Every business faces obstacles. A successful business is one that overcomes problems, learns from the experience and builds on that going forward.
Few window coverings businesses can say they’ve faced as many obstacles and learned as many lessons as Edith Williamson, Drapery Montage, Houston, TX. Born and raised in communist Hungary, Williamson came to this country in January 1981 as a young woman excited about attending an American university and determined to make a success of herself in the United States. She encountered problems almost immediately.
First, there was a language barrier. Williamson knew very little English. Soon after, she realized she could not afford to enroll in a U.S. college and would have to find a job. Sewing was the only skill she knew, “Which I learned on my grandmother’s prize possession: a very old Singer machine,” she says.
Through determination, hard work, trial and error, some success, some failure and constant learning to improve her skills (and vocabulary), Williamson started Edith’s Draperies, her own part-time business, in 1984 in her home’s garage using a tabletop sewing machine she bought with her mother-in-law’s credit.
Williamson’s big break came later that year, and from then on there was no turning back. She had to get serious as a full-time drapery workroom, and she did. She moved into her first commercial space in 1986 and grew to become Drapery Montage in 2001. She sold her wholesales business in 2004 to concentrate on residential retail and now is located near the Houston Galleria in a 3,600-square-foot showroom and workroom space with a total of five employees.
And still, there are obstacles. When we conducted our interview with Williamson in early October, she was having some water damage to her showroom repaired and had recently come back online after nine days without power, all courtesy of Hurricane Ike. Even this Williamson faced with her irrepressible energy and positive outlook. “We did have clients who had sustained water damage and we had clients who had lost blinds and draperies,” she says. “We’re going to be working on that.”
Edith Williamson’s first job in the United States was with a commercial drapery workroom in Houston. “To my surprise there was a row of five sewing machines that were completing the task of pinch pleated draperies: the straight stitch, the serger, the blind stitch, the pleater . . . machines I had never seen in my life,” she recalls. She set out to learn the blind stitch machine, and soon injured her finger on it. (Years later when the company sold off its machines Williamson bought it and still has it in her workroom today!)
Being a commercial drapery workroom, Williamson was making draperies “by the kilogram, if you will: same size, same width, same length, all completed out of casements for the high-rises of downtown Houston,” she says. The job polished her skills at industrial machinery, but was not very creative. Yet, she couldn’t afford not to have the job. “I was happy to be part of a working community,” she says.
Knowing very little English, Williamson set out to learn 10 words a day, writing them down and translating them back and forth from English to Hungarian. After hearing about custom drapery workrooms that worked on residential projects, Williamson added some new words to her vocabulary lessons: valance, pillows, bedding, tablecloths. “There’s more to do than casement draperies,” she discovered.
Answering an ad by a workroom to the trade working in the residential field taught Williamson a new lesson. “I learned that even if I do not know the language there is this intermediate person, the designer, that does the planning and the selling of the job.”
Before long, Williamson began calling decorators and designers right from the listings in the local yellow pages. She remembers that while doing this she actually would hope to get an answering machine because she was not confident about being able to hold a conversation in English. She had a script she had prepared and would read the message offering her sewing service for draperies, valances and more.
One day a live designer picked up who was willing and patient enough to decipher Williamson’s heavy accent. “She said, give me your address, I’ll work up a couple of work orders and fabrics.” That’s how Edith’s Draperies was founded in her home’s garage with a tabletop sewing machine and a ping-pong table. It was a part-time business that required lots of sewing by hand to make up for the specialty machines she didn’t have. It also required a lot of translating and makeovers. It turned out to be invaluable experience, learning custom draperies and English. All the money she earned went into a special fund: the commercial sewing machine fund.
Williamson’s big break came in 1984. Béla Károlyi, Mary Lou Retton’s Olympic gymnastics coach, lived in Houston. He was going to be presented with the key to city and was going to hold a private party at his house. Károlyi is Romanian, but his family is Hungarian.
“He hired me to do his draperies,” Williamson says. “This was the first job I was able to handle on my own because I was able to speak to the man in Hungarian. Mary Lou won the gold, and so did I because with the money earned from the Károlyis I did buy my first commercial sewing machine and confidence earned from having a designer and one residential client gave me the courage to dream of opening a [full-time] business.”
By June of that year she was on her own, beginning as Inside the Window.
Williamson began to grow her business using direct mail advertising. “It was the easiest avenue for me to express myself. I was able to write it out in Hungarian, translate it into English, have someone look it over and correct it, then I would fold it, put a stamp on it and hand-address it,” she says.
Callbacks often failed because of language difficulties, but eventually her work became known and was referred to others. In 1986 she moved out of the garage and into her first commercial space (1,100 square feet) as a wholesale workroom.
Williamson was committed to making herself a success in America and to improving her skills. “I know that what kept us in business was quality. That’s what kept the doors open and the fact the [clients] believed in us,” she says.
By 2001 Williamson’s business had become Drapery Montage. “By then I had learned enough to help the designers to where I was working on the designs, consulting for them on jobsites and had learned enough tricks of the trade,” she says. In 2004 she sold her wholesale business to go strictly retail working from a 3,600 square foot location (half showroom, half workroom) near the Houston Galleria.
Business has remained steady over the last two years for Drapery Montage. “I think it’s because we’re targeting the right market,” Williamson says. “I’ve read that 22 to 24 percent of the population can afford custom draperies. These people have the disposable income in order to do and re-do their houses.”
Williamson stays focused on who are her clients for custom draperies. She targets certain incomes and home values of $400,000 and up. “I’ve also learned by heart the ZIP codes that are important to the business,” she adds.
Williamson once took a marketing class and learned she had three seconds to capture her client’s attention with a printed sales pitch. She frequently uses direct mail postcards and ads in Houston House & Home magazine. Whenever she creates a new piece she sends it first to friends and family to watch their reactions as to what captures their attention.
Her latest marketing piece featured a Dalmatian looking in the window, and those who received it tended to remember the dog and where the postcard came from. “We also bought a statue of a Dalmatian dog and put it inside the door,” says Williamson. Visitors immediately make the connection. She calls the dog her silent advertisement.
Houston, like Texas, is spread out. Williamson reports residences start at 2,800 square feet and go to 6,000 square feet. “We get to work on large interiors. One thing that I find sells the most is colors in order to take away the feeling that a large cavity of a room can give you. We are able to soften that look with swags and Empire and Kingston treatments for traditional interiors and scalloped tailored treatments for transitional and neo-Classical interiors—scalloped valances and always, always full-length draperies in order to emphasize the verticality and the height of the room.”
Motorization also is popular. “Automated hardware becomes a necessity . . . . we tell them that! If you think about a 20-foot wide treatment that is 12 feet off the ground, surely you do not wish to stand there and pull on the cord all day long,” she laughs.
Williamson also credits her long-time installer Ray Anderson, a contracted installer who has been working for her for 18 years.
“It does take skill in order to be able to do what we do,” Williamson says. Of all the lessons she has learned, the best might be not to give up. “Believe in what you’re doing, but keep on polishing it. Keep on learning as much as you can about it. Read. Keep informed continuously about what goes on to be the best as you can be at it.
“I had no other skills—no marketing skills, no language skills, no nothing. I thought I knew how to sew, but polishing that skill kept me afloat and took me this far and eventually you add to it the other necessary skills to be able to run a business.”