Over 90% of family-owned businesses do not make it to the 3rd generation.
After COVID-19, that figure may be much worse.
But when our economy finally recovers, one of those businesses still standing will be Mitchells.
It won’t be an accident.
The clothing retailer that began with a small shop next to Compo Shopping Center has evolved into high-end stores on both coasts.
But as they’ve grown, the family — now nearing its 4th generation of owners — has not forgotten the values of founders Ed and Norma Mitchell. They’ve served Mitchells well for 62 years, and they are the reason it’s weathering this crisis as well as any company can.
Consider this: While nearly every other clothing store in the country has laid off or furloughed staff, Mitchells continues to pay salaries — and benefits — for its employees.
All 430 of them.
A Mitchell family photo: the 2nd and 3rd generations.
“That’s the path my grandparents forged,” explains co-CEO Bob Mitchell. “Our business is all about relationships. We have great, strong relationships with our clients and our associates. We felt an obligation to focus on our people.”
In mid-March, the stores — which in addition to the flagship and headquarters in Westport includes Mitchells in Huntington, Long Island; Richards in Greenwich; Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco and Palo Alto, and Marios in Seattle and Portland — pivoted.
With doors closed, they turned to e-commerce. It had been a small part of the business before, and sales are still nowhere close to what they were pre-pandemic.
But Mitchells has always been about the personal touch. Associates reach out to customers by email, phone and text — not to sell, just to say hi and check in.
Many customers, in turn, are concerned about the personnel they’ve developed close relationships with. When they hear what the store is doing, they are grateful.
They’re even more gratified when they hear that Mitchells donated 20% of all sales for 2 weeks to Meals on Wheels programs in each community they serve.
“This is a different path than any retailer we know is taking,” Bob Mitchell says. “But we’ve always been conservative in our spending. Our secret sauce is our people. We want to do the right thing by them, so we all can get through this. This is the ultimate test, and we’re trying to do the right thing now.”
The response from associates has been “phenomenal,” he notes. “They are deeply appreciative, and very proud of us.”
One employee said, “I have always known I work for a unique, special family business. I feel blessed and proud to be part of the Mitchells’ extended work family.”
A new associate emailed simply, “I picked the right place.”
“First class act. A role model in these tough times,” a longtime customer told the Mitchells.
The original Ed Mitchell’s, at the corner of the Post Road and North Compo Road. They’ve expanded enormously in 62 years, but have never lost their family values.
Bob Mitchell sees June 1 as the “most hopeful” date to reopen. Whenever it is, he believes “people will want to go out, see other people and interact — even with masks. People crave connections” with other shoppers and with staff members they’ve grown close to. Many Mitchells style advisors, tailors and others have been with them for over a decade; some for half a century.
Since 1958 Mitchells has supported every fundraiser, charity and organization that asks for help. Behind the scenes the family has performed countless acts of kindness, for untold numbers of folks in Westport, and far beyond.
Jack and Bill Mitchell followed their parents’ lead. Now their children have continued that tradition of care, concern, and treating everyone right.
It might sound strange to call Bill Mitchell an Unsung Hero.
The public face of Mitchells of Westport — son of founders Ed and Norma, brother of Jack, father and uncle of the 3rd generation to lead 8 upscale men’s and women’s stores, on the East and West Coasts — his generosity is boundless.
He and the entire Mitchell family open their stores, their checkbooks and their hearts to a breathtaking variety of organizations and causes. Very quietly too, they help countless individuals, in any kind of need.
They’ve been honored often (though not enough) for all they do. But this Saturday (January 25, 6:30 p.m.), a special event will be particularly meaningful.
The Conservative Synagogue of Westport holds a “funraiser” — and Bill Mitchell is the guest of honor.
The reason dates back 25 years. Founders were trying to get permission to build a synagogue on Hillspoint Road. Though near the Post Road, the zoning was residential. Some neighbors opposed the plan.
Unsolicited, Bill stood up at several meetings. He’s not Jewish — his family has long been associated with the Saugatuck Congregational Church, and he’s a longtime supporter of various Catholic charities — but he talked about the importance of the synagogue.
After he spoke, the Planning & Zoning Commission passed the proposal. Unanimously.
Bill’s support of The Conservative Synagogue did not stop there. On the High Holidays, he opens Mitchells’ parking lot to congregants.
He and Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn have become great friends. It’s a good bet that when the rabbi offers “mazel tov” on Saturday, Bill will not be at a loss for words.
Normally, the opening or (more rarely) closing of a bank branch in Westport is not big news.
But when People’s United shuts its location on the corner of the Post Road and North Compo — part of 18 closings in the state, between December and April — we’ll lose more than one of our town’s squintillion banks.
A bit of history is going too.
That branch has been there for decades. It’s seen the addition of “United” to “People’s Bank,” and the reorientation of its entrance from the front to the back.
Most importantly, it’s a link to one of Westport’s longest-lived, best-known and well-respected businesses.
In 1958, Ed and Norma Mitchell took over what had been a heating and plumbing company office. With a few suits, a coffee pot, and tons of grit and hope, they founded a store that — 61 years later — thrives.
The original Ed Mitchell’s.
Mitchells moved twice — once to Colonial Green, then to its present location next to Sakura. From their Westport headquarters, the 3rd generation of Mitchell family members now oversee stores in Greenwich, Long Island and on the West Coast.
That’s a storied past for the unassuming building near Planet Pizza and Compo Barber Shop.
Let’s hope the new tenant stays as long as People’s Bank, and is as successful as Mitchells became.
A couple of Saturdays ago, hundreds of folks from Fairfield County and beyond jammed Mitchells.
They celebrated the store’s 60th anniversary — and its just-completed major reconfiguration.
The 27,000 square feet sparkle with updated designs, new collections, fresh lighting and an ultra-modern feel.
The fresh, new interior at Mitchells of Westport.
One floor below — where dozens of employees direct the operations of the 9 stores Mitchells owns on the East and West Coasts, and 18 tailors work their magic — another renovation has launched the business far into the future too.
It’s a far cry from the first Ed Mitchell’s store in 1958. All those celebrating customers last month could not even have fit in that tiny shop on the corner of Post Road and North Compo.
Back then, “the Mitchells” consisted of Ed and his wife Norma, and Ed’s mother (who did the tailoring).
The original Ed Mitchell’s. It’s now the site of People’s United Bank.
Yet 60 years ago they put out a coffee pot, and poured free cups. It was a small gesture, but a telling one. We want you here, the Mitchells said. And we’ll do whatever we can to make you feel at home.
The coffee pot has been replaced by a fancy machine, with espresso and capuccino options. Ed and Norma’s family is now on the 3rd generation, with a 4th waiting in the wings. Most family-owned businesses don’t make it past generation 2.
The coffee cup and family feeling are why Mitchells has survived — and thrived — over 6 decades.
I’ve known Bill and Jack Mitchell — Ed’s sons — since my father took me to the store as a child. I coached all 3 of Bill’s sons. I know many other Mitchells.
But the other day, as I sat with Jack (now chairman of all 9 stores) and his son Andrew (chief marketing officer) for a quiet, casual conversation about the past 60 years, I realized what a remarkable story this is.
A Mitchell family photo. Jack is at far left; Andrew is 4th from left, and Bill is at far right.
Although the business is now national, its roots remain right here in Westport. And that is the key both to Mitchells’ success, and why it is such a great “06880” tale.
“We’re bucking a national trend,” Jack says. “The headlines across the US are about retailers — Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and a lot more — that are closing stores and concentrating online. We’re investing in brick and mortar.”
Mitchells does have a robust web presence. But, Andrew adds, “we believe the digital world must support the in-store experience.”
“Our value that the customer comes first, and our goal of building relationships, hasn’t changed since I was at Wesleyan University and my dad opened the store,” Jack says.
“But this has changed.” He holds up his iPhone.
His staff uses the internet to track inventory, and ship it so customers can find the right shirt, suit, blouse or shoes online. They’re encouraged to visit a store, try it on and have it tailored. An item in the Seattle store can be shipped quickly to any other store, in Westport, Greenwich, Long Island, California or Oregon.
Customers browse online. But many enjoy the in-store experience too.
But Mitchells does much more. Their website encourages customers to email their personal style advisor, or call a sales associate. All emails are answered by real people.
“People are busy today. If they can only look at shoes at 10 p.m. when the kids are in bed, fine,” Andrew says. “If someone in a London hotel room sends an email or text, it may be 3 a.m. here. But we’ll take care of it.”
When the store is closed, a phone message offers an actual number to call in the event of a fashion emergency. Those calls are answered by an actual Mitchell family member. Immediately, the problem is taken care of.
What is a “fashion emergency”? An unexpected funeral, and no suit. A business meeting, and a forgotten shirt. Things happen.
A Mitchell family member will open the store on a Sunday for those issues. If needed, they send a tailor to a customer’s home.
Jack Mitchell (left) lives in Wilton. Bill lives in Westport. They — and their extended family — go the extra mile (literally) to help customers.
That personal touch is why customers continue to flock to the stores. Each one is different. However — as they’ve bought properties across the country — the Mitchells have been careful to keep each local identity.
“Why change Richards in Greenwich, Marsh’s in Huntington, Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco and Palo Alto, or Marios in Seattle and Portland?” Jack asks. (There’s also a by-appointment tailor shop on 5th Avenue and 58th Street.)
“Every one of those stores is part of its community. Our customers have 9 times the inventory, but the heart and soul of the customer experience is local.”
And the local Westport experience informs everything the entire company does.
“Our corporate office is here,” Jack says. “We have more Mitchells on the floor here than any other store. This is our heart and soul. It’s where it all began.”
For 60 years, Mitchells has embraced the community. They host 2 major fundraisers each year — Pink Aid (which started here) and Near and Far.
But they open their doors to 150 or so smaller events each year. Shopping nights for charity, group meetings, small fashion show fundraisers — just ask, and the Mitchells say, “Sure!”
Their quiet, behind-the-scenes help is even more legendary. The stories could fill a book. (In fact, Jack — the “hug your customer” expert — has written 3.)
“My father always said, ‘if you’re good to the community, you’ll have a healthy business,'” Jack says.
“Westport has been good to us. We just try to give back.”
FUN FACT: Why — when Mitchells changed the name from “Ed Mitchell’s” — did they eliminate the apostrophe? “It’s not about us owning it,” Jack explains. “It’s about all of us growing, one customer and one family member at a time.”
And, he adds: “If we were starting the business today, it would not be Ed Mitchell’s. It would be Ed and Norma Mitchell’s.”
He pauses, thinking about his mother’s enormous contributions to the success of the store.
And with its new renovation, it’s more modern than ever.
But at its heart, Mitchells of Westport is still a community center — a home away from home.
That’s never more true than on Saturday mornings. The coffee is on. The bagels are fresh. And there, in a comfy corner, you’re apt to find members of the extended Mitchell family. They greet old friends, meet new (soon-to-be-old) friends, and somehow manage to turn a high-end men’s and women’s specialty retailer into the 2018 version of a country store.
The Mitchell family
This year, Mitchells celebrates its 60th anniversary.
And this Saturday (September 22), in honor of its new look, the store is hosting a townwide party. They invite everyone to stop by, enjoy the new look, have coffee and bagels and more.
And if you remember their original location*, they’d love to hear your stories.
*It was a tiny shop, located at the corner of Post Road East and North Compo Road — where People’s United Bank is now.
In 2017 — nearly 75 years later — the organization provided $300,000 in assistance to over 100 recipients. They were graduating seniors, and college students who had received previous grants. They’re attending public and private universities, junior colleges and vocational schools.
They supplement their grants with jobs. They work hard. They’re grateful that college — exponentially more expensive than ever — can be a reality.
Some of the awardees at the 2015 Staples Tuition Grants ceremony.
STG is rightfully proud that for three-quarters of a century, they’ve provided millions of dollars to tens of thousands of students.
So they’re throwing a party. The theme — naturally — is “75 years of college.”
Set for Saturday, March 10 (7 p.m., Branson Hall at Christ & Holy Trinity Church), the casual, fun event features college-ish food (pizza, burgers), drink (keg beer, wine) and music from (most) attendees’ college years. There could be ping pong and foosball too.
Party-goers are encouraged to wear their school colors or logowear. A 1955 recipient has already RSVP-ed. Organizers hope other former recipients will attend too.
The cost is $75. (It’s a fundraiser, obviously.) Organizers are soliciting 75 business sponsors, at $100 each (in honor of that first-ever grant).
Gault Energy and Melissa & Doug have signed on as lead sponsors.
Igor Pikayzen — a 2005 Staples grad, and STG recipient — will play. Westport filmmaker Doug Tirola — whose father was on the STG board — is making a special video. Former STG recipients Ned Batlin and Trevor Lally will give brief remarks. So will Miggs Burroughs, who designed the logo.
Everyone — Staples grads, and those of every other high school; college alumni and people who never went; anyone who ever got a scholarship, and anyone who did not — is invited to the 75th anniversary celebration.
Let’s make sure that Staples Tuition Grants is still doing great deeds in 2093 — 75 years from now.
(Click here for tickets to the 75th anniversary celebration, and more information. If you’re a former recipient and would like to be taped for a video, or are interested in helping sponsor the event, email email@example.com.)
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