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If you want to know some of the lessons around longevity in the bridal industry, it’s more than worth your while to listen to stories told by Brian and Renee Fortin.
    As co-owners of Modern Bride & Formal Shop, located in Bedford, N.H., this husband-wife retail team has made its mark not just for longevity in the business but also their loyalty to the local community and ability to adapt time and again when various hardships demanded both guts and grit.
    Soon after falling in love and getting married, the couple sort of fell into the business by chance, or what Brian calls a bit of “dumb luck.” While visiting Brian’s parents, the two bumped into a neighbor, Kay Vanesse, who owned a bridal boutique in downtown Manchester, N.H., a 10-minute drive from Bedford. Ready to retire, Kay wanted to sell the business for various reasons, including the fact that due to city development, the property in which the store was housed would be torn down. The news pulled at some heartstrings, particularly Renee’s.
    “Renee had bought her prom dress from this store,” says Brian, relaying how the retailer had a long history in the area, having been around since at least 1955. “And we were just sitting there and kind of joked but said, ‘Sell us the business.’
    “We all sort of chuckled over this for a bit,” he says. “But soon after, we actually took a look at the books. We had just gotten back from our honeymoon, and decided we had nothing to lose, so we said, ‘Let’s try it!’”

A Gutsy Move
    Little did they know, this carefree yet gutsy “try” would transform into a lifelong career in retail, selling bridal, bridesmaids, tuxedos, mothers, prom/social occasion, flower girls, accessories and – years down the road – even an intimates collection.
    That said, Brian and Renee quickly sensed the significance of their purchase. A few months into ownership, around the time they were moving the shop to a new location across the street, they discovered a box with a beautifully preserved gown from the 1940s. In finding this treasure, it struck them just how precious this store had always been to the community. Clearly, it had already served decades worth of customers, dressing brides and creating beautiful memories for 40+ years.
    Renee, whose family had deep roots in the region and had been very involved in politics and community development within the Manchester area, felt a natural nostalgia for a business that had so much meaning and connection to the people it served. Now, both she and Brian felt a responsibility to preserve this local icon while propelling its progress forward with their own ideas and dreams. They officially purchased the 900-square-foot business in April 1986.

Learning the Ropes
    The Fortins hit the ground running. Renee embraced operations with incredible zest, learning the retail ropes and taking business classes at the local university. Also, she quickly hired a seamstress, a move that established and has ever since sustained alterations as a hallmark service of the store.
    Today, the store maintains in-house fittings for a fee, purely because gown construction has become more complicated over the years, requiring more time and talent. Also, today’s brides often have more complicated alteration requests or needs, requiring even more expertise to ensure gowns fit “just right.”
    However, for many years, Modern Bride offered alterations for free. This tactic initially earned them scorn from competitors who felt threated by a sales model that included and actively marketed such a significant service at no cost. But as competitors shuttered their doors over the years and the Fortins kept theirs open, the free alterations evolved into a very important offering for brides, something the store could advertise as one of its key differentiating factors. Always viewed as more than just a service, the alterations offering has been viewed as “problem-solving” for customers who, without the solution, might not look their best.
    As mentioned, the Fortins quickly relocated after buying the business in 1986, directly across the street. They also hired the business’s first sales employee, Debbie Fortin, their sister-in-law who works with them to this day. Brian, who was working full time in a lucrative computer sales position, contributed by managing the store’s financials and partnering in key business-development decisions.
    Upon moving into this location, an adjacent retail space suddenly came available – another example of pure “dumb luck,” Brian says. Once again, the Fortins jumped at the opportunity and took a risk, securing the 2,000-square-foot space.
    At more than double their original footprint, the couple expanded from bridal and bridesmaids into prom and tuxedos, two no-brainers, they say. Manchester boasted five high schools, making prom a solid investment. Meanwhile, tuxedos made sense given the ease of the sale and solid, consistent profit margins.

Fire and More Footprints
    To put it simply, business took off. Renee honed her skills at managing the business, becoming a savvy buyer and developing relationships with designers and manufacturers at market (in that day, primarily in Boston). However, on a Saturday morning in June 1991, peril struck the business: Fire. It broke out high in the multistory building that Modern Bride leased, flames and smoke threatening its contents.
    Faced with a crisis like that, “you don’t think of your livelihood or even your business,” Brian says, recalling how they felt while witnessing the scene. Standing across the street with hundreds of people, they watched the burning building as five fire crews and 50 firefighters battled the flames.
    “All you think about is your brides and their dresses,” he says. “One bride actually asked us to run in there and get her dress. But the firefighters went in and actually covered all the sold dresses with a tarp. Late in the afternoon, they allowed us to go in and get those dresses – they suffered smoke damage but we salvaged almost every one.”
    However, they lost all other inventory. But then, thanks to another bit of “dumb luck,” they connected with a local dry cleaner that offered up a unique ozone chamber for eradicating smoke damage. Not sure whether it would work, the Fortins handed over all the precious sold gowns. Doing so took guts. But miraculously, every single dress came out good as new, without a hint of odor.
    Needless to say, the fire displaced the business. But fortunately, a friend of Renee’s family had a space to rent, another downtown location about a block from the previous one.
    “He just handed us the keys and said, ‘We’ll negotiate later,’” says Brian, noting they reopened just two days after the fire in what amounted to a 2,800-square-foot store.
    “Soon after, we signed a five-year lease and stayed there…until we outgrew that location,” Brian says. The next move, however, didn’t come for another seven years. In that time, the Fortins had their first child, a daughter, who was born with a cleft palate. (They also had a second child, a son.) Those early baby days presented some unique challenges, and Brian decided to quit his lucrative computer sales job to both help out more at home with their daughter and join his wife at the business helm. He and Renee had been partners all along, both professionally and personally, but this took their partnership to a whole new level. Now, more so than ever, they were committed to the core.
    In 1998, the couple discovered a space available within a new downtown mall – the first mall in New Hampshire – conveniently, right across the street. Here, they once again grew their footprint, now to 3,800 square feet, marking their fourth relocation. As customers continued to come, the business prospered. Meanwhile, downtown Manchester only grew in popularity – but so much so that investors soon sought to buy out the building, threatening the Fortins with ridiculous rent prices. To make matters worse, the new building owners wanted the Fortins to relocate out of their current prime location to the back of the mall.
    At this, the Fortins decided to make an audacious fourth and final move, literally relocating their store and its legacy brand to nearby Bedford. This time, however, they bought their own building, a 10,000-square-foot, standalone location. Situated on the only east-west freeway in the region, it had room enough for the bridal store, plus a full-service intimates store that the Fortins initially leased out to two ladies who ran it from a distance. The in-house intimates boutique was an uncommon but complementary product category, one that further shaped Modern Bride as a true one-stop wedding shop.
    “We took a leap of faith and bought this building in 2004,” Brian says. “Within a year and a half, business tripled.”

From Flood to Functional
    Only about a 10-minute drive from Manchester, Modern Bride continued to enjoy its stellar reputation. Drawing a strong audience of customers from New Hampshire and other New England states, the store further blossomed where it was now planted.
    Then water hit. Literally hundreds of gallons of it due to a plumbing issue that flooded the entire store, destroying flooring, the lower walls, and more. Just like with the fire, the Fortins jumped into action, brought in all flood mitigation services, quickly restored order, and did the repairs.
    But with this, the Fortins scrutinized the intimates department. Leaning on the advice of their then-store manager to take on the niche themselves, Brian and Renee decided to negotiate a buy-out. And with this, they renovated much of the store to not just be more elegant but more functional and customer-friendly from the standpoint of merchandising, layout, displays and more. Finally, they had the store of their dreams, in an ideal location that, to this day, they fully control and claim as truly their final location.
    The Fortins’ five moves alone, plus fire and flooding, would be enough to put many entrepreneurs over the edge, but they never abandoned the business. Nor did they permit all the external, ever-evolving dynamics of retail to chase them way. Things like traditional competition. Discounters. David’s. Online sales. Shifts in marketing and advertising approaches. Local changes in the region’s retail landscape. City growth and construction projects right outside their front doors. No, they stayed the course.

Positivity Amidst the Pandemic
    The Fortins had their hands full of challenges to manage, aside from simply serving brides, a rigorous retail endeavor in itself. Yet always tapping into their guts and grit, they have pushed forward, taking each day in stride and embracing change with courage, not complaints.
    It’s also helped greatly that, over the years, they’ve consistently practiced positivity. And this important habit has made the difference in their ability to persevere. For example, not only have they used that mindset to sustain sanity during stressful times but they’ve aligned other strategies around it, such as hiring, for example.
    Modern Bride, now with a staff of 15 strong, has always purposefully hired people who exuded positivity. People who, to this day, uniquely and infectiously bring joy into the workplace, lift up others, and work as a team in driving onward when the going gets tough.
    “I consider myself a pretty good judge of character, and I’ve hit a few foul balls, but mostly it’s been home runs (in terms of hires)” Brian says. “Personality – not sales experience – is the most important trait when I hire. We’re looking for a great smile. . . someone with an honest, empathetic personality, and a sense of teamwork.”
    That’s proven ever-so-helpful, particularly in light of the pandemic, a time when many brides have been stressed over their weddings and all the setbacks and changes.
    “Our approach has been: We’re healthy, we’re young, we’ll get through this,” Brian says. “With that perspective, we can stay positive for our beautiful brides and really be part of the celebration with them. The last thing you want is to come across as down and depressed. Sure, we all get into a rut now and then, but we motivate our staff, and they lift us up, too. It works both ways.”
    Speaking of the pandemic, when so many stores closed their doors in March, the Fortins first gave their staff two weeks off during which they could work from home with pay or take the time for themselves. But then when the Paycheck Protection Program kicked in, the team resumed work full-force, doing all it could remotely with a few exceptions, like alterations, which was accomplished with great sensitivity to health and safety protocols.
    In May, the store reopened with great joy and experienced one of its busiest seasons yet, in part because of an onslaught of brides from New York, seeking retailers open in nearby states. While various small changes were rolled out to accommodate shopping under these unforeseen circumstances, Modern Bride did make one major shift in how it had always done business. . . accepting appointments. Since its beginning, the retailer had always operated on a walk-in, no-appointment necessary basis only, never wanting to turn away a customer.
    But given social distancing and other new pandemic-related policies, the Fortins shifted their decades-long approach and started appointments to manage the crowds. Using BridalLive software, booking and managing appointments plus addressing paperwork and both internal and external communication was not only just easy but successful. Interestingly, now offering appointments and seeing fewer brides on a daily basis because of that change, closing ratios have actually jumped from 60 percent to 80 percent.
    Focusing on the positivity, even in the midst of the pandemic, Brian says, “In hindsight, all the changes with BridalLive and switching to appointments has really been the best thing ever.”
    And going forward? The Fortins plan to forge ahead, fine-tuning their business but genuinely happy with the state of its success and how far they’ve come. They give back to various community and charity groups, remaining invested in their nearby cities and surroundings.
    Reflecting on their experiences and the “how” behind their achievements, they like to point out that a true husband-wife partnership is rare in the bridal business. They’ve made this one work, both professionally and personally.
    They take vacations, spend time with family, and try to not talk shop at home – the exception being during the pandemic when the situation forced them to work more remotely at times.
    With their daughter and their son full grown and having pursued careers elsewhere, Brian and Renee don’t know what will happen to the business far down the road. But with the strong ties they have sewn and grown in the community, and a staff that means as much to them as family, they’re very focused on the present and engaged in sustaining this well-earned, high level of retail excellence.
    And, there’s no question about it, Brian and Renee are positively loving it!

Photography credit: Anna Madsen Photography