Manufacturing & Technology and Small Business

SMALL BUSINESS PROFILE: EXPRESSIONS SOFA STUDIO: Following her heart CPA-turned-retailer trying out a new way to sell furniture

May 29, 2006

SMALL BUSINESS PROFILE

EXPRESSIONS SOFA STUDIO Following her heart CPA-turned-retailer trying out a new way to sell furniture When Jennifer O'Connor graduated from the University of Dayton in 1990 with an accounting degree, the Fort Wayne native began navigating the fast track toward partnership at a public accounting firm.

But O'Connor's plans to marry and have children didn't mesh with her 70-hour work weeks, so she quit her position with Ernst & Young and settled into decorating the Meridian-Kessler home she and her husband David had purchased.

It was on a visit to Expressions Custom Furniture on the city's north side that she found not only furniture but also a new career path.

"I had taken some design classes in college and thought of it more as a hobby than a possible career," O'Connor said. "I realized that the analytical side I had exercised so long in public accounting actually served me well in the creative side because I took a very methodical approach to designing my home."

O'Connor took a job selling furniture at Expressions, and within three months she was the store's manager. She bought the franchise in 2001.

Going from sales associate to owner had its share of challenges along the way, but none as memorable as what led her to buy the business in the first place.

The store had slipped into disarray when O'Connor, then store manager, took a threemonth maternity leave following the birth of her son Zachary, she said. Sales plummeted 45 percent and customer service issues weren't resolved because there was no onsite manager. The franchise owner lived in Cincinnati.

"The owner relied on me to run the store and the design staff relied on me to lead them," she said. "... You can lose business so fast when customer service goes down."

When she returned to work, she faced a loss of more than half of her staff and the store's busiest sales month loomed ahead. O'Connor realized that the owner was going to ask her to put the store ahead of her family-something she wasn't willing to do-so she resigned.

She wasn't prepared for his response: he offered to sell her the franchise.

"I went home and talked to my husband about it," O'Connor said. "Maybe it was in a post-partum moment, but we bought the franchise."

Their timing couldn't have been worse. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened when O'Connor was still negotiating the deal, and furniture sales plummeted nationwide.

"We could have easily walked away but my heart was in the business," O'Connor said.

So she followed through, using personal savings to buy the franchise. O'Connor wouldn't disclose the purchase price, but similar franchises at the time cost about $300,000, plus inventory.

Four years later, she made another big step-dropping the franchise affiliation and going it on her own.

One of the first things she did was hire Indianapolis-based Maverick Public Relations to help market the store. She also hired a business adviser to keep her focused on the big picture.

"I am so active in my business from the design standpoint," explained the 37-year-old O'Connor, that it made sense to hire people who had the expertise she needed to succeed.

She already knew where to go when it came to manufacturing her custom furniture-the same vendor she'd been working with for years as a franchisee.

"I was always on current terms and they wanted my business," O'Connor said. "I did about $400,000 the previous year with them, so it was easy."

Steve Wilson, national sales manager for North Carolina-based Highland House Furniture, says O'Connor is a "true merchant."

"She's willing to try different things and reinvent herself," he said. "She has that entrepreneurial attitude."

Indeed, O'Connor's goal was to transform her shop into a "white concept" store, like something she had seen at the Highpoint, N.C., furniture market.

Unlike most furniture stores, where customers are bombarded by a wide array of merchandise covered in hundreds of different fabrics, Expressions covers everything with white muslin so that the shape and style of the piece is emphasized-and shoppers can choose their own color and fabric.

She said many furniture retailers thought she was making a mistake because they felt most people can't really visualize the finished product.

"My beliefs were just the opposite," O'Connor said. "I believe that if you start with a neutral canvas you don't have to undo the visual coverings and then re-visualize different fabrics."

She has increased the furniture selection since striking out on her own and has added couture fabrics seen in leading interior design magazines. Revenue grew to almost $1 million in 2005.

O'Connor's staff all have interior design degrees and give clients free design consultations in their homes to determine a decorating style and come up with detailed plans.

Jeremy Hamilton, publisher of Indianapolis Dine magazine, found the design assistance to be just what he and his wife needed when they moved to their north-side home. The couple had discarded all of their "college hand-me-downs" and felt lost when it came to selecting new furniture.

"We realized we were in way over our heads and didn't know the style [we wanted], couldn't make decisions on paint colors and it was a strain on our marriage," Hamilton said.

A day after the Hamiltons visited Expressions, O'Connor and staff designer Jill Goodman went to their home and came up with a plan that the couple followed. They purchased 90 percent of their furniture from Expressions and Goodman helped them with the remaining purchases.

Hamilton describes the experience as "remarkable."

"With many businesses these days, you feel like you're shorted in customer service and no one seems to be able to provide you with professional direction or expertise," he said.

Customer service is a focus, O'Connor said, largely because it can be an advantage for a small shop like hers that lacks the name recognition its competitors have, O'Connor said.

"As a small business, I'm not at the point where I'm at the forefront in someone's mind when they're thinking of buying furniture," O'Connor said. "Because we're small every single customer who walks in the door is significant to us. When they realize we have the options, expertise and talent, then they become our clients for a long period of time."
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