George Wilder began his menswear career when he was a senior in high school in Columbus, Miss.
“The truth is that I was in the store so often, that I ‘hung around so much,’ they finally offered me a job,” George recalls.
All four years while he was earning a marketing degree at Mississippi State University, George worked at a Starkville men’s store.
“Upon graduation, I was offered a job by Alex Gatewood, the owner of The Locker Room in Tuscaloosa, to manage that store,” he said. “Alex was moving to Jackson, Mississippi, to open a store in the capital city of his home state. So, in 1972, my new wife, Madeleine, and I moved to Tuscaloosa,” where the Wilders stayed for five years.
“In Tuscaloosa, I became friends with a great group of folks from Montgomery who encouraged me that Montgomery needed a good, traditional men’s store. So, we pulled together some money and opened this store in September of 1977. The rest, as they say, is history,” explains George.
Living the dream
This fall, The Locker Room at 1717 Carter Hill Road in Montgomery turned 45.
After the store’s first 25 years, George began to grow The Locker Room brand.
In 2002, next door to the midtown Montgomery location, George opened TLR Outdoors, which two years later moved to a shopping center in East Montgomery.
The Locker Room expanded in 2004 to occupy the entire 6,500-square-feet building in Montgomery’s Cloverdale neighborhood with almost 3,700 square feet of selling space.
In the fall of 2010, George opened The Locker Room at 127 E. Magnolia Ave. in Auburn, a 1,400-square-foot store with 1,000 square feet of selling space. “That just happened to coincide with a young athlete named Cam Newton and a football national championship, an obvious shot in the arm for our new business in downtown Auburn,” he said. Two years later, TLR Outdoors and The Locker Room in Montgomery combined into one store.
In November of 2019, the Auburn store moved down the street to 175 E. Magnolia Ave. “Ted Wilson of Wilson Investments, who incidentally was our first customer in Auburn, came to us with the idea of taking their space as they had outgrown it,” said George. Now, The Locker Room in Auburn is a 2,700-square-foot-store with almost 2,000 square feet of selling space.
“My dream as a young guy working with Alex in Tuscaloosa was to be like him and have my own store one day, but, of course, now I realize that the store is not mine but ours,” said George of his 15-member team over the two stores, most of whom have worked with George for 20 or more years.
“We just keep working to get better and better.”
Experts in their field
“We are the experts in helping men dress appropriately for whatever the occasion, business, social or casual,” said George. “Our clients rely on us, just as they rely on their attorney, accountant, physician, painter, plumber or electrician.”
The motivation for customers coming in The Locker Room remains constant. “Our customer is looking for help to make them look and thus feel better,” said George.
“Guys are certainly dressing more casually, but that is not easier,” he said. “Folks need our help, perhaps more than ever.”
“We have survived many recessions, we have seen 21% interest rates, we were turned down by our bank when we wanted to open the Auburn store,” George said when looking back on what he and his team have overcome in the first 45 years and what lies ahead. “The pandemic was certainly a major challenge – never could have imagined select retail shops would be shut down – but we survived without laying off anyone. We will survive whatever challenge is on the horizon.”
When asked what advice he’d give a 27-year-old store owner just starting out, like he was in 1977, George said, “Life throws storms, hurricanes, recessions, cancer and even pandemics at us. Plan, plan, plan – but live – one day at a time. Always be thankful and don’t compare yourselves to others.”
When faced with dilemmas, George said he draws inspiration from the words a friend said in a board meeting many years ago.
Answering a question during that meeting, Jim Blanchard, then chairman and CEO of Synovus Bank, said, “We just want to figure out what makes sense and do that.”
Retail and community champion
George repeated those words to state leaders when the government allowed some stores to stay open while ordering others to close at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Like he has on other occasions on other issues, George stepped forward as the voice and face of small retail.
Over the years, George has testified before state legislative committees and has traveled to Washington, D.C., for face-to-face meetings with the Alabama congressional delegation on various topics. He’s done countless media interviews on retail issues, including supporting the state’s annual back-to-school sales tax holiday and marketplace fairness.
“Small business was being discriminated against with the sales tax issue,” he said. He and other Alabama retailers traveled five times to D.C. to tell lawmakers that allowing remote sellers to bypass collecting sales taxes created an unfair advantage. “Good retailers are not afraid of competition. It was certainly not a level playing field.”
George was recognized nationally in 2015 for his efforts on the marketplace and e-fairness issue. In October of 2015, retailers without stores in our state began voluntarily collecting and remitting a use, or sales, tax from Alabama customers. Since October 2018, remote sellers of a certain volume have been required to collect a sales or use tax.
Small businesses like The Locker Room make a difference both in public policy and in a community, George said.
Besides speaking out on retail issues, George gives back and encourages his employees be involved too. “At The Locker Room, we are committed to improving and bettering our community,” he said. He and his employees serve on boards as well as in civic clubs, nonprofits and their churches.
“George runs a great business, and he has always given back to the community,” said the late Tom Moore, who worked at The Locker Room for 23 years. “He is a deeply caring and compassionate person. George doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk, every single day.”
Number of Employees
Alex Gatewood, owner of The Locker Room in Tuscaloosa. Alex gave me the opportunity to manage his store in Tuscaloosa at a young age and has been my mentor since 1972
Opening the Auburn location in 2010!
I try to have those each day, reading, listening and paying attention
Jim Blanchard, retired CEO of Synovus Bank, many years ago shared this at a board meeting: “We just want to figure out what makes sense and do that.” I love the wisdom and simplicity of that way of thinking.
MEMBER SINCE 1993
The Locker Room has two stores at 1717 Carter Hill Road in Montgomery, which is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Montgomery through Friday and from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturdays; and at 175 E. Magnolia Ave. in Auburn, which is open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Monday-Saturday.