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Known internally as “Mr. Westport,” Bill Mitchell, vice-chairman, may have recently passed ownership to the next generation but he still acts as one of the store’s primary ambassadors, both on its sales floor and within the community.
This story first appeared in the July 21, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I used to have a drinking problem,” he says in his distinct, gravelly toned voice. “Eighteen years ago I went to AA and I haven’t had a drink since. And I speak this way because I had a perforated esophagus. Because of those two experiences I try to give back to those less fortunate.”
Bill says it’s not uncommon for him to be out three to four times a week at charity-related events. Some of these are private, or “under the radar,” as he puts it, but others are bigger and more visible, such as the company’s annual fundraiser for Near & Far Aid, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for programs that address the causes and effects of poverty.
Beyond that, Bill also serves as the self-described “maitre d’” of the flagship Westport store.
“It sounds simple, but I love people,” he says. “I like coming in early. I run a few seminars in the store about keeping the Mitchells experience [consistent]. I’ve been doing this [job] 43 years with kindness and niceness. What worked in 1958 still works.”
Calling this his “major contribution to the business,” Bill is passionate about giving customers a “sensational experience” when they walk in the door. “Our customers are at the top of their game, so we’ve got to go beyond just giving great service. If we do that, they’re going to come back.”
And if a visitor leaves the store without buying, Bill isn’t shy about inquiring as to the reason. “I do the exit interviews,” he says. “I ask them what we did right and what we did badly. It’s not the mistake—it’s what you do with the mistake that matters. You only have one shot with a firsttime customer.”
Bill says that although the merchandise has evolved over the years, “the culture of our family business is what’s made the difference in our good fortune and our luck.”
Noting that “92 percent of all third-generation family businesses go into the tank,” Bill is determined that his company not become one of the statistics. “Family harmony is at the top of the list. What can break a business
is if our family breaks apart.”
But by the same token, any Mitchell seeking to come into the business is held to a certain standard, and must prove him or herself before being allowed to enter the ranks. “I’m worried about our business and our country,” he says. “There’s such a sense of entitlement out there today. In my opinion, nobody is entitled to anything. We’re lucky and blessed to have what we have, and we need to remember that.”