’s not easier,” he said. “People need our help, maybe more than ever.”
“We’ve weathered a lot of recessions, we’ve seen interest rates go up 21%, our bank turned us down when we wanted to open the Auburn business,” Wilder said, looking back on what he and his team overcame in their first 45 years and what lies ahead. “The pandemic has certainly been a major challenge – I never imagined select retail outlets would be closed – but we survived without laying anyone off. We will survive any challenge that looms on the horizon.”
When asked what advice he would give to a 27-year-old shopkeeper who, like in 1977, is just starting out, Wilder said: “Life throws storms, hurricanes, recessions, cancer and even pandemics at us. Plan, plan, plan – but live – day after day. Always be thankful and don’t compare yourself to others.”
When faced with dilemmas, Wilder says he draws inspiration from the words a friend said at a board meeting many years ago.
In response to a question during that meeting, Jim Blanchard, then-chairman and CEO of Synovus Bank, replied, “We just want to figure out what makes sense and do it.”
Retail and community champion
Wilder echoed those words to heads of state when the government allowed some stores to stay open while others were ordered to close early in the pandemic.
As on other occasions and on other topics, Wilder appeared as the voice and face of small retailers.
Over the years, Wilder has testified before state legislative committees and traveled to Washington, DC for face-to-face meetings with the Alabama congressional delegation on various topics. He has conducted countless media interviews on retail issues, including support for the state’s annual back-to-school sales tax holiday and market justice.
“Small businesses have been discriminated against on the sales tax issue,” he said. He and other Alabama retailers traveled to DC five times to tell lawmakers that allowing remote sellers to avoid collecting sales taxes gave them an unfair advantage. “Good retailers are not afraid of competition. It certainly wasn’t a level playing field.”
Wilder received a national award in 2015 for his efforts on the marketplace and e-fairness. In October 2015, non-state retailers began voluntarily collecting and remitting a use or sales tax from customers in Alabama. Since October 2018, distance sellers above a certain volume have had to levy sales or use tax.
Small businesses like The Locker Room are making a difference in both public policy and their community, Wilder said.
As well as speaking out on retail issues, Wilder gives back and encourages his employees to get involved too. “At The Locker Room, we are committed to improving and improving our community,” he said. He and his staff are active on boards as well as in civic associations, non-profit organizations and their churches.
“George runs a great business and has always given back to the community,” said Tom Moore, who has worked at The Locker Room since 1999. “He is a deeply caring and compassionate person. George doesn’t just talk, he walks the path, every single day.”
The most important thing about The Locker Room with George Wilder:
Number of employees: fifteen
Mentor: Alex Gatewood, owner of The Locker Room in Tuscaloosa. “Alex gave me the opportunity to run his business in Tuscaloosa at a young age and has been my mentor since 1972.”
Smart move: Auburn location opened in 2010.
learning moment: “I try to have, read, listen and pay attention to these every day.”
wisdom shared: “Jim Blanchard, retired CEO of Synovus Bank, said this at a board meeting many years ago: ‘We just want to figure out what makes sense and do it.’ I love the wisdom and simplicity of this mindset.”
The Locker Room has stores at 1717 Carter Hill Road in Montgomery, open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and at 175 E. Magnolia Ave. in Auburn, open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Retailer Magazine and on the Alabama Retail Association website.