Over the past 30 years Destin was a regular getaway spot for Gaylen and Sherilyn Hall, too. Gaylen was a sales marketing and advertising executive for a large national firm. Sherilyn was an interior decorator. But a turn of events at a crucial time of their lives found the Halls moving to Destin permanently and working together as owners of Paradise Designs, a custom window coverings and bedding retail store.
The Halls obtained their first business license in October 1996, and over the next two years took Paradise Designs from their living room to two retail showrooms and nine employees who offer customers everything they need wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor.
Gaylen Hall attributes the rapid success of Paradise Designs to months of market research he conducted while installing window coverings for other companies and his wife's considerable knowledge obtained through 17 years in interior design. The Halls came to realize that a company with "the knowledge to measure properly, make things properly, install properly and provide quality at a fair price" should find success. "There's a handful of people in this marketing area that really know how to measure and know how a custom treatment is going to be installed-and that's critical to the finished product," Hall says.
He adds, "We told ourselves, 'If we treat people fairly, give them excellent quality and service at a fair market value, we should be successful.' That is the basis on which we built our business."
In his mid-40s Gaylen Hall became a victim of corporate downsizing. The company he worked for was involved in a leveraged buyout, which left Hall unemployed "at a critical point in our lives," he recalls. Soon after, he and Sherilyn left Columbus, OH, for Destin.
Sherilyn began working for some of the area's design firms. Gaylen spent about a year studying the market and taking a hands-on approach to getting into it. "The net of it is, I started doing some market research being a marketing and sales kind of guy, and realized in this market there was no one business that specialized in all window fashions and custom bedding. You had your blind shops, which did blinds and shutters and a lot of those manufactured their own, and then you had your design firms that were more furniture and accessories people who offered window treatments," Hall says.
Part of Hall's research was to work installing window treatments for other design firms. He already had a good background in it after a number of years going out with Sherilyn and helping her install treatments. "She had taught me a lot, and then I learned some things by accident-trial and error," Hall says.
It didn't take long for the Halls to realized there was a real niche in the market for custom window treatments. They began by offering in-home sales of blinds. A few months later, they bought their first fabric sample display from Lafayette Venetian Blind, which the Halls set up in their home. They invited clients into their living room to pick fabrics from that one display.
In another six months some other arrangement had to be found. The Halls' business had outgrown their ability to bring customers into their home. "It was getting to be quite a hassle, and we didn't have enough variety," Hall says. In May 1997, Paradise Designs was moved into its first retail location, a 485-square-foot leased space on a side road off Destin's Emerald Coast Parkway. But that didn't last either. By October the business had outgrown that space as well.
January 1998 found Paradise Designs on the move again, this time to Destin's main street in a 1,800-square-foot facility. The new store focused on custom window fashions and bedding and featured several more venders for both fabrics and hard goods. Sherilyn had now joined Gaylen full-time at the business and the Halls hired an assistant to help with draperies.
Paradise Designs now has seven employees in addition to the Halls. Their son Brandon joined the family business following graduation from the University of Alabama and their daughter Amanda moved down to join them after finishing school in Ohio. The business includes three design consultants and ASID designer Rosanne Painter and two sales assistants. All together, the staff represents 61 years of combined experience in window treatments, Gaylen says.
Hall believes the quality people at Paradise Designs is one of the important factors that separates it from the competition, and plans to keep it that way. "People are so important. We want to find the right people, pay them well, give them excellent benefits and as the company continues to prosper, share profits with them," he says.
At this point, Hall is not ready to take on the added responsibility, or business liability, of setting up an in-house workroom. All of Paradise Designs' drapery fabrication is done by outside shops. When it comes to installations, however, Hall does not sub-contract the work out. "I think that's a critical element," he says. "We have two full-time installers who measure the job first. And while they are out there, they're engaged in selling, too," Hall adds.
A Calculated Risk
Earlier this year the Hall's decided to put part of their business philosophy into practice: "Whatever we're making in the business, we're going to put back into the business," Hall explains. Following a mid-year review, Gaylen and Sherilyn realized sales have been good. "We had a decent bottom line," Gaylen admits. "We decided to open a full-line design studio where we are capable of doing wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor," he adds.
Gaylen's first instinct was to do more market research. He found the Destin/Fort Walton Beach area was saturated with furniture stores and businesses supplying condo and resort owner needs. He decided to look farther east to Seagrove Beach where much of the new growth in the area was heading. In a highly publicized area between Rosemary Beach and Seaside, another resort town, is a 7,000-acre spot that is being opened and developed for resort and second homes. There, along the main highway, the Halls have opened their second location in a 5,000-square-foot space.
"When you walk into the store, it's not like the typical blind shop. This store was designed by Sherilyn and Rosanne Painter," Hall says. Besides furniture and accessories, the new store features scored and etched concrete floors, faux painting, a showroom full of custom window fashions and custom bedding vignettes, product displays, fabric books "and everything it takes to run that business" including a stocking warehouse, he adds.
The state-of-the-art showroom includes a handful of computers. Combined, the Destin and Seagrove Beach stores have eight computer workstations used either for design work or business. The computers give the designers the ability to check CD-ROM disks of products from window coverings and fabric companies and actually do design work on-screen, Hall explains. "We have color printers and scanners, both high-end items, that can make color copies that are identical to the fabrics themselves," he says. This technology is necessary because Paradise Designs so often works with out-of-town property owners.
Of course, computers "are absolutely necessary for running a business," Hall says. "Everything is in the computer by item number so we can pull up any particular product, price it and do custom quotes," he adds. With the help of their accountant, Gaylen and Sherilyn are working on installing a new accounting and tracking system "so we can track items received against purchase orders and follow up on what happens to those items, did they sell and, if so, what for?" he explains.
Opened in mid-October, Paradise Design's Seagrove Beach location is conservatively anticipated to ring up sales one and a half times the annual volume of the Hall's original Destin store. In fact, Hall says they have established their overhead and expenses around that figure. He also admits it is a bit of a gamble. "Nobody (in terms of competition) has gone there in such a big way," he says. "We know the growth is headed that way. We'd rather be the first on the block, not the last," he says.
More Business to Get
Advertising has played a big part in getting Paradise Designs' second location off the ground. Hall says two radio commercials are airing and are being supported by major newspaper advertising "in all the key newspapers and supplements in the area."
Being a resort and vacation area, Destin can be a tricky place when it comes to advertising. The area's normal base population of 10,000 swells to around 200,000 at any time during the vacation season as "Snowbirds" from the North flock to the beaches for winter. To reach potential customers, the Halls have to focus their efforts where they will do the most good.
For many window covering retailers, direct mail marketing is the answer. A properly designed direct mail campaign can target home owners in geographical areas most likely to draw customers to a store. But it just doesn't work that way along the shores of Destin. "The majority of the dwellings here at any point in time during the summer and spring months is occupied by tourists. During the fall and winter months it's the 'Snowbirds' down for the winter," Hall explains. "They are not the people we're wanting to reach," he points out.
The most effective advertising for Paradise Designs has been a toss-up between newspapers and radio, the two information sources most likely used by visitors looking to move into the area. Hall explains it this way: "Property owners and investors come to the area looking to build or buy. They're obviously reading the newspapers, and as they are driving around they are listening to the radio. There's one radio station in particular that directly serves our target audience, which is 35- to 55-year-old couples looking to buy, invest or build a second home."
Actually, this type of marketing campaign is relatively new for the Halls. They began their business with "very little to no advertising," Gaylen says, relying instead on repeat business, referrals and word-of-mouth advertising. He estimates that between 65 and 75 percent of business still is a result of a referral from a previous client.
This year, as Paradise Designs continues growing in new ways, advertising has become more important. Hall plans a healthy advertising budget of four to five percent of total gross sales, and has just completed a six-month television ad campaign using co-op money from one of his suppliers. He adds that many of the company's print ads are designed and generated in-house.
When success comes in such a short period of time as it has for Gaylen and Sherilyn Hall, it's often followed by the fear that it may be too much, too soon. But the Halls just make it look easy. "With our growth, which has come quickly and we've been truly blessed by it, have come a lot of headaches. But with your own business, the buck stops here and all the headaches stop here," Gaylen says. "It's very rewarding because you can see the actual fruits of your efforts and the efforts of your people. But it's very challenging, too. As an entrepreneur it's a 20-hour a day job. You're eating and sleeping, thinking and working on it constantly. But I wouldn't go back to corporate America.
"We're doing pretty good. We've got a pretty good share of the business, but there's a lot more to get."