This story was originally published in the March 2013 issue of South End Magazine.
The four new owners of Mills plan to transform the historic downtown department store.
The four new owners of Mills department store know their way around fashion. Gathered in a boardroom to talk about their new business endeavor, Lisa Gallivan is dressed in a black fitted dress, fishnet stockings and tall black boots; Katharine Perry’s outfit is colourful and flowy; Candace Thomas sports a black blazer and leopard print skirt; and Deanne MacLeod is dressed in a conservative pantsuit, although Perry points out MacLeod has “cute” outfits for weekends.
It’s a collection of styles shoppers at Mills will likely find in the department store. For the foursome with a love of clothes, buying the business was a no-brainer. “I think we all wanted to have some amount of the [fashion] industry in our lives,” Gallivan says.
“I think there are some great independent boutiques here,” says Perry. “Halifax is already a great place for fashion.” But still, they say, it could be better. Last fall, during a gathering over drinks, the four friends were discussing the what-ifs of their careers. Gallivan mentioned she wanted to own her own Harrods, the famous department store in London. It was an ambitious thought, she says, but then Mills came up.
Word was out that Mills’ now former owner, Mickey MacDonald, was looking to sell the Spring Garden Road landmark first opened in 1919. The discussion about purchasing Mills got started. The group even got advice from MacDonald. “If you’re going to do it, do it. That was his advice,” says Thomas.
So they did. “It’s been a second full-time job,” says Gallivan, who along with MacLeod and Thomas, are partners at law firm Stewart McKelvey. Perry is a physiotherapist who recently moved back to Halifax after working in Toronto. Since they purchased the store, they say they’ve each put in 40 hours a week, beyond their day jobs, all with the support of friends and family.
And while the group says they’ve been getting significant assistance from the staff, they still have all been putting in plenty of hours to understand the inner workings. That includes working on the floor, behind the cash and in shipping and receiving. “It needs some hands-on from the ownership,” MacLeod says. “You have to be there to see what makes it tick.” They have plans on expanding the numbers of brands available in both the fashion and beauty sections of the store. And while they all have their favourite labels, they recognize they can’t carry every line. “We already think we need more square footage,” Perry laughs.
More square footage isn’t part of the immediate plans, but a different location is. The store is moving to a new spot in Spring Garden Place in May, formerly occupied by Roots and Thornbloom. MacLeod says while the old landmark store holds memories for many shoppers, it’s still an older building with an inefficient layout and uneven floors—all of which don’t work well for staff. For them, the move is part of Mills’ lifecycle. “It’s already not the same,” Thomas says, referencing the changes MacDonald made under his ownership.
“We all need to understand that any business that doesn’t change at all doesn’t work,” Perry says. It’s not that they don’t understand the historic appeal of the store; all four have personal memories of Mills. Whether it was one of their mothers or aunts who got a new pair of gloves in Mills gift boxes, or getting their first Mills credit card, which they used to help finance new wardrobes for new careers. These four understand the appeal of the store, its brand and its history.
During an event at Mills just before Christmas, a customer who’s been a regular for years arrived at the store dressed from head to toe in clothing she had purchased from Mills over the years. “It was wonderful,” Perry says. “She was explaining to us when she bought every piece.”
Under the direction of its new owners, Mills will be a blend of new and old. The owners say they plan on educating the customer on what services they can offer. For example, there is a seamstress on staff—a traditional service they say newer customers often forget about. They also plan to renew Mills’ commitment to customer service. But they also want to expand beyond the store’s walls, including offering e-commerce opportunities. But overall, their goal is to make Halifax a shopping destination that offers the brands and quality found in larger cities.
“Mills won’t succeed long term unless people want to buy local,” MacLeod says. “We want to make sure women have access to the clothing they want.” With the new location in the works (the transition will mean only a day or two in down time), the women have ambitious plans for its future. “This will be one of our locations,” Thomas says.
MacLeod says, “We will have the very best-dressed ladies in Halifax.”