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Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 07/21/2008

Other companies could learn a lesson or two from Mitchells’ Hugging University.

This story first appeared in the July 21, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


Inspired by Jack Mitchell’s books, “Hug Your Customer” and, more recently, “Hug Your People”, Mitchells started The Hugging University in April 2007 and then brought in Robert Greenfield, who has a 32-year luxury retail background, about a year ago to facilitate and organize it for the three retail organizations within the Mitchells family: Mitchells, Marshs and Richards. The university was up and running last fall, but it’s still a work in progress as Jack Mitchell, the visionary behind it, his son Andrew and Greenfield continue to come up with new ideas.


The classes—yes, there are classes—focus on five categories: culture, or a presentation of Mitchells history, mission, vision and guiding principles; team development; client development; personal development; and outside interest development. There are specific courses for team-building and interdepartmental and inter-store communications, as well as cultural training for customer service and experience. Courses outside of the business include yoga as well as caring for aging parents and estate planning.


The tagline for the university is listen, learn, grow. “All the courses have to be about that,” says Andrew Mitchell, vice-president of marketing.


Mitchells has a ‘board of education’ made up of sales team leaders, some sales associates and a buyer who meet monthly to assess how people liked courses and explore new ideas, how to improve the classes and how to get everything done. The classes get some outside help from specialists in various areas, but Mitchells more often calls upon its own employees to provide the training.


“We have so much expertise in the organization that we can grow with each other as a team,” says Greenfi eld. “Part of it is that the more we learn about each other and that each department is essential to the company, the more we can bring that front and center to make it resonate not only with the customer experience but with each other. And we link the stores and take it on the road to bring the entire organization together. This is why I connected with Jack’s vision. At the end of the day, people make the difference, especially in such a competitive environment.”


Part of the goal is to give associates an understanding of what other people in other departments do. “One department will present to another what their day looks like, which builds trust between the departments … and helps them understand and respect [each other’s] jobs,” Mitchell says.


Greenfield adds that each department (or individuals in the department) will create a vignette every month to present to the entire store that showcases what they do, how they bring value to the organization and who they feel positively impacts their ability to deliver value. The intention of the program is to improve communication and teamwork by creating empathy, enhancing relationships, fostering acknowledgement and deepening pride across the entire company. The presentation ends with everyone in the audience sharing one reason why they appreciate the presenter.


Associates share their expertise with each other in the classes. As Mitchell explains, the classes aren’t structured as a regular teacher/student classroom. “They’re taught by peers,” he says. One associate who particularly excels at profiling customers, making outbound phone calls or picking up new clients, for example, will share that knowledge.

The subject of one class, he notes, was how to build “super clients,” who typically spend more than $25,000 per year. “It was on how they’re able to do that, what’s different between serving super and usual clients and how to turn the usual client into a super client,” Mitchell says.


John Hickey, who is the top men’s seller at Richards, says he has found the classes to be “very exciting.” Hickey has been at Richards for 30 years but says he’s learning new things. For example, he took part in a course a few weeks ago on how to blast e-mails and still keep them personal for his clients. The associates at his store in Greenwich, Conn., meet in a building across the street from the store about once a month from around 8:30 to 10 in the morning. “I find that we share a lot with each other,” he says. Because the space is quieter and less harried than the store, and because the meetings are held in the morning, “people are more willing to share ideas and open up. The key is to keep it fresh, and they [the Mitchells and Greenfield] have been keeping it fresh.”


Says Mitchell, “No course is the same. We have to keep them exciting and keep people coming to them. And we mix it up with outside specialists, as well as our associates from different stores, which has been a big bonus.” For example, an associate called on to share his knowledge of a task he does well “feels like a million bucks afterwards” because of the recognition, Mitchell says.


For the class on caring for aging parents and estate planning, Mitchells brought in an attorney who specializes in elder care and financial ramifications, a geriatric care provider and a person from the Employee Assistance Program. “It gave people the opportunity to learn the critical things to know before they’re in a crisis,” Greenfield says. “We invited whole families for this one. It went really well.”


Hugging University goes beyond the classes, though. To help celebrate Mitchells’ 50th anniversary, the company developed The 50th Anniversary Big Give, which provides associates the opportunity to thank the people who help them the most, or, as Greenfield puts it, “help make you shine.” Mitchells has issued each person five recognition coins to give to each of five special people. The five associates who receive the most coins, or who are the “five top huggers,” Mitchell says, were acknowledged at the family picnic/barbecue in early July.


Mitchell says the company is also discussing taking everyone bowling and throwing a picnic next spring.

Greenfield says his own background —which includes Bloomingdale’s; Charles Jourdan, where he built a men’s shoe business; and his own companies—paired with his own personal interest and education on team-building and communication with customers, fit beautifully with Jack Mitchell’s hugging customers and people philosophy. “It seemed a perfect match,” he says. “Mitchells is at the top of their game, and this is a way to create new possibilities and enhance their level of expertise. We have so much expertise in the organization that we can grow with each other as a team.”

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