It was over Cosmopolitans and some channelling of Oprah that the three high-powered professional women in Halifax discovered they had a common interest other than the law: They all harboured dreams of being in the fashion business.
And now, just months since their epiphany, the stylish troika, plus another Nova Scotian who now lives in Toronto, own Mills Brothers – the iconic Halifax department store that has been selling high-end women’s fashions, cosmetics, perfume, and lots of gloves to well-heeled women since 1919.
This tribe of women retailers moves quickly.
“It crystallized for us,” recalls Candace Thomas about how quickly it all came together when they discovered this summer the store was for sale. The former owner wasn’t into women’s fashion, but liked the real estate. “We did say ‘now or never. Are we going do this? Are we going to seize our destiny?’”
Thomas and her co-owners, Lisa Gallivan and Deanne MacLeod, are partners at one of Halifax’s large law firms, Stewart McKelvey. They graduated from Dalhousie University’s law school and have been practising for more than 15 years.
The fourth woman, Katharine Perry, is a physiotherapist, with a background in business. She lives in Toronto but grew up in Amherst, N.S., and has been best friends with MacLeod since they were 5.
Only MacLeod, who just turned 42, will reveal her age. (That’s because, she says, she’s the youngest.) The others allow they are “forty-something.” There are a couple of husbands among them, who are not involved in the store. Three of the women have children; Perry does not.
They are boisterous, they laugh a lot, and they talked over each other as they sat down for an interview this week. And they acknowledge that although they have little experience with retail fashion – except that they all love to shop – they are counting on safety in numbers. There has to be for their plan to work: None of the women are planning to leave their day jobs.
“I think our strengths overlap,” says Gallivan, who practises labour and employment law. She, along with MacLeod, who buys businesses as part of her practice, and Perry, have MBAs. Thomas, who specializes in business law, also has a diploma in fashion merchandising from the Fashion Institute of Canada.
They are planning to leave the day-to-day operations to the store manager but all will be involved with the buying of clothing and accessories. In addition, they are working with designers on their new space. And Perry will be doing some “retail research” for them in Toronto.
It was at Gallivan’s house after a partner’s meeting one night about six months ago that the three lawyers talked about what they would do if they didn’t practise law. That’s when the passion for fashion came up.
“It was the first time I said that out loud to anybody,” recalled Gallivan. Said Thomas: “I went home thinking about Oprah: ‘Live your best life. Do the things that you want to do.’”
Several days later they got together again, wondering if each one was serious. A few months later, they heard Mills was for sale and jumped at the opportunity.
For three of the women, Mills was the fancy department store where their mothers and grandmothers shopped for that extra-special gift, or quality coat.
However, for Thomas, who grew up for a time in the African-Nova Scotia community of East Preston with 11 siblings and a single mother, Mills was not a place where her family shopped. She knew of it because a woman in her community was a seamstress there.
Now she and her partners have bought the Mills name and the contents of the nearly 8,000 square foot store. They are keeping the manager and the 13 other staff members, but they did not buy the Mills Tudor-style building. Instead, the women are redeveloping a 9,000 square foot space just a few doors down from where Mills is now.
They purchased Mills from a local developer, who had significantly scaled down the original department store from 37,000 square feet. He had purchased the store in 2007 for about $8-million, according to allnovascotia.com, the respected online business journal in the province.
They will not say how much they paid for the store or if they all put in equal shares. However, they say they all have an equal voice in the partnership.
Their dream is to bring a new modern focus to the fairly traditional store, and bring in new contemporary brands so that women don’t have to leave the province to find an interesting cocktail dress, business suit or a great pair of shoes. MacLeod characterizes this as “fine-tuning” Mills – taking its established brand and history and moving it forward.
Until their new space is ready, the store will stay open in its present location with the four helping to work the floor on the weekends. They were there the day the deal closed on Sunday, introducing themselves to customers.
Retail consultant Wendy Evans, president of Toronto-based Evans and Company Consultants Inc., who has shopped at Mills, calls this is a “great move on their part.”
“They wanted to preserve what is obviously a great name,” says Evans, adding that “what is needed in pretty much every major market across Canada is a place where you can buy up-market … fashion in a nice environment.”