Oct 9, 2015
Can you think of a single moment that forever changed your life? For Maya Holihan this moment occurred when she was flipping through a Women’s Wear Daily magazine and spotted an “employee wanted” ad for Vera Wang’s flagship store in New York.
It was early 2002 and Maya was in her late 20s, full of energy and talent, and someone who had already gained impressive fashion sales experience with Gianni Versace in Boston. More recently, however, she’d taken a “small detour” with a high-tech public relations firm where she worked on promotional campaigns nationwide, gaining exposure to exciting cities, big corporate brands and high-end talent.
From these adventures, Maya learned at least two important points about herself. First, she wanted a vibrant career. For her – at this time – life wasn’t about just getting married and settling down. Second, she realized she wanted to live in and really experience New York, at least for a little while. But she just needed to find the right job.
“I had always followed Vera Wang, thought she was so talented, and loved her gowns,” says Maya, reflecting on the day she saw that ad. “However, when I told my colleagues about the job, they all said I’d never get an interview with a Boston address – but one of them who lived there said, ‘Use mine!’ So I did.”
Six interviews later, Maya got the call that she was hired for “the opportunity of a lifetime.” However, the position wasn’t for the originally advertised job but one created organically just for her. As the new selling and services manager, Maya worked the floor, providing superior customer service and accurate gown and ordering information. She also managed any customization needs and took over the end-of-the-sale experience for the consultants, so they could move on to new customers. Also there, she got the opportunity to work with some of Vera’s private clients.
“My first day on the job, I knew I would do bridal for the rest of my life,” she says.
Six months later, she was promoted to manage the nearby bridesmaids’ store where she worked for another six months. Then, newly married, she and her first husband decided to begin their lives together in Norfolk, Va., mainly due to New York’s high cost of living.
From Vera to Virginia
A Star Retailer is Born
In Norfolk, it didn’t take long for Maya to find a new job in the industry, this time with Tiffany’s Bridal and Formal Wear. Tiffany’s was a well-known retail chain that had seen its heyday between the 1970s and 1990s. However, at this point, the chain was struggling.
“I was really into providing the best customer service and staying ahead of the curve – not behind it,” she says. “Working there really felt like crisis management more so than customer service.”
In addition, the owners were knowingly selling off pieces of the chain bit by bit, which created a lot of internal worry and stress and contributed to further dysfunction. In February 2004, Maya had had enough. She gave her notice, which the owners accepted. But then they called her back two hours later to ask her if she wanted to buy the store. She did.
“It was pure elation with a little bit of fear,” she recalls. “I definitely knew I was meant to be the new owner of the company, and I had a firm vision of where I wanted to take it.”
She hired a business advisor to help her navigate the planning, purchase and changeover. Importantly, she retained all eight of the current staff members who were equally thrilled about her ownership and what it meant: a fresh beginning for the store – and their careers.
As Maya puts it, “There was this overall feeling of inspiration because we knew we were starting something new.”
Rebranding Build Credibility
An entrepreneur nearly overnight, Maya immediately and aggressively set out to change the perception of her store and its brand.
She pushed the envelope in terms of fashion, price point and the shopping experience, carving out her competitive edge to restore the business to its original glory. For example, she brought in very high-end, exclusive designers, knowing full well only a handful of brides would buy those exquisite gowns.
“I’ve always been a believer that you have to purchase your bread-and-butter gowns but also go outside your comfort zone and do something unique and different,” she says. “We’d feature these gowns in the store, and while only five or six brides would buy them in a year, they’d take tons of photos and share them. This would drive more business my way, and brides would come in and be so happy they weren’t just seeing the same old strapless ballgown they’d seen everywhere else. I became the store to go to if you were seeking something trendy or fashion-forward.”
In no time, the perception of the store improved drastically. Second-generation brides were coming in with their mothers who had once bought their gown at Tiffany’s. They expressed delight at seeing how the store was now thriving in spite of years of challenges. And new brides, who heard about or experienced the difference in quality for themselves, shared the news with other newly engaged couples.
Within a year of purchasing the store, Maya modified its name to Tiffany’s by Maya. This defined a new era that proved extremely successful for the storeowner. Feeling confident in her ownership, she further tweaked her branding to better represent not just the quality product but also the face behind the business and her personal, highly visible commitment to it. She renamed her store Maya Couture in 2007 and further defined that brand early this year – it’s now called House of Maya. The new and improved message: No matter how her business has evolved or expanded over the years, Maya remains present, connected, and involved in her venture, with her customers.
Also of note, in those early years, Maya made significant changes in her business model and the services offered. In 2005, she freed up half of her 10,000-square-foot store and started subleasing to several local wedding vendors: a florist, a photographer, wedding planner, and invitations company. This unique setup transformed the business into a one-stop wedding shop that’s since been dedicated to making the entire wedding shopping experience one of convenience and quality.
Then about four years ago, Maya brought in a different wedding planner who owned her own special events company and was building an exciting franchise venture: The Bridal Dish™. Two years ago, this planner launched her business in Maya’s Norfolk salon, and today this in-house franchise successfully serves as a complimentary wedding-planning studio, matching couples with the wedding professional resources and vendors that best meet their needs. In early 2015, Maya purchased the franchise license, and this service has taken the salon’s total offerings to a whole new level.
“Couples can come in and meet with the director of The Dish Team and discuss all the planning, priorities and the budget, and any questions or concerns they have,” Maya says. “We serve as a concierge service, connecting them to the right wedding professionals in every category.”
Making Dreams Come True For
Maya’s Brides, Team & Herself
After a decade in business and earning accolades from the nation’s top bridal publications and online resources, Maya and her team’s success suddenly presented several opportunities to reach more brides than ever before. Specifically, in about a year’s time, the store owner got not just one but four chances to expand her operations from her single flagship location to four additional stores – five in total.
“I’ve never been a small thinker, and in 2015, we just blew it out of the water,” she says.
It actually all started one year prior when she bought Couture on Main in Suffolk, Va., about a half-hour’s drive southwest from the Norfolk store. Then in February 2015, she acquired two more salons: Pure English and Silk Bridal (a consignment store) about 30 miles to the east of Norfolk in Virginia Beach. Then this past July, she became the owner of Privée Bride of Ghent, a highly specialized upper-end salon in Norfolk. Why the sudden, explosive expansion?
In summary, it boils down to Maya embracing and pursuing what she loves about her job – making dreams come true. As cliché as it may sound, the business owner says her vision for growth is all about providing customers throughout her region with the kind of bridal shopping and wedding-planning experiences that they dream about and deserve.
“There’s nothing more beautiful than when a girl starts crying happy tears and her guests are crying happy tears,” Maya says. “Most of the time, we have chosen that gown for that bride, and it’s not the gown she would have picked out for herself.”
That said, Maya’s business isn’t all about her brides. In fact, she is equally dedicated to making dreams come true for her loyal, talented staff. In acquiring new stores, she has fulfilled another critical objective in promoting a number of her dedicated staff members to management positions in the various stores. Meanwhile, she’s building a dynamic culture in which all 27 employees can more effectively develop their professional talents and skills.
“It’s always been so important for me to see my staff grow with the company, and I used to worry what would happen when I hit the glass ceiling,” Maya says. “It’s very exciting and yet humbling to know that I can now elevate my staff and give them opportunities to be leaders.”
Speaking of leadership, Maya herself sets the example. Much more than just than a business owner, she consistently tries to model the mindset and actions she expects of her staff. For example, when it comes to selling the gown, she coaches them about how it’s all about the experience and the client relationship, less about the sale.
“First, you need to impress upon the client you genuinely care about her, ease her concerns and fulfill her needs in that way,” Maya says. “Next, you sell yourself and let that client know you’re there for her and are going to take good care of her. Then you sell the company and all that House of Maya can offer. And only then do you turn to selling the gown.”
In a sense, this is a systematic approach to how business gets done. However, it’s based on the principle of genuinely caring about the client, not the sale. Doing business for the right reasons is a key strategy that Maya, as the leader, believes is one of her proven methods for success.
Time and time again, she’s seen it play a role in her team’s ability to meet goals, create a vibrant, sustainable culture, and take on fresh challenges, such as becoming the regional manager for Virginia’s largest bridal show. All this and other key leadership mindsets have contributed to the achievement of her own dreams. Meanwhile, she’s learned to better delegate to and empower her staff so she can focus on leadership-centric responsibilities and developing new directions and growth possibilities for House of Maya.
Without a doubt, Maya’s commitment to this discipline is working. Now a seasoned entrepreneur, known for thinking big and outside the box, Maya is extending her reach once again. This summer, she just signed on to be the editor-in-chief of the regional bridal publication The Wedding Planner (which will become House of Maya Presents The Wedding Planner). And in addition to this new venture, she’d like to design her own gowns and become a motivational speaker and author for young women someday.
At the very least, these goals aren’t on her bucket list just because they’re good for the business. Once again, they are ways for Maya to express her genuine care for the happiness and success of others. If she can use her knowledge and experiences to help people achieve their full potential – on their wedding day or in life in general – Maya wants to do it.
So the question remains: How does Maya fit all she does into her busy schedule? No doubt, she is a woman who seems to never stop dreaming, thinking, believing and doing. But she’s someone who knows her limits and takes those seriously, exercising regularly, eating healthy and going to bed early, for example. She also has an incredible network of love with her second husband and daughters – her family – as well as her staff members, who are an extension of her family.
“I have fantastic support,” says Maya, who has learned over the years to delegate and ask for help, but also not to take everything in life so seriously, keep things fun both at work and home, and maintain self-respect above all. Ultimately, maintaining balance for this retailer is key.
Because in the end, she says, “If you don’t take care of yourself, you are not good for you or anyone else.”
For over 25 years, VOWS magazine has had the privilege of profiling some of the finest bridal salons in North America. What follows is a sampling of those salons gracing our pages, listed in alpha order:
Anderson’s Bride, Anchorage, Ak. www.andersonsbride.com
Angelique’s Bridal Salon, Blaine, Minn. www.angeliquesbridalsalon.com
Anjolique Bridal & Formal, Huntersville, N.C. anjolique-bridal.com
Arlene’s Bridal Salon, Bloomfield, N.J. www.arlenesbridals.com
Azteca Bridal, Phoenix, Ariz. www.azbride.com
Beautiful Weddings, Missoula, Mon. www.beautifulweddingsbridal.com
Becker’s Bridal, Fowler, Mich www.beckersbridal.com
Bella Sera Bridal & Occasion, Danvers, MA www.bellaserabride.com
Betsy Robinson's Bridal, Pikesville, MD www.betsyrobinson.com
Brickhouse Bridal, The Woodlands, Texas www.brickhousebridal.com
Bridal and Formal Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio www.bridalandformalinc.com
Bridal Garden, Marlton, N.J. www.bridal-garden.com
Bridal Reflections, Massapequa, N.Y. www.bridalreflections.com
Bridal Superstore by Posie Patch, Indianapolis, Ind. www.posiepatchbridalsuperstores.com
Bridal Trousseau, Branford, Conn. www.bridal-trousseau.net
Bridal Warehouse, Elizabethtown, Ky www.usabridal.com
Bridals by Lori, Atlanta, GA www.bridalsbylori.com
Carlisle’s of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa. www.bridalwear.com
Catan Fashions, Strongsville, Ohio www.catanfashions.com
Champagne & Lace, Abbotsford, B.C. champagneandlace.com
Charlotte’s Weddings & More, Portland, Ore. www.charlottesweddings.com
Chic Parisien, Coral Gables, Fla. www.cpbride.com
d’Anelli Bridal, Lakewood, Colo. www.coloradobridal.com
Deborah’s Bridal, Upland, Calif. www.deborahsbridal.com
Doreen Leaf Designs, Hartville, Ohio www.doreenleafdesigns.com
Elegant Occasions, Wausau, WI www.elegantoccasions.net
Elizabeth’s Bridal Manor, Northville, Mich. www.elizabethsbridal.com
Emmy’s Bridal, Minster, Ohio emmysbridal.com
Fiancée Bridal, Minot, N.D. fianceebridal.com
I Do Bridal, Seattle, Wash. idobridal.com
Imaginations Bridal, Brookhaven, Miss. www.imaginationsbridal.com
J&B Bridal, Chambersburg, Pa. www.jbbridals.com
Jay West, Haddonfield, N.J. www.jaywestbridal.com
Jessica’s Bridal & Formal, Bay, Ark. www.jessicasbridal.net
JJ Kelly Bridal, Oklahoma City, OK www.jjkellybridal.com
Kleinfeld, New York, N.Y. www.kleinfeldbridal.com
Little White Dress, Denver, CO www.lwdbridal.com
Low’s Bridal & Formal, Brinkley, Ark. lowsbridal.com
Mariella Creations, Rocky Hill, Ct. www.mariellacreations.com
Mark Ingram Atelier, New York, N.Y. markingramatelier.com
MB Bride & Special Occasion, Greensburg, Pa. www.mbbride.com
Mestad’s Bridal & Formalwear, Rochester, Minn. www.mestads.com
Mon Amie Bridal Salon, Costa Mesa, Calif. www.monamie.com
Poffie Girls Bridals & Formals, Gastonia, N.C. www.poffiegirls.com
Prevue Bridal & Formal, San Diego, Calif. prevueformalandbridal.com
Rebecca’s Wedding Boutique, Louisville, Ky. www.rebeccasweddings.com
Special Memories, Leadington, Mo. www.specialmemories.com
Terry Costa, North Dallas, Texas www.terrycosta.com
The Bridal Centre, Calgary, AB, Canada www.bridalcentre.com
The Bridal Collection, Centennial, Colo.www.thebridalcollection.com
The Bridal Path, Jackson, Miss. www.bridalpathinc.com
The Plumed Serpent, Westport, Conn. plumedserpentbridal.com
The Gilded Gown, Knoxville, Tenn. www.thegildedgown.com
The Wedding Tree, La Crosse, Wis. www.theweddingtree.com
TJ Formal Profiled: Joplin, Mo. www.tjformal.com
Uptown Bridal & Boutique Chandler, Ariz. uptownbrides.com
Vera’s House of Bridals Madison, Wis. www.verasbridals.com
Wedding Belles Stevensville, Mich. www.weddingbellesbridalsalon.com
Wedding Shoppe Inc. St. Paul, Minn. www.weddingshoppeinc.com
Wedding Wonderland Knoxville, Tenn. www.wedding-wonderland.com
Weddings by Debbie Katy, Texas www.weddingsbydebbie.com
Wishing Well Bridal East Providence, R.I. www.wishingwellbridal.com
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Shannon Hurd, Managing Editor, oversees the editorial content and direction of VOWS and its platforms. She writes on Social Media and the intersection of bridal business and life. Shannon's recent blog posts are below.
It’s authentic, informative, fun – and strategically effective.
Peter Grimes, Publisher and founder of VOWS Magazine. His comments are presented in each issue's Publisher's Note, and often address industry issues and pertinent news of the day. He can be reached at 949 388 4848 or via email
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