Workrooms stand at the very center of an increasingly important segment of the window coverings industry. They work with suppliers, designers, decorators, retailers, installers and even end-customers to ensure the success of any custom project. They need to be businesspeople, artisans and technicians.
Successful workrooms find this balance at many levels: large scale, small scale; wholesale, retail, some combination of both; alone, with partners, with a large family of employees.
In selecting our first Workroom of the Year, Draperies & Window Coverings finds the ideal balance in Stevenson Vestal, Burlington, NC.
For 23 years Stevenson Vestal has worked to achieve a high degree of excellence in custom window and bed coverings, which incorporates quality workmanship, customer service and specialty support including turnkey project management and installation. For all but the first two years, the company has concentrated solely on its to-the-trade business helping small workrooms with large, unique or complicated projects as well as working with national chains and in the high-end hospitality market.
During that time Stevenson Vestal has grown through two expansions into a 30,000-square-foot facility in Burlington that employs 85 (65 in manufacturing) and has risen to more than $1 million in annual sales. It continually has supported the industry, trade associations and events, and is involved in community and charitable organizations and encourages its employees to do the same.
But it all comes back to product and service. The draperies, shades, valances, swags, cornices, bedding and accessories manufactured by Stevenson Vestal must be produced in a way that meets its standards, and those of its customers, and do it in the reality of today’s business environment.
“The big thing we do is capturing that Old-World artisanship,” said David Stevenson. “We’re always trying to stay on top of the most modern techniques in manufacturing and service and quality. It’s that combination that makes us special.”
Or, as the company likes to state, Stevenson Vestal is large enough to handle any project, but small enough to pay attention to all the details.
From pleated draperies to table skirts and everything in between, Stevenson Vestal over the years has developed a wide range of what it calls standard products. But even these are offered in multiple variations—11 choices of pinch pleated draperies, for example, from goblet to butterfly.
“Our standard products were developed through what we saw the designers ordering, and also we asked our employees to design some of the products and they came up with some phenomenal designs that are in our standard product line right now,” said Bill Vestal.
These custom products are offered for the company’s customer base, the bulk of which are interior designers throughout the United States. “That could be design firms that have multiple designers,” Vestal explained. “We have some national retail account. [But] we do a fairly good size business with small workrooms—they sub-contract us to make different products for them because of difficulty or size of product.”
“Being custom, we’re very used to small orders—that’s primarily the bulk of our business: one or two orders that could be a pair of draperies or a valance,” he added. “Any soft goods or fabric that goes on a window or bed.”
Both men will tell you that part of Stevenson Vestal’s success comes from retaining good, quality people. With textiles being an important part of the region’s history, Burlington provides a “nice employment base to hire from,” Vestal said. “They have the desire and the dedication to come to work in this industry.”
Recognizing that, once common, creating custom window coverings and bedding is almost becoming a lost art, Stevenson Vestal actively fosters skills through its Master Artisans Program. One result of that program is dedication and pride in each job. “Our product is cut by the person who is making it,” Vestal said. “That’s pretty big. For most of our products, besides draperies—all of our valances, shades, bedding and upholstery—the person that’s making it has the actual roll of fabric, cuts it, makes it, finishes it. They put their hard work and skills into that product.”
For large-volume customers, or for smaller workrooms that have a particularly difficult or high-end project they need help with, Stevenson Vestal has created its Turnkey Project Management program, managed by Christine Neese. In short, it offers consultation, estimating, measuring, fabrication and installation.
“They can be fairly unique jobs, like a project right now that’s a large residential project, but it’s in Africa,” said Jim Butler, Stevenson Vestal vice president of sales and marketing. “So it’s for unique things that are more high-end. They can be large, but they’re going to be very detailed oriented and very high quality.”
Throughout most of the East Coast, Stevenson Vestal also has a comprehensive installation service headed by Steve Filazzola, director of installations. “Our installation division covers the North Carolina; Virginia; the northern Virginia/Maryland, DC area; Philadelphia and into New Jersey a little bit,” Butler explained. “We’ve got installers who actually are our employees—they’re not contract installers, they actually work for us,” he said. We’ll do large installs no matter where they are if it’s going to be intricate or it’s an expensive job and the designer wants us to measure, manufacture and install so that all possibility of error drops in our laps.
“We did a project a few weeks ago in Manhattan, a couple of weeks before that we were in Mississippi, we’re going to be in Kentucky. In those cases, we’ll manufacture it, store it, load it up in one of our delivery trucks and have our installation team deliver and install the product.”
The traveling team is somewhere out of town every week doing an installation, Butler added. “It’s a rare exception when they are in town.”
“We train those folks. Those installers are trained, obviously, on the technical aspects and that takes a while to grasp and takes a lot to develop that talent, but we also train them for the in-home presentation so that they know how to finish that product out. If the designer did a wonderful job but our installer did not do a wonderful job, then the project doesn’t go well.”
David Stevenson and Bill Vestal first worked together at Burlington Industries. When they decided to start their own business, they purchased Smith Draperies. “It did a little wholesale, but it was primarily retail. It was owned by Pete and Betty Smith and their customer base was locally—in Burlington,” Stevenson said.
That was in 1985, and at the start Stevenson and Vestal continued what the Smiths had started. “But we decided our strength was more in manufacturing and less in retail, so after two years we shut down the retail part of the business,” he said.
The original building was about 7,000 square feet. In 1990 Stevenson Vestal built its own facility more than double in size. It has expanded twice since then to its current 30,000 square feet, but has always remained in Burlington.
“We feel like it’s a great place to work. We try to do a lot here in the community with non-profits and try to get our employees involved.” Vestal said.
The company has created the Stevenson Vestal Gifting Committee, which oversees its charitable work and is employee funded. Activities have included adopting Christmas Cheer families, serving food at the Good Shepherd Kitchen, military care packages, hurricane and flood victim drives, and more. The company and its employees have worked with United Way, hospice and the Boy Scouts of America.
One program it calls Adopt-a-Classroom and began by asking how the company could help children in school succeed. The answer was to adopt an elementary classroom of an employee’s child. Recently it donated $1,000 of employee-funded resources to purchase science equipment from Carolina Biological Supply Co. based on the teacher’s wish list.
It can be a tricky business staying on top of fashions and trends, but over the last 23 years Stevenson Vestal has balanced itself successfully across a broad customer base to remain in the center of this industry’s growing market. “Having a pretty diverse customer base, we get to see a lot of different products. That keeps us on our toes,” Vestal said. “Fabric seems to be the trend and it looks like it’s going to continue. But people want color and, fortunately for us, we hope that stays that way.”
It likely will. And for Stevenson Vestal, D&WC’s 2007 Workroom of the Year, business has been good. “From a project management, from our turnkey department and from an installation standpoint we’ve seen double-digit growth, so we’re pretty happy about that,” Vestal said. “It becomes an issue of having to be extremely good at expense management because the cost of doing business is much higher.
“On the workroom side, we’ve seen a growth in designer business, but we’ve seen some decreases in the retail segment. Hopefully, the overall effect of all that for us is going to be a pretty stable business. You just keep your hand on it every day.”