Welcome to The Elizabeth Cole LLC family first blog. We are excited to be able to communicate with you and plan to share exciting news, informative articles, inspirational stories, and some “how-to guides” on all things design, furniture, accessories, staging, and shopping. The Elizabeth Cole LLC family consists of a to-the-trade showroom – Elizabeth Cole Design & Décor; a retail outlet opened to the public – EC Home Décor & Furniture Outlet; a design and model merchandising division – EC Interior Design; and a custom drapery workroom – Alexandra’s Custom Draperies LLC. We begin our blog at the beginning – how we got started. Hope you enjoy and find inspiration to help you find your dream!
Once Upon A Time . . .
A few years ago my partner and I had a custom home built. All those pictures torn from the many, many magazines I had collected year after year after year were now stuffed in plastic sleeves as I referred to them time and again during the home building process. Advertisements about the latest and greatest products were catalogued as well. Keep in mind this home building event occurred before the availability of websites that categorized ideas by room, by color, by style. I didn’t have the luxury of “pinning” my “interests” in one organized format that would help me make sense of all the selections and choices that needed to be made. So, my three-ring vinyl binder served me well.
One of the pictures was of a French chateau with an iron staircase railing where the posts actually were attached on the side of the stairs instead of on top of the steps. Then, there was the photo of old textured walls in a chateau that looked like the plaster had fallen off in areas.
Photos of antique French doors with Cremone bolt hardware and beveled glass panes, of tile flooring, and distressed cabinets and wine rooms had been saved and were now shown to architects and artisians. There was idea after idea on pages that had ragged edges and dog-eared corners. The French Country home that I had envisioned for years through trips to France, through books and magazines, finally was becoming reality.
After construction, it was time to furnish and add all the special items that would complement and complete the architecture. I looked, I searched, I visited store after store trying to find the perfect accessories that would be the finishing touches to our home. A trip to France resulted in some beautiful pottery and art pieces. I purchased a set of small books in excellent condition from an antique bookstore in Paris. Kitchen linens, hand-made ceramic candlesticks and candy dishes, and a few small metal pieces were other finds that enhanced our desired look and feel.
The Retirement Plan . . .
That home building, home decorating journey was quiet the adventure and at times both exhilarating and exhausting. In the midst of all of that a seed was planted… “When I retire, I should open a small boutique that specializes in hard-to-find, extraordinary items”. I have been abundantly blessed and have benefited throughout my career from mentors who have helped me succeed. At that time I owned a successful consulting business and had traveled the country and the world, but was privately thinking of retiring. That was the plan.
Extreme Retirement Plan Makeover . . .
Five years after our home was completed, I received a phone call from a woman I met in one of the furniture stores where we purchased many case goods and upholstery pieces for our home. I was on vacation at the time and returned the call once back in my office (yes, I was still working). She asked if she could meet with me to talk about an idea she had and pick my brain as a woman business owner. I agreed, not once ever thinking my conversation with her would dramatically change my life in ways I could not imagine. I really didn’t know the lady. I had heard excellent things about her work and had dealt with her personally on some of our special furniture orders.
Johnna Cole Schmitz came into my office February, 2009. She was bubbly, probably a little nervous, and, oh yeah, six months pregnant. She began the conversation with the fact that she had been terminated. That was surprising from the standpoint that she was Executive Vice President and basically ran the day-to-day operations of the store. Then, it was not so surprising because the person who terminated her was known for tantrums and mistreatment of associates, whether family, friend, employee, customer, or vendor.
Johnna very quickly got to her matter at hand. She wanted to open her own furniture showroom and was seeking advice as how to accomplish that. She outlined her research as to start-up needs and costs and the commitments she had from family and a few friends to help her, $5,000 from an uncle and another couple of thousand from friends.
This was early 2009. Headlines were about the economic crisis, the new administration, and the health care debate. The economy was in a downturn and Wall Street was facing tumultuous crisis. Houston was feeling this slowing economy because of the oil and gas industry. As I sat and listened to this woman who was more than capable of operating such a venture, I realized she did not have the financial backing required to launch. I was intently listening all the while trying to figure out how to tell an enthusiastic, excited person that their dream and vision would be near impossible without additional support and money.
At about hour two of our meeting (she and I have different recollections about the amount of time with me saying two hours and her saying 45 minutes, but it felt like two hours to me before I could say what I was thinking) and as gently and kindly as I could, I outlined commitments that would be required. For example, leasing a commercial space would require personal financial guarantees, which of course, meant a person would have to have enough cash and credit to guarantee the lease in case of default. Then, there was going to be the cost of purchasing the product to present in the showroom, and that’s cash unless your financials allow for credit terms. Additional start-up costs would include payroll, business insurances, fixtures, utilities – these are called start-up costs because they are expenses needed to get a business up and running for often a long period of time before actual sales come in and cash flow enables the monthly expenses to be paid.
At this point in the discussion, I already knew my “little boutique” idea was history. This was bigger than my retirement dream. This was Johnna’s dream and my next chapter. I asked her what she thought about my partner and me being “the bank” or investors. Clearly by her expression, that was not part of the dream, and I got that. All of us entrepreneurs want “it” to be “mine”. So, the next hour or so (our meeting lasted about four hours) was spent explaining how majority ownership almost always goes to the person(s) putting up the money. She would have a minority ownership status and shares based on her “sweat equity” – another bit of time defining what that meant. None of this “explaining”, “defining”, etc. was about Johnna not being intelligent or savvy. She just had never been on that side of business. She is one smart cookie and got it immediately!
Extraordinary Interruption . . .
Long story short (ha!), that day, that meeting, that person, that interruption, that decision was divinely and definitely right. While I didn’t know the furniture business, and I didn’t know Johnna that well, and I didn’t know how it would all come together, I did know I was calm, it felt right, and my retirement plan got an extreme makeover!
We opened a fully-furnished 10,000+ square foot showroom in less than three months from our first meeting. Vision, trust, faith, and hard work were in full force at Elizabeth Cole LLC. That first year we increased both showroom and warehouse space and bought a custom drapery workroom. The next few years we continued to expand by increasing the showroom and leasing more warehouse space, purchased a design firm, and worked, worked, worked, worked! In 2016 after hosting warehouse sales to the public of product from a builder’s closeout model homes, we opened EC Home Décor & Furniture Outlet in an 18,000+ square feet space across the parking lot from our to-the-trade showroom, Elizabeth Cole LLC.
Nine years, 38 employees, 60,000+ square feet of showroom and warehouse, a wholesale furniture showroom, a retail furniture outlet, an interior design and model merchandising firm, a custom drapery workroom, a positive and mentoring company culture, a valued and extraordinary business partner – all prove that the paths we take can become life-changing journeys, and the people with whom we choose to traverse those journeys can become cherished friends, and the only way to pay back opportunities and favors is to pay it forward!