Gourmet Retailer Article: F.H. Gillingham & Sons
Over a Century of Service
By Michelle Moran
JULY 01, 2003 -- When F.H. Gillingham opened his business five generations ago in Woodstock, Vt., he stocked his store with every imaginable necessity and treasure, and then backed every single item with a simple, ironclad guarantee: "Your money's worth or your money back."
One hundred and fourteen years later, that guarantee is still offered to the store's customers by his descendants.
"We still try to offer just about anything you might need from a country store ('from caviar to cow manure,' some say) and we still back everything we sell with the same ironclad guarantee: If you're unhappy with your purchase for any reason, simply return it and we'll replace it or give you your money back, whichever you prefer."
- Frank & Jireh Billings, F.H. Gillingham's Web site, 2003
In a time in which nostalgia reigns supreme, a small-town Vermont retailer is practicing a tried-and-true philosophy that is predicated on the mantra that a shopkeeper's sworn duty is to meet the wants and needs of his local community to the best of his/her ability. Since 1886, F.H. Gillingham & Sons has provided sustenance to the people of Woodstock, a job that's taken many turns in more than a century, but always kept an eye on the same goal.
The Road Less Traveled
The landscape of Woodstock, Vt., was a bit different back when Frank Henry Gillingham ran the general store that stood in the heart of a very small New England town. Despite the ravages of time, the town has managed to preserve much of the flavor of its New England roots. The community has reverently saved both the physical setting and the spiritual essence of an earlier day. Its instinctive reaction to change is negative - neither factories nor railroads inhabit the town's premises. The picturesque covered bridge is a local treasure.
Poised at the center of it all is F.H. Gillingham. And while the faces of the townsfolk may have changed and the store's inventory has evolved, the family running the store has remained the same.
Today's owners - Frank and Jireh Billings - are descendants of Frederick Billings, who was one-time president of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the man who saved it from extinction during the panic of 1873 and secured its extension beyond the Dakotas. The Billings' have a New England history as firmly rooted as the general store.
"Jireh and I have an understanding that unlike an ordinary business that you either own or don't own, we think of ourselves as stewards of this business rather than owners," Frank explained. "We look at this business as bigger than ourselves and treat it as though it has a personality of its own."
The pair operates the store that's remained in their family for five generations. The nearly 200-year-old building designated as a National Historic Landmark still retains the flavor of old New England with its wooden floors and a 75-year-old rope Otis elevator that is in use today.
Still the heart of the town at 16 Elm Street, F.H. Gillingham & Sons has served as a community gathering place for more than a century.
Not a static museum, F.H. Gillingham & Sons is a living, and therefore, ever-changing representation of the people who make up the community. Customers shop through aisles of groceries, housewares, hardware, wine, toys, and more.
"Our family has been very conscious of not only the direction of the store but the town as the whole. From the social side, we're also thinking what's best for the town. We have made decisions that haven't been for just the business," Jireh noted. "Some people have pointed out that some of our decisions have not been the most sound business decisions, but they were made as social decisions. Having been here for 22 years, I can look someone in the eye and say, 'I am going to make decisions that aren't necessarily the best business decisions, but that's the kind of business we want to operate.'"
What Jireh Billings refers to as "social decisions" are concepts of fair business practices, treating employees as more than just employees, and practicing the type of community service that New England citizenry is known for.
"We can't have every store selling the same thing in a town of 3,000 people, so you have to be conscious of what the other person is doing. You go your own way without hurting your neighbors," said Jireh.
As gourmet stores across the country continue to diversify their offerings, F.H. Gillingham & Sons is a paradox - both ahead of its time and an example of old-fashioned charm. Customers can stroll the aisles, pick up a box of nails, select an artisanal cheese, peruse fine wines, find a new pewter jam pot, a wind-up tin tractor, and a Blue Willow serving platter all in one outing.
A New Frontier
Through the years, F.H. Gillingham & Sons has grown beyond its humble general-store beginnings. Now, there is a catalog business and an Internet presence.
Consumers across the country need not travel to Vermont to enjoy F.H. Gillingham's great products. They can simply visit www.gillinghams.com and order a bit of Vermont wherever they may be. Gift baskets filled with Gillingham's own private-label pantry items stand ready for delivery. The Gillingham sampler box with private-label coffee, granola, maple buttermilk, cranberry-and-apple spice pancake mix, along with white chocolate maple walnut shortbread cookies and a quart of Gillingham's medium amber maple syrup is just a mouse-click away.
Both the catalog business and the Internet operation began in earnest in the mid-90s. The direction of both businesses is geared toward showcasing Vermont and New England specialty products.
Since Vermont is synonymous with maple syrup, it's no surprise that F.H. Gillingham's catalog and Web site are crammed with sweet maple offerings. In their own words, "In the hills around Woodstock, Vermont's maple trees produce the sweetest, richest sap. If you want good maple syrup, get it from Vermont, and if you want the best, get it from F.H. Gillingham & Sons."
Gillingham's maple syrup is locally harvested, bottled, and offered in four varieties - Fancy, Medium Amber, Dark Amber, and Hearty. The products are sold in-store, through mail order, and online.
The syrup inventory began long before F.H. Gillingham owned the store. Jireh Billings discovered records indicating such that predate the store's 1886 purchase. Old barter books beginning with the general store's 1810 operation show that farmers traded harvest maple syrup for nails and hammers.
"Because maple syrup was a local product that could be traded very easily, it was important to us from that standpoint," Jireh recounted. "In the late 1980s, Woodstock was changing to a tourist economy and local maple syrup was a product that we had and were always promoting. When we developed the mail-order catalog business, we wanted to go back to our roots and showcase the products that helped define us."
While maple syrup is one product that represents the historical evolution of F.H. Gillingham's from a hardware and dry goods store to a gourmet grocery, two other commodities truly anchored the store to the heart of the community.
"My great-grandfather believed that if he could corner the market on flour, he would build the business. He came up with home-delivery service bringing flour in from the train station and delivering it by wheelbarrow," Frank said. "No one wanted to haul flour from the store and no other grocery in town was doing it. At that point, there were five grocery stores in town. My great-grandfather Billings operated one. The strategy became known as 'The Great Flour Wars' in the local papers."
With this healthy dose of ancestral grocery entrepreneurship in their blood, the Billings brothers have harnessed their family history and utilized similar logic in today's business environment.
"I look at those decisions made by my great-grandfather and apply them today. As we developed our mail-order business, I realized that maple syrup is a commodity to us just as flour was a commodity to my great-grandfather," Jireh explained.
Instead of wheelbarrows, Billings makes his commodity available through the Internet and by mail order. Delivery is still customized to fit the customers' needs - whether it's in-store, online, or mail order.
Billings also credits his great-grandfather with private labeling the maple syrup products and many more offered by Gillingham's.
"Private label is something that we've done for years and it goes back to my great-grandfather. We're going to have examples of labels that go back to 1880 and 1890 from an old printhouse soon," Jireh explained. "Private label for us today has more to do with mail order than anything else. It works for mail order specifically, but has great spin-off in the stores."
The mail-order business can also be traced back to great-grandfather Gillingham who sent a worker out through the community to stuff store flyers into mailboxes (of course, before this became an illegal activity). This crude beginning of the mail-order business continued through the decades, eventually evolving from a small flyer in the mid-1980s to a 32-page catalog by the mid-1990s.
"It's been a slow expansion, but I figure we've been here for 100 years, so we've got plenty of time," Jireh added. "I'm a firm believer in nurturing. If you nurture it, it will grow into the direction you want it to go."
As the Billings became "serious" about the mail-order business, the Internet store evolved on its own. The store owners are now contemplating what application the Internet can have for local customers.
"We do have a very extensive wine department that's been very successful. We thought our daily specials would be a good thing to put on the Web. The people in Woodstock like to get out of the house and visit the store," he continued. "I really like the Internet and am beginning to understand the future of our Web presence. I really like the feeling that we can reach a huge number of people and still be able to take care of them on a one-to-one basis. It feels good and it feels right because it hooks back to the past."
Even with the continued technological advancements, the Billings continue to expand their store's offerings with their great-grandfather's ethics in mind. In 1986, Jireh Billings was quoted in an article about the store published in The Christian Science Monitor saying he'd never bring in those bleeping "scanners" at the checkout counter. He laughs when this remark is pointed out to him as he describes one of the Billings latest accomplishments - getting a new scanning system up and running in the store.
"What I realized is that if we let the inventory get out of control, then it will put us under more quickly than anything else we could do wrong. That just shows you that when a technology changes, we're not going to quickly jump on the change - we're going to analyze it," he said with a laugh. "I really thought I would end up with some of my best customers revolting. But in the end, it has more to do with the supermarket environment than the scanners themselves."
Still, as F.H. Gillingham's owners accept changing technology, they've learned to adapt it to their setting. The scanning system was installed in 1993, fitted into rock-maple counters the Billings created from materials pulled from an old bowling alley. Even with the modern scanning system, inventory is still priced individually.
"We feel strongly that we have to put prices on more than the front of the shelf. We're not a big grocery store. I know our customers and I know what sets us apart and this is one of those things," Jireh said. "We just finished getting the whole scanning system up and running so that modern register receipts have all the items listed on it. For me, that also ties into the times when handwritten receipts listed all the items purchased. So even with this new technology, there's an historical link. I really, really like the history of it all. I like learning it for myself and enjoy sharing it with others. You couldn't ask for a better stage for it to play out on."
Specialties of the House
The two major things that set F.H. Gillingham & Sons apart from the rest are the atmosphere and customer service.
"Whether it's atmosphere or service, what makes it work is constantly discussing it to be sure we are doing the very best we can. We always have to be striving toward perfection. We're never going to get there, but it has to be viewed as a goal," Jireh said.
The original store concept was a general store, plain and simple, focused on serving people in the community by providing hardware and dry goods.
"Originally, the store was not anywhere near a grocery store - now grocery is half the business. All the departments have gone through different evolutions," Jireh continued.
Grocery buyers search out delicacies from local producers, as well as bring in gourmet lines from around the world. Close to home is Galumpia Salad Dressing from Mount Holly, Pure Cider Jelly from Springfield, Trapp Family Linzer Torte from Stowe, and locally made sausages.
Gillingham's cheese department is a site to behold containing as it does fine selections from Vermont artisanal cheesemakers, such as Westminster Dairy's aged Provolone and Woodstock Farm's Weston Tomme.
"With categories like cheese and wine, we want the best that Vermont has to offer, but we're also going to look at what else is out there. You can't limit yourself with these items, so we have the standards like Camembert, Jarlsberg, Brie, and English Stilton," he said.
In the 1890s, everything from nails to brooms to measuring cups was considered hardware. Today, Gillingham's stocks brooms in the hardware department and measuring cups in housewares.
"I don't think they focused on categories as much as we do today," Jireh continued. "In order to make a good decision, you have to get the information broken down the best way you can. Our new inventory and scanning system allows us very good tracking."
With improved tracking capabilities comes better budgeting. The Billings are more comfortable today after completing a three-year organizational project that worked to install a system that coordinates tracking with accounting functions - budgeting, buying, and forecasting.
The new tracking and accounting system will enable F.H. Gillingham's to continue to grow such departments and provide future Billings with the tools necessary for continual success.
"It's a very American story. I think what we represent is a lot of the values that this country has been looking for over the past few years, not just since the war," Frank noted. "Even though we've grown into the size we are today, we still run the business with the same ethics as our ancestors. We make employee decisions that are based on sound business practices, but we also firmly believe that human considerations are just as important as financial ones. I am not willing to let the financial side always dictate. Anyone can point out that a certain decision might not be the smartest short-term money-making one, but I have to weigh that decision against long-term repercussions. The goodwill we have in the community for the way we treat our employees is worth its weight in gold."
The Billings are passing this business and spiritual philosophy on to their children as well. Although they aren't steered toward taking on the business as a life-long goal, the now 5th generation of Gillingham descendent children are already getting their grocery experience. The entrepreneurial fires in 14-year-old Jireh have been sparked. His parents had to limit his hours at the store when the eager young businessman was ten. He continues to carry on the Gillingham tradition during the summer months. While 12-year-old Nathaniel is more focused on boards (snowboard and skateboard), 10-year-old Calder is contemplating whether to earn his cash this summer bagging groceries or mowing lawns.
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