With speed comparable to Kudzu, a small shop in downtown Fairhope, Alabama has spread across the Southeastern retail landscape. Most shoppers in Fairhope are unaware that the trendy little jewelry, clothing and ladies accessory store on Fairhope Avenue has become a regional phenomenon.
Private Gallery opened its doors in Fairhope in November 1996. The store is the brainchild of Denise Knox. The operation actually started well before that as a home-based business doing home jewelry shows. According to Denise Knox, the name was chosen because of the concept of your very own private gallery of jewelry and accessories.
Owner Denise Knox says she started working in retail at age 15. “I truly loved fashion and clothes so I always worked for trendy boutiques.
“But after college, I had the opportunity to be one of the original 100 flight attendants for Southwest Airline. And yes, I wore the hotpants and gogo boots. I sang my announcements to fun songs, played games on the flight and dressed up for every holiday. SWA lets you have fun while working. I loved it so much I stayed until I retired in 2000. Little did I know that I would use the same principles in my own business!”
The enthusiasm of Denise Knox is readily apparent. “I had always loved jewelry and during my flight attendant days, I would go to the Dallas Market and get tons of jewelry and sell it to the flight attendants out of my suitcase. It was fun and the girls loved it.
“During my final years with SWA,” Knox continues, “I was living in Fairhope and having home and hotel parties with my best friend and business partner Stephanie Casto. But it was hard after a while because people were coming to my house at all hours for jewelry between shows. Thus we came up with the idea of opening a store.”
Knox explains that Stephanie Casto didn’t want to be tied down to a store at that time in her life, so Knox went forward with the idea.
What is also apparent in talking with Knox is her faith. “God had His hand on Private Gallery from day one. I gave the business to Him because I know I couldn’t handle it myself. My husband was also an integral part of the business because he was a developer / builder in Dallas for years before we moved to Fairhope. We make a great team. I know exactly how I want each store to look and he literally brings my vision to life by building out all of our stores. He is amazing. He still gripes about it but he loves all his PG girls and they love him!”
After two years of stunning success in the first store, opportunity came knocking. Knox says she was asked by a developer in Orange Beach who loved her concept to be a part of his center. Thus the San Roc Cay location was opened shortly thereafter.
Next, Knox has a good friend who moved to Ponte Verdra, Florida after a divorce and asked her to open a store there because she needed a job. “She was an amazing person so we researched the area and opened our third store,” says Knox. According to Knox, that store is still one to the top locations in the chain.
“Then I had this precious girl at church, Claire Owens Raney,” Knox continues, “who asked if I had ever considered Tuscaloosa. She said if I would open a store there she would manage it. So we all prayed about it and then heard about a location right on campus next to Sorority Row. It doesn’t get any better that that!”
Additional locations followed in Mobile at Legacy Village, Foley, Spanish Fort, Birmingham, Auburn, Destin, Atlanta, Athens, GA, Oxford MS, and Fayetteville, Arkansas. Today, count ‘em, there are 14 locations of this Fairhope-based retail phenomenon with three more stores to open soon in Dallas, Houston, and Fort Worth. The chain currently grosses over $10 million in annual revenue.
What accounts for this astounding success? Part of the explanation can be found in the company’s mission statement: “To consistently provide a fun shopping experience, friendly customer service and the latest trends in every price range for girls of all ages.”
And Denise Knox is quick to give credit. “Our employees are absolutely the cream of the crop. I leaned from Herb Kelleher [founder of Southwest Airlines] that your customer comes first, and you take excellent care of your employees and you always make it fun! We have very little turnover at Private Gallery and we laugh more than we are serious. The customer feels it if you are having fun and then they have fun, too.”
Knox also strongly believes in giving back to the community. She had a cousin in Arkansas who was brain injured in a car wreck. As a result, she has pledged 100% of the profits of the Fayetteville store to a foundation that cares for brain injured patients who cannot otherwise afford treatment. Additionally, Knox says “All of our girls recently raised money for Dig Deep Give Well, a Fairhope-based nonprofit that will be digging wells in Africa to provide clean water to the residents.”
I couldn’t let Knox go without asking about the future. “We have had offers from several companies to go nationwide and open 25 to 100 stores a year. We have something really special and I don’t know if we could keep the spirit of Private Gallery by opening so many stores so fast. We’ve never borrowed any money, so as of now, we’re going to continue growing at our own pace as we can afford it and where the Lord leads us.”
Local merchants take note. Who says you can’t compete with the Wal-Marts of the world?
[Further information on Fairhope, Alabama can be found at www.FairhopeAlabama.net.]