He needs a lot of a fabric.
Larry’s Custom Interiors, Portsmouth, NH, has nearly always served a custom clientele, those looking for something stylish, unique and with a healthy dose of Yankee prudence. Homeowners in the Northeast, you see, tend to shop for energy efficiency and functionality. “Because of our harsh winters, high winds and wind chills, people gravitate to the products that have a higher R-value,” Lariviere says. “Once you explain to people the R-values that are available out there in some of these window coverings, they go right to the higher R-value.” He says double-cell cellular shades are common throughout the area—as common as roller shades were a generation or two ago.
But soft fabric treatments definitely are what customers are looking for. “If you listen to the people who make these predictions and show what’s popular in Europe,” Lariviere explains, “that’s what is making their way to our shores—European trends are coming here faster than they used to. Here in the Northeast, we’re probably the last people to get on the bandwagon of a trend. Once we do, look out!
“What impresses me is the direction that the fabric treatments are going,” he continues. “We’re seeing more historical treatments from Europe—meaning France and England—being replicated to some degree in our windows. We don’t have the high ceilings, so in those situations some of the European treatments have to be scaled to fit. But they’re looking at magazines and wanting us to replicate a treatment that was basically a European treatment initially. That’s good for us because we’re selling higher price-point fabric, we’re trimming it, putting tassels on it . . . They want heavier chenille-type fabric, treated with bullion on the side and tieback tassels . . . Instead of me suggesting that, it is the customers that kept digging until they got what satisfied their needs.”
YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN
Satisfying customer needs is what Larry and his wife, Pam, have been doing for the past 35 years. In that time, Larry’s Custom Interiors has come full circle. What began as a two- and three-person business expanded to 10 employees working in a 5,000-square-foot facility that included office, showroom and fabrication workroom for both draperies and custom upholstery—much of the upholstering work being done during the second shift. But in the last two or three years it has been scaled back to Larry and Pam.
The business moved back into Lariviere’s house, which was renovated to include an in-home studio and workroom. The studio is used to showcase some of the products offered such as shutters, shades and many other hard treatments. The windows in the public areas of the house showcase soft treatments. “If we have clients in here who want to see something that we’re trying to suggest would be right for them, they can see it. They come to the house and we show them,” says Lariviere.
He also has scaled back advertising. “We’re at a stage where it’s more important to maintain our presence in the marketplace than to grow,” he says. Still, overall investment in advertising came to a very respectable six percent this year. “It’s an ongoing process,” he explains.
Advertising leans on referrals and networking and a consistent program that includes a local up-scale home and gardening magazine, telephone directories and a Web site. Lariviere also sends out “an expensive direct-mail piece” and offers gifts for referrals, which tend to drive up costs.
Lariviere is ever vigilant these days not to trade profitability for volume. He admits in the past to chasing his tail, falling victim to The Fallacy of Doing Volume: “I was one of these people who thought that the more we do the better off we’d be. That wasn’t the case.”
One reliable way to qualify customers is through upholstery, where Lariviere got his start. It’s often the entry he needs for other sales. “When they see the quality of the work that we do in the upholstery end of it, they ask if we can do this, that or the other thing and our answer is always ‘Yes.’”
“We started because trends in the former business I was working in were not going in the direction I wanted to pursue.” In quintessential New England understatement, that’s how Lariviere describes one of the most important decisions of his life.
In the early 1960s, Lariviere started out apprenticing in the upholstery field. He became an upholsterer, then became involved in sales and management in the eight years he worked for the upholsterer. But he caught wind of something more going on. “I found out through sales reps that were visiting that the direction of the upholstery industry was broadening to include companion fabric and those companion fabrics were being used as window coverings and bedding and we were missing that action in the business because we were strictly upholstery.”
In 1970, Larry and Pam set out on their own. Normally, a huge step. “If you knew our family history . . . my parents, my father in particular, preached independence to us children because he felt he was caught in a job where you couldn’t do what you wanted to do, you had to do what everybody else told you to do. So he preached independence to us. Consequently, all of the children in our family went their own way and did their own thing, none of us worked for a big conglomerate and never have. We chose to make our own way.”
When he and Pam opened, the business still was largely upholstery, but Larry was set on exploring more uses for fabric. “I knew I wanted to be more,” he says, “so we took on all of the other fabric-oriented occupations that there were available. My first business card had just about everything on it you can think of.” He chose Larry’s Custom Interiors as the business name because it was as all encompassing as he intended to be. “I knew at the point in time that I was going into business that I was wanting to spread my wings as an entrepreneur and diversify. That has been my mantra ever since.”
Things were different in those days. “Everybody who had a [fabric] program at that time,” Lariviere recalls, “when you bought your materials you could, if you wanted to, make out an order form and somebody would fabricate those pinch-pleated or rod-pocket draperies to your specifications. All you had to know was how to measure.
“Initially we tried that vein, but we were working with an upscale clientele and we needed to consider the fabric line very carefully because even back then people didn’t want what everybody else had. They wanted something unique.”
When Lariviere looked into fabric companies offering exclusive lines he found that most didn’t have workrooms, so he and Pam had to find one on their own. For the next several years they sub-contracted out workroom service. “I found out from the workroom how to go about measuring for bed skirts, bedspreads and window treatments they were manufacturing for us,” Lariviere says. “It was the sub-contractor showing me the ropes.”
As the sole proprietor of a business with two or three employees, Lariviere was kept running. “I was the one responsible for all of the sales, and I would bring the fabric out to the workroom some 20 to 30 minutes away from where our workspace was. I did a lot of after-work traveling,” he says.
“I was so frustrated with all of the travel I was doing to complete work. It felt like I was just chasing my tail. I wasn’t really making any money. I was satisfying my clientele, but the profitability of it was very slim once you got through running around and with the amount of time you put into it. It was ridiculous.”
To help out, Pam, who had been a seamstress most of her life, learned how to make draperies on her home sewing machine learning what she could from books. Then things really started getting busy.
Nearby Portsmouth are Air Force and Navy bases, which provided the first big projects for the young company. Lariviere completed bids and got them. “They furnished everything, all we had to furnish was the labor,” he remembers, working on a ping-pong table with his wife and sister-in-law. “I didn’t know what I was doing in terms of price points so I was probably winning more than my fair share of bids.”
From 1973 to 1976 Lariviere also attended the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI, three days a week to earn an associate’s degree in interior design. “Between school and work, I was on the go seven days a week for three years to get that interior design degree.” But it was a turning point in the business because it allowed Lariviere to continue broadening the scope of the business to the point he was able to move it into a new location.
“I went from a 900-square-foot rented space in North Hampton to another spot just down the road that was 5,000 square feet. We went from having no room to having so much room that we could bring everything in-house under one roof and have our upholstery workroom and our upholstery stitching area, our showroom space, our drapery fabrication area and an office all in the same space.
“When I bought that building it was a defining moment in our business in the sense that we finally felt like we were in a place we were going to stay and we could expand our services,” says Lariviere. “We tackled projects that were beyond my imagination prior to having the time to do it and the space to do it and the people to do it with.”
And expand it did. Lariviere met and began working for the corporate designer for the then-fledging Wheelabrator-Frye, whose headquarters was in Hampton, NH. The designer gave Lariviere free rein for window coverings and beddings after he picked the fabric. “We did the measuring, the installation, everything that needed to be done for the corporate headquarters, guest houses, an old Victorian guest house . . . they bought and we decorated condominiums at the Ritz Carlton in Boston in the early 1980s. I felt that standing up on the top floor of the Ritz Carlton condominium looking down on Boston Common that I had reached the pinnacle of my career.”
When the corporate designer moved on, Lariviere became the go-to person for the corporation’s facility manager. At one point he estimates that 40 percent of his work was from this one company. “We were doing executives’ homes and we were redoing places that had been done before. They kept expanding, they kept getting more executives in, we kept doing more of their homes and it just kept going and going. I was chasing my tail again, but for a different reason.”
The area was booming and money was flowing into it. “People thought it would never end.” Lariviere thought he’d never be able to keep up with the work.
TIPPING THE BALANCE
“I just got hooked up with the right corporation,” Lariviere says looking back. “It was probably luck, but on the other hand if the work that we were doing wasn’t up to snuff we certainly wouldn’t have continued. The quality of our work and the ability to complete our work on time and on budget were all factors leading to these referrals.”
These days referrals are likely to come from a networking group of about 25 businesses that meets every week. Members talk about their businesses and trade information. “It works for us because we have within that network some key people,” Lariviere says. “I have a building contractor and we refer back and forth; I have an art consultant who does the same thing; I have a realtor in there who has referred me to clients.”
But the secret of Lariviere’s success really isn’t that big of secret. It’s putting the customer first. “We’ve stuck with our philosophy in our personal integrity. We want to provide people with a reflection of themselves within their own homes. It’s not about me. It’s been about what they want. We make sure our clients, whoever they are, get the look and the feel of a space that they will love for a long time. We realize our responsibilities to our client after the sale and accept the burden of callbacks, retrofits and outright mistakes. If you shortchange yourself in the profit column you create much more of burden on your financial resources. We’ve never tried to make light of the fact the people have lots of faith in us, trust in us, and we try to go beyond their expectations and service their needs more so than ours. It’s a partnership, but it’s a partnership we feel is tipped in the balance toward the customer.”
Critical MassIn addition to everything else Larry Lariviere has done to grow his business, he still has found time to become involved in the Window Coverings Association of America (WCAA). He started at the chapter level in 1993 with WCAA’s Northeast Chapter, one of the first and largest created.
When it was time for the then director to step down he was asked if he’d be interested in doing it. “I could see no good reason not to, except for the fact that I’m too busy. But everybody is too busy to do it,” he says. He has been involved in WCAA and on its board since. He may be the longest-serving member of the association.
“All of us people who are on the board are passionate about promoting WCAA. If everyone who was a member of our industry felt the same need as doctors, lawyers, mechanics, electricians, then all of our retail industry people would belong because associations are powerful entities in and of themselves when they have membership levels encompassing the majority of those in the industry.”
The important thing for members is to get involved, Lariviere says. “You can join the Chamber of Commerce and not get anything out of it; you can join a golf club and not get anything out of it. If you don’t go, if you don’t mix with people, you don’t get anything out of it.”
One tangible reward for his involvement in WCAA has been more business. To find out how, continue this story online at: