(Editor’s Note: In May 2007, Tonie VanderHulst, the subject of this month’s column from Steve Bursten, was presented Interior by Decorating Den’s inaugural Diamond Award in recognition of achieving annual retail sales in excess of $2 million. See D&WC, July 2007, page 14.)
This month we continue to profile leading window coverings business owners who apply the principles featured in dozens of my previous articles about promoting, marketing, keeping overhead low and managing business by the numbers. The fun part is to hold up leading examples of the success potential that happens when following those principles.
Our featured business this month is one of those leaders, an exceptional story about Tonie and Pete VanderHulst, Redlands, CA. VanderHulst started her business as a single sales consultant and business owner as a member of a franchise organization, Interiors by Decorating Den (IDD)
WINDOW COVERINGS . . . AND MORE
Beginning primarily as a window coverings business, IDD has successfully broadened into multiple home furnishings products, yet continues to feature creative custom window coverings as an essential aspect of its product mix. While my previous dealer profiles have all been independent business owners, I am frequently asked what are the pros and cons of buying a franchise. With the help of Cathy Guterman, who conducted this interview, here is a story about one leader that helps answer that question. Tonie VanderHulst has built an exceptional business by combining her own resourcefulness, capital and initiative with a proven system and an organization to support and motivate her.
How did you start your business? What were your first years like?
I always loved interior design from the time I was a little girl, and years later, graduated from FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) in Southern California. My first job was working in a large furniture store. After working one entire holiday season, I said to myself, That’s it! I’ll never do this again—it’s not fair to my family, and my two small children, to miss the entire holiday season. I knew that ultimately owning my own business would be a healthier, better way to live.
I purchased an Interiors by Decorating Den franchise in 1989. I liked this franchise because they offered me a total turnkey system of operating and marketing my business. I started my business by basically doing what they told me to do. I was a sponge—there wasn’t one marketing program they gave me that I didn’t implement.
I took every opportunity for training and meetings provided me by IDD. For the first seven years I operated a home-based business. This allowed me to be a mom and work my own business under my time frame. Belonging to the franchise made a huge difference in my ability to stay educated and prepare myself for the expansion that followed. I got to be around other successful owners at conferences and meetings. I took every opportunity to continue my education in training programs they offered. Basically, my early years were rewarding and hectic, but very successful. Looking back now, they laid the foundation for me, and helped me grow my business to the sales levels I now enjoy.
What were your motives to change?
The first motive for major change was when my husband and I discussed having him join the business full-time. This happened 11 years ago. He’d been in the corporate world, and we felt that our business had so much more potential for growth and expansion, but there was only so much I could do on my own.
I can still remember when we made that fateful decision: It was a Sunday morning over a cup of coffee. And once the decision was made we moved fast. Three weeks later we’d moved the business out of our home into an office in a small industrial building. We believed in ourselves, we believed in the franchise system we were apart of, and we knew that we had what it took to be even more successful.
What have you done in the past five years?
With constant marketing, advertising, promotion, networking, involvement in charities, presenting decorating seminars and workshops and all types of activities, I have really developed a name for myself in our community. We have gone from two employees to five employees. We have tripled our annual revenue. We purchased our own building seven years ago. It is a great feeling paying rent to ourselves.
VanderHulst went on to tell how she’s out there: involved, networking and constantly getting into her community newspaper with charitable involvements, design awards and recognition. She understands the value of PR and marketing. She takes every opportunity to gain exposure and create awareness in her community. VanderHulst has won 18 Design Awards with IDD. In addition, her design work has been published in national shelter magazines and has been featured in four books on interior design.
What were the fears and feelings as you underwent the changes in your business?
When we first moved the business out of the home, and my husband gave up his paycheck and his benefits and his retirement, the realities of our decision weighted us both down. As the primary salesperson, I felt a lot more personal pressure than when we had my husband’s income to fall back on.
As with so many of us in sales, sometimes we go through spells when it seems that no matter what we do, sales just aren’t closing. When I’d experience those times, I was lucky to have my husband to lean on, as well as my IDD support team. I’ve learned how to pick myself up, dust myself off, and do it all over again!
Now that our staff has grown, with the addition of decorators and an office manager, I find the pressures are different. It is not just about my family; it is other families that are dependent on us for their livelihoods. Every time we add a staff member the responsibility intensifies. Still, it has been rewarding to see our staff expand. I enjoy providing them with a positive work environment, and I work hard to instill a team feeling among us all.
What has the experience of transition been like for you?
Most of the time it is very exciting and some of the time it’s overwhelming. I never expected to be where I am. I just always stayed focused on the positive and the goals. Once you get to a certain level there is no going back. I had to keep motivating myself with the help of my husband, Pete, who keeps silently pushing me. Without him none of this would be possible.
One major transition was expanding our product line from being primarily a window product business to becoming a full range home furnishings business. Now our IDD vendor network has grown to over 140 companies, and I’ve seen my business transition into a full-range interior design business focusing on residential, but also branching off into commercial business as well.
What has it been like, owning your own business?
Owning my business has been an amazing experience for me. I have always put so much of my heart, soul and energy into it and, for that reason, I have gotten so much back. My success is beyond what I ever thought possible. I know I would not be the success I am today if it weren’t for Pete. He allowed me to take all the glory, while he quietly keeps our business focused and constantly moving forward. We are so lucky to not only have a wonderful business relationship, but a strong marriage, and a loving family that always comes first—that was our top priority and we’ve never lost sight of it.
In addition to operating her own business, VanderHulst serves as a coordinator (manager) for Interiors by Decorating Den, guiding 26 franchise owners in California and Nevada.
“The key to not getting overwhelmed,” she advised, “is that I teach people how to be independent quickly. I have not only grown up in this business, I have raised two amazing children and somehow kept family first. Transitioning from just an average member of IDD, in 2001, I began my climb to being the top owner in the system, where I have been for the past three years. That in itself has changed me.
How do you see your future ahead?
At 29 when I began this journey, I did not have a vision of where it would lead me. Now at almost 48 I think about the future a lot more. In the beginning I was happy to get through each day, week, month and year finishing a little better then the year before. The great part of being part of a franchise system, is that it allows me the ability to run my business at my pace, and when it was time to grow they were there for me with positive encouragement and support.
My husband and I think about retirement. Our plan is to grow key people within our business to take over many of the day-to-day activities, allowing us the freedom to travel, have peace of mind and a continued financial income from the business.
Besides your own drive and talent, what has helped most in your success?
Behind my success is the benefit of a franchise organization. Without the constant training, and motivation of watching high achievers who came before me I would not have been inspired to reach high levels myself. There must be motivation other then financial awards. Being part of an organization that honors you for your achievements and holds you up as a role model to help others achieve their dreams is a powerful motivator.
Having a national brand behind me helps a lot. Clients who have used IDD services in other parts of the country look me up when they relocate. Those sales have been priceless. Now in the Internet Age some of my best long-term clients come from far away referrals by e-mail because their friends across the country tell them to look up an Interiors by Decorating Den business.
CRITICAL ELEMENTS OF SUCCESS
In closing, it is instructive to distill the critical elements of VanderHulst’s success. Obviously, she is a talented designer having won multiple awards, yet even more important, she is a supreme marketer. VanderHulst has taken advantage of all the marketing, sales development and training information that IDD has offered and applied the ideas with vigor.
Education is essential to her. VanderHulst never missed a sales training classes or educational program, taking advantage of every opportunity that came her way. That seems to be a critical key to her success. When asked, she confided that her success is based on these personal elements:
• Stays self-motivated
• Stays positive
• Allows herself to have a bad day, but gets over it and moves on
• Stays educated and informed
• Gives back to her community—be altruistic and contribute
Tonie VanderHulst shows how a personal, entrepreneurial spirit combined with a proven franchise system can result in an exceptional business and a strong customer following. If you dedicate yourself to education and managing by the numbers, she can be a great role model for you.
This article is based on Steven C. Bursten’s actual experience with sales and financial information working with hundreds of window coverings businesses. Whether you are a sole manager who aspires to higher sales, or you manage 50 window fashion decorators in a multi-million dollar business, this series will help you manage sales better and increase your profitability. Bursten is the retired founder of Decorating Den Interiors and author of a how-to book on new business start up, “Bootstrap Entrepreneur,” and is a leading expert in window coverings marketing, sales systems and sales management through his company, custEmers.com. Questions and comments welcome: email@example.com or call (888) 333-8981.