Lockers with a Legacy
The Locker Lady provides personal storage solutions for every environment
Grace Choe (pronounced “cho-eh”) is always up for a new adventure, including traveling alone from Korea to the United States as a student and later relocating from Georgia to work in New York City. Today, she is Owner of American Interior Resources, Inc., doing business as The Locker Lady, based in Union, New Jersey, with a warehouse in Newark, New Jersey.
The company supplies manufactured and custom-designed lockers and a wide selection of Division 10 and Division 12 products, including wire shelving, material-handling equipment and office furniture for government agencies, schools, corporations, health care facilities and more.
“We do business directly with multimillion-dollar construction companies such as Skanska, Turner Construction, Tishman and Schiavone Construction Co., and with subcontractors, particularly for lockers and Division 10 products,” Grace says.
The Locker Lady was established by Alwine Schooff in 1997. “The company has excellent references for projects completed this year and projects completed 20 years ago. Alwine put in so much effort to create this business. My job is to build on that legacy,” Grace says.
In 2018, Grace bought the company from Alwine, her mentor, making it a second-generation woman-owned business. The Locker Lady is a certified Women-Owned Business Enterprise and Minority-Owned Business Enterprise in New York and New Jersey and by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The business also holds a GSA Schedule 71 contract for federal agencies.
“The Locker Lady has built its reputation on successful projects over nearly 25 years, including during the 20 years that Alwine built the company and now under my leadership,” Grace says.
Lockers Are More Than Metal
Metal school lockers are a rite of passage for students. While metal is sturdy and economical, it’s far from the only option. Materials include the fine cabinetry of handcrafted wooden lockers and elegant glass, plus plastic, laminate and phenolic—a material suitable for both outdoor and indoor use. “We can supply new or used products that will meet any budget,” Grace says.
“We help customers determine the best materials and manufacturers to meet their specific needs,” she says. “We walk them through the many configurations, sizes and colors and assist them in making the right choices for facility use, the environment and project budget.” For example, wire-mesh storage lockers often work best for apartment tenants; triple-tier and multitier styles provide space-saving options for gym lockers.
More Than Lockers
While lockers are a significant part of the business, not to mention the company name, The Locker Lady supplies a wide assortment of product categories typically required for new construction and renovation projects, from bike racks to washroom accessories.
“Architectural plans come as a complete package from the general contractor or property owner,” Grace says. “Our product range makes it convenient and cost-effective for contractors to award us the entire Division 10 or 12 package on very large projects.”
The Division 10 products—specialties—include toilet partitions; toilet accessories designed for educational, health care, corporate and security facilities; custodial facilities; fire equipment; markerboards and tack boards; tenant storage lockers and bike racks for multifamily and other structures.
The Locker Lady sources and supplies materials handling equipment and Division 12 products—furnishings—including office furniture for projects such as executive spaces, medical offices and schools.
Entrepreneurship Meets Legacy
Grace has always possessed an entrepreneurial mindset. After earning a degree in accounting from Kennesaw State University in Georgia, she went to work as an accountant in Kennesaw and ran a restaurant at the same time.
“My first big decision was moving to the U.S. in 1995 all by myself,” Grace says. “My second big decision was moving to New York City.” She’d lived in Georgia for a decade, where her sister also lived, and owned a home there. When the recruiter for the New York opportunity learned that she was single but wished to marry, he said, “Take the job, and I’ll introduce you to your future husband!” She did, and he did. “That sweetened the deal!” she laughs. Two months after arriving in New York, she met her husband-to-be, Joseph, at a barbecue. They married and settled in New Jersey.
Eventually, the long commute wasn’t compatible with raising two small children. She left her corporate job and established an insurance agency, quickly building a productive team. One of her agents set up a meeting to discuss annuities. The venue was a meeting space that happened to be owned by Alwine Schooff, Founder of The Locker Lady. “We started talking about setting up an annuity for Alwine. When she showed me the company’s financials I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great business!’ When I learned that she might want to sell her company and retire, I realized I was looking at my next big decision,” Grace recalls.
Grace jumped at the opportunity. She sold her insurance agency and concentrated on learning the business and the construction industry under Alwine’s tutelage. Grace became the company’s owner in December 2018. “Alwine and I have a deep connection. She’s a great businesswoman and mentor, sharing her experience and knowledge.”
Building on Project Success
The Locker Lady’s jobs have touched every part of New York and New Jersey, including the New York Giants, United States Military Academy at West Point, the Port Authority Police Department World Trade Center Command, Manhattan College, the United States Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey, and the Hudson County Police Department’s training facility in Secaucus, New Jersey. The company regularly supplies projects for public schools, hospitals, corporations, universities and other major government institutions.
A memorable project was supplying and installing approximately 2,000 lockers—for athletes as well as staff members—in locker rooms at Giants Stadium (now MetLife Stadium), home of the Giants and the New York Jets, which opened in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in 2010.
The Locker Lady is also proud of its work supplying 250 lockers during the renovation of Eisenhower Barracks at West Point. This was part of the Cadet Barracks Upgrade Program, including the complete remodeling of a building originally built in 1968. The company was recently awarded an additional project at West Point, supplying lockers for the General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Barracks built in 2017, the first new barracks built at West Point in 50 years.
Recent government projects include provision of 348 lockers for employees at Grand Central Terminal in June this year and a large project for a United States Postal Service facility in New York City.
Growing Team, Maintaining Continuity
Grace is expanding The Locker Lady team to accommodate the company’s growth. Shortly after buying the company, she hired Project Managers Alice Jang and Anthony Kim. Kevin Pok joined this year as Estimator. An important part of continuity includes Foreman Michael Jamison, who has worked for the company for many years as an Installer.
“We’re committed to maintaining the level of service and reliability that Locker Lady customers expect, while expanding our product and service offering. We make sure we’ll do our best on any job,” Grace says.
Her next milestone goal? To add a general contracting division. “We’re also expanding into the senior housing sector, a natural fit for our expertise and products. In addition, we will supply material-handling services for construction materials.”
While looking forward, Grace reflects on the company’s strong foundation. “Alwine gave me this opportunity. She continues to be my mentor. It’s a great example of women helping other women succeed. One day, I want to give another woman the opportunity to carry on The Locker Lady legacy.”
The next generation is already planning to help. Her 10-year-old daughter Claire Choe tells Grace that she wants to take over the business. Seven-year-old son Luke Choe wants to be a builder. “Good,” says Claire. “If you help grow my business, I’ll give you 25% (ownership).” Little brother replies, “How about 50-50?” Grace’s children have inherited her entrepreneurial interest and math skills.
Grace is confident The Locker Lady legacy will live on, building on the solid foundation created by its founder. “I would say that I am living the American Dream,” she says.