Stein runs Workroom Concepts from her home in Clear Brook, VA. It's a consulting firm to help others getting started in the business and veterans looking for help in areas where there's no one else to ask. She's also a featured columnist in Draperies & Window Coverings magazine, a faculty member for the Interior Fashions University seminar program, and a second-level workroom instructor at Cheryl Strickland's Professional Drapery Workroom School in Swannanoa, NC.
"My goal is to help people in our industry, especially drapery workrooms, realize how talented, skilled and precious they are and that they deserve to be paid handsomely for their talents," Stein says.
"Many of us don't make much money in this business because we don't charge what we ought to be charging for our talent, especially those who are working in their homes. Home-based workrooms often don't have the sense of well-being or confidence in their talents and skills to charge what they need to charge," Stein says. Her solution to this problem is professional education with a healthy dose of mentoring.
"I strongly believe in mentoring," Stein says. "Apprenticeships aren't going to happen. In our business apprenticeships are costly. They are an investment not just of time and interest but money to train that person. And once that person is trained, if they leave you, more than likely they are going to leave just at about the time when they have everything down pat -- the point when they are finally going to help you make more money. It's the constant workroom fear," Stein says.
"As a mentor, you are there as a guide as they are running their own businesses. You are there to offer advice and suggestions and to be a good example in everything you do. The industry-related Internet chat rooms are an excellent example of the mentoring mentality, and they are a real asset for anybody getting into the industry," Stein says.
"I really would like to see the ownership of a drapery workroom be a career to be envied and greatly admired. If I can have a role in helping to bring that about, however small a role it may be, then I have been successful," she says.
You Can Go Home Again
Stein's willingness to help others stems from her own experiences. "When I started, all I knew how to do was sew," she says. But she loved to sew and from that point on her career has run the gamut of what can -- and what shouldn't -- be done.
Stein started by working at a Winchester, VA, department store in 1976 with a group of seamstresses making draperies and altering ready-mades. Over the next two years, the store stopped making draperies and did only alterations, which "got a little boring," she says. So Stein answered a classified advertisement by a local designer looking for a seamstress.
As it turned out, the designer once had a workroom of her own and Stein was able to learn quite a bit from her. She set up shop in her home and soon was getting so much work from the designer she couldn't keep up. "Very innocently she suggested hiring someone to help out," Stein says. "I had no idea what I was getting into!"
Imagine this: On the first day her new employee came to work, Stein suddenly wondered if her home was zoned to include a business with an employee. She checked it out and, sure enough, it wasn't! "I had to fire her the same day," Stein says.
Fortunately, that situation eventually worked out. Stein later hired the woman back and after about a year they became partners and invested in more drapery equipment for the business. The new equipment meant they could do more work, which meant they needed to hustle up more clients. By 1981, as the business grew to the point it began taking over the entire house, Stein and her partner, Nancy Fishel-Pangle, decided the next logical step would be to open a storefront.
"We did not consult an accountant. But we should have," Stein says. When they did get around to telling their accountant, it was after the fact. "He just about had heart failure. 'You can't afford to do that!' he said. But we did it!" What followed were several months during which the business rarely made enough money to pay the two partners.
"I believe that one of the biggest reasons small businesses fail is because they have inadequate to no knowledge of running a business. When I finally figured out I didn't know how to run a business, and that it was important to know that, there was no one to help me," she adds.
By sheer effort the business grew, and they hired decorators and seamstresses. Stein's partner handled the retail end of the business and all of the installations, while Kitty took over the workroom and the wholesale business working with designers throughout a 50- to 100-mile area. "Draperies and swags, especially pinch pleated draperies, were the trend at the time," Stein says. "We probably needed higher-end equipment by then, but we weren't educated enough to know what better equipment could have done for the business," she adds.
After nine years in business Stein knew one thing: she was ready for something else. She was burned out and weary. She had become a manager concerned with bills, payroll and overhead when what she wanted to do was sew.
"Now as a consultant, I emphasize moving a home-based business into a storefront if you have the working capital to pay yourself while you get the business going," Stein says. "It's an entirely different business going from home to storefront," she adds.
Stein and her partner simply closed the storefront business, "We didn't even bother trying to sell it," she says, and in 1991 Stein started Workroom Concepts as a workroom back in her home retaining only three clients to keep her going until she could figure out what to do next.
By the end of 1993 Stein's life had changed. She had figured out what she wanted to do and had set new goals. It started early in the year, in response to a search for columnists for Draperies & Window Coverings. Stein submitted an article for review and her column, Workroom Operations, appeared in the August issue and has run regularly ever since. "I love writing and the research it includes," she says.
Some months later, as if in answer to a prayer, Stein received a call from a business acquaintance who had a friend who wanted to set up a workroom. Would Stein help? "The light bulb went on!" she says. "That's what I needed to do. I needed to help all these people in the areas I didn't have help with because there wasn't anybody out there," she adds.
Stein pursued her new goal vigorously, and as might be expected, she began by educating herself. "I tried to 'follow the book' on achieving goals," she says. Stein wrote affirmation statements, listened to self-help audio tapes and attended a Dale Carnegie motivation course, which included a lot of public speaking. "I'm here to tell you all those things work! Things started happening fast!" she says.
A year later, Stein met Cheryl Strickland, whom she calls her mentor -- "Whether she chose to be or not!" Stein says. The two started working together almost immediately. At first, Stein worked on Strickland's newsletter, but had to quit that as other aspects of her career bloomed. Today Stein is part of the school's staff. She teaches a second-level drapery workroom class once a month. Never wanting to let a good educational opportunity slip by, Stein uses the eight-hour drive from Virginia to North Carolina to listen to books on tape.
In 1995, Stein joined the Interior Fashions University faculty as a seminar leader. "I just love doing seminars," she says. "I enjoy sharing information and learn a lot from attendees. Many people in this industry will not share. I've never felt that way," Stein says. "The thing that people don't understand is that if two businesses share as far as how to construct treatments so that they are good quality, it means that both will be able to charge more because they are offering more."
Since January of this year, Stein says her Workroom Concepts has seen a dramatic leap in business. "I'm very happy where I am and I hope other people will get to the point where they are happy." A large part of her happiness comes from her abiding faith and the support of her husband, Harris, and children Janice and Michael.
Stein has a few specific projects in mind. Someday she hopes to begin work on a basic how-to text book. But her more immediate goal is to finish a Master Price List. She envisions the price list as including all of the specifics necessary for how every workroom project is made, including instructions on calculating yardages, and a blank chart for individual workrooms to plug in prices.
It's a big project, but if there is anybody who actually listens to his or her own advice, it's Kitty Stein: "Get as much education as you can and plan. Don't just jump in. Don't think you have to grow larger than what you are. Analyze it and be sure it's what you want. Do your homework!"