Connie Leal was a hard-working single woman on the partner track at accounting giant Arthur Andersen. The intellectual stimulation was fulfilling, and her client list—which included companies like The Limited—interesting. But she knew if she ever wanted the family life she dreamed of with a husband and children, she couldn’t have it there. “If you were a working mother in that environment, you would have needed a full-time nanny, and to delegate motherhood to someone else,” she said.
I can’t be the kind of mother I want to be and do this, Leal thought. So a decade into her accounting career, in 1993, she quit—and opened Leal, an upscale women’s boutique in Upper Arlington. Three years later, she married Mike Ballenger, who is now her partner in business as well as life; the pair bought the building where Leal resides and together manage about 10 other tenants. (Mike also manages the back room at Leal.) They have two active sons—Andrew, 14, and Michael, 10—and appreciate the flexibility their work allows them, while enjoying the work, too. This November, Leal celebrates its 20th birthday—an almost-unheard-of feat for a locally owned boutique. (And yes, it’s been in the same spot at 2128 Arlington Ave. from the start.) We sat with Leal Ballenger, 51, to reflect on the past two decades.
Much of your entrepreneurial inspiration comes from your grandfather. Why?
He opened a restaurant in 1937 in Butler, Pa. He had my mother and three other daughters who he raised as a widower. He was this unbelievable patriarch.
When you opened, there was very little high-end shopping in Columbus. Few boutiques. No Saks. No Nordstrom. And very quickly, your customers started wanting more—more designer lines, more expensive product. How did you accommodate that?
If I was going to offer designer lines, it was going to be value-driven, investment dressing. That’s still kind of the sensibility by which I buy.
Who was your first big designer?
Max Mara. And we ended up being one of their number-one vendors in the country for a while. We did a huge suit business with them, and a huge coat business with them. I have women still tell me, “You know that Max Mara coat I bought in 1998? I still wear it!”
How did you survive during the recession?
September 2008—it was like someone shut off a switch. It wasn’t gradual. Even the women who had money to spend were like, “I don’t know if this is appropriate.” It forced a reevaluation of priorities. What may have saved us in a big way is the underlying idea of offering a value-driven purchase. This is a place where, if you’re going to buy, you’re going to have it more than one season.
How has the store evolved?
My career customer has become much less suity and collection-driven, and much more item-driven. When I first opened, I definitely bought by collection. Now, I buy by items—I pull out the best of the best.
You left accounting hoping that this could eventually give you the ability to be the wife and mother you wanted to be. Has it worked?
I found a way that works for me. When Mike and I got married, we lived in German Village. When I had Andrew, we moved to Upper Arlington. So I tried to make the world as small as possible.
What perks does it allow?
My kids are very active in sports, so at this stage in life, I can leave to go to a baseball game. I can leave at 3 p.m. and go to a basketball game after school. I can leave and go to a teacher’s conference at 1 p.m. Here, I can open and close when I choose to, because I am the landlord.
Twenty years in, what do you still love?
Meeting the interesting people. I always say I don’t want a transaction, I want a relationship. And that’s not an obligation on my part—that’s the joy of it.