It's All in the Details
Mickey Judkins attends to her garden, her business, and the economic health of the whole region.
By Ross Evavold
With summer finally here, most mornings you can find Mickey Judkins working in the gardens that envelop her home, a restored brick bungalow south of Eau Claire.
"I love the days I spend in my garden," she says.
That much is apparent. The English cottage gardens have spread to cover roughly an acre, and necessitate the work of a master gardener, Jean Stevens. "I love working with Jean," Judkins said. "She's such a great teacher."
The English-style flower garden is unlike any other, with its perennial beds being outlined by long rows of hostas that serve as its only formal element. And a vegetable garden contains considerable organic food, such as 50 heirloom tomatoes, including 29 old-world varieties that come in all sorts of shapes, colors and sizes.
"They get a little wild, but I like the wildness," Judkins says with a twinkle in her eye.
She also likes staying busy. If there's one instantly recognizable trait Judkins possesses, it is a reluctance to be tied down to one thing, or even a traditional plan of action.
"I'm a Type A personality. If my plate gets cleared, I add two other things to it," she confesses. "I am a workaholic.' "
Besides the work at home renovating a farmhouse and nurturing her gardens, Judkins has had her hands in multiple business ventures. She's the founder and owner of Details, a relatively unique women's clothing store on Water Street in Eau Claire.
And she is uncommonly involved in many aspects of the community, from serving on many business-related boards to acting as a mentor for young entrepreneurs. Last month Gov. Jim Doyle appointed her to a two-year term on the nine-member Wisconsin Development Finance Board, where she continues to work on economic development.
Although Judkins was one of 84 people who accompanied Doyle on an economic development trip to China earlier this year, she still managed to make an impression on Doyle.
"When I saw the governor this spring, he told me, 'I met a real go-getter on that trip,' " relates Howard White, Eau Claire City Council president. "He was very impressed with her."
White, who has known Judkins since their days at Eau Claire Memorial High School, isn't surprised by her accomplishments.
"Mickey's always been someone with big ideas, who will look beyond where everyone else is going and say, 'Maybe we should try this.' Details is a perfect example."
Her business career started the same day she began attending classes at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. She had been attending the University of Arizona, but returned home when her dad suffered a heart attack.
While in Tucson Judkins came up with the idea for her first business. But the recycled clothing and costume shop she dubbed Butterfly Exchange didn't materialize until she came home.
"I analyzed the market here and no one was doing this kind of business," she recalls. "It was the beginning of me being a niche marketer, which I think is one of my strengths."
When asked how she attended college full-time and owned a business, she said, "I didn't analyze it or I probably wouldn't have done it."
Looking back on it, becoming a business owner at that age makes perfect sense to Judkins. "You've got nothing to lose," she said.
She also advises students to travel and see the world. "It gives them a global perspective, and that's important, considering our global economy. Before, what happened in China didn't have a significant effect on us in Eau Claire. Now it does."
After selling her first business and seeing the world herself, Judkins purchased the old Adam's drug store at the corner of Fifth and Water streets in Eau Claire and the doctor's office behind it, and created Details.
"We wanted to focus on a quality product that wasn't in the market," she said of her women's clothing store that features top-of-the-line career, casual and occasion clothes. Details differentiates itself from department stores by carrying unique brands of clothing lines from a mix of new designers and more well-established ones.
"Details is wonderful. It has something for everyone at every price point," said Mary Ann Rucker of Eau Claire. "They have exotic, wonderful quality lines at higher prices, and whimsical things that are fun. They have the finest cashmere, beautiful silk, and knits that are affordable, and serve every body type."
Details has had competitors come and go over the years, including a handful that tried to offer some of the same things. One reason for its staying power is the attention Judkins pays to her product. She does her homework, seeks out what she thinks will appeal to her customer base, and then pays attention to what works and what doesn't. When a designer's clothes start showing up at a department store in town, she moves on to someone else to avoid duplication.
"I work very closely with my manufacturers for distribution. We try to have loyal vendors, as well as loyal customers," Judkins said.
"I really respect her merchandising approach," said Mary Ellen Schmider of Chippewa Falls. "The store is not huge, but she has niched her merchandise. It tends to be up-market, but accessible. She's always looking for new designers, women in particular, who are doing interesting things and working with good materials. It fits people, and it doesn't break the bank."
The quality of the clothing also draws Anna Sizer of Eau Claire to Details, but she says it is the level of service she gets there that really sets it apart.
"They know my name, and what type of clothing I like. They find outfits for me. I can call up and ask them to pull out a couple of outfits and when I get there they'll have a room waiting for me," she said.
"Her staff has been with her for a long, long time, and they know what their customers like -- and they aren't going to tell you everything looks great just to meet a sales quota," Schmider said. That leads to loyal customers, as does the practice of sending birthday cards with 10-percent-off coupons, or letting husbands know what items might interest their wife.
"It's very consumer friendly. People go in there and they make you feel special," said Rucker, who also appreciates the little things, like making cookies and iced tea available to customers. "She also has beautiful flowers on the counter. There's always something special to look at. She's a very gracious hostess."
Details has developed a "community of people who feel that clothes aren't the end of life, but they're something to enjoy," as Schmider put it. But those business professionals will grow older, and a clothing store must start cultivating a younger audience, while at the same time carrying the clothing and accessories its long-time customers want.
"It's important for any business -- especially the fashion business -- to keep reinventing yourself," Judkins said, giving credit to both her customers and the Chippewa Valley market for helping her shape business decisions. "The danger is that it becomes stagnant, so you have to keep evolving."
She has managed to straddle that generational line, and now it's not uncommon for her to capture both mothers and daughters.
"They have both younger and older customers," said Schmider, who described herself as a grandmother. "In fact, my daughter and my niece get clothes there from time to time."
"I have a daughter who's 22, and she would never have shopped there years ago," Rucker said. "But now she can't wait to come home and shop at Details."
"They go from the sort-of trendy to clothes for the retired women," Sizer said. "For college students who want some really cool clothes, they have the hottest styles, and all of the hip name brands."
In another effort to reach out to new customers, Judkins saw the huge potential market available on the Internet. While other local businesses may have had established web sites by 1995, Judkins has been told her store was the first to have a commercial Internet business in Eau Claire, actively selling product on the web.
She considers her Internet store, Details Direct, to be a second business. After all, it requires its own marketing needs, and its own employees.
"A lot of women who have never shopped on the Internet are finally getting comfortable with buying on the Internet," Judkins said, noting it's another example of how small and accessible the world has become. "It's also a great way for my long-range customers to shop."
She also has a third business, which she co-owns with her husband, Jeff Rochon. They invest in recreational property, and are currently working on a project in Manitowoc County, where they will develop part of the waterfront property. They plan on leaving two-thirds of it in a permanent conservancy.
"There are responsible ways to develop," said Judkins, who calls it the socially responsible thing to do. She also credits her husband for making everything she does possible.
"Jeff is a tremendous source of strength and support," Judkins said. "My work would not be possible without him."
In addition to the business world, Judkins says it is important for her to do plenty of community work. "I have a basic philosophy: You have to give back to the community that supports you," she said.
"As a lifelong member of Eau Claire, I think it's important to Mickey to not only be successful in business, but to pass that along to the city," White said. "There are a number of us out there who think you just owe something to the city. We're expected to give back to Eau Claire. She's not only helped herself, but the whole community."
She has served on the Arts Council Board, two terms on the Chamber of Commerce board, and several years on the Eau Claire Economic Development Corporation, where she recently completed her term as president. At one time Judkins was serving on seven boards, and she admits that took its toll.
"My husband would have to get me up for 7 a.m. meetings. I would be exhausted. I always needed a cup of coffee. I was like a wind-up doll," she recalls. "We sat down and talked, and decided I had to back off of some things when my terms finished. And I did.
"But I've found that economic development is a real passion for me, because it's an opportunity to improve the quality of life in Wisconsin," said Judkins. "I enjoy brainstorming and policy making. When I see the surrounding communities come together and create a win-win situation, that's exciting to me."
She also senses a societal return to values she embraced growing up. "The idealism of my 20s has been rekindled. I see the importance of being involved." And she has figured out a way to do it without running herself into the ground.
"I try to prioritize carefully. And as long as I surround myself with good and talented people, I can do it."
Just as she has grown her garden and her business, Judkins puts a lot of effort into growing the area's business scene.
"Mickey is very interested in seeing the whole area progress economically. She's always been willing to help," said Sizer, owner of Sizer Communications in Eau Claire. "She's very passionate, and is a great asset to the community, because of the time and effort she puts into making things happen."
"I think Mickey refuses to fail," White said. "She's driven. She's a smart businesswoman who makes good business decisions. She's always looking for a way to do things better, and isn't tied down to what's traditional. She will think outside the box and try something new."
"If she's passionate about something, she gives it her all," Rucker said, "and you have to believe the world's a better place because of her."
Ross Evavold is editor of The Chippewa Herald. He can be reached at (715) 738-1606, or at email@example.com.
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