August 7, 2014–
Bring three female home furnishings executives together and you don’t know what they’ll say. Sarah Lyke, Dorian Stacy Sims and Caroline Hipple, on the industry, Jane Fonda and the B-word.
Sarah Lyke is the executive director of WithIt, a nonprofit group whose mission is to help women grow in the home furnishings industry.
Dorian Stacy Sims is president of Stacy Furniture & Design in Grapevine, Texas.
Caroline Hipple is the CEO of HB2 Resources, a management consulting firm whose clients are primarily in the home furnishings industry.
RetailerNOW: How has the industry changed since you first started?
Caroline: Imagine an hourglass. Big at the top, narrow in the waist and big at the bottom. When I started in 1977, the population was big at the top and skinny at the waist of the hour glass. The furniture companies rode the wave of Baby Boomers—what was it 78 million?—all through their life stages and we sold a lot of furniture. I remember looking at the numbers more than 20 years ago and saying we need to be out of this business by 2008. There were only 42 million of the next generation going through their life cycle and we had built an industry and supply chain for 30 million more. But you know what? We weathered that period of ‘08 to ‘15 where demographics were so tough. It was hard, but I think the people who survived, that stayed relevant to their customers, they’re the ones who are going to benefit moving forward.
Dorian: But even if you weathered through this you still need to be constantly reinventing yourself because this generation is so different from the last in terms of what they want and how they want it.
Caroline: Exactly. It requires being there and listening to your customers, growing and changing along with them. My grandfather, who was an entrepreneur, once told me, “Honey, if you can develop one characteristic, you need to be adaptable.” I was 13 when he told me that. Who knows what that means at 13, but he was so right. For retailers today it’s all about adaptability and staying relevant, figuring out how your customers buy and who your customers are listening to and getting their information from.
Sara: I completely agree. It’s not easy—never has been—but isn’t it exciting?
Caroline: Oh, absolutely. It’s not easy, but the best way to adapt and stay relevant is to keep asking questions of ourselves, our customers—anyone we do business with. I was watching a show …. where the American Film Institute was honoring Jane Fonda. She was talking to a packed house of actors and actresses and she said something that really stayed with me. “My last message to you is to always be asking questions.” She talked about how, in the whole room of actors and actresses, only one of them who worked with her ever asked how she did things or how she could improve or be a better actor and that person was Meryl Streep. Is it any wonder (Streep) is the best actress in our time?
RetailerNOW: What are some of the problems you’ve encountered as a woman in the home furnishings industry?
Dorian: It’s very difficult to be an outspoken and intelligent woman and not be perceived as a bitch. I’ve been surrounded by salesmen my whole life. My dad’s a salesman, my uncles are salesmen, too. When I first started as a buyer my dad said, “That person across the table is trying to make a living to feed and support his family. You always be courteous and respectful no matter what. Let him show you his stuff.” Well, OK, you do that. But at the same time I’d rather just let that salesman know that this is something that doesn’t need to be spelled out for me. But if you do—and I have—then you get to be known as the B-word. I truly believe the biggest advantage women can add to this industry is we can handle conversations in a respectful, professional win-win manner. If the manufacturers, the retailers and the reps could understand that women are working for the greater good of the industry and greater good for everyone’s business we’d be a stronger industry. Most women see that it’s not all about competition. It’s about the relationships along the way. If we communicated our needs and came off as professional, intelligent women, our industry, if they would listen, could grow by leaps and bounds.
RetailerNOW: Challenges—what have you faced along the way and how has it changed?
Dorian: I go back to the when I was a buyer. It was almost as though there was a light bulb that went on eight or 10 years ago with the industry that women are the end consumer.
Sara: But yet they still struggle to figure out what that end consumer, a women, wants for a home most of the time.
Dorian: Exactly! As a buyer I would be invited to a design meeting and I’d ask, “Well, why do you do tuck the sheets in like this?” Or, “That doesn’t work here because you can’t reach your alarm clock.” And when I’d say things like that from a woman’s perspective, the people in the room—mostly men—would look at me like the dog who just heard a weird siren. They’re finally starting to listen. It’s great to see that they are listening now, but it’s taken an evolutionary process to have them realize that we’re the end consumer.
Caroline: I was working for an investment banking firm during the day and I needed some Christmas money so I got a second job. That was 1977. When I became a (This End Up) store manager at 21, my father almost hung up on me when I told him about my job. I still remember him: saying, “I paid for you to have an expensive education and you’re going to sell shipping crates?” I was like so many other young women who had gone to girls schools in (This End Up’s) senior management ranks. We were taught by our parents and our schools that we could do anything we wanted and we believed this until we went into the working world. But when I got out into the world, that’s when I realized there was no chance for me to be a broker. The industry just wouldn’t allow it. So I went looking for mentors and companies that were merit based and not gender based. I was really lucky. At 23, I was managing nine stores but I still remember one man saying to me “Honey, does your husband run this company?” What I think I learned is to take a job get results and then take another job and get more results. I was always working and building my portfolio of skills. Yes, there was always blatant discrimination and there always will be, but if I focused on that I wouldn’t have been able to do my job well.
Sara: The biggest challenge I see for women is getting them to stay in the industry. What I see a lot of is they get to a certain point and they can’t go any further, but their skill sets are so great so they go to other industries and other industries are benefiting from it. If you’re creative—and women in our industry are extremely creative—every industry can use you. Just in my time with WithIt I’ve seen some of our most talented people leave and it hurts. As an industry we need to better leverage the skills women have.
RetailerNOW: What advice would you give women in the industry now?
Sara: When we go to the universities I’m always telling women to take business courses because when I sit on the advisory board at High Point University I’m hearing that their graduates just don’t understand business. When women get out into the workforce they need the leaders of their company to take the time to teach them. But even then they can’t rely on others. They should already be somewhat intuitive on how to read the books [accounting] and what needs to be done and how to move forward. They need the business knowledge on top of their degrees.
Caroline: You still see a lot of women in the design field as buyers and we should be celebrating women who have taken on core skills sets like design and merchandising and buying because that is a talent that comes natural for many women. But they need to take jobs that help them manage P/L and operations and some of the other functional areas.
Dorian: That’s the best advice I’d give new people or young people coming into the industry. You may be excited by the design or the textiles side, but you would have such an advantage over others coming in if you at least concentrated on business and the financial aspects.
RetailerNOW: Men aren’t asked to know the design side. Is more expected from women than men?
Sara: It isn’t a matter of them expecting you to know it. I can honestly tell you the way I promoted it in the software industry was I knew accounting and economics so it let me know how to look at your company and how to visualize it and what it needed next.
RetailerNOW: Mistakes—what have you learned from them?
Sara: I think back to my days in the software industry. What I learned when I decided to leave the industry was I had no network whatsoever. I learned that one the hard way. I think relationships are so important now. Every job that I see people get in this industry is based on a relationships. Building those relationships and having a network is extremely important.
Dorian: Even in the worst of storms if you treat those around you—whether it’s your employees or your manufacturing reps—as you want to be treated it makes life better.That sounds simple, but it’s not always practiced. You need to treat everyone like “Hey, we’re all weathering the storm right now, but we’re weathering it together. I’ve got this end of the rope and I’m not going to let anything happen to you just like I’m not going to let anything happen to me.” That sense of working together has been the driving force of what’s gotten me through whatever storms we’ve faced. Those relationships from the owner of the company to the credit rep are very valuable to me and I don’t take them lightly.
Caroline: And isn’t that why we love this industry? Because it is so relationship driven?
RetailerNOW: What are some of the toughest decisions you have had to make?
Dorian: When you are working in a family business, even though some people are not family by blood or marriage they become part of the family. There are times when I sit down with good friends, friends who are almost like family me, and have to tell them its not working for them and it’s not working for me. Those kinds of conversations—whether it’s a longtime worker or family member—they just absolutely suck the life out of you. At the end of the day, my family is the most important thing to me and the people that work for me are encompassed in that family. I can handle leases going away and dealing with building damage from hail storms. It’s the people part that hurts your soul.
Sara: The decisions of business—that’s all very easy for me. But I think relationships are the main thing I struggled with. When I came into this business I worked with men. Men aren’t collaborative like women. They enter a room, they figure out their stuff, make a decision, get up and leave. I was very much that way. I’ve learned to appreciate the other side of this. Women are collaborative and they get together and discuss ideas back and forth. I always found the customers who complained the most were always the ones I learned from the most. Even in WithIt where the women may have the same goals and objectives they have many different opinions and I’ve learned to sit back and listen.