Born and Thread
The Mitchells are all about service
Walk through the doors of Mitchells in Westport and you will find sumptuous Italian leather, elegant couture, and fine jewelry. But what isn’t as obvious to the eye is something as rare and precious as the luxury goods on display—a large family harmoniously running a successful business.
Approximately 90 percent of family businesses run by third-generation family members fail in the United States. The Mitchell family has managed not only to buck the trend, but even to recently expand the high-end clothing enterprise on the West Coast. “I’m tickled pink,” says chairman, and Wilton resident, Jack Mitchell, whose book Hug Your People has become a bible for customer service. Jack Mitchell’s father, Ed, opened the first store in 1958. He was an advertising and retail consultant in New York City, and at the end of one day stepped off the train and decided he was finished commuting. He and his wife Norma opened their first shop with three men’s suits hanging on plumbing racks and a coffee pot from home to make their customers feel welcome.
If there is an emblem that best represents the Mitchell family’s business philosophy, it is that coffee pot. “We genuinely care about people,” says vice chairman Bill Mitchell, Jack’s brother. Adds third-generation Andrew Mitchell-Namdar, VP of marketing and creative services, “My grandparents viewed this store as an extension of their home. We believe the store is about family so we’ve always made it a family-friendly store.” In fact, that coffee pot is now accompanied by a full-service espresso machine, soda fountain, candy, water bottles, and a children’s corner outfitted with books and toys.
In the corporate offices at the Mitchells in Westport is a veritable potpourri of Mitchells. In addition to Jack, his wife and general merchandise manager Linda, and Bill, you will find the aforementioned Andrew, and two of Jack’s other sons, co-presidents Russ and Bob.
The family also owns Richards in Greenwich, run by Bill’s son Chris. Marshs in Huntington, Long Island, is captained by Bill’s son Chris. And at the helm of the recently acquired Wilkes Bashford stores in San Francisco and Palo Alto is Bill’s son Tyler. So where are the daughters? The family wonders the same. All seven members of the third generation are men, and so far six of them are in the family clothing business. An unusual statistic that is not lost on Bill. “I’m proud as punch of these seven kids,” he says. “They each have a different responsibility, and the respect they have for each other is a marvel.”
No one in the family has a guaranteed ticket into the business. A Mitchell must work outside of the family business for a minimum of five years before being eligible, but even then there is no entitlement. There must be a need for the person’s skill set, and an actual job available.
All the 3G (third generation) members attribute the unusual accord in the family to clearly defined roles and communication. “The only thing that can kill us is not communicating,” says co-president Bob. “Super high-level communication prevents in-fighting.” It’s typical to run into several Mitchells among the clothing racks and jewelry cases. They consider their hands-on presence the hallmark of a store that knows its customers’ preferences. “It gives us an enormous competitive advantage, to see what’s popular and what’s working, and what’s not,” says Bill.
And that one-on-one attention goes beyond the business. “We sell clothes for a living but giving back to the community is in our DNA,” explains Bill. “If you are an integral part of the community, you will have a successful business.” The stores are often opened to groups for events and fundraisers, and the family members participate actively in their hometowns.
The question remains as to whether or not the transition from 3G to 4G will be as smooth as the hand off from brothers Jack and Bill to their sons. But Jack Mitchell has high hopes. “Roughly 80 percent of American businesses are family-owned or –based. I believe it’s the heart and soul of our country.”