Behind the shoeshine: Entrepreneur leaves her footprint on male-dominated business

In 1991, when Shelley Bonner-Carson wanted her boots shined before an important meeting with casino executives, she learned that men could get their shoes shined but not women — all shoeshine concession stands were inside men’s restrooms.

Now, her business, Goodfellows Shoeshine & Accessories, is in 10 Las Vegas hotel-casinos and has expanded into four states with 131 employees.

“When I was growing up, the mob was here,” she said. “They gave comps to everybody in this town, but my father (would) forbid us to take anything from them. What he did, becoming a lawyer the way he did when it was so hard, he made me believe I could do anything … The ‘hotel gods,’ that’s what we called them … couldn’t wrap their heads around a woman owning a business. But there was joy in success.”

The success came after getting her foot in the door with her first concession stand at Circus Circus. Bonner-Carson approached other hotels until, before the era of implosions, she had operations in 20 Strip casinos.

“I never started this to be small,” she said. “It was the time of the big boom of Vegas, when things were really starting to (grow).”

After hotels, she set her sights on McCarran International Airport but said she encountered resistance due to her gender. Five times she reached out to airport management, and each time it said no. It wasn’t until Joy Purdy became concessions manager at McCarran that Bonner-Carson’s voice was heard. She pitched the idea to Purdy and soon had a space in the rapidly expanding airport.

Since then Goodfellows has been designated by the federal government as a certified woman-owned business, which prevents discrimination. The U.S. Small Business Administration published a final rule in 2011 aimed at expanding federal contracting opportunities for women-owned small businesses.

Today, Goodfellows has five locations in McCarran. Other locations are spread across the West:

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was added in 2008 (nine locations).

San Diego International Airport was added in 2009 (four locations).

San Francisco International Airport was added in 2010 (four locations).

Salt Lake City International Airport and Sacramento International Airport were added in 2011 (two locations each).

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was added in 2012 (13 locations).

San Antonio International Airport was added in 2013 (two locations).

Bonner-Carson said securing a space costs anywhere from $1,000 to $11,000, depending on licensing, taxes, fees and contract specifics.

“I really wanted to be in airports,” she said. “You’ve got your business (person) waiting in the airport for their flight with nothing better to do than get a coffee or a bite and maybe — ta da — a shoeshine. And they go into our store, and they see our big-screen TVs with the sports scores or the way the stock market’s going.”

Borrowing from the casinos’ playbook, Goodfellows has its own eye-in-the-sky system. An oversized television monitor at headquarters allows any location to be viewed in real time or in playback mode.

“If there’s any kind of issue, a theft or something happens to an employee, we take a look at it,” she said. “And it’s also for liability issues, if anybody fell off the (raised stand), we can see what happened.”

The goal is to have a store in every major American airport within the next five years. It’s ambitious but doable, she said.

Goodfellows Shoeshine is also a constant presence at the Las Vegas Convention Center and has a longtime association with the National Finals Rodeo.

The New Orleans Hyatt, which is attached to the Superdome, invited Goodfellows to be a component of its site.

“Everybody knows if you’re good enough to operate in Las Vegas, you must be good,” she said. “I get that all the time.”

Not one to miss an opportunity, Bonner-Carson added items such as aftershave, fragrances, lotion and other skin care items. In 2011, she tested an idea at the San Francisco International Airport location by adding ties, belts, men’s socks and underwear to her stores.

“Most of our shoeshine customers are males, about 90 percent,” said Luis Cintron, accounting manager. “But the retail component, that goes 50 percent female.”

Bonner-Carson said women are buying for their husbands or significant others.

True to its roots, Goodfellows is based in Las Vegas and operates out of a 5,000-square-foot space in the industrial corridor off Tropicana Avenue and Interstate 15. The front part is offices, but the back is where all the work gets done. Shoeshine stands come in for refurbishing. Most last about five years. Her original one, a red chair that looks more like a dentist’s chair, is stored there.

New employees are trained there, and managers fly in for refresher courses when not being shown the sights of Red Rock Canyon, the Strip and Hoover Dam.

The back room is also where new outlets are planned. Blue painter’s tape marks off the square footage for each new shoeshine location, anywhere from 200 to 300 square feet.

“We call it the ‘store on the floor,’ ” Bonner-Carson said. “Before we open at any location, we (check it out) right here. We measure everything out, see where things should go, how it all fits. We can tell if people will have enough room to maneuver their suitcase. It has to get the ‘store-on-the-floor approval’ before it leaves on the truck.”

Bonner-Carson is planning her next move, stand-alone barber shops, which will be offered as franchises. She is scouting locations in Henderson and around Summerlin for a pilot store. The concept will be about 2,000 square feet of space and will focus on haircuts and shaves with shoeshines as an added component. The working name is Goodfellows Barber and Accessories, with the logo being similar.

“Our goal is to open up in every city where we have an airport (location),” she said.

She said the new barber shop pilot store should be open by next year, with franchises offered after it’s running smoothly.