O What do you think of when you hear the term workroom? This term generally describes a business that specializes in the fabrication of window treatments, slipcovers, upholstery and more. But workrooms are as different and individual as the persons who own them. There are large workrooms, small workrooms and ones that specialize in specific services. Workrooms can sell retail directly to the customer or wholesale to interior design professionals. Some do both; some choose to work wholesale only.
I have owned a wholesale drapery workroom since 1988. When I started my business I didn’t realize that my small, home-based workroom not only was typical, but could remain that way and still be successful. Not until I started speaking at industry conferences and teaching at the Custom Home Furnishings Academy did I learn that small, home-based workrooms were producing a large percentage of the beautifully crafted window treatments for some of the most talented designers across the nation.
As I talk to the owners of wholesale workrooms I find them to be confident, talented and proud of the choices they have made and the work they produce.
PANEL OF EXPERTS
Some might not understand how a business can be successful by selling primarily fabrication services. Certainly, there is profit to be made by selling hardware, fabrics, trims, hard treatments and design services. But there is value in fabrication, especially hands-on custom detailing and unique personal services that small businesses can provide. It is very common for workrooms to be home-based, which allows for lower overhead and more work time flexibility, especially for young families.
It is always interesting to meet and share experiences with other workrooms and I wanted to share this with other workrooms and the interior designers that use their services. I conducted interviews with five workrooms across the nation that specialize in working to-the-trade only. The workrooms owners interviewed were Karen Barnes, Elegant Window, Higley, AZ; Mike Beasley, Beasley’s Workroom, Seattle, WA; Sandy Lazenby, Sandy’s Custom Draperies, Sandy, OR; Mary Rose McQuillan, Threads of Evidence, LLC, Shelton, CT; and Laura Nelson, Sew Nice Custom Window Treatments and More, West Lafayette, IN.
Join me as I step inside the wholesale workroom, from their point of view.
• How long have you been in business?
The workrooms varied from seasoned veterans such as Mike Beasley with 27 years in business to Sandy Lazenby who is in her fourth year of business.
• Have you always worked as a wholesale workroom?
Some workrooms started out retail, such as Mary Rose McQuillan, but became frustrated with the process. “I hated all the explanations and getting this sample and that sample,” Mary said.
Others such as Karen Barnes shared a common reason many choose to work wholesale only, “I found my talent truly lies in the fabrication of window treatments. I love it and have a passion for it.”
• Do you have employees?
The answers ranged from no employees to one full-time employee to several part-time employees. I also must add that some workrooms have family members that help as well. Mike Beasley and his wife Mary Beth work together. I work with my mother Irene Eagles and even children are recruited help out where needed.
• What do you like best about working to-the-trade?
“I like working with designers,” shared Karen Barnes. “I enjoy making their designs a reality.”
Like Karen others shared how much they enjoy working with designers and feel that they are part of a team of professionals. By working as a team the workrooms feel more of a sense of respect and that their opinions are valued. This is evident in the response from Sandy Lazenby, “I can relax more with the designers. I feel less lonely because I am with a definite group. I am part of a design team and they treat me wonderfully.”
Mary Rose McQuillan also praises the designer/workroom relationship saying, “I love the designers I work with . . . they respect my judgment and love getting ideas from me.”
The practical side of the business is appealing to Laura Nelson, “I’d much rather work with a completed work order and have the supplies needed brought to me,” she said.
• How many designers do you currently work for?
The answers ranged from six to 10, the exception being Beasley’s workroom, which has worked for 53 different designers over 27 years of business, last year working with 23 different designers. Mike Beasley shared that, “we are still working for our first designer that started with us 27 years ago, he is now 85 years old.”
He also described what others have learned, that custom workrooms often are used for special projects. “Some of our designers just use us for the higher-end jobs so we might not see them for a year or two.”
• How do you market your workroom to designers?
Most stated that they no longer actively marketed their businesses and found that word-of-mouth referrals were the best way to meet new designers. Karen Barnes recommends networking as a way to meet people who will refer you to designers. When visiting a new designer she takes samples and a portfolio to share.
When Laura Nelson started she sent letters followed by cold calls to designers she found in the phone book and local ASID directory. She also wrote letters to designers featured in show houses. Mary Rose McQuillan credits her installer as a good source of business.
• Do you have an interview process for new designers?
Although none of the workrooms have a formal interview process for new designers, they do ask some very important questions. Mike Beasley wants to learn “how they found us, what types of projects they like to do and what they expect of a workroom.” He will then “tell them how we operate, give them our policy sheet and ask people in our design community about their reputation.”
Sandy Lazenby likes to share her terms and conditions and gives the new designers a chance to ask questions. “I give them a chance to ask questions about why I do things and to give me input on what would work better for them.”
Mary Rose McQuillan thinks it is important to know “what they are looking for in a workroom and why they are shopping.” Laura Nelson shares her turnaround time, scheduling and what is supplied by her workroom when meeting designers for the first time.
• In your experience do you think a wholesale workroom is more profitable, equally profitable or less profitable than a retail workroom?
Sandy Lazenby stated that she has been “much more profitable as a wholesale workroom.” Mike Beasley credits his ability to make a “decent living working wholesale because we charge a price that is fair to all and produce a nice product in a fairly efficient manner.” Laura Nelson’s experience has been that “if you price your work accurately, keep up with new techniques and do quality work, a wholesale workroom can be just as profitable as a retail workroom.”
• Do you provide yardage estimates and labor quotes or do your designers do this on their own?
“I usually quote each job individually,” said Sandy Lazenby. “If I do the quote, I stand by it unless they change something.”
Mary Rose McQuillan also finds doing quotes gives her the ability to “make suggestions that require more labor (and profit) for the workroom.” The other workrooms also provide yardage estimates and labor quotes as a service to their designers.
• What do you require from designers?
All workrooms required a 50 percent down payment from designers with full payment due upon delivery or installation. After establishing a good long-term working relationship and trust, the policies can change to be are more flexible such as final payment due within 30 days or not requiring a down payment and receiving full payment at the end of the project.
A written order in some type of form was preferred. “They can use one of ours or their own,” Mike Beasley said. This was the answer given by others, also. Karen Barnes prefers “a work order using my forms, fabric swatches and a picture.” She emphasized that “communication is key to a successful installation day.”
• Do you sell fabric, hardware or trims?
Some of the workrooms interviewed sold hardware regularly. Others provided hardware only when needed. All sold lining but very few other fabrics or trims. Mary Rose McQuillan stressed good customer service and will “research and provide whatever the designer asks of me.”
• Do you measure and install?
Mike Beasley works very closely with installers that do the measuring and installing. Karen Barnes, Laura Nelson and Sandy Lazenby prefer to hire a professional installer but do measure, which is billed to the designer. Mary Rose McQuillan provides both services.
• How often do you increase your prices?
The most common answer was “once a year,” although one workroom increased her prices twice last year. Mike Beasley shared that he seldom does a total price increase and prefers to “increase prices on individual items as I feel the need.”
• What do you think sets your workroom apart from other workrooms?
Karen Barnes believes it is her “attention to detail . . . from planning stages to final pressing” that sets her apart. Sandy Lazenby strives to provide excellent customer service. She also shared that she is “constantly working to improve by attending conferences, reading trade magazines, participating in online industry forums and researching new things.” She also shared that “I am not afraid to try the impossible.” This was a constant theme among all the workroom interviewed.
Mike Beasley also emphasized good business practices such as “consistent pricing, accurate scheduling and quality work.” He also believes that his success is due to “aligning ourselves with excellent installers with good customer skills and knowledge of dressing window treatments.”
Laura Nelson emphasized that she “stands behind my work,” and if there are any problems she works them out with the designer. To prevent errors she will let the designer know if a fabric is not suitable of if there is something odd on a work order.
• What is your average turnaround time?
The answers ranged from four to eight weeks. All stressed that their turnaround time varied at different times of the year.
• What advice or tips would you give someone new that would like to open a to-the-trade workroom?
Sandy Lazenby’s advised to “only work with designers that appreciate your expertise, what you can do for them and what you are worth.” She added that you must also appreciate your designers. “Just as we want our designers to value us, I often tell my designers how thankful I am to be working with people with their talent and integrity.”
Laura Nelson encourages new workrooms to “have policies set” and not to “settle for less or do a job . . . just because you are desperate for work.” She encourages those new to the industry to reach out to veterans, get involved with organizations such as the Window Coverings Association of America (WCAA), subscribe to magazines and industry-related forums and to make samples as a way to practice techniques and as sales tools.
Karen Barnes also emphasized establishing your policies from the beginning and also offers this practical advice: “Conduct business in a professional manner by having a fax line and/or business phone line dedicated to your business.”
• What advice or tips would you give designers about working with the workroom?
According to the workrooms interviewed, respect, good communication and realistic expectations are the three most important tips for having a successful workroom/ designer relationship. “Consistency in communication makes for fewer mistakes and faster turnaround times,” said Sandy Lazenby.
Mary Rose McQuillan encourages designers to “work out the details before fabrication begins,” and added that “both parties need to feel that they are understood and that their needs are being met . . . one will not be successful without the other.”
Karen Barnes encourages designers to “pay on time, treat the workroom with respect and to inform your client about custom and the time it takes.” Laura Nelson warns designers not to “make promises to clients without checking with the workroom first” and if there is a problem during fabrication or after installation to “let the workroom try to solve it.”
PRODUCING THE BEST
I would like to thank all the workrooms that let us peek inside their businesses and so generously shared their thoughts and experiences for this article. Each brought a unique perspective to what makes a successful wholesale workroom. I am proud to be part of an industry that has so many talented and hardworking people like Karen, Mike, Sandy, Mary Rose and Laura.
The final message which all the workrooms stressed as most important was the designers working as a team with the workroom, each relying on the talents of the other to produce the best of design and fabrication. This is the formula that turns bolts of material into custom window treatments and the unique services provided by small, to-the-trade workrooms will continue to be an important resource to the interior design industry.