In the corporate arena, there are no parents telling us it is impolite not to share. There are no secular preachers imploring us to spread our good fortune. Nonetheless, this lesson, so important to our social and religious worlds, is finally entering the realm of business. Two organizations dedicated to resource sharing and community building have emerged -- one on the national level, the other on the local level.
Profitable and Honorable
The Window Coverings Association of America (WCAA) is a national, non-profit trade association. The WCAA serves the window coverings industry, offering opportunities to share resources and build a community of members all in an ethical manner. The WCAA is a membership organization in which members pay yearly dues. These dues, however, should be seen as an investment rather than an expense. Members effectively put their money in a pot, pooling their resources.
As a single entity, the WCAA membership receives discounts on long distance telephone charges and shipping. Members also can receive low-cost bank card processing, business forms and insurance coverage. That final item can be essential for small businesses. As part of the larger pool of WCAA members, the individual small business can receive an insurance package with better coverage at lower costs than otherwise would be possible.
WCAA also builds community by offering educational programs. A free subscription to Draperies & Window Coverings magazine is one of those educational benefits, but members also receive savings on seminars and books. When individual members of the industry gather at educational events they network and forge alliances. As a result, business flourishes.
The WCAA operates with high ethics in mind. The organization is dedicated to the betterment of the industry, and it encourages professionalism among its independent members. Its members must adhere to a code of ethics in which they pledge honesty in their relations with the public and in their advertisements. Members also must produce a quality product and offer only responsible advice to the public. Not only is it important to the WCAA that its members be profitable, but also that they be honorable.
This trend in cooperation also is taking place at the local level. Designers Emporium, Inc., a small business in Asheville, NC, manifests the emerging concepts of resource sharing, community building and high ethical business practices. Though Betty Lasseter founded Designers Emporium only a year ago, her 25 years in the design business shaped her vision of the design industry's future.
Lasseter, an interior designer and home builder, watched doctors, lawyers and architects pool their resources by forming associations and groups. For some reason, interior designers never did. Instead of cooperating, individual designers and trades people remained solitary and isolated. It was, and generally still is, the responsibility of each designer to purchase his or her own sample books, acquire accounts with vendors, and to rely on his or her own buying power to find the desired accessories.
Designers Emporium is a design resource center. A helpful metaphor for understanding how it operates is that of a hospital serving its surrounding community. Local interior designers are "doctors" who maintain their own private practices, but often rely on Designers Emporium as the "hospital" for special supplies, equipment, support and access to other professionals. At the hospital they not only consult with other doctors, but also meet with a wide array of other service providers such as nurses, physical therapists and social workers and to obtain medical supplies.
Designers Emporium unifies the various groups within the design industry such as designers, trade-related professionals and vendors in much the same way as a hospital both serves and connects the medical field.
Designers Emporium members gain greater access to design products in several ways. The Emporium features a showroom with a gallery of fabric samples, wall coverings, furniture and accessories purchased with accumulated membership dues. Emporium members who once had to travel to big cities to acquire special lines, now have access to them locally. The members check out fabrics and merchandise in much the same way they would borrow books from a library.
Just as members of WCAA can better afford more comprehensive group health care coverage, Designers Emporium members can access fabric, carpet and accessory lines that otherwise would be out of their reach. As Lasseter explains, "Bigger companies are raising their buying limits . . . for example, you must purchase $50 worth of products each year with them in order to maintain your buying power. For an individual that's difficult to do, but if you have a group of people coming together, it makes it easier for each individual to access those lines."
It also makes it easier for the vendors. Instead of sending a salesperson to each designer, they can send one to Designers Emporium. All interested designers attend, and the salesperson has to give only one presentation. "They can show their spring lines or their fall lines to a group of designers buying through a single source," says Lasseter.
Because the funds flow through a single source, each individual member has been freed of the responsibility of maintaining an account with each vendor. Instead, the association now buys as a single entity, and the more buying that occurs, the more viable that entity becomes. Then, an amazing thing takes place: lower prices. "Great buying power," Lasseter says, "equates to better pricing, so we can be competitive as a unit with much larger companies."
Another component of resource sharing is the Designer Strategic Alliance. Lasseter explains that through this program Designers Emporium "opens the opportunity to purchase from designer to designer." If designer members carry lines that Designers Emporium does not, they can sell their products through the Emporium. The designers benefit through additional sales of their lines and easier maintenance of minimums. Other designers benefit through access to a wider variety of goods.
This program is not a forced conscription. Designers can choose whether they wish to sell from their lines to other designers. In this way, as the web of connection from designer to designer grows, so does the collective buying power of Designers Emporium members.
Lasseter encourages networking between members. One type of membership offered by Designers Emporium is the trade-related referral membership. Through this membership upholsterers, landscapers, paperhangers, carpenters, painters -- basically anyone and everyone a designer works with on a day-to-day basis -- enter the Designers Emporium network. The Designers Emporium staff refers trade-related members to designer members on an ongoing basis.
Cross-referrals between trade-related professionals and designers are particularly beneficial because both groups work with the same general client base. Thus, they can gain many job leads by allying with each other. The professionals then spend more time doing their jobs rather than trying to find jobs to do.
Lasseter has taken a competition with winners and losers and turned it into a win-win situation for everyone. To ensure it remains that way, Lasseter espouses ethical business practices. "People are their businesses," she says. "You cannot conduct yourself with a certain set of ethics in the business world and a separate set of ethics in your family or spiritual life." For too long behavior that in the home or community would be unacceptable has been routine in the business world.
Lasseter sees a future in which talent and quality workmanship are highly valued. For example she strives to "recognize the artistry in other people . . . We're really trying very hard to adjust positions to the person rather than the other way around. If we have a round peg and a square hole, we try to make the hole round rather than the peg square."
If this tact looks to you like a method for sure-fire failure, think again. Designers Emporium inspires people. "People come in off the street and get so excited that there's a business basing everything on the human factor as opposed to the bottom line," Lasseter comments. This is a new way of engaging on a professional level that evokes creativity, individuality and passion.
These are two organizations seeking to make the business world a better place. Their biggest obstacles are fear and misunderstanding. Business professionals often look for "the catch." The surprise is Designers Emporium and WCAA are not too good to be true. They strive to share. The more all of us take part, the greater the rewards of cooperation will be.
Cheryl Strickland is owner of Professional Drapery Seminars. She is an internationally-acclaimed speaker with more than 20 years experience in the window coverings industry. She is the publisher and editor of Sew WHAT?, an international monthly newsletter for professional drapery workrooms. Strickland also is the author of A Practical Guide to Soft Window Coverings and the Designer's Sketch Pad, which are available through Draperies & Window Coverings magazine.