Bowers is president and 100 percent shareholder of Fabracadabrics, which she describes as a full-service interior design and decorating retail business "with all the corresponding responsibilities of working with contractors specifying everything from the ground up. We work with plumbers, electricians, painters, people who are changing walls, doing floors and hanging wallpaper."
An important facet of the company is that it also has its own drapery and upholstery workroom. "We do all of our work ourselves," Bowers says. For Fabracadabrics, that means hands-on control of its custom products from the time the order comes in. As a business, it also means Fabracadabrics does not rely strictly on selling goods; it also sells service.
Bowers and Fabracadabrics has grown from a one-person home-based "cottage industry" to a full-service firm with eight employees and a retail space that includes a 2,000-square-foot workroom and 2,400 square feet for a showroom and office space. There Bowers' clients can obtain whatever they are looking for: custom draperies, natural wood and laminated shades, shutters and blinds (almost always sold in conjunction with draperies or something having to do with fabrics), custom rodding, wall coverings, floor coverings, lighting, pillows, decorative art and floral arrangements. She will shop with clients for Oriental rugs and antiques, and although she doesn't sell them, Bowers specifies paint and fixtures in cases where a customer is redoing a bathroom or kitchen. "There's really nothing we don't handle," Bowers says.
Following the Offers
Looking back, Bowers' career has followed what appears to be a straightforward and logical path, although she will be the first to admit there was no business plan when she started out. Her formal training has been the 20 years she has been in business. "I got the next job based on the last one, but it was only as good as the job I was doing," she summarizes.
Bowers learned to sew at a very young age and later combined that skill with her love of fashion to earn money in high school and college. Her first business was designing custom apparel from her home, which opened the door to working on other projects for her customers-especially draperies. She placed a small advertisement in a community newspaper circulated throughout a wealthy area of western New Jersey. It eventually led to securing the draperies account with what Bowers describes as a large, high-end furniture store.
The biggest springboard to her career, however, came 10 years ago in the form of an invitation to work on a designers' showhouse. A client had a daughter who painted art. She invited Bowers to join her in a showhouse project. "We did very well with it," Bowers says. She continues doing showhouses today, calling them a rich resource for retail, but especially wholesale, accounts.
Usually Bowers participates in a showhouse not as a designer but as a drapery workroom to find retailers she can add to her business. She says her workroom often is compared favorably to those in New York City and Connecticut. It was through her work at a showhouse that Bowers developed a relationship with one company with which she does $100,000 a year in business.
Bowers especially enjoys the camaraderie of working with talented designers at a showhouse and appreciates the opportunity to see so many craftspeople come together for one unified task. But there are other benefits as well. Often, she explains, fabric and trim houses provide some of their latest products for use either pro bono or at greatly reduced prices.
Would Bowers recommend showhouses to other decorators or workrooms? "I would say to do it-if you can afford to. If you're going to break the bank and really put yourself out on a financial limb, then you have to weigh whether or not you are going to recoup the costs," Bowers says. Her advice on showhouses includes:
• Get a reality check on the relationship you have with the person asking you to participate. "If you feel you have a time or money limit, let them know what it is. Everybody should go in knowing what's expected of one another," she says.
• Find out what other firms are involved in the showhouse and what kind of business they do. "Is it the market you're after?" she asks.
• Find out if there is a retail opportunity connected with the project.
• Be sure a book is available to all the patrons listing participants and the work they were responsible for.
• Find out what publicity will be generated from the showhouse or what coverage is expected.
Business to Business
Growing from a home-based business into the full-service firm Fabracadabrics is today has not always been an easy process. Bowers has no formal business background, yet she seems to have had an instinct for the discipline a successful business needs.
Fabracadabrics has been incorporated for 16 years. But even as a proprietorship, Bowers ran the company as a corporation. "I paid myself a regular salary every week," she says. "I took withholding out of my paycheck and put it into a separate account. I really ran it like a businesses. I know a lot of small businesses are very erratic about how they pay themselves and what they pay themselves and I never did that. I tried to be very disciplined about the structure of my company."
Bowers believes paying yourself also is a way of checking on how well your business is doing. "If you're not providing for your own self, then you either are not charging enough, you're not in the right market, or you're in the wrong business altogether," she says.
The following eight years saw business expand to the point where Bowers faced an important decision: "You can only make so much money if you're just doing the work yourself. The only way to increase your own personal revenue is to have employees," Bowers says. But adding employees brought its own set of difficulties: "Learning how to be a boss; learning control; learning how to teach somebody; and running a company more seriously. That was a tough transition," Bowers says. Fortunately, she says, she has had clients to learn from and employees who have grown with her.
Pricing is another area in which Bowers' savvy shows itself. "I know my market prices. I spend a great deal of time looking through any market I want to be a part of," she says. The same holds true for her workroom business. "I know what everybody else is paying for things, and I know what kind of service they're getting for it," Bowers says. "We've had a price list for years. We know how long it takes to make everything." She also realizes there are extra expenses that are part of doing business. "I recognize how much it costs us to do measures, the time it takes us to do quotes or scale drawings and sketches, the time it takes to interface with wholesale clients directly and delivery charges-we pack the stuff up, we box it, we wrap it, we hang it on hangers, we put it on our truck and we deliver it. It has to be part of our price structure," Bowers says.
As Fabracadabrics has grown Bowers has honed her market and established special relationships with clients. The company has always been located in the same New Jersey county, and for the last three years in the same town, so name recognition has been one of her best marketing tools. Bowers runs an ad in the yellow pages telephone directory, but that's about it. Repeat customers and referrals, by far, are her best advertisements. "I have customers I have had since the day I started in business 20 years ago," Bowers says. "I've learned from them. When they weren't happy with something, they told me. They were responsive to me and I was responsive to them," she says.
While Clinton may be a small community, Bowers says it is located next to the two wealthiest counties in the state. Her clients tend to have sophisticated tastes and savvy when it comes to decorating a new home or upgrading a existing one. Traditional English and French designs are "as hot as they've ever been," she says, adding that motorization has become an increasingly important product.
To establish herself in her target market, Bowers has positioned Fabracadabrics in a way that would reach the high-end clients that were her goal. "I am not discount. I do not want to be perceived as discount and I don't want to set a precedent," she says. "I am not interested in competing with houses that are selling open stock and selling it for less than half of what I can get it for. I know what I have to sell things for," she says. Bower also has remained honest with clients. "I tell them, 'If you want me to do the job, I'm going to do it exactly the way you would want it. I'm going to give you all the bells and whistles and this is what you are going to pay for it. And in the end, there are no extras," she says.
One of Fabracadabrics' important yet intangible assets is its personality-that of Bowers and her entire staff. She explains it starts with integrity. "Every time we do a job, we do it with the same integrity as we did the one before it." Her managers maintain or exceed her own standards, which in turn affects the whole business. "If it's not right when it goes out the door, it will come back, and that will mess up the whole process," she says.
It is the quality of designs and the work that sells Fabracadabrics. Add to that Bowers' personal presentation skills, her ability to articulate what a person is trying to achieve and to procure what they are looking for and her strong sense of being able to sell it and you end up with a magical combination. In the end, Bowers' success has much to do with respect for the work and craftsmanship Fabracadabrics provides. "I love what I do. I love the people. I believe in what I do. I believe the service I provide is worth what our customers are paying for it. There is good business and enough business for everyone, if you are doing good business."