Time flies when you’re having fun, or when you’re busy. So it must really fly when you’re busy and having fun. For Cheryl Strickland, owner, Custom Home Furnishings School, Swannanoa, NC, the past 10 years must seem like a blur.
In 1995, Strickland opened the Professional Workroom School near
her home just a few minutes east of Asheville and on the southern
tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her goal was to help workrooms,
a segment of the window coverings industry she felt wasn’t
being adequately addressed. She wanted them to become respected
professionals. The desire to do so was all her own, but her experiences
in retail, as a workroom, educator and columnist over more than
17 years prior to that gave her the knowledge. Strickland’s
association with Draperies & Window Coverings magazine and D&WC’s
World of Window Coverings seminars and trade shows date back to
NO MORE SCHOOL
OF HARD KNOCKS
before the CHF School opened Cheryl Strickland set off on the
course that has led her to this point. She learned to sew at
the age of nine, and held her first job in the design field
at a retail store at 19. Later she worked at a Fort Lauderdale,
FL, workroom, then joined her mother’s business, Drapery
Arts, which grew from a small basement location to a large building
with a showroom, office and 2,000-square-foot custom workroom.
Her nearly 17 years in the family business taught Strickland
most of what she passes on to her students today.
Strickland’s independent business career began with seminars.
She held her first window treatment class in 1988 in Asheville,
NC, then joined the seminar program developed by Draperies &
Window Coverings in 1989. This venture earned Strickland national
recognition for her teaching abilities. It was her success at
leading seminars, both for herself and for major window treatment
manufacturers, that gave her the idea to expand her efforts
into a full-time school.
An important reason for starting the CHF School was to help
others avoid that long, drawn-out struggle of having to make
a lot of mistakes, hoping to survive the mistakes and feeling
the frustration of guessing how professional treatments are
made, Strickland explains.
Previously, anyone interested in opening a professional workroom
had only two choices. One was to work for someone else, if they
could, to acquire the knowledge. The other? “To jump in,
hold their breaths and hope they could swim. Sometimes they
did, and sometimes they didn't,” she says.
Also very much her own is Strickland’s desire to help. “I
take great joy in sharing my knowledge and information with other
people,” she says. “If there is a technique I can teach
them, or a problem-solving solution I can pass along that would
help them time-wise, profit-wise or just plain relieving stress-wise,
then I take great pride and joy in that.”
And what has come of all this in 10 years? Plenty!
The Professional Workroom School is now the Custom Home Furnishings
(CHF) School. It’s still located in Swannanoa, but in newer,
much larger facilities. It still presents hands-on, on-site instructional
courses, but many have expanded to a full week long, and its teaching
staff has grown to 11. The scope of what CHF offers also has grown
to include a monthly magazine; educational conferences; an online
forum to get and give advice; in-person, off-site consultations;
helpful workroom tips; and a store for purchasing supplies, books,
videotapes and tools. It’s all part of what Strickland calls
The CHF Network of Knowledge.
This year that network is celebrating a milestone. “Creating
careers for 10 years,” Strickland says.
Since it opened, the CHF school has helped thousands of students
from around the world learn the art and business of operating a
workroom. Subjects range from designing and creating custom window
treatments to installation and include slipcovering and upholstery
Fabrication students are taught what professional equipment, tools
and thread to use to reach optimum levels of production and quality;
where to find equipment and workroom supplies; industry guidelines
for quality; time-saving tricks of the trade; what makes custom
work custom and the exact step-by-step instructions for fabricating
many different styles of window treatments.
Installation students learn about the various types of drapery hardware;
what professional tools and equipment to use; where to find installation
supplies; how to achieve optimum efficiency; what types of fasteners
to use; step-by-step instructions for installing a wide variety
of specific window treatments; and customer service.
But that's not all. The classes also cover important business issues
such as workroom layout, workflow, pricing, hiring, contracting
out and how to sell custom work. “We could do a bang-up job
of making sure students have the hand skills they need then send
them out into the world, but if they don’t know how to market
themselves or price their work, they will flounder,” Strickland
says. “The focus of all our classes at the school is how to
make professional treatments with high standards of quality, but
efficiently enough to ensure high profitability,” she explains.
One of the newest opportunities the CHF School offers is the Career
Professional Program. “We identify those people who have gone
through the school for an amount of time that we feel they’re
ready to get their businesses going. We’ve given them enough
education for them to take that knowledge and go start their business,”
explains Margie Nance, the school’s director of education.
“People like to feel part of something and this gives them
credibility. They know the value of the education and this puts
a name on it.”
Yet another innovation is a one-on-one, off-site consultation service.
“We’ve done training with people who want to fast-track;
they don’t have a lot of time to come to the school. So we
give them a very concentrated approach to learning,” Nance
says. Of added value is the fact that these personalized programs
can combine instruction in whatever areas are needed or desired
and can be fine-tuned to fit the time available. It’s custom
tailored to the person or company that wants the education, and
it has really taken off in just the last six month, she adds.
No matter the level of experience when students enter the school,
at the very least they come away with a few tricks of the trade
and faster ways of making custom window coverings. In some cases
they learn much more, but it’s all exciting for Strickland.
“It’s thrilling to be able to be a part of seeing these
people who are wishing and hoping they can have their own businesses
and work for themselves, then see it come true,” she says.
“I really do enjoy the teaching. I’m honored to be involved
in this whole process,” she says.
This month marks the 11th CHF Industry Educational Conference and
Trade Show held in Valley Forge, PA (see pages 31 to 34). The conferences
began in 1997 and have grown by leaps and bounds since. Originally
started at the CHF facilities, the conference has passed through
a succession of larger venues until it landed at the Palmetto Expo
Center in Greenville, SC. In 2004, a second location was added,
outside Philadelphia, PA.
To illustrate how this conference has grown, consider that about
150 attended the first, led by five instructors and showcasing eight
exhibitor vendors. In 2005, the CHF conference draws 700 attendees,
presents a seminar schedule of more than 50 classes led by some
25 instructors, and there are regularly more than 50 exhibitors
at each of two locations. In 2006, plans call for adding a show
in Phoenix, AZ, and, perhaps, a Midwest show in the fall.
The school and conference are the two main avenues in the CHF network
of knowledge. It also features SewWhat? Magazine, a monthly publication
with design ideas; step-by-step instruction for creating accessories,
shades, draperies and top treatments; and business tips.
But there’s more, and it’s all found on the CHF Web
site, www.chf industry.com. There visitors will find links to Workroom
Concepts, purchased earlier this year from longtime associate Kitty
Stein, offering helpful workroom tips; an online forum to seek and
give advice; and information on its in-person consultation services.
Also on the Web site is a list of those who have taken CHF classes
sorted by state and the courses they’ve taken.
As comprehensive as all this seems to be, Strickland is always looking
for more ways to help. “We’re open to ideas of any needs
that people know out there in the industry,” she says. “If
there’s something that we could fulfill, let us know because
that’s how we’ve gown all these years.”