For Lisa Almeida and Heidi Nicholson, the very first day of bridal store ownership was a breeze.
    It was 2005 and Almeida and Nicholson had literally just opened the doors of Bella Sera Bridal, a “cozy” 1,000-square-foot bridal shop located in a strip mall in Middleton, Mass. In spite of being newbies in the business, they sold two gowns by the end of that day.
    “We thought, ‘This is easy’!” Nicholson recalls. “But we soon realized it wasn’t so easy. That was just plain luck!”
    Lucky or not, selling those gowns felt like a victory, particularly considering Almeida and Nicholson were venturing into a new industry. They did have a few things going for them, however. They understood selling and retail, considering they first met while working at an office furniture dealership in the late 1990s. Best friends, not just business partners, they had also known each other well during their weddings. In fact, both women recall having a tough time shopping for their gowns and fully enjoying the experience.
    “In some stores, the gowns were outdated, and while websites were starting to become a huge thing for businesses in general, most bridal stores didn’t even have a website for basic information,” Nicholson says. “Also, some of the places had this snobby vibe, and all their sizes back then were 8s and 10s. It was really difficult to try on dresses and have them fit if you were curvy.”
    These and other factors inspired them to research the bridal industry. They spent a year doing due diligence, during which they made an important discovery. . . the average girl in Massachusetts was a size 14 – not an 8 or a 10. A light bulb went off!
    “This was the industry standard 11 years ago,” Almeida says. “And the only place a curvy girl could go was David’s Bridal. We decided we wanted to give these customers a boutique experience as opposed to a big box. Things have definitely changed today, but in doing this back then, we were ahead of the curve.”

“Curves” and Other Dreams
Drive the New Business Venture
    With a business plan in hand, which included the details for a bridal shop that would cater to every woman regardless of size, Almeida and Nicholson got the help of the Small Business Administration to secure a loan.
    They also found a space to lease, took their first and most memorable buying trip to New York, and set up shop with 30 gowns hanging from the racks. Within the mix was Casablanca Bridal, which had just started hitting its stride. This one line eventually contributed to 75 percent of the store’s sales, a decision under which, combined with the selling talent of the two co-owners and one part-time worker, the store’s bottom line flourished.
    However, space soon became an issue. Within three years, the business had outgrown its current location, and Almeida and Nicholson knew they needed at least 3,000 square feet to operate more effectively. While driving to and from work together, they would always pass through Danvers, a busier town than Middleton, and see the space of their dreams: a large, beautiful furniture store that had been a fixture in that town for years.
    They often chatted dreamily about buying it, knowing full well it wasn’t available and that the rent was too high. So they couldn’t believe it when they actually got a call from a realtor who was representing that very property and seeking them out to lease it. Nicholson and Almeida doubted they could afford it, but they decided to go look anyway. The irony that a men’s formalwear store was moving into the building’s lower level was almost too weird for words.
    “They had pretty much gutted it, and I remember from the moment we walked in and up the stairs into the wide, open loft-like space, we knew it was where we needed to be,” Nicholson says. “It’s a great space. Even today, when people walk up and see it, they’re like, ‘Wow,’ I never expected this!’”
    By this point, the women had developed a solid relationship with their loan officer, who, once again, granted them the funding they needed to lease and do an entire build-out of the 5,000-square-foot-space. They also had another stroke of luck and generosity.
    Yolanda of the famous Yolanda’s Bridal Boutique was retiring. When Almeida and Nicholson called to inquire about the possibility of hiring some of her staff, Yolanda herself called back and gave her blessing. Shortly thereafter two sales consultants and a seamstress moved over to Bella Sera’s new and current location; one of the sales consultants and the seamstress still work there today.

Bigger, Brighter Look Lifts
Brand to Bolder, Better Heights
    It was 2009 and after the renovation and relocation, Bella Sera Bridal took on a whole new look and feel.
    Compared to the cramped quarters of the former location, the new site offered the luxury of wide spaces, high, pitched ceilings, and loads of natural light. The loft-like design begged for a modern look, which the co-owners complemented with contemporary IKEA furnishings, a deep sky-blue paint (a tribute to “. . . something blue”), accents of metallic wallpaper, chandeliers, and large mirrors, including a massive, beautifully carved and painted wood-framed mirror.
    “Priscilla of Boston was closing, and an employee called and told us, ‘If there’s anything you want, you’d better come take a look,”‘ Almeida says. “This huge floor mirror was it – and has since been such a hit. . . it’s been in the industry for so long and is so beautiful.”
    It wasn’t just the looks and location that changed. Staff also quickly expanded from one to what would eventually become 11 employees, including sales consultants and seamstresses. With that boost in hiring and increased management responsibilities, the co-workers found their own roles shifting, too.
    “We became business women and earned our MBAs really quickly!” Almeida says. “I became a part-time accountant doing all the books, and Heidi became head of HR, doing scheduling, payroll, and managing all the e-mails coming through.”
    The co-owners say they got settled and were very happy with the business at this time. Of course, it helped that the store was profitable, too. The strategy of catering to every bride had proven to be a smart one, timed just right.
    They also developed another winning strategy for managing business, focusing on lines that were backed by solid vendor relationships. So in spite of all the growth-associated costs and risks, Bella Sera Bridal was sustaining strong profit margins, building its positive reputation and drawing strong traffic.
    “In the first four years at the first location, business had quadrupled,” Almeida says. “Then we doubled that number in the first two years in our new location.”

New Divisions Further Diversify
Offerings, Opportunities to Serve
    Of course, just when they had paid off their bank loan, Almeida and Nicholson got a call.
    The owner of Lorraine Ray, the most established special occasion store in the area, wanted to sell her business to them. Almeida and Nicholson already had a relationship with this storeowner, who had often collaborated with them in providing bridesmaids and MOB gowns for fashion shows they all did together. The business and brand she was selling was a proven one, which could only bring more business to Bella Sera Bridal.
    “At first, we said, ‘Absolutely not,’ because we were finally out of debt with the bank,” Almeida says. “But we kept talking and talking about it, and it really seemed like a no-brainer to bring it over, plus it was such an honor. This business had grown to the point that it was attracting people from all over New England.”
    So they made it happen. In 2012, they bought and brought in this business. Also, along with this purchase came a promise to Lorraine Ray’s former owner, who was very active in the community. She asked them to continue her brand’s legacy of “giving back” in some way of their choosing. As charitable outreach had always been one of their goals, Nicholson and Almeida agreed and, after some reflection, decided to adopt Make-a-Wish Foundation (Massachusetts and Rhode Island) as their charity of choice, “giving back” by throwing a gala event to raise awareness and money for the cause. Calling it “Wishing on a Star,” the two ladies got to work planning for the magical evening, which took place in fall 2013.
    “At first, we didn’t know what we were doing but once we put our minds to it, we got it done,” Nicholson says. “About 220 people came. With cocktails, dinner, an awesome runway fashion show, and both a silent and live auction, complete with two local radio personalities who hosted it, we raised $48,000. We also had two Make-a-Wish Recipients participate – one who sang and another who walked the runway.”
    It was so successful, Almeida and Nicholson decided to do it again, hosting their next mega fundraiser, “Diamond Wishes,” in February 2015. In spite of serious winter weather conditions that had virtually put a stop to everything, people came out and contributed a grand total of $60,000 to Make-a-Wish Foundation. In return, they experienced an incredible sense of purpose and another spectacular evening, this time featuring an opening number by a local guitarist with an a cappella choir from Girls Inc., an organization that helps at-risk girls achieve personal and academic success. In addition to the dinner, auctions and fashion show, the event also included a tear-jerker of a video about a thriving teenage girl who had once faced a life-threatening illness and been helped by Make-a-Wish Foundation.
    “She was really into fashion and ended up walking the runway, and we gave her the jewelry and the dress, so she could wear it to prom,” Nicholson says. “Everyone gave her a standing ovation, and it was a really moving night. After it was all over, Lisa and I both had that feeling you get after a wedding – we were so happy but so sad it was all over. It was amazing.”

Challenges Call for Change,
Taking Business to Best Level
    Without question, Diamond Wishes was a bright spot that year, as the winter of 2015 ended up being incredibly challenging for the store.
    Right as the business was preparing for its big selling season, winter hit hard and severe weather wrecked havoc in the area. Newly engaged brides weren’t into braving the elements to try on wedding gowns.
    “People just didn’t want to leave their house,” Almeida recalls. “We heard from sales reps that it wasn’t a great year overall, but it was particularly hard on us. Once things picked up, brides were coming in with just three months until their wedding day, and we’d just have to tell them they would have to go find something off the rack. We just couldn’t serve them very well. With those we could help, everyone was scrambling here – us, the sales consultants, the seamstresses. . . it was like a ‘snowball’ effect.”
    Yet during that tough year, the co-owners got proactive and, with the expertise of a public relations firm, improved branding, social-media marketing, and other visibility efforts. (Just prior to this, they had actually rebranded the store to better reflect its product and service mission: Bella Sera Bridal & Occasion, with the tagline, Every Woman, Every Occasion.) The ladies also scrutinized their vendors, cutting anything that wasn’t providing a decent ROI. Staff hours got trimmed back. And the co-owners even froze their own salaries and started working the sales floor more.
    “This was all about cutting the fat and making sure we landed on our feet,” Almeida says. “We even told our staff what was going on. We said, ‘This (business) is our baby. We will take the hit.”
    Over the years, while the co-owners had, at times, hired help with accounting and even management, they suddenly realized these particular decisions created more problems than they were worth, including an accountant who embezzled money. So they instituted a series of corrective actions, which put them more fully in command and got their business re-focused on what was vital.
    Prior to that, “everything was suffering in minor ways instead of us tackling them and handling them well,” Almeida says. “We found we had to get back in control. . . we couldn’t leave the passion of the business to someone else. It needs to be in our hands.”
    Meanwhile, as Almeida and Nicholson addressed the challenges, they made yet another landmark strategic move: acquiring ownership of one of the biggest pageant stores in Massachusetts. With this came two huge benefits: First, Bella Sera Bridal & Occasion is the new go-to store for the pageant title-holders. Second, the store now officially sponsors the Miss USA/Miss Teen USA system for Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.
    “This new direction is in its infancy right now, but it’s just an amazing side of the business,” Nicholson says. “The gowns and designers are incredible, the women are drop-dead gorgeous, and it injects this whole aspect of youth into the business that’s really refreshing.”
    And it makes good sense, too. After all, this new category of customers is already providing positive word-of-mouth that Bella Sera Bridal & Occasion hopes to enjoy in the years to come.

Providing Excellent Service
Is a Cornerstone Of Everything
    Like many other bridal stores, Bella Sera Bridal & Occasion prides itself on exceptional service and makes a concerted effort to communicate what that means.
    For starters, it’s always about their mantra, Every Woman, Every Occasion. But it’s also about their commitment to listening to their customers; offering the right expertise; and creating memories their customers will cherish for a lifetime. The listening starts the moment brides send inquiries through the website or come up the stairs and see a glorious display of gowns, open and out of the bags, hanging before them.
    “These girls are often over-shopped and have been bombarded with information,” Nicholson says. “We like them to come in, touch the gowns, and take the lead, which allows us to see what they like first and hear what they want us to pull. Only then do we suggest what else we might pull. If they don’t like it, that’s OK, we’re not offended. But we listen to who they are, feel them out, and build our chemistry that way.”
    In terms of providing expertise, it’s not about preaching what they know but demonstrating what they’ve learned. For example, Almeida and Nicholson might talk about how design and fabrics minimize and maximize proportions, then show with various materials and gowns how some make a bride look “hippier.”
    “This always helps them ease up when they realize we really do know what we’re talking about,” Almeida says.
    And when it comes to creating memories, Bella Sera Bridal & Occasion makes sure it’s not just for brides but also for every woman who seeks their services. This includes consistently delivering the experience whereby the bride, in finding the perfect gown, looks into the mirror and realizes this is what she’ll wear when she walks down the aisle to her future husband. It also means talking gently and lovingly to the countless MOBs who often feel incredibly anxious (even depressed) about their own looks, and helping those cherished moms to rediscover their own beauty.
    “No one forgets that,” Nicholson says. “They let loose and then become like your friend, which is what we strive to be. These customers are anything but just a sale to us – and that goes back to our whole approach to service.”
    From the experiences these ladies and their employees offer their customers to the ambiance that’s all around them, it’s also about what’s beautiful – and never stuffy.
    “It’s still kind of cozy in spite of the larger size and all the changes,” Nicholson says. “It’s the kind of place people don’t want to leave…all the niceties we offer them and how we really work together to make them feel beautiful. They don’t forget.”
    As for us, Nicholson adds, “Through all this, we’ve still had our lives going on. Lisa had two babies, I got divorced, she moved, I moved, and so there’s been a lot to deal with.”
    Yet in spite of everything and the ups and downs of business, nothing has stopped these co-owners from pursuing and perfecting their dream. If anything, the business and bond they share are stronger than ever, and the sense of purpose behind their careers is now crystal clear.
    “Everybody always says to us, I can’t believe you’re as close as you are,” Nicholson says. “But we’re closer than we ever were. It hasn’t always been easy. . . but we don’t ever take our business or our friendship for granted.”