by Karen Alberg Grossman

The industry was abuzz last week with breaking news that retail powerhouse Mitchells (with its five fabulous luxury apparel stores spanning both coasts and generating about $140 million in annual sales) is bringing Marios (three highly regarded, fashion-forward stores in Seattle and Portland, generating about $30 million in sales) into the Mitchells Family of Stores. Both stores do just over half of their volume in women’s.

Here, we chat with Bob Mitchell (third generation co-chairman with his brother Russ; the first Mitchells store was founded in 1958 in Westport, CT by their grandparents Ed and Norma Mitchell) and Mario Bisio (second generation; the store was founded by his father Mario Sr. in Portland in 1960) about the challenges and opportunities of this new partnership.

What will be Mario’s new role in the company?

Mario: My role will not change: I’ll still lead the Marios’ team. For me, the goal is not to turn Marios into Mitchells but rather to make it a better Marios. With access to Mitchells sophisticated systems and expanded inventory, I’ll have more time to do what I do best: dealing with people, product and making Mario’s the best store on the planet. I’m holding on to my dream, just accelerating the process of getting there.

Bobby: What this partnership brings to both of us is greater efficiency and the opportunity to maximize the synergies in merchandising and marketing. Of course, Mario remains in charge of Marios — but his ideas are very welcome and appreciated at the rest of the company.

What immediate changes will you make in the business?

Mario: My first goal was to get all of my people comfortable with the arrangement. I explained to everyone both in Portland and Seattle that the Mitchells are not only long-term friends but also the best and the brightest minds in the business. I wanted the team to feel the trust and understand the development potential. After just a few days, they’re already getting it.

Bobby: This business is mostly about people, so the primary goal was making all employees feel comfortable. An immediate second goal was getting all systems in place to facilitate both clienteling and merchandising. Other changes will happen more slowly: renovating the Seattle store, developing Marios’ women’s jewelry business and strengthening their made-to-measure and menswear basics.

Mario: It’s amazing to me that Mitchells has already installed and loaded six computers (kind of like huge iPads on stands) so that on Day One of the merger, we already had access to their entire inventory. How fabulous that we won’t have to walk a sale!

Bobby: I think we made more than 20 transfers this first weekend.

Will you incorporate designers from each other’s mix into your store?

Mario: I’m sure we will as we learn from each other’s successes: it’s the power of new. But one of our greatest challenges is to understand the nuances of each other’s businesses so that we can share where it makes sense but still celebrate our differences and hold on to what makes each store unique. Hitting the right balance will be key.

How will you blend your two buying teams? You obviously won’t need two suit buyers, two tie buyers, etc…

Bobby: We’re keeping the buying teams separate for now. We need to make sure we understand the differences and the nuances of each store so we’ll continue to operate with two separate buying teams.

How will this partnership impact the Forum group dynamic now that your combined operations are so dominant?

Bobby: We’ve had overwhelmingly positive reaction from the other Forum stores. I’ve always looked at this group as a wonderful way to learn from each other. And some of the best lessons I’ve received have come from the smaller stores.

Do you worry that being in business together could interfere with your personal friendship?

Bobby: No. Everyone talks about the negatives of going into business with family or close friends but I’ve learned that the positives far outweigh the problems. We’re looking to leverage our friendship as an asset rather than a liability. For me, it’s like dealing with a brother from another mother.

Mario: We’re going into this with our eyes wide open. It’s our friendship that brought us into the discussion to begin with: we have the highest degree of respect for each other, respect and trust.

Could you each share what you like best and least about the other?

Mario: I love Bobby’s energy. He’s one of the brightest people I know and one of the finest. He’s a great listener and a total class act. I wish he’d slow down a bit: he’s always shifting from one foot to the other or going for that next shot on the tennis court.

Bobby: I love Mario’s passion: for business, for friendship, for life. What I’d change: I wish his nights out ended a little earlier: I’m not a late night person and it’s hard to keep up with him.