2017-02-16 / News

Mail-It Unlimited to host drive

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Mail-It Unlimited owner Bill Gallant poses in his Shoppers Village shop in Kennebunk with Allie, mascot of his annual food drive, now in its 10th year. Originally launched to support the food pantry at Community Outreach Services, the event expanded about seven years ago to include the Animal Welfare Society, challenging donors to see which group they would support in greater numbers. This year’s drive kicks of Friday, Feb. 17 during the family skate night at the Waterhouse Center and will continue for two weeks at Gallant’s store. (Duke Harrington photo) Mail-It Unlimited owner Bill Gallant poses in his Shoppers Village shop in Kennebunk with Allie, mascot of his annual food drive, now in its 10th year. Originally launched to support the food pantry at Community Outreach Services, the event expanded about seven years ago to include the Animal Welfare Society, challenging donors to see which group they would support in greater numbers. This year’s drive kicks of Friday, Feb. 17 during the family skate night at the Waterhouse Center and will continue for two weeks at Gallant’s store. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — Bill Gallant, 65, may live in Scarborough, but, as owner of Mail-It Unlimited, he’s bee a fabric of Kennebunk like for nearly 30 years.

For the past decade he’s organized an annual food drive to benefit the food pantry at Community Outreach Service. About seven years ago, after adopting a rescue dog named Allie, he augmented that effort with a concurrent fundraising campaign on behalf of the Animal Welfare Society of West Kennebunk, creating a competition for his customers, to see which organization they’d support most.

With this year’s food and funding drives set to kick off Feb. 17, Gallant sat down at his business, located in the Kennebunk Shoppers Village on Route 1 in a Feb. 6 interview to talk about his life, his business, his dog, and why he puts in so much effort to raise awareness for two local charities.

But he had one condition: “First off, let’s make sure we mention my wife, Anna,” he said, “because it’s only because of her that any of this is possible.”

Q: We’ll definitely make note of that. Where and when did you and Anna meet?

A: We met when we were both 15 years old, working for a drug store in Brewer. We have been together as a couple since 1969, married since 1971. Just a perfect, perfect relationship. Most of the stuff in the store that requires someone to ask, will that sell? Is it a good item? Is it reasonably priced? That unusually comes down to Anna, and we default to her. And she does most if not all of the artistic merchandising.

Q: How did you come to be in this area?

A: I was born in Brewer but have been in southern Maine since 1973. My wife and I moved down where right after I graduated from UMO [the University of Maine at Oroono]. I had bachelor’s degree in microbiology. I came down here to work for Snow’s Food Products in Scarborough. I started there as a lab technician, I got promoted to manager of quality control and product development, creating with my team maybe 30 to 40 different products, and then about two years into that my boss came to me and said, “You’re absolutely wasted in the laboratory, I need you to run this business.” So, I went to school nights for seven or eight years to get my masters in business and I ended up running that business.

Toward the end of my career I worked at Borden Foods — Snow’s was owned by Borden Inc. very silently for many decades, but then all of a sudden they became the featured logo on the back of the can — and I was in the corporate acquisitions team. There used to be so much stifling of buying a like business, for fear of monopolies, but as the flavor in Washington started to change, and it was clear that was going to be allowed, Borden went on a buying frenzy. I handled anything in the food area and I traveled quite a bit in the last couple of years of my career doing that.

Q: Why did you retire from that line of work?

A: The handwriting was on the wall, even though I tried desperately. In my last project for Borden, they wanted me to draw up three separate scenarios for a 10-year plan at Snow’s, because of my experience in running it and because I have four patents to my name for shucking clams at sea. So, that was one option, to get rid of land-based seafood processing, to do everything at sea, bring in fresh, raw clam meat, and truck it to wherever to be canned. Option 2 was to modernize the processing plant in Cape May, New Jersey, which took clams off the boats, put them into 300-gallon tubs and shipped to Maine overnight, and we processed them here. Option 3 was to consolidate and to do all the processing in New Jersey.

With Option 1, although we knew in theory it was possible, it was pretty obvious that, at that time, it was just way too risky. The best option, and I think time has proven me out on this, was to modernize the two plants, but they didn’t like that. This was in 1988 and I wanted $13 million then to modernize the two plants. I told them consolidating everything in Cape May was a financial mistake, because they were looking at spending probably $35 to $40 million. Plus, for 30 years, the operations there had been operating below full staffing. The labor pool just was not there, while the labor pool here in Maine was perfect. Everybody here was very happy.

Well, the bottom line was, they waltzed in this guy who said, “I can do Cape May for $26 million.” So, that was the handwriting on the wall. I said, I can’t really do this, and left the company, after 15 years and four months.

Borden was a $6 billion dollar corporation back then, so, in the grand scheme of things, Snow’s was not a big business. We were $400 million in sales, tops, in the best years I was working there. But it turned $6 million after-tax profit every single year, until Borden’s started screwing with it.

Q: And that’s when you opened Mail-It Unlimited?

A: Actually, no. I first went to work for a start-up food company in Vermont that bombed within five months — total disaster. I bought this little business toward the end of that from a fella who’d opened it on Main Street in Kennebunk about 18 months earlier. It was absolutely tiny when I bought it, only about 600 square feet and it only did shipping. But I bought it because back in those days your retirement savings were not protected at all. So, if you cashed out your 401k, you got taxed right away — you couldn’t move the funds, you couldn’t do anything. So, I cashed out, took the hit, and told my wife, we’ve got to do something with the balance of this, because they’re just going to nickel and dime us to death. Plus, the stock market was not doing well at the time. So, we bought this with the intent of it just being an investment, but then, literally within 60 days of closing, the Vermont company just absolutely tanked.

I took tons of interviews and the one I turned down, which, in hindsight, was probably, financially, the worst decision I could have made, I was offered the director of operations position for Dole Pineapple in Hawaii. That would have been huge money. But it was the right personal decision. My wife and I had two young boys, and my wife’s invalid mother lived with us at the time, and I just couldn’t see moving her to Hawaii where she would know absolutely nothing. So, I kept taking interviews here in Maine, but nothing was right and finally, my wife and I looked at this business we’d invested in and said, well, let’s just ride this thing.

Q: Why did you choose to invest in the shipping business?

A: Well, we looked at 10 or 15 different businesses. I wanted something here in Maine that was turning a profit, which I could buy entirely with my savings, without carry- ing a debt burden on it. That was 28 years ago. We were on Main Street for 11 years, where Marlow’s used to be most recently, in what was then called the Bowdoin Block. When they wanted to demolish that, I was the only person there with a real lease, so they had to move up here, which was the best catastrophe that ever happened to me in my life.

Q: Explain that.

A: Well, there was no parking downtown. There never was. There never will be. Still, I was expecting to stay there when the new building went up. When we moved it was under duress. I had no choice. The owner was going to demolish the building. But he had signed up Marlow’s behind my back. I found that out one day when I was in his architect’s office. I saw the plans and said, you know, those are not my initials on that spot, and his face turned beet red. I walked out and called my attorney. He verified it and said, okay, you and your wife need to get over it and let’s come up with a plan to keep you whole. This mall was built in 1970 or thereabouts. When I came up here it was really decrepit. But I had to throw the dice. There was no place else to move to because, by that time, I had thrown all of my retirement eggs in one basket. Most of the tenants here then were at will, no leases or anything, but I said I wanted to negotiate a 20-year lease. I said I never wanted to negotiate another lease, although coming up in 2019 I’ll have to consider it [laughs].

But anyway, the guy who owned the place then, he’s since deceased and his son owns the place, he liked the cut of my jib I guess, so me made the deal. At year 20 in 2019, I’ll be paying less per square foot than in year 1 had I stayed downtown.

Q: So, it all worked out?

A: Yes, well, the key was, when Tim Harrington developed this property out back, there had to be a right of way through this mall. The sweetener to that was that the owner of this property was then enticed by the town. He had wanted to improve this property for years, but he just couldn’t get through town hall. Well, all of a sudden, when you want Tim Harrington to come out here, you can make things happen, and lots of things happened. The end result was that Tim got what he wanted, the town got what it wanted, and we got a drastically improved property. It truly was a win-win all the way around, and the traffic pattern has gone right through the roof. Today, this is the perfect little strip mall. It’s not too big, it’s not too small and with the improvements that have happened, we are the biggest traffic spot in town, by far. Even with Hannaford being as big as it is, there are more cars in this area every day.

Q: How has your business grown over the years?

A: From 600 square feet, with just shipping, photocopying, and faxing, we grew to 1,200 square feet, adding some gifts and other retail items, starting with one rack of greeting cards. We moved up here to the mall at 2,400 square feet. About that time we started trying to nip away at what we thought the town was missing in the gift business, so we could fill that niche. At the time, the average ticket price for what was here in town was, I think, quite frankly, too high for most consumers. So, my wife and I had this philosophy, we won’t sell things we wouldn’t buy, and we’re just average people, with an average income. About 18 months in at this mall, there was a clothing store where we are now and it went bankrupt. My landlord asked if we were interested in the space, but I said, we’re still healing from the move off Main Street. Well, he helped us with a loan, with an interest rate I couldn’t beat with a stick, and that moved us up to 6,500 square feet. It was an enormous change. It took us about two years just to fill the space with merchandise. But luckily we were already in with Yankee Candle, with an exclusive within a 10-mile halo. That became our anchor brand to build on, and we’ve just been slugging away.

Meanwhile, the shipping business has grown steadily over the years. There are roughly 5,400 independent UPS shipping stores in the country and we’re No. 4, based on dollar volume, which is simply amazing, I think. UPS is about 90 percent of my shipping services. We have about 70 businesses in the area that use our services and we have an extremely loyal residential clientele. I chalk that up to continuity. Shipping and gifts, they’re like every other small business — most people make it five years and they’re gone. But we’re 28 years in, and we have a reputation for customer service that I am very proud of.

Q: What has been the hardest part of your business?

A: Surviving the Great Recession. I wasn’t sure we would. We lost 40 percent of our sales off the top in less than three months. Our biggest single commercial customer left two months before the recession was official, with absolutely no business and no real explanation. They decided to do their own internal shipping and it was the equivalent of locking my doors for two weeks. That’s how big a hit it was. As soon as we thought we were adjusting to that, the recession hit. In addition to losing 40 percent of our gross sales, we lost maybe 80 percent of our profit. The only way we clawed our way back was we got very aggressive on our shipping margins. Even so, my wife and I drained our savings account to keep our employees. No one was laid off, no one was cut any hours. We didn’t cut a single hour, it all came out of us. Luckily, we survived it. The business is healthy again and is on year nine of a growth curve, the longest we’ve had, given that we’ve been through three recessions now — one 10 months after we bought this business, then the mid-‘90s, and then the biggie. We just plow it all right back into the business.

Q: And what do you like most about your business?

A: The people, and the fact that I only answer to the customer across the counter and me in the mirror. I go home at night and I don’t have some corporate giant telling me I’ve screwed it up. I’ll know if I’ve screwed it up, and I’ll deal with it. And you don’t own a business for 28 years without screwing some things up, but I always take responsibility for it. But it’s the relationship with customers I enjoy most. We had one fella that came in every summer for 19 years.

Q: How did you get into sponsoring the annual food drive?

A: Small business people do a lot of things without asking for any notoriety. We contributed along the way, but had never had anything formal.

We started with a Christmas drive, but that morphed into springtime — based on the anniversary of our buying this business being March 3 — because everybody does something at Christmas. So, we made it a feature of our anniversary every year, offering a discount with a donation to the food pantry. So, this year, with a donation — non-perishable foods, personal care products, or cash or check — you can take 28 percent off of anything in the store. I don’t see a reason to stop that, although at some point it may become a pretty hefty discount. But at 28 percent, for what this can accomplish, I’m good with that.

This just kind of started on its own as a way to give back, because this community has been very good to us. You don’t survive a recession like the one we had as a small business unless the community supports you. The fact that we can give back to the community, with no strings attached, it’s just a fun thing to do. In fact, since it’s become an annual thing, I’d honestly say it’s literally the most fun I have. We have the UPS flame truck, and a police escort to deliver the stuff, and for the past seven years we’ve challenged folks to decide who they’ll support the most — Community Outreach Services or the Animal Welfare Society. Last year was about 3,500 pounds of food for COS, and about 1,800 pounds of food and stuff for AWS. That was up about 10 percent from the previous year.

Q: And you use your dog Allie as a mascot for the AWS portion?

A: Yes, we pit her against COS every year and it has been a riot. The customers love it.

She’s about 9. She was a rescue out of Alabama. We got her seven years ago this month. She’s an absolute doll, but she’d been shot and thrown away — blind in one eye, buckshot in her butt, buckshot in her spine — which we had removed — and she lost about four inches of her tail. But she’s just the sweetest thing I have ever seen. She’s my fourth golden retriever, but she is absolutely something special.

Q: Has it been worth the effort?

A: Yes, I think it has. We never took a vacation for the first 14 years we owned the business, and up until just recently still worked seven days a week though the busy season. So many people think that in opening a small business, all you have to do is just open the door and the money will jump in the drawer. But you have got to work it. If you’re successful, it’s only because you’ve put the blood, sweat and tears in. So, yeah, I think it’s worth it. I might have done better if I had put my money into something else, but once we got in deep enough, my wife and I said, this is it, we’re going to ride this thing until it’s done, and hopefully someday it’ll be big enough to be a retirement nest egg.

In the end, I’m just happy that we are able to leverage some of our very wonderful customer support into helping those in the community who truly are in need.

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