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Admittedly, Kerrie Hileman didn’t expect this.
    When Hileman opened The White Magnolia Bridal Collection in her hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., in 2010, she clutched modest expectations for her fledgling business.
    “I was so new that I walked in with no expectations,” Hileman says. “I just wanted to get the store up and running.”
    That Hileman found stability quickly relieved and delighted.
    That, over the course of the next 11 years, her business would grow from a single Jacksonville boutique into a multi-market, multi-concept 10-store syndicate serving brides across the Southeast, well, that’s been a downright surprise.
    “I never would have expected it to grow the way it has,” says Hileman, who co-owns the swelling White Magnolia enterprise with Mallory Thorburn. “Each year gets better and better.”

Taking bold steps into bridal retail
    The White Magnolia owes its creation to two challenges Hileman encountered in her mid-20s: her own subpar bridal gown shopping experience as a newly engaged woman and rising dissatisfaction with her own professional life.
    While searching for a wedding dress in early 2010, Hileman lamented the lack of intimacy she felt when visiting stores. Nothing felt private or personal, she says, and that made dress shopping more of a chore than the special experience she envisioned.
    As an accountant, meanwhile, Hileman “pushed numbers around in a spreadsheet” and felt confined to a cubicle. The work felt rote, not rewarding, and she hungered for a change.
    Frustrated at what she was finding at bridal boutiques and disenchanted with her own career arc, Hileman toyed with the idea of starting her own bridal boutique.
    “And it made sense,” she says. “I was that girl asking my mom to buy me wedding magazines back in the day.”
    Interested in exploring the possibilities in bridal retail, Hileman began by contacting designers she found in magazines, sending notes to generic e-mails found on company websites. The replies she received often arrived with an earnest, albeit direct suggestion: go to market. Hileman heeded the advice.
    In April 2010, she made a solo trip to New York City, taking her first steps into an unknown world. She attended appointments by herself, collected every nugget she could possibly grab and endured a crash course in bridal retailing.
    “I was absolutely terrified at market, but if you don’t put yourself out there, how can you move forward with something?” she says.
    By the time she arrived back in Jacksonville, Hileman, then 25, was determined to proceed with her plans to open a bridal boutique. She prepared a business plan, secured a modest collection of inventory from select designers and landed an 1,800-square-foot space in Jacksonville’s San Marco neighborhood. She painted the walls herself while her now-husband built the shop’s lone free-standing dressing room by hand.
    “I had money to buy dresses, but not much else, so we had no choice but to be resourceful,” Hileman says.
    In August 2010, three months before celebrating her own nuptials, Hileman left her accounting job; the following week, she opened The White Magnolia Bridal Collection.
    “Just me and 40 dresses,” says Hileman, who led every 90-minute appointment herself six days a week. “Honestly, I had no idea what I was walking into.”

Finding growth and a partner
    Faster than Hileman ever imagined, word started spreading about the new bridal shop in town with an enthusiastic owner offering private one-on-one appointments. Within two years, brides from across Florida and Georgia began visiting The White Magnolia.
    “Brides were coming in and telling me that they loved the personalized attention of the one-on-one bridal appointment,” Hileman says. “To me, it just seemed the way it should be done.”
    Such revelations combined with a capable and talented employee, Ashley DeMutiis, ignited Hileman’s interest in expansion. With DeMutiis about to graduate from college, contemplating a career in bridal and holding a firm grasp of Hileman’s vision, Hileman had the necessary ammunition to add a second store.
    “I didn’t have a strong need for someone in the store beyond me, but I thought she could execute my vision elsewhere,” Hileman says of DeMutiis. “I felt confident we could grow.”
    In 2013, DeMutiis moved to Tampa, about 200 miles southwest of Jacksonville, to open and manage the second White Magnolia store. It was a prelude of things to come.
    During a May 2014 vacation with friends, Hileman listened to Thorburn, an acquaintance with whom she shared mutual friends, detail her own disappointing experiences shopping for a wedding gown. Hileman invited Thorburn to visit The White Magnolia to end her shopping quest. Thorburn did and was smitten with the personal attention she received, so much so that she, like Hileman years prior, considered creating her own White Magnolia-type experience.
    “I was about to start another job and just wasn’t feeling it,” Thorburn says. “I said, ‘Why can’t I do this?’”
    Thorburn reached out to Hileman and outlined her plans for a bridal boutique in her hometown of Atlanta. Rather than Thorburn going at it alone, however, Hileman suggested the two join forces with Hileman handing Thorburn The White Magnolia playbook. For Thorburn, the offer held unquestionable appeal.
    “I got the benefit of having someone to lead the ride,” she says.
    In November 2014, Thorburn quit her accounting job, became an official co-owner of the business with Hileman and opened The White Magnolia in Atlanta. As the store operator, Thorburn worked seven days a week by herself for about 18 months.
    “I didn’t know the exact vision, but I knew we wouldn’t be content,” Thorburn says. “We had something that worked and something we believed in.”

Crafting a formula that works
    With Thorburn and a third store in the fold, Hileman felt emboldened to grow The White Magnolia even more, confident she had a formula she could export to additional markets. A Greenville, S.C., store opened in January 2016 followed by stores in Palm Beach, Fla., and Savannah, Ga., in early 2019. Last October, Hileman and Thorburn opened a seventh White Magnolia boutique in Nashville.
    “Every opening is spurred by customer demographics,” Thorburn says. “We expanded to markets like Greenville and Nashville because that’s where our brides were coming from.”
    Though White Magnolia stores hover around 3,000 square feet, they are not carbon copies of each other. In fact, Thorburn, who oversees each store’s design and overall aesthetic, aims to make each store unique to its market. Whereas the Atlanta store sits in a cozy 1930s cottage home, The White Magnolia in Palm Beach embraces an industrial vibe with 16-foot ceilings, exposed wooden rafters, oversized chandeliers and concrete floors.
    “We want each boutique to feel like the hometown shop,” Thorburn says.
    Inventory is similar from store to store, but not exact, as Hileman and Thorburn adjust the gowns in each store to accommodate exclusivity as well as market preferences.
    “Some markets are more fashion forward and others are more traditional, so we learn what works for the market and go with that,” Hileman says.
    One common element at each White Magnolia: the intimate feel of a 90-minute, one-on-one appointment in a private bridal suite. Though the first four White Magnolia stores started out only allowing one bride in the store at a time, Hileman and Thorburn have since evolved their model and some stores now host up to three private bridal suites.
    “We’re genuine in what we do and brides call us ‘a breath of fresh air,’” Hileman says. “We are here for them, listen, let them touch dresses and talk to them as a friend.”
    Each manager is empowered to run her store as if it “is her own,” Hileman notes.
    The company supports managers with a director of stores and an operations manager – both of whom are former White Magnolia store managers themselves – while new managers are also assigned mentors to help them navigate the inevitable challenges that arise in such a high-touch retail environment. The collaborative work of company and store leadership, which includes regular brainstorming and idea-sharing sessions, helps drive key business functions, such as sales, operations and marketing.
    For their part, Hileman and Thorburn remain hands-on owners and oversee big-picture elements tied to operations and branding, which includes defined processes governing everything from first contact and the appointment through the sale and follow up.
    “Processes are important because we can’t be everywhere at every moment,” Hileman reminds. “This way, we’re able to replicate The White Magnolia experience at each store and keep things in check.”
    Adds Thorburn: “We found a model that works and have stayed with it.”
    Which isn’t to suggest The White Magnolia isn’t open to evolving or committed to the status quo. Hileman and Thorburn, two former accountants attuned to inefficiencies, have altered processes to improve the guest experience and operations and also invested in technology and tools to streamline the business. For the first five years, for example, the business relied heavily on pen and paper. In 2015, though, the partners added BridalLive software, which has provided them real-time information and functionalities to better manage and run their business.
    “If there’s something we can do better, we want to know,” Hileman says. “That’s a message our employees hear regularly.”

Far from done
    Thorburn, who remains in Atlanta, and Hileman who lives in Jacksonville, split many of the company’s key duties. Hileman largely directs The White Magnolia’s marketing and branding as well as sales and strategizing opportunities to ensure a rich customer experience. Not surprisingly given her status as a certified public accountant, Thorburn handles the company’s finances and back-end operations, though she shows her creative side in store design. It’s that partnership that makes The White Magnolia sing.
    “In eight years, we’ve never had a disagreement,” Thorburn says. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how to complement one another.”
    Hileman sees other factors at play.
    “We genuinely care about one another and both have a very similar work ethic and mindset, which keeps us tied together,” she says.
    It also keeps the entrepreneurial partners exploring compelling opportunities that arise. When an industry colleague Hileman knew from her college years was ready to sell her existing bridal boutique in Tampa, Hileman and Thorburn completed the purchase together in 2017. That store, Malindy Elene, resides less than a mile west of The White Magnolia’s Tampa outlet, though it embraces more of a bohemian feel and features a completely different set of designers. In the years since, Hileman and Thorburn have extended their bridal enterprise beyond The White Magnolia brand. In 2018, they opened The Sample Shoppe in The White Magnolia’s original Atlanta location on Pharr Road. The Sample Shoppe hosts all of the company’s sample gowns. And this past June, the duo debuted a White Magnolia spinoff called Magnolia Laine at an old cottage home in Atlanta. “We were finding the price point at The White Magnolia in Atlanta was pushing up and wanted to separate these out,” Hileman says of Magnolia Laine, a more price-conscious boutique with dresses topping out at $1,800. Adding new stores enables Hileman and Thorburn to provide advancement opportunities to their top talent, individuals who know The White Magnolia brand and can execute its game plan. The Nashville store manager, for example, was previously a stylist at The White Magnolia in Atlanta. “The hope is that we can keep growing and creating an environment to hire even more amazing young women,” Hileman says. That environment could include bringing The White Magnolia to additional markets, new store concepts or even exploring bridal-related opportunities beyond brick-and-mortar stores. “This isn’t an easy job, but it’s work we enjoy,” Hileman says. “We’re going to take opportunities as they come.”