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WWD Milestones issue 07/21/2008


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

The store’s oldest employee, Condoleo started working for Ed Mitchell 49 years ago. Although he had entertained ideas of opening his own tailor shop after emigrating from Italy, he opted to join a fledgling retail store in Westport, Conn., instead. His long career at Mitchells almost came to an end just after it started, however. “I was not happy with the person in charge [of the shop when I joined],” he recalls. “I didn’t like him. We had an argument and I decided to leave. But I went to Ed Mitchell and he said, ‘Wait until tomorrow.’ The next day he told me I wasn’t going anywhere and he put me in charge of the shop.”


In the early days Condoleo oversaw three people; today there are 24. “I’ve been lucky,” he says. “Many of my tailors have been here 10 to 30 years. Tailoring is not an easy job. It takes a long time to learn the trade. You really have
to like it.”


Among his favorite parts of the job is working with customers. “It’s very satisfying. They’ve become my friends. It’s a lot of fun.”


So is working for the Mitchell family. “They have a very unique formula that makes people want to do things for them. Nobody is forced. They empower you and with empowerment comes responsibility.”


Although he has reached an age where he could easily retire, Condoleo has no intentions of stepping aside. “In January I had two knee replacements and was out of work for seven weeks. It reinforced that retirement is not for me. As long as I’m still productive and healthy, I’ll be here.”



When the Mitchells bought Richards in 1995 they also inherited Gallagi, the store’s supersalesman. Now a 43-year veteran of the Greenwich store, Gallagi admits he was apprehensive when he initially heard about the sale. “At first I didn’t know what could happen, but it worked out to be the best thing,” he says. “The Mitchells are wonderful people
and they give so much to the community.”


Although Mitchells and Richards were competitors, the relationship was always friendly, he recalls. “We shared some merchandise, and when I had a heart attack 25 years ago they sent me flowers.”


One of the best things about joining forces with the Mitchells, he says, is their sense of family. “It’s not all business,” Gallagi says. “They expect you to spend time with your family.”


The other thing that keeps him hanging around is the relationship he’s established with his customers. “I could retire, but I’m still having a lot of fun,” he says. “I’m getting referrals of young people, which is a big compliment at this stage in my life.”


It’s also a compliment that some of his long-standing customers think of him as family. “I get invited to their weddings—I’ve found myself on a 60-foot catamaran in St. Martin,” he says. “You’re really a part of their lives.”


Maybe it’s because Gallagi still goes above and beyond to please them. For example, on the morning of this interview he was scurrying around Richards well before opening because a customer just had to have an outfit for a trip that day. “I always try to do my best,” he says, pointing out that the Mitchells allow him and his colleagues to make whatever decisions are necessary to complete the sale. “From the receiving people to your peers,” he says. “We all work together to make it perfect.”



Growing up, Hickey saw himself on the Great White Way, not on a retail sales floor. But the 30-year Richards veteran doesn’t regret his decision. Now the store’s top men’s wear salesman, Hickey grew up in the business. “My father ran the store for [Richards former owner] Ed Schachter,” he recalls. “I worked here a little through high school, but I swore I’d never come into this business full time.”


Instead, he spent his time off working in summer stock in hopes of launching a career as an actor. But after college he migrated to Richards and has been there ever since.


In Hickey’s mind there’s not much difference between retail and acting. “What we do is entertain,” he says.


Hickey credits his father and Frank Gallagi for teaching him the tricks of the retail trade. “Frank is gold. He’s on all the time,” Hickey says. “I’ve learned so much from him that it’s made me a better person and a top seller. He taught me how to treat the customers and make them feel like they’re in our home. We built our business one customer at a time. And we’ve been hugging the customer forever.”


He too admits to having been a little uncertain about how the Mitchells would change the store after they purchased it. “When they came in, it was scary,” he says, “but they were smart enough to embellish the business.”


On a personal basis, “they give me a lot of rope,” he says, “and are so appreciative of what we do. They act as coaches to keep us going. They believe in positive reinforcement.”


Hickey notes: “I entertained [the idea of] leaving a few years ago, but it would be too hard to walk away. Retail is not easy, but I guess I have the gift. When I walk in the door, I realize it’s showtime.”



Ironically, Giannitti had actually worked for the Mitchell family in Westport for a short time before moving on to its competitor, Richards, in the early Seventies. When he took the job at the Greenwich store, there were only three people in the tailor shop. Today, he oversees a staff of 18 and serves as its head fitter for men.


“I worked for Ed Schachter for 25 years and then went back to the Mitchells [after they bought the business],” he recalls. “I like the Mitchell family. I do the best I can for them.”


Describing himself as “a gentle man” who “never calls in sick,” he has a work ethic that was honed in Italy from the age of nine. “I can make a suit from scratch,” he says, but he realizes that his is a dying art. “Today, everybody wants to be a lawyer or a doctor. But I look at my job like a doctor. I’m a professional too.”


Giannitti says that all the tailors used to be from Europe, but over the past 15 or so years the majority are from Colombia, Ecuador, Chile or Peru. “And we have two beautiful ladies from Portugal,” he says.


When the Mitchells bought Richards he wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but, “now I say ‘Why didn’t they buy the business sooner?’ Mr. Schachter was a good man but the Mitchells are more professional. They’ve made a lot of good changes. I would like to be here a long time.”



Don’t tell Roman that a woman can’t sell men’s wear. The Mitchells veteran was one of the few female salespeople when she joined the company 22 years ago. “Bill and Jack had great faith in me,” she recalls. “I was one of the few women in this store. But it’s been great. The men loved it and their spouses were appreciative.”


Roman credited the Mitchells with “making me feel like part of the family. Their sales associates are
as important to them as their customers.The key for them is to promote a healthy, happy environment. They’ve let me do what I want and they trust me to make my own decisions. I basically run my own business within their business.”


Calling the family “visionaries” and “incredible businesspeople,” Roman sees her career with the store continuing far into the future. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but they give me the confidence that I could be here another 22 years.”



As a Connecticut native, Cerritelli remembers shopping at Mitchells as a kid. “My dad would shop here for himself and me,” he recalls. And although he had worked for other retail stores, he eventually came back to Westport and took a job as a salesman at Mitchells. That was 23 years ago. “They give you a lot of freedom,” he says of the family.


“It’s not a corporate structure and you don’t have to constantly be looking over your shoulder. They’ve allowed me to flourish.”


Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Cerritelli will do almost anything to seal a sale. “I’ll come in early, I’ve made a delivery to Sarasota for a customer— whatever it takes. It’s a pretty basic concept, but if you always err on the side of the customer, you can’t make a mistake. It becomes very easy and second nature.”



With a resumé that includes an eight-year stint at Nordstrom in Paramus, N.J., where she was the top women’s salesperson and managed the designer department, Guitard could have written her own ticket. But after a divorce the Connecticut native quit her job and moved back home to Greenwich. Soon after, she was ready to remarry and found the perfect Donna Karan dress. The designer suggested she go to Mitchells to try it on, so up the road she went. Scott Mitchell, the women’s manager there at the time, helped her figure out how to get the “very intricate” dress on and they started chatting. “I was standing there half naked and he told me they were building a store in Greenwich [that would include women’s]. I told him that I only wanted to work part-time. Then I met Bill and 4 1/2 hours later I was hired.”


Although building a business from scratch wasn’t easy, Guitard says she “likes to be challenged.”


She also goes above and beyond to please her customers. “I had a client in Boston and we were supposed to overnight her a top to go under a suit I’d sold her. But they sent it regular mail,” she recalls. “So we bought the same top at Saks in Boston, I sent my daughter there to pick it up and we sent her in a taxi to the client’s house. We were sweating—this was around 4:30 and she needed to be dressed by 5:30. But we made it.”


This is a microcosm of what it’s like to work at Richards. “The relationships we have with our clients go far beyond anything else,” she says. “It’s very personal and intimate. I love the one-on-one.”



Farrington knows his last name isn’t Mitchell, and in the 15 years he’s worked for the company he’s wondered if he could ever really hope to advance in an organization chock full of family members. “That was a big concern for me,” he admits. “So Bob, Russ and I had the conversation. They said there would be opportunities for me. They told me they intended to have more than one store and that there would be plenty here to keep me challenged.”


That has turned out to be the case. “With all these stores, the job has exceeded my expectations,” he says.


Although he reports to chief merchant Bob Mitchell, Farrington has the freedom to make his own buying decisions. “They empower people,” he says. “They don’t just give you a title and make the decisions themselves. They have the confidence to hand over that decision-making to their people.”

He adds: “They’re good managers and very committed to having nonfamily members play key roles.”

Since he started working at Mitchells in high school Farrington has seen a dramatic shift in the merchandising mix. “We made a conscious decision to go upscale. We were much more moderate 15 years ago.” And so, Zegna, Armani and other luxury brands took space away from lower-priced labels. “We realized Westport had become a mega-wealthy community, so it’s been a continual trade-up.”


As a non-family member, Maleri wondered just how far he could rise in the Mitchells organization. “I remember saying to my wife: ‘This is a family business, where am I going to go?’” But it was determination to spend quality time with his family that kept him from moving on. “I’ve seen my twin boys grow up,” says the 16-year Mitchells veteran who had worked at NBO before joining Mitchells. “I’ve had a balance between business and family life. We work hard but if I need time off to see my boys do something, it’s no problem. It’s really gratifying.”


It’s also been gratifying to see the business grow. “When I first came here, it was just Jack and Bill,” he says. “It’s great to see the third generation come in and feel so passionate about taking the reins. It’s interesting to see the dynamics of the family.”


It’s also interesting to watch the Mitchells fan the fires of creativity among the staff. “It’s different strokes for different folks,” he says. “We maximize people and they feel good about what they do. We like win-win, not lose-lose.”


When he started, Mitchells was just another store, but now it’s the “barometer. It’s amazing that this little store in Westport could be thought of as one of the best retailers in the world.”



Kozak admits to having had major “anxiety” when the Mitchells bought Richards. “I thought it would destroy the confidence of our world,” says the 25-year Richards veteran. “But it’s been a blessing for everyone. People feel much more involved as they’ve grown the business.”


Calling it a “testament to the Mitchell family,” he says their love of the business has rubbed off on everybody who works there. “They’re all very passionate,” he says of the owners. “They have strong views about where the stores are going and they put out one common message.” Despite the tough economy, Kozak reports that the store is “thriving. It’s all about the relationships with our clients and the people we work with. It’s all about the people.”


Kozak says the “ability to grow is in our hands. We’re given the tools and if we achieve that growth, we’re rewarded.” In the past, Richards’ management had tried to change the sellers’ styles to meet certain criteria,but under the Mitchells “we now have standards that build on people’s strengths. Scolding doesn’t work with anyone.”

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