Nance is the director of education for the Custom Home Furnishings (CHF) School in Swannanoa, NC, founded and operated by Cheryl Strickland. She coordinates all the instructors and classes for the CHF Educational Conference and Trade Show, which now is held twice a year (see page 42), and helps develop new classes at the school.
She also teaches. This year Nance is leading the “Total Experience at the Biltmore” class along with “Historic Treatments” and “Window Treatments 101.”
This was not what Nance started out to do. In fact, she wasn’t sure she could get up and teach a class with eight students. But she did, and then went on to leading conference seminars—which could have 20, 30 even 40 or more attending! In both cases, Nance’s experience and willingness to share information saw her through. She then volunteered to help coordinate the instructors and classes, and now, over the last two years, she has come to be right where she wants to be.
“I love it. I absolutely love it,” Nance says. “I feel like I’m at the top of my game right now. I’m doing beyond what I ever thought I could do as far as where I am in the business. Being director of education is a big honor. Working here and working with Cheryl has been wonderful. All the dreams and goals of being in the business . . . I’ve pretty much done it, and I’m doing it every day.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT SHARING
Experience is a great teacher, as we all know. But unless it’s paired with a willingness to share information, the knowledge gained goes nowhere. Nance’s drive to help others is rooted in the frustration she felt trying to start her own workroom business some 12 years ago. It was a business that began with a simple conversation.
Designer, Barbara Fisher of Charlotte, NC, was talking to Nance’s husband, Andy, and asked if Margie knew how to sew window treatments. His response was, “She has a very expensive sewing machine, so I am sure she can sew.” He came home and told Margie that Fisher was looking for someone to fabricate window treatments, and Margie’s first thought was, “I can’t do that for a living, I’ve only made one valance and that was a nightmare.”
With his usual optimistic outlook, Nance’s husband assured her saying, “Sure you can. You’re creative, you can make anything.” By the end of the week, Margie Nance Designs was born.
The business might have gone no further than that, however, without Nance’s persistence. “I couldn’t find a single book at the library or bookstore on starting this type of business,” she recalls. Her next step was to contact local workrooms to ask if she could stop by and see what a real workroom looked like. While willing at first, Nance found that when she tried to make actual appointments, the workrooms stopped returning her calls. “They just didn’t want to share information. I couldn’t figure out what the big secret was; why everyone I spoke to was so protective of his or her workroom. I was frustrated and remember thinking that someday if anyone ever calls me and asks to come to my workroom, I would welcome them to come by.”
By the time Margie Nance Designs became Best Dressed Windows a few years later it was one of the largest wholesale workrooms in the Charlotte area. Margie and Andy Nance were working for more than 40 designers in and around the area and creating treatments for people all over the country—some of them famous. “It was so much fun to be watching a sports game or to see a celebrity on TV and say, ‘I made his treatments.’” Nance says.
The business also became quite the family affair. Besides Andy doing the installations, Margie’s dad, Vic Palumbo, was coming in to build whatever was needed or running off for pick-ups at the local distributors. The Nances’ eldest son, Drew, worked one summer answering the phone and doing computer work, and even the two young-est, Stephen and Cody, would help out by stuffing pillows or picking up pins off the floor.
Through all this time, Nance never forgot her promise to help others openly and honestly. “I taught classes for the local community college, and I was a field trip for them,” she says. “I invited college students to come and spend most of the morning. I would tell them what it was like to work with a workroom. I invited any one of them at any time to spend the day with us to observe what goes on in a workroom.
“It goes back to the beginning when no one would let me in their workroom. I’m never going to do that. People need to see what it’s like in a workroom, whether you’re a competitor or not. If you’re good, no one is going to take your customers away. I wasn’t afraid because we offered tremendous customer service and I wasn’t afraid of losing people.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT DECISIONS
During the years Nance ran her business she handled all the tough decisions workrooms must face: moving out of her home, finding the right location and reinvesting in the business by purchasing equipment.
What started in a bonus room over the garage ended up spilling over to almost every room in the Nances’ house. It was time to move the business out. “I once had someone ask me when I knew it was time to move out. I told them my husband and I sat down and we figured out how much money it would cost us if we rented space and never made a single dime. We sat down and came up with a figure of $5,000 and thought at the very worst case we’d lose $5,000. That wasn’t enough money to scare me out of moving, so we did it.”
Nance ended up moving the business twice more. The first move out of the house was to a space that required a commute to the next town, but she couldn’t pass up the deal on the rent. The next location was in a strip mall.
“What attracted me to this unit was the huge glass windows overlooking the garden center across the parking lot. It was a place I could enjoy going to each day,” she says. She then found out her largest competitor was just across the street. “It was kind of a scary thing to do right at the beginning. It wasn’t like I was trying to take her business, it just made sense to me to be there. It was on a good, busy street and it was pretty convenient to the home.
“But it did help us. We actually picked up a couple of designers because they turned around in our parking lot, saw us and came in and asked us who we were and what we did.”
At 1,500 square feet that space soon became too small—it was time to move on. This last move helped double the business because of its location. “People say, ‘Location, location, location.’ It’s true,” Nance says. She found 3,500 square feet in a wonderful old building in a section of town called Southend, the design and arts center of town where designers come to purchase fabric. She thought since her customers were down there to shop, she would make it convenient for them to drop by the workroom. “We moved into a place that was so convenient for the designers. We told them, ‘When you go to pick out your fabrics downtown, we’re right on the way. Stop by.’”
Another smart business decision Nance made was to invest in new equipment. “Every year we would set aside money and I would go to the trade shows and I would make one major purchase. It would either be a new sewing machine or something. We had a set amount of money we would invest back into the business in equipment that would turn around and make us more efficient and quicker. We did that for several years.”
The Nances sold the business two years ago when Margie had the opportunity to become more involved in the CHF School. The workroom was sold to Cathy Berst, one of those community college students who first came by on a field trip. Berst and her husband still run the business, which is successful and growing.
IT’S ALL ABOUT TEACHING
Nance now finds teaching and helping others not to struggle as she and others have even more rewarding than running a workroom. It also has expanded her network of friends and comrades. “It seems as if for everyone that I know in the business it’s all about teaching people. That’s what makes me so happy about being around my friends,” she says.
Nance’s advise to anyone starting out today is something she learned several years ago. “I read that the only way to grow as a person and a business is by doing two things, network and never stop learning.” After 12 years in the business she is still doing both.
“I’m not joking when I say I used to go to bed with a Graber catalog,” she laughs. “I studied everything I could put my hands on, and I did that also with patterns. That’s a big part of what I do. I can look at a photograph and tell you exactly how it’s made. It didn’t happen overnight. I studied pattern pieces for years.
“I’m a researcher. If I can find a book or a magazine or an article, I’m going to read it and I’m going to try to retain as much of it as I can because it’s going to come into play someday.
“I don’t stop learning. I’m still always looking for the newest book, going through magazines to see what the newest style is and trying to stay current because I have to. Instead of being in the trenches as I was, I’m now looking at it from another side, but it’s more important for me to stay current to help people who are starting out.”
And those just starting out could hardly find a better teacher, or a better inspiration. “It’s so easy when people ask me if they are doing the right thing, can they make money dong this,” Nance says. “I can honestly tell them yes, it’s a great business and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Perhaps Nance’s most exciting current project is leading the Custom Home Furnishings School’s “Total Experience at the Biltmore.” It embodies everything Nance loves to do: create interiors, organize the workroom fabrication and teach others.
The Biltmore Estate is the largest home in the United States with 250 rooms and a four-acre floor plan. It was built by George W. Vanderbilt and completed in 1895. It sits among the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, NC. Its current 8,000-acre site also has guesthouses built at about the same time as the main house.
“The Biltmore people gave us a home there to work on, to use as a canvas for our classes,” Nance explains. For a week at a time, the CHF School takes four to eight students onto the property (the current project is the guesthouse near the estate’s winery) to work on one room at a time. The Vanderbilts apparently had a different notion of a guesthouse than what might come to mind today. The house has three rooms downstairs (kitchen, living room and dining room) and four bedrooms upstairs.
CHF classes have completed the downstairs and are beginning work on the first of the bedrooms. “They let us go in and choose window treatments and fabrics, and we get students to come and we teach them what it’s like to work with a retail client. It’s something I don’t think anyone has ever done anything like it before,” Nance says.
“The students go in and we show them what they need to do in order to sell that client, as
far as what information they need to record while they are there, how do you decide what kind of window treatment it needs to be . . . They go through all those steps and we go back to the school and we talk about the treatments.
“People are amazed. We start a window treatment and within three days it’s hanging in the home. We knock it out. It’s because I’m used to the production. When I had my workroom we were high production, so I know how to get people moving in the right direction and who needs to do what in order to get it done. Everybody at the end of the class sits back and says, ‘I can’t believe we did that!’”
And they get to add having worked on the Biltmore Estate to their résumés.