How does a company grow from one store to 19 in six years, when so many other retailers are closing their doors? By helping 5,000 other retailers succeed.

That’s the approach Corey Gillum and Mike Cavallo have taken with Painted Tree, a Little Rock-based chain of boutique marketplaces where vendors rent space and set up booths that sell home decor, new clothes and gifts.

Gillum, 52, and Cavallo, 38, started the company with one store in Bryant in 2015 as a side hustle for their main gig, a business brokerage. Their brokerage had sold a flea market, which led to the idea of opening something nicer.

It went well. They soon opened their second store in Sherwood and then two in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and one in Memphis. Eventually they consolidated their Arkansas operations at a west Little Rock location, which also serves as the company’s headquarters.

That store – their smallest – has about 200 vendors catering to upper-middle-class women who have disposable income, space in their houses and a couple of hours they want to spend shopping. Buyers browse the various booths, which often are owned by local merchants. They can look at the clothes, check out the decor and sniff the scented candles. Unlike with Amazon, they can touch and feel the merchandise, and then they can take it home.

They originally intended to focus their operations in the South, but the concept is working everywhere. They recently opened their 18th store in Bloomingdale, Ill., their third in the Chicago area, and their 19th store is opening in Overland Park outside Kansas City, Kan. They’ve got two stores opening in North Carolina by the end of January, and by the end of the first quarter they’ll have them in Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Denver. They think they can have 200 within five years. They currently have 350 employees systemwide, but that number will multiply, with Little Rock as the company’s headquarters.

I’ve known Gillum for 34 years. We were roommates at Ouachita Baptist University during the Bush administration – the first Bush. We both joke that we were the worst two college tennis players in America, which is not a huge exaggeration. We called each other “Dog” – short for “room dog” or “roommate.”

I never would have expected him to be an expert in scented candles, and indeed, he’s not. Neither is Cavallo, which is the point. They have 5,000 vendors who can figure out what will sell.

Five thousand brains can come up with a lot more good ideas than two. Gillum and Cavallo simply provide them a nice place to sell their products, with cashiers and staff taking care of the day-to-day duties as well as the accounting and paperwork. Vendors don’t have to be there all the time; they just have to keep their booths stocked. In return, Painted Tree charges them rent and gets a 10 percent cut of their sales.

The retail environment has changed dramatically during the past 120 years. The space was dominated by local merchants, and then major chains took over. Many of them – Sears, Kmart, JCPenney, Toys “R” Us – are shadows of their former selves, and many others like Circuit City are gone completely. Malls slowly emptied out and then closed.

Walmart and a few other big box stores ran their businesses better and sold their products more cheaply, and then the internet was born and Amazon has dominated it. Walmart has been trying to keep Amazon from doing to it what it did to Sears and Kmart. Then came the pandemic.

Even with all those changes, people still have to shop, and sometimes they’ll actually want to shop in person. Businesses like Painted Tree occupy that latter niche, and it does it so well that it’s grown from one store to 19 in six years with a goal of reaching 200 in five more.

You can accomplish a lot – even in retail in 2021 – when you think outside the big box store and help others succeed.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

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