BATH – In the retail industry, bigger isn’t always better.

Sometimes the smaller companies, like Newcastle-based department store Renys, which has 14 locations, can compete in ways that big-box retailers can’t.

Renys, which first opened 61 years ago, has been successful with a strategy of slow and steady growth, a reputation for strong customer service and a brand that Mainers call their own.

And the company continues expanding. Renys is opening a store on Congress Street in Portland next year and is considered launching another store in the midcoast.

“Renys is a Maine institution. When you compare it to Walmart, it makes me want to vomit,” Don Northrop, 82, of Yarmouth, said Tuesday while shopping with his wife, MJ, at the Renys store in Bath.

“Every time we come (to Maine) we come to Renys. It’s a cultural experience,” said another Renys shopper, Pam Langley, who owns a home in Bath but lives in Lynchburg, Va.

Robert H. Reny opened the first Renys in Damariscotta in 1949. The chain, known for selling an eclectic mix of everyday items at discount prices, grew slowly, adding stores in such towns as Bridgton, Dexter, Farmington, Gardiner, Madison, Pittsfield, Saco and Wells.

Robert Reny died in 2009 at the age of 83, but left the company under the leadership of two of his three sons: John, now president, and Vice President Robert Jr.

During a recent tour of the 80,000-square-foot warehouse in Newcastle, John Reny, 59, said the company has strong financials and has maintained revenue growth in recent years.

He expects the firm’s 2010 revenue to be about $65 million, roughly 3 percent more than in 2009. Revenue in 2009 was 5 percent more than in 2008.

Reny said his company remained financially stable during the recession because it sells items people always need — socks and underwear, for instance. Still, Reny said high unemployment in Maine, onerous state business regulations and high taxes continue to hinder business here.

“For 20 years, the Legislature has looked at business as a pariah, but we are the guys that make all the jobs,” he said.

Reny attributes the company’s success to customer service that big-box stores can’t match, as well as fair prices and a large selection of brand-name products not available at Walmart, such as Carhartt, Woolrich and Columbia.

Customers agree.

“They have a good attitude towards customers and a good variety of merchandise,” said MJ Northrop, who was shopping Tuesday for “practical” items such as shoelaces, boots and gloves.

Another shopper, John Rothwell of Brunswick, said, “(Renys) is my go-to place for name brands for less. I check here before I go to L.L. Bean.”

Reny said the company maintains good relations with its roughly 450 employees; Renys has a profit-sharing plan and pays staffers a dollar extra per hour during the busy summer months, and an extra two dollars on summer weekends.

That’s enough to keep some employees, like Dottie Hinds, from looking elsewhere for jobs. Hinds, who works in the women’s department of the Bath store, has been at the company for 14 years.

“They are wonderful people to work with,” she said, adding she will stay with Renys “until the dear Lord tells me I can’t work anymore.”

Renys has a lean corporate staff of just 30 employees in Newcastle. Among them is Reny’s daughter, Faustine, who has worked at the company for a year and a half, handling tasks that include human resources and accounting.

Robert Reny Jr. is vice president in charge of operations, clothes buying and construction. He plans to retire at the end of the year.

Another top employee is Mary Heathcote, who handles finances. Though she’s not related to the Renys, Heathcote is “just like family,” Reny said.

Another longtime staffer is Cynthia Lear, who manages store security. Lear also sits on the board of the Maine Merchants Association and is active in state politics, having lobbied lawmakers on issues such as increased penalties for shoplifting and check fraud.

Jim McGregor, the association’s director of government affairs, said Lear is dedicated to retail issues. “She will drop what she is doing,” he said, “and come to the State House to testify before committee.”

Renys’ Newcastle warehouse, like Renys stores, holds a hodgepodge of merchandise. Swimsuits. Pants, shirts and socks. Board games like Life and Candy Land. Cases of olive oil, toys, bottled water and tennis balls. Laundry detergent by the pallet. And boxes and boxes of gingersnaps, a customer favorite.

“If we run out of them, the old ladies are screaming,” Reny. said.

Renys’ 10 trucks deliver products from the warehouse to the company’s 14 stores.

Earlier this month, the chain announced its first new store in four years: a 21,000-square-foot store in the former L.L. Bean and Olympia Sports spaces on Congress Street in Portland. The Portland store is expected to open by April 1 and employ 30 to 50 people.

Reny said the company considered a Congress Street store 10 or 12 years ago, but the area was too run-down.

Not anymore. “It is up and coming and trendy and hip and has good restaurants and entertainment,” Reny said. “The time has come.”

Reny said the chain may open another store in the midcoast sometime in 2011.

He said the pace of the company’s growth — 15 stores in six decades — is just right.

“We never had a desire to have 50 stores. You can get too big too fast and caught up in bigger and bigger, more and more,” he said.

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

[email protected]