When Thomas and Carolyn “Mimzie” Hand asked their 22-year-old daughter Ashley what she wanted to do with her life, she declared that she wanted to start a small business. And since Tom and Mimzie had experience in business, both from working in corporate America and starting companies of their own, they were eager to hear her idea.

“She said, ‘I want to open up a zombie store,’” recounts Tom with a chuckle. “And I said ‘Uh, okay … exactly how does that work?’”

Inspired by the walking dead, a business idea was born

The first iteration of Ashley’s idea to sell “zombie stuff” took the form of a funky jewelry and accessory shop that quickly became popular in Five Points, the bohemian arts district of Jacksonville, Florida.

A year later, Tom and Mimzie came on to help Ashley run the business, freeing her to manage the merchandising, inventory, special events, and other areas where she could flex her creativity. Ashley’s younger sister Carlisle joined in by becoming the store’s general manager. With the entire Hand family at the helm, the family business expanded to apparel and morphed into Subculture Corsets & Clothing.

Today, that unconventional zombie idea has turned into a wildly popular, 5,000-square-foot boutique in The Avenues Mall that sells everything from retro pinup and rockabilly wear to gothic garments and steampunk couture.

A quirky, entrepreneurial streak runs in the Hand family. Tom’s father owned several circuses and Tom’s first job was working as an ice skating juggler at Cypress Gardens. When Tom was just 21 years old, he opened up his first business in a Tallahassee mall.

Tom speaks proudly of the way Subculture got its start:

“It was extremely important to us to teach our daughters a great deal about business. That way they could be independent women as they matured. They both work for us still — it’s just a happy family business. When my wife and I realized that we almost never saw each other when we were working, we thought it’d be great to help grow Ashley’s business. We’ve only been in business for about six years, and last year we did over a million dollars in retail sales.”

Hiring the right “sharks” and keeping them happy

Tom calls Subculture Corsets a “high-end Hot Topic,” while Ashley, now 30, jokingly likens the store’s alternative aesthetic to “an eccentric 80-year-old woman’s fantasy closet.” Whatever it is, Subculture Corsets stands out from the crowd not only because of its unusual wares, but also thanks to an extraordinary level of customer service, which every one of their five-star Yelp reviews mentions. Tom credits the staff’s attention to detail in part to the way he and the rest of the family carefully choose employees:

“We call them ‘sharks’ because they have to have a certain drive and motivation, and that’s what we look for. My wife, myself, our daughters — we go out and handpick them from restaurants, the theatre business, or other retail establishments in the area. You have to have an outgoing personality. It can’t be over the top, but you have to be able to talk to people when they come in without being too pushy.”

Subculture’s sales associates are more like personal shoppers, and as a result, appreciation for customers permeates every aspect of the business.

Ashley says, “People come from all over to shop with us — I’ve met customers who drove for hours, even all the way from Miami and Atlanta. It can be stressful to go shopping, especially if you’re buying something outside your comfort zone. The way we sell things here puts people at ease. Everything we sell here in one way or another could be found somewhere else — you don’t have to buy from us. But people want to support our business because we care. We care if you buy it from us.”

Beyond the paid vacation they offer, Tom encourages people to take time off when they need it, whether for personal reasons or even other career aspirations. In addition to working at Subculture as their day jobs, the employees — nearly all women — are also successful makeup artists, fashion designers, musicians, singers, teachers, writers, and more. The first Subculture employee who was not part of the Hand family, JoHanna Moresco, is a violinist for The Crüxshadows — an American “dark wave” band that tours around the world and just happens to have the number one hit right now in Germany.

Tom explains, “We said to JoHanna, ‘Look, we know this is your true love. We know you need to go on tour every year for a month here and there. Whenever you come back, you have a job here.’ That freedom to follow her dreams and passions — it makes her extremely happy when she’s back in town.”

Creating a rewarding retail environment

The retail business can be tough, with low margins and high employee turnover. That’s why perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Subculture is how well they treat their employees.

Tom and Mimzie offer something highly unusual in retail — a generous employee bonus program. While many companies provide a yearly, quarterly or monthly bonus, Tom and Mimzie have a daily bonus incentive program for their team. Based on reaching various daily sales goals, employees can earn up to $150 per day extra in bonuses. Tom said all full-time salespeople are paid well above minimum wage and with the bonus program factored in, many employees average more than $20 per hour.

Beyond a competitive salary, Subculture also provides health benefits, which they were able to launch for the first time through Gusto:

“There was one girl, and it chokes me up to think about this, who told me how thankful she was for health insurance. She started crying. She said, ‘I haven’t been to a doctor in four years and I really need to go — I’ve got issues.’ Everybody is so thankful for the insurance.”

The Subculture team celebrates special events together like a family. Everyone gets a cake, a nice card, and $50 on their birthday. For the holidays they host a big Christmas dinner, and in addition to a White Elephant gift exchange, there’s also the tradition of doling out generous holiday bonuses to employees.

The most unique way Tom has ever expressed his appreciation — and a memorable means of team-building — was in the form of a huge surprise. Last year, he rented a big van, closed the store for the day, and told everyone they were all going to a tradeshow in Orlando. When they arrived, he took everyone out to breakfast and said, “Okay, I lied to you. We’re not going to a tradeshow today. We’re going to Disney World! A couple of the girls had never been before and they started crying at the breakfast table … it was hilarious!”

“I am a big prankster and I believe in having a good time. There are times we have to put our nose to the grindstone. But it doesn’t have to be so serious all the time.”

On taking care of your work family

Tom credits the store’s success to the team, saying: “The backbone of any business is your employees. Without those employees — you’re nowhere! You’re going to be out in the field with the wind blowing. If you take care of your employees and you get a great team surrounding your business, obviously they’re going to want to see it succeed.”

As for the advice he would offer other business owners, Tom declares without hesitation: “You gotta pay them a living wage. I know it’s expensive, but try your hardest to provide them with benefits. Because one stay at a hospital if your employee doesn’t have health care, or even if they do have something like Obamacare, can wipe them out. The short-term, long-term, life insurance policy, dental … God knows, if you have a headache from a toothache — it’s the worst thing in the world. So provide them with the full package. I understand it’s hard. But it’s extremely important.”

Ashley, having worked for many retail companies, agrees that the benefits truly set Subculture apart: “Here it’s an all-inclusive thing — we have health insurance, paid vacation, sick time. Benefits like that are unheard of in retail. We’re not selling cars, we’re selling clothing. Part of it is we’re a family business, so my parents want to take care of their daughters and make sure we’re okay. If you put time in and show your dedication to a company, then you deserve to be shown that you matter. That kind of mentality has spawned a lot of loyalty here — and if you have happy employees who feel loved and taken care of, you’re going to have a good business.”

The future of Subculture Corsets is poised to be as whimsical and successful as the Hand family themselves. Tom and Ashley both mention a variety of aspirations for the brand — everything from opening multiple locations and going national, to having a bigger online presence, hosting more charity events in their community (their recent charity masquerade ball was a big hit), and putting on conferences around the country.

One thing that will never change about Subculture Corsets is its identity as a family-owned and operated business. Ashley says, “Working with my family is mostly amazing and only occasionally comically horrible. When you work with your parents, you’re always going to be the kid, no matter how much you do. Sometimes it’s a hilarious struggle for me and Carlisle to explain the fashion we want to have at the store to my parents.”

As to the “silly things” they used to fight about? The Hand family has come a long way since those early days in Five Points. “The family dynamic is always going to be there,” says Ashley. But today, “we laugh our butts off.”

Steffi Wu Steffi Wu, a contributing author on Gusto, provides actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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