What’s so wrong about being a small business? Absolutely nothing. In fact, in today’s economy, a small, family-owned business may be the best bet for success. It certainly has worked out that way for Audrey and Richard Gutheil, Spa Paint & Decorating, Inc., Ballston Spa, NY.
Over the last 15 years, Audrey and Rick have taken a primarily paint
and wall covering dealership and made it into a custom interior
decorating service. First they expanded its product lines and customer
services, then they steered the business to custom window treatments
and interior design. Now, with custom draperies and fabric accessories
as their shining star, the Gutheils plan to keep it that way. “We
aim to remain small, which enables us to maintain greater control
of our projects and our lives in general. Our basic goal is to work
smarter, make more profit from our efforts and have some time to
ourselves,” Rick says.
“We have focused on this product category because our designs
and goods are unique to us and not copied by mass merchants,”
he explains. “They can sell hard treatments and even some ready-made
valance toppers, but they cannot compare or compete with layered
draperies and sheers, elegant top treatments with swags and trims,
or unique window covering designs.”
Wanting to remain small doesn’t mean the Gutheils don’t
have big plans for the future. Quite the opposite. Their far-reaching
plans include passing the National Council for Interior Design Qualification
(NCIDQ) exam, upgrading their status to the professional level in
the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and to obtain
New York licensure as interior designers. “We believe in always
reaching to the next level of design and services,” Rick says.
When Richard and Audrey took over and incorporated the existing
Spa Paint and Supply in 1987, they did so because they wanted to
take charge of their careers. They decided: “Let’s take
control of our own lives, have more direct control and find something
we enjoy doing,” Rick says.
Together, the two share responsibility for the daily operation of
the business, the showroom and accounts. Audrey is responsible for
residential design and window treatments as well as a number of
contract accounts. She meets regularly with clients, prepares product
selections and proposals and processes orders for custom products.
Richard concentrates on contract sales and installations. Previous
experience in home remodeling makes him familiar with architects
and construction managers. He is considering certification as a
The business they purchased offered paint, unfinished furniture
and in-stock and custom wall covering. Almost immediately the Gutheils
added custom furniture finishing, a second line of paint and increased
their wallpaper sample book collection from 150 books to more than
Custom top treatments were next, with one of their first big projects
being balloon toppers for a local day spa and mineral baths then
under construction in Saratoga. Soon more window treatment vendors
were added and the store’s fabric book collection grew to more
than 1,500 books.
But as times changed so did Spa Paint & Decorating. As the unfinished
furniture market slowed, that area of the business was refocused
onto small- to medium-size accent furniture pieces and tabletop
accessories. Framed artwork was added as in-stock wall coverings
were phased out as sales declined. “Over 15 years things just
change, and you just have to change with it. If something no longer
sells, it doesn’t do any good to keep trying to sell it,”
says Rick. Their goal is to focus on unique, quality crafted window
treatments and decorative accessories.
COLD, HARD REALITIES
The advantages of operating your own business include responsibility
for your own destiny, personal accomplishment, creativity and unlimited
design possibilities. But to be honest, the Gutheils also know the
disadvantages: long hours, a salary not always equal to the effort,
and “you don’t get rid of a boss when you work for yourself.
Now you work for every customer who comes through the door,”
There are certain realities as well to running a custom decorating
business aiming to increase in-home sales. One is every employer’s
nightmare: finding, training and keeping qualified, self-starting
employees. Throughout the years, Spa Paint & Decorating typically
has operated with three to four employees.
Essentially, Rick and Audrey too often ran into individuals who
“could not grasp the entrepreneurial spirit and make opportunities
for themselves,” Rick explains. This particularly was the case
when trying to hire in-home decorators either salaried or commissioned.
“What we do,” Audrey says, “you can’t really
train somebody else to do. It comes with years of experience, and
you just learn the ropes through all the things you go through—and
hopefully you didn’t make a lot of mistakes along the way.”
Another reality is the invasion of the big box stores and discount
mass merchants into the industry, which the Gutheils have seen affect
one aspect of their business and threaten another.
The paint and wall coverings industries are in a tough situation,
Rick says. Suppliers are hard pressed to find and maintain an independent
dealer base and in some cases are buying them up to keep them going.
Others look to mass merchants to keep their products before consumers.
“The window coverings industry is headed on the same path,”
he warns. Major suppliers have put a lot of dealers in business
only to find there wasn’t as much business there as originally
thought. The result has been an overcapacity for blinds among national
retail outlets, box store chains, discounters and 800-number outlets.
Most of these products have come down to being a base commodity,
The catch is, while many suppliers have higher-end products that
are best handled by educated, trained specialty dealers for sales
and installation, they still lead consumers to the big box stores
to sell higher volumes. “It’s a hard issue,” Rick
confesses. “They’re there to make money. They’re
there for business, too. They have their responsibilities, which
aren’t necessarily every mom-and-pop type of business.”
To combat this situation, independent retailers need to take a different
approach: focus on the end result, on fulfilling a customer’s
need and not on the price of every product. “Running around
being the cheapest will serve you well . . . for about a year. If
you want longer lasting customers you need to do something special,”
Rick says. It’s an approach that works well for Spa Paint &
“We deal with products in terms of decorating, designing the
whole room, concentrating on the feeling the customer or client
wants when she is in that particular room,” Audrey explains.
“But we also work in faux finishes, different things we can
do to achieve a certain look.”
For Rick, it’s simple automotive mechanics: “There is
nothing wrong in this world with making profit. You have to focus
on that. We need to make a living just like everybody else. Wallpaper
was the first decorating product that everybody discounted, and
it has affected just about all industries. If you are going to be
in the automotive business, you focus on mechanical repairs of the
engines and transmissions. You can’t sit there and sell gas
or tires because there are specialists in those areas who will low-ball
you. If you have a high level of skill and if you can do a better
job of fixing a car, that’s where the niche is going to be
because that is the knowledge you have.”
Of course, that’s not to say manufacturers don’t do anything
right. For example, many customers today look to the Internet to
find products and product information, and many manufacturers’
sites will lead consumers to their nearest retail dealer. “I
like that program,” Audrey says. “That actually works
The Gutheils believe in establishing personal relationships with
their key suppliers because in the long run that works out best
for all involved. Ideally they look for suppliers who offer fresh,
original designs; good customer service; and support the independent
retailer. When a customer comes into the store without a specific
product in mind, “we pull products from manufacturers who support
us and also are good quality,” Audrey says.
GOOD DESIGN, FINE APPOINTMENTS
The Gutheil’s area of New York was the perfect place to invest
in a home improvement business. Nearby the upscale resort city of
Saratoga Springs, Spa Paint & Decorating is located in one of
the fastest growing areas of the state with virtually unending real
estate development and construction.
The showroom is located in a strip plaza along a busy state highway.
“It is eclectic and stuffed to the rafters,” Rick says.
“The whole store is a display. Everything is just merchandised
right out. We really focus a lot on integrating all the products
together. So a display may start off as a drapery or window treatment
display, but then there’s coordinating furniture and accessories
on a certain theme or style grouped together.”
Most of the displays are their own creations, often taking the displays
manufacturers supply and customizing them. “A lot of [manufacturer’s]
displays are extremely sterile,” notes Rick.
The Gutheil’s area of New York has not been the perfect place
for mass marketing, however. They are sufficiently outside the state’s
Capital District (about 25 miles north) that none of the four newspapers
or radio stations in their area dominates the market. That makes
media buying expensive and ineffective. Instead they rely on “old
fashion word of mouth,” direct mailing to a selective database
“Talk about your business with everyone you meet,” Audrey
advises, “at the grocery store, on the golf course, wherever.
You have to get people psyched. Some people don’t want to spend
money on decorating because they want to go on vacation. We have
to get people psyched about having a nice house. They want to come
home after work and they want a certain atmosphere.”
Business is split evenly between residential and contract sales,
although the percentages shift when the Gutheils take on a contract
project. A commercial project can easily mean 10 to 20 windows and
a larger retirement community or nursing home could mean 200 to
500 windows. Rick regularly taps into several bookmarked Web sites
of architects, designers and construction companies to check on
projects in the design and construction phases to express their
interest in getting involved.
Their primary residential clients are middle-aged, upper-middle-income
households, typically families of career professionals, or new retirees
who appreciate good design and fine appointments in their homes.
COVERING EACH OTHER
In short, it is keeping overall control over their business that
has been a strong point for Richard and Audrey Gutheil. Keeping
Spa Paint & Decorating small and focused on detail, customer
service and unique products has led to its success and will do so
for the years ahead. In this way, the business remains versatile
to provide clients with whatever products and services they desire.
“One important factor in our success has been keeping an overall
watch of the retail and decorating product industries for trends
and changes, and our ability to act in advance to stay on the forward
edge of change,” Rick says.
“We’re very hard workers,” Audrey adds. “We’re
honest and we really try to make people happy.”
Plus there is the longstanding personal and business relationship
between husband and wife. “We are Yin and Yang,” Rick
says. “We’re opposites, and we’re also extremely
intertwined. We know each other’s strengths. We know each other’s
faults. We cover each other. We know each other first. It’s
just that understanding we have. She knows when I’m on a big
project and I’ve got to concentrate and can’t be disturbed
and she clears the way. I also know when she’s backed up and
I’ve got to get her installs in and have everything ready.”