by David Bork

The Mitchell families are owners of one of the most successful men and women’s specialty stores in the in America, perhaps in the world. The first location of the original “Ed Mitchells“ was an 800 square-foot former plumbing supply store in Westport, CT. Norma famously brought in her coffee pot each day to make the customers feel at home. For over 50 years, the Mitchell families have strived to carry on that spirit and tradition of the founders, Ed and Norma.

Mitchells is still independent, family-owned and operated by a second and third generation of Mitchells, and has grown over the years to 25,000 square-feet. They have expanded the dream into other communities. In 1995, they acquired Richards of Greenwich, a renowned 8,000 sq. ft. luxury men’s retailer, which has been expanded to include a women’s department, and is now 27,000 sq. ft and the winner of numerous retail space design awards. In 2005, they acquired Marshs of Huntington, Long Island, NY, a 15,000 sq. ft. men’s store, which has been renovated inside and out, adding women’s ready-to-wear, accessories and jewelry.

Most recently in December of 2009, they added the Wilkes Bashford stores of San Francisco and Palo Alto to their portfolio. Wilkes Bashford, founded in 1966 by the retail icon of the same name is the Bay Area’s most renowned luxury retailer. Following this exciting acquisition, they formed an entity called “The Mitchells Family of Stores,“ committed to offering products of the highest quality and an unsurpassed level of service.

I have had the privilege of playing a role in their success. I first met Jack and Bill, sons of the founders, in the late 70s, while speaking at the Men’s Apparel Forum. I helped the brothers resolve some difficult interpersonal issues and create a vision for future. That included plans for their children coming into the business. Jack married early and had four sons while Bill married late and had three sons. In aggregate, the three sons of Bill were ten years younger than Jack’s four sons. The fathers wanted all seven to have equal opportunity.

We worked out a successful strategy for that to happen and when it came time to transfer the leadership to the third generation, the obvious selections were Russell and Bob, Jack’s eldest two sons and the oldest of the seven. In fact, Russell and Bob became co-presidents. Copresidents would never be my first recommendation. I much prefer a single person to be named as president for then it is very clear who is to be held accountable. We had very extensive discussions and the conclusion was that co-presidents could work for the Mitchells, if the two brothers had a very high level of communications.

The proof of an idea is often not available until it is put into practice. Now, ten years into the Mitchells co-president model, we can say that it has been totally successful! Mitchells are in the luxe market, selling most of the iconic designer collections for men and women, diamonds, watches and shoes. There is a Hermes boutique and Zegna and Brioni are staples in the men’s department. Their success during a severe economic downturn speaks to their success as merchants and as businessmen.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with five of the Mitchells. It had been a while since I had been with them and there was a lot of “catching up“ to do. This included discussion of the business success as well as a review of the family relationships. The reports were glowing. I asked them how they have been able to keep turning out banner, profitable years, year after year. Each of them emphasized that their success was grounded in their relationships and the fundamental respect they have for each other, the fact that no one is a slacker — everyone work hard and does their share, but most importantly, they have excellent communication. “Without the excellent communications we have developed, we would not have this level of success.“

Here are a few simple practices that form the foundation of all family business communication.

  1. Effective communication starts by being clear and constructive. Note the emphasis on “constructive.“ That makes a lot of sense. Why would anyone wish to be unclear or destructive? You, the reader, might ask those around you for feedback on your communications. Are you clear and constructive? Listen to what they have to say. You may need to modify your communications.
  2. In a healthy business, vertical and horizontal communications in the organizational structure are relatively undistorted. You never have reason to question the veracity of information received from anyone. You are as good as your word and that also applies to everyone around you. If this doesn’t characterize your communication, in fact all communication in your business, you need to hire a communications specialist to help you “make it right.“
  3. Never carry “the message“ from one family member to another. The carrier risks getting caught in the middle, especially if there are differences between the sender and the intended receiver. If a family member asks you to “Tell X, … reply, “I understand your request. You will have to tell that to X yourself.“

Practicing these simple communications guidelines will have a profoundly positive impact on your business.

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