It’s been a long road from zero to here. As I find myself writing for D&WC magazine, I can’t help but look back on the journey that brought me to such a place. A place that I could only have dreamed about some 20 odd years ago.
I remember standing in my bedroom deciding I was going into business. I sent off to the state agency for my sales tax number. I seem to remember there was a blank in the form that asked “What kind of business are you going to be in, hon?” Good question, I thought. I was in business long before I knew what kind of business I was in.
Several years earlier, I had left a career with AT&T working as an electronic technician. Staying home with the kids seemed like a good idea at the time. However, like so many other women in our industry, I wanted to start a business that allowed me to work at home.
So, armed with my shiny new tax number I sat down to think about just what kind of business I might be in. In front of me were my sewing machine and my dining room table, so why not start there? I started by doing alterations.
Then one day I heard about a place in Waco that sold wholesale fabrics. With the car full of kids and the family dog, we headed out and piled into the showroom at Creative Fabrics Inc. “I was hoping to buy fabrics by the bolt,” I told the lady in the front office. Peeking over her glasses she said, “We sell decorator fabrics.” She was not impressed when I said, “What’s that?”
“Hold on, I’ll get Dan,” she said. Dan was the outside sales rep who just happened to be there that day. He came out and asked me where I lived. I told him. He said, “Give me $50 and I’ll give you a set of sample books, you ought to do real well, nobody is selling window treatments in that area.”
After giving him $50 knowing full well I could always make a quilt out of those little swatches of fabric, I explained that I didn’t know one thing about making draperies. “You don’t need to, here is the number of a local workroom.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
AN OLD PRO
Not being one to waste $50, the next day I went over to a nearby town and found a new housing development. I gathered up a huge armful of sample books on each side of me and stumbled into the first house I saw that was under construction. A kindly gentleman met me in the foyer. “I don’t know one thing about this, but if you’ll let me sell you some drapes I’ll see that you get a good deal,” I told him. “Sure, come right on in, we love to help people who are new in business.”
Before the week was out I had sold three housefuls of window treatments on that same street. Same sales pitch every time. “I don’t know one thing about this.” “Sure, we’ll buy all you have . . . do you carry mini-blinds too?”
I sold to customer after customer just that same way for three years. Finally one of my sales reps, a fellow named Pete Cruse who worked for O. B. Masco out of Dallas told me one day, “Mary Ann, you must stop saying that. In this business if you make it six months, you’re an old pro.”
Right then and there I knew that I could learn from vendors. In fact, vendors became my only lifeline to information about this industry. Twenty years ago that was how it was for anyone in our industry. You figured it out, or you didn’t.
A WORLD OPENS UP
One day I got a call from a woman who was trying to open her own drapery shop in the next county. “Let’s go to Dallas and hear Cheryl Strickland’s seminar.”
“Who’s that?” I asked. The answer that followed was, “Trust me, she’s famous.”
At the seminar I met other people who were in the window treatments industry, specifically workrooms. Some were new like me, others old pros. Cheryl Strickland talked for half a day. I was thrilled. Rushing over to my friend, giggling with glee, “I haven’t learned a thing . . . isn’t it great?”
Shortly a man in a business suit, someone associated with the seminar came over, “I overheard you saying you haven’t learned anything, we’ll be happy to give your money back, but really, I think you will learn something this afternoon.”
“Noooo, you don’t understand, I’ve been doing this five years without ever knowing if I was doing it right or not. I don’t want my money back.” Sure enough, I did learn a lot that afternoon, things I still use many years later.
My business grew every year. Sales increased, and I learned to install. I hired people to help me. Noticing that soft treatments seemed to be on the decline in the ’90s I shifted my company more toward hard treatments as I could see the market moving in that direction. Plantation shutters became popular, so I went to Lubbock to receive training from O’Hair Shutters. Soon afterward a magazine arrived. A D&WC magazine. I never did know where it came from, perhaps O’Hair subscribed for me, or it dropped out of heaven, but nevertheless, it came. My link to my industry! And not just my industry locally, but my industry nationally.
As I thumbed anxiously through the pages, there was Cheryl Strickland’s column. “Oh, that’s who Cheryl Strickland is.” And then there was Kitty Stein’s column dispensing common sense with an evident undercurrent of love. I always could tell that Kitty cared. She wrote with not only the question of “How’s business?” but “How are you?’ permeating every column.
I loved to read Steve Bursten’s column. I didn’t always agree with him, but he always made me think. “Is that a magazine you are hollering at?” my husband would say when he caught me in a one-sided business debate with Steve. Steve has no idea how many debates his typed words and I have been engaged in. But just as often, his words were right on target.
I learned about design, new products, who had something to sell, who was going out of business, who was being promoted, and even clues as to how the industry as a whole was going. Then one day I saw a workroom owner on the cover. I absorbed every word about Jill Stanbro (see D&WC, Augusts 2003, page 24). She mentioned visiting the CHF forum online where other workrooms asked questions. Forum? Online forum? I rushed to my computer and a whole world of communication opened up to me. I found peers and friends, and tips and tools I never heard of and I learned about methods I had never tried in years and years of business.
And then there was the Custom Home Furnishings Conference, where I could go and learn, and eventually where I could go and teach. And now that CHF conference is being presented by D&WC, so I look forward to many years of participation and learning to come.
As it turned out, that long road has been intertwined with D&WC for a very long time. Perhaps it sounds old hat to say a magazine can change lives. But at the risk of sounding that way, D&WC has changed mine. It has taught me things, introduced me to people and has given me venues of learning that I would never have known. Breaking the isolation of going it alone, I have to say that the last years, the years with D&WC at my fingertips, my business has matured.
That workroom that Dan the sales rep told me about years ago, I now own. Along with the workroom that for years advertised itself as the oldest and largest in Central Texas, I bought that one as well. If this sounds like a love letter to the industry and all those in the industry who have shared and helped me grow and learn, it is.
As I write this column, it is my privilege to share what I have learned and continue to learn. So dear readers, thank you for joining me on this road we are traveling. May the road be as prosperous and satisfying as the one I have traveled to join you here now.