Mitchells Looks Outside the Family

“We don’t want to be just a family-driven company,” Bob Mitchell, co-president and head merchant of the Mitchells Family of Stores, said at the summit.

Bob Mitchell
Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 04/05/2012

At the Mitchells Family of Stores, it’s not necessarily “all in the family.”

This story first appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We don’t want to be just a family-­driven company,” Bob Mitchell, co-­president and head merchant of the Mitchells Family of Stores, said during his conversation at the summit with Jean E. Palmieri, senior editor, men’s for WWD and managing editor of Menswear.

“Our two head merchants, in men’s and women’s, are non-family members,” Mitchell said, noting that the Wilkes Bashford store in Palo Alto, Calif., owned by the Mitchells, is the fastest-growing one in the company and not managed directly by any Mitchell.

“We think we can leverage our culture with non-family members,” Mitchell said. “Without that, we are limited in terms of how we can grow.…Too many times I get the question of ‘Are you growing to keep the family happy?’ To me, that has absolutely nothing to do it. We are all working plenty. It’s about keeping the company growing, vibrant and reinventing ourself. We have a different strategy than most. We want a smaller number of stores doing significant volume and dominating as the local player in the market.”

Families that live and work together are known to bicker. But Mitchell said that to avoid, or at least minimize, infighting the company established an advisory board years ago. “It’s nonbinding but it really professionalized the company in a different way than just having a family board. In addition, we have spent a lot of time with a family business consultant since 1985, separating the family of the business, and the business. Too many people get that line confused. All the family and non-family members have very clear job descriptions and accountability, with a real high level of communication we’ve taken to the nth-degree. Without great communication, we won’t be able to perpetuate what we are doing.”

While not entirely family-run, the Mitchells business remains family-owned, and the Mitchells are clearly in charge. Ed and Norma Mitchell (Bob’s grandparents) founded the company in 1958 with three men’s suits and an 800-square-foot former plumbing supply store in Westport, Conn., which they converted to Ed Mitchells. There was always coffee brewing for customers, and the tradition has lasted with lattes and M&M’s offered to this day.

Ed Mitchells became Mitchells of Westport, and the company grew further through a string of acquisitions: Richards of Greenwich in 1995; Marshs of Huntington in 2005, and Wilkes Bashford in 2009, which with two stores, in San Francisco and Palo Alto, posed logistical challenges. “We saw it as an opportunity to test the model of whether we could operate outside our geographic area,” Mitchell said.

At Wilkes Bashford, “The first year was very definitely different from all the other acquisitions,” Mitchell said. “Wilkes Bashford was a distressed company. What was lacking was structure, discipline and systems, that we were able to bring.

“What really intrigued us about Wilkes Bashford was the people. When I first went out there, I remember looking at every number known to mankind. Then I saw the sheet of paper that had the sellers. There were 15 sellers generating a million dollars in sales, two million dollars, three million dollars,” Mitchell said. “People who been there 10, 20 years. This was an unbelievable asset.” And it played right into the Mitchells “relationship selling” business model.

To sustain the momentum, the Wilkes Bashford store in San Francisco is being renovated. “It’s a unique building, a town house. We are going to market it as the Wilkes Bashford Townhouse.” The building was only using five of its seven 3,000-square-foot levels. With the renovation, all floors will be for retailing, with the first housing men’s and women’s; the next three floors for women’s, and the top three floors for men’s wear, including the penthouse level, which is anchored by two core brands, Brioni and Kiton. The renovation is expected to be completed in November. Around that time, renovations on the Palo Alto store will commence. “We think we can double our California business in the next three years,” Mitchell said. In 2013, the company is planning some significant renovations on Richards in Greenwich as well.

Wilkes Bashford, he noted, had a culture built on exclusive product. “We came in and started talking about client accumulation, systems and sell-throughs and analytics. We had to marry both cultures together. I think exclusives with product are great when we can get them. What more customers are looking for today are exclusive shopping experiences, and I don’t mean exclusive in a snobby way.”