In The Leigh Of The Storm

September 9, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — It was all a fluke. R. Lawrence Leigh, a few years out of business school, had just sold a successful company in Colorado and returned home to Grand Rapids to figure out his next move. Then he received a phone call: “How would you like to go into the women’s clothing business?”

Leigh scoffed at the time. “I thought, ‘I can do this for a while,’” he said.

But 30 years and millions of dollars later, the CEO and West Michigan fashion magnate is opening a 12,800-square-foot store full of the upscale ladies clothing he has built his career around.

“It’s a funny business. It gets in your blood,” he said of his work in women’s fashion. “Every day everything is changing. We’re getting in completely new lines. You get excited to see what’s coming in next.”

What’s next for Leigh and his 28 employees is a bigger, better version of what the store has been doing for three decades. The recently constructed store will house over 10,000 square feet of sales space. The new Leigh’s will also absorb Mettie’s, another specialty retailer owned by Leigh. The combined Leigh’s and Mettie’s will feature a vastly increased selection of shoes and accessories, as well as rounded-out selections of more affordable sports and leisure wear.

Overseeing the new store along with Leigh is recently hired president Judy McCabe. She spent the majority of her career working for the Dayton Hudson Co., operating Hudson’s stores throughout the Midwest. Leigh feels that McCabe fits well with the store’s relationship-oriented philosophy.

“You should see the way the associates talk about some of their customers. They’re really like family. They know these customers like family or friends. Some of the customers will stop in just to say hi and catch up,” McCabe said. “It’s all about those relationships.”

Building lasting relationships with the right customers has been half of the store’s success, according to Leigh. The other half comes from the products. Leigh’s has a contract buyer in New York City as well as four in-house buyers. These staff members know their customers’ wants and needs as well as they know the fashion world. Matching up that demand with the appropriate supply keeps Leigh’s shelves well-stocked with merchandise more likely found on

Rodeo Drive
than on
Burton Street

But therein lies a “fallacy” that Leigh would like to undo. True, he said, his store does offer world-class boutique shopping that draws customers from as far away as Chicago and Washington, D.C. But Leigh’s is not strictly a high-end store, he said. There are $2,000 jackets and $400 sweaters throughout the store, he acknowledged, but there are also many sportswear items under $100.

“We don’t have the $16 T-shirt, but we do have a $32 T-shirt,” he said.

Leigh said price is important, but it comes second to quality. He said that Leigh’s buyers insist on the highest quality for items all across the price spectrum.

“Whether you’re spending $88 or $2,000, we want it to be the best $88 or $2,000 you ever spend,” Leigh said. “We want them to feel that they’ve gotten a good value.”

With substantially more “good values” in the new store, Leigh hopes to double the store’s revenue in three years. That period will see through the major renovation of the BretonVillage shopping center that is going on around the Leigh’s store today.

Anyone who travels past the intersection of

Burton Street
and
Breton Road
knows that the area has been torn up, barricaded and detoured around for the past several months. Jade Pig Ventures, the real estate investment firm that owns the plaza, is spending upwards of $40 million to reinvigorate BretonVillage. Bulldozers have seemingly outnumbered shoppers as the project has moved forward. The largest portion of the first phase of construction was the new Leigh’s store. New buildings will be added in the area surrounding the shopping center, which is in the process of an interior upgrade.

Surprisingly, the construction has not affected Leigh’s business nearly as much as Leigh predicted. He said that the store’s sales were actually up in May, June and July. Only in August did the construction prove to be enough of a nuisance to result in a loss of sales. The store was down about 30 percent from August of 2004.

Leigh is eager to see the completion of the renovated village, but not just because of the spiffy new look or his dip in sales during construction. He said that in the early days of BretonVillage, there was much more of a sense of camaraderie and teamwork. The redesign and the incorporation of new businesses into the center may bring back some of that spirit of togetherness.

“It was all about synergism,” he said. “It was the idea of ‘1+1=3’ … I feel like this is going to be a return to the original concept of BretonVillage.”

The next phases of Jade Pig’s BretonVillage project will include adding two “lifestyle center” buildings, which combine retail with dining and casual space. The project is scheduled for completion in 2006.    

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