Be happy all the time. Fake it until you make it, even when you’re unhappy. Business owners set the tone of their office, so your mood will filter down to your staff. Sometimes I coach my managers and tell them to “be sweet.” It sounds silly, but everyone loves a sweet person.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Quinn Williams, President and Founder of Saint Louis Closet Co. At the age of 25, Jennifer had no money or business experience but was determined to change people’s lives through custom organization. She decided to drop out of graduate school, finance herself with personal credit cards and a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, and start her business. In 1991, Jennifer opened the doors of the first locally-owned, woman-owned, floor-based closet company in her community.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
Igrew up in Kirkwood, Mo. and graduated from Kirkwood High School in 1984. I have to mention that because, when you are from St. Louis, the high school you come from practically identifies you. I then earned a B.A. in Communications and Public Relations from Saint Louis University. This degree served me well as I envisioned a company that would serve the needs of my community. I really enjoy owning and operating my business in St. Louis. There’s a great feeling in knowing that you’re helping your community and providing your neighbors with a superior product. My company’s biggest strength is our customer service. All 43 of my employees continually exceed our customers’ expectations. Personally, I married the perfect man for me — a fellow entrepreneur. Matt Williams, owner and founder of TKO DJs, started his business when he was in high school and we have two amazing kids named Matthew and Hallie.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In October 1995, I was invited to participate in the Midwest Regional Economic Conference, which was hosted by former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. There were nine states represented, with four attendees from each, and I was one from Missouri. This was the coolest thing ever. It was also prior to 9/11, so the President’s entire cabinet was in attendance. Joined by just 35 other small businesses, I knew I had to meet him. After a long productive day, I quickly bolted to the front of the room and held out my hand to President Clinton. By the time secret service jumped into action to stop me, I had already introduced myself and Saint Louis Closet Co. We discussed the closets in the White House and he felt he could use my services. Unfortunately, this was before smart phones so I don’t have a selfie. Lessons I learned that day include NEVER meet someone famous without a camera or phone in hand, NEVER miss taking a chance to meet someone or talk to them, and ALWAYS take the opportunities to do things that might not have anything to do with your business. If it will absolutely make a mark on your life, it’s worth it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Saint Louis Closet Co. is a locally-owned business with the largest custom closet showroom in the Midwest. When I expanded my business, I knew I wanted a showroom that really allows my customers to touch and feel the product. I also wanted them to see where their closets were produced, so I designed a 10-foot window between the showroom and the manufacturing facility. Today, customers can come in and watch their closets being made.
In addition, we are not a franchise like most of my competitors. This makes a difference to my customers who know me and feel comfortable walking in our front door to speak in person. Being woman-owned is also a stand-out feature of my business. This is especially true as most companies in the home improvement field are owned and run by men. Interestingly enough, most custom closet companies’ customers are women, so buying from another woman makes sense.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person whom you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Desmond Lee, a millionaire philanthropist who is the owner and founder of Lee/Rowan and considered the founding father of the custom closet industry. During my first year in business, Mr. Lee contacted me asking to meet him for lunch to discuss my business. This was BIG. Armed with hours of questions and ideas, I showed up early and was a bit nervous. It lasted four hours and I still remember it as if it were yesterday. He started his business with a pants creaser and hanger, and expanded into bathroom/closet accessories and storage systems. He built a fortune then gave over $70 million away before he died in 2010. Up until the year he died, he always checked in with me, followed my advertising, and sent notes with ideas.
Okay, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I define resilience as the ability to bounce back quickly after adversity and be stronger than before. The key word here is “quickly.” Traits include:
- Swift decision making
- Having thick skin (life is not fair)
- Living with a positive attitude about all aspects of life
- Communicating and working well with others
- Dealing with stress and stressful situations while staying calm
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Martha Stewart. Even though she made a mistake, she realized it would be better to get her punishment over quickly and move on. She did so with style, grace, and even more determination than ever. Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s how we deal with them and move forward afterwards.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
When I first approached banks for my startup loan, I was turned down by five of them. They would ask if my father was going to run my business and told me that a young woman would never succeed in the construction industry. Finally, a Boatman’s Bank officer took the time to meet with me and go over my business plan. He said he would approve an SBA loan of $35,000 if I could come up with $15,000 of my own. That’s when I opened every credit card I could, purchasing $15,000 of items needed for my business. The next day, he gave me the loan and I got started. That bank is no longer in business, but that loan officer will never be forgotten. He was the first person to have faith in me and my company.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
The biggest setback from my career began in 2006 when I decided to expand and relocate the business to handle our growing sales. I purchased a new 30,000-square-foot building and undertook a massive $6 million on its renovation. That included ordering brand-new machinery and installation vehicles. After 18 months of construction, I moved Saint Louis Closet Co. into our new digs. Six months later, the 2008 recession hit, and my business was cut in half. I watched my competitors go out of business, fielded multiple phone calls from cancelling customers, and was convinced we were next. Quickly, we closed two of our remote showrooms, cut unnecessary costs, and began working day and night. We made sure to provide the best possible service and products while being sensitive to customers’ budgets. We inched back up in sales over three years and emerged on top as the largest custom closet company in St. Louis.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
My father, step-father, and grandfather were all entrepreneurs. Dad had his own wallpapering company while my step-father, a nitro fuel funny car racer, built rear-ends for other racers. My grandfather actually owned his own grocery store. Growing up, I was exposed to and learned about business and entrepreneurship like no other. I ran a paste table one summer for my dad, which allowed me to see and be in homes and sparked my love of design. My step-dad taught me how to weld and how to work on my car. I think I was the only 16-year-old girl who could pop-start a VW Bug and work on my clutch, by the way. Also, the town’s butcher, my grandfather, taught me how to hand-sharpen knives like no other. None of these individual tasks led me to Saint Louis Closet Co., but they taught me the skills and know-how of resilient business owners. We do the work, we bring our kids to work, and we teach others our talents. This is how locally-owned businesses survive and continue in the face of adversity.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Have faith in yourself and your decision making abilities. Understand that you may have to deal with consequences later, but teach yourself to always move forward.
2. Toughen up. As a business owner, you will hear negative things from customers, reviews, and even employees. Your family and friends may not always understand your long hours either. In order to be resilient, you must not let others get to you.
3. Be happy all the time. Fake it until you make it, even when you’re unhappy. Business owners set the tone of their office, so your mood will filter down to your staff. Sometimes I coach my managers and tell them to “be sweet.” It sounds silly, but everyone loves a sweet person.
4. Practice your communication skills often — even when you’re not at work. An effective boss, coach, or parent must be able to communicate on many levels in order to be resilient.
5. Learn to deal with stress in an effective way for you. I walk six miles every day, rain or shine. Whether it’s exercise, meditation, travel, or going off the grid, you must find a way to deal with business ownership. Once you have mastered stress reduction, you will be a happier and more effective boss.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would want to inspire a “Go Girl” movement that lets women business owners know it’s okay to not be the perfect mom, wife, hostess, and business owner. We have to give ourselves a break and do the best we can. It’s important for us to build the self-confidence and self-esteem to know that what we can do is good enough. We don’t need validation.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
As Madonna once said, “I’m tough, I’m ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay.” Love her or hate her, Madonna knows how to keep people’s attention and has been doing so for decades. She is one of the top-selling female music artists ever, and she never stops reinventing herself while breaking the rules along the way. When it comes to being afraid of shocking people, she’s never been a shrinking violet. I have always loved that about her. Being a mom and juggling it all, Madonna is a study of getting the job done effortlessly.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!