For Denise Knox, not being on the lookout for the next point of sale is the only risk there is.
Knox was born an entrepreneur. At just 8 years old, she had started her own business, a door-to-door program offering neighbors a list of services ranging from babysitting to polishing silver. She spent her high school years working in a boutique, an experience that fueled her decision to pursue a career in fashion merchandising and later receive a degree in business and marketing. While a student at Baylor University, Knox worked as a buyer for the pro shop of a local tennis club. The first purchase she ever made was a dozen orders of 20 different colors of footies. “The kind manager never said a word about my extravagant purchase, but probably had enough socks for years, ” says Knox.
Lessons like these, coupled with perseverance and initiative, eventually paid off in a trendy women’s boutique with 14 locations across the Southeast.
THE ROAD TO FASHION
Knox’s flair for business led her on a whirlwind career path, a journey that included working retail at a tennis boutique, childcare at a children’s home, planning weddings as a bridal consultant and eventually serving as one of the first 100 flight attendants for Southwest Airlines.
Even during her day job, Knox found a way to satisfy her entrepreneurial spirit. She started a side business called Pot O’ Gold, in which she sold 14K gold jewelry to fellow flight attendants out of her suitcase to make extra money.
When her husband received a job promotion that required the couple to relocate, the two decided on resettling their Texas family in Fairhope, located in the middle of her husband’s new work territory.
“After getting settled in, we realized it was a little piece of heaven, ” says Knox.
In Fairhope, she and a new friend and partner launched a home show business focused on sterling silver jewelry and home accessories. They showcased their products in hotels and at house parties.
Her friend balked at the next level of risk — bricks and mortar — but Knox jumped in with both feet. A corner lot on Fairhope Avenue became the home of the first storefront with the Private Gallery banner — a bright little shop bursting with an eclectic mix of clothing, shoes and accessories.
New locations soon popped up in Orange Beach and Tuscaloosa and thrived. As developers began contacting her about potential opportunities in other cities, Knox decided to hire a broker to research and pinpoint the best locations for expansion.
Now, more than 15 years have passed since the Fairhope shop opened its doors for the first time, and Knox is the leader of a 200-employee company with locations spanning six states across the South.
There’s a Steel Magnolia relentlessness that’s part of the Private Gallery formula, but also Southern charm and a big dose of evangelical zeal.
“I pray about everything, big or small, and tithe 10 percent, ” Knox says. “It’s really God’s business, not mine.”
And you get the idea that her associates’ sweet attention to the customer takes no prisoners. “We like to think we are sharing our Southern hospitality around the country, and people are taking note of it, ” says Knox.
In 2011, Private Gallery was named Alabama Retail Association’s Gold Retailer of the Year in the $10 million to $20 million category, a prestigious award that recognizes outstanding retailers who have demonstrated sound business practices and a commitment to their communities, customers and employees.
It has not been a flawless path however. “One year, we opened five new stores, and that was way too many, ” says Knox. “I learn everything the hard way, but I do learn from it and try not to make the same mistake again.”
Knox says the company’s price points have been a saving grace in a recession economy. The company strives for versatility, offering items that accommodate every age and price range and sticking with what works. “If customers like the line, then we keep it, ” she says. “In the end, we are driven by design, not the label sewn into the clothing.”
THE DIGITAL SHIFT
With online-only boutiques becoming a trend nationwide, it seems nearly anyone can start their own retail business with little to no overhead. Knox has recognized this shift and adjusted her focus accordingly. Last year, Private Gallery rebuilt and launched a new website to meet the needs of its online customers.
“We’ve embraced the fact that in order to provide the best customer service to our shoppers, we need to be where they are, ” says Knox. “If that means social media or online shopping, Private Gallery will be where they want us.”
In fact, social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become beneficial tools for the brand. Social media have enabled the company to engage and interact with customers in an effort to transcend the “buying” process in favor of creating a more intimate, fun shopping experience. “We like to be the first to expose trends and teach our customers how to wear them in a realistic way, helping them feel like they are shopping in their own private boutique.”
In the retail world, Knox says, change is the only constant. She has thought about expanding store locations throughout the country, but also considered maintaining the current number of locations while continuing to grow the brand’s online presence.
“I guess we will just have to wait and see what is next, ” she says. “For now, we are just rolling with the punches and loving every minute of it.”
Abby Parrott is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.
text by Abby Parrott • photo by Matt Coughlin