Master of Her Domain
Judy George and other women help rearrange the way business gets done
NEW YORK — Judy George didn't spend much time soul-searching to find her calling.
As a teenager, she remembers that while most of her girlfriends were decorating their bedroom walls with pictures of handsome men, "I was hanging up pictures of gorgeous rooms."
Not too surprisingly, Ms. George found a career selling gorgeous rooms. She heads up her own $50 million, 23-store, upscale home-furnishings chain, Domain Inc., based in Norwood, Mass.
But George's career path makes even more sense given her other childhood dream. "I've always had a passion for wanting to control my own fate."
More women calling the shots
When it comes to a desire to call the shots, recent statistics indicate that George has plenty of female company. The number of women-owned businesses in the US increased by 78 percent between 1987 and 1996, according to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners (NWFBO) in Silver Springs, Md.
New, women-owned companies have grown at twice the rate of overall business startups, and George is convinced her own experience as an entrepreneur represents the wave of the future.
She was actually a bit of a late bloomer. In 1974, after raising four children, and without a college degree or professional training, George set up her own design-consulting firm.
She quickly developed a high profile, but laughs now as she recalls that she was earning very little money and spending quite a lot - a fact that made her husband "panicky."
So the next year she jumped at the opportunity to take a corporate job with a furniture chain, and by 1983 found herself president of Scandinavian Design, with $87 million in annual sales.
But the company's style and hers were less than a perfect match, and within a year she was fired. At the time, George says, the experience was "devastating." In retrospect, she calls it the best possible turn of events.
For George, the corporate world's rigid structure was an uncomfortable fit. "Women want to be in charge of their own fate," she says. "They have the entrepreneurial spirit even more than men. They also have their own intuitive sense of decisionmaking, which the corporate world doesn't recognize."
The morning after she was fired, George decided to recognize and develop her own style of decisionmaking. She decided start a business that focused on women.
Most furniture companies, she says, spend little time considering the preferences and shopping styles of their female customers, despite their dominant role as purchasers of home furnishings.
Her experience told her that women were "restless and disappointed" when shopping for furnishings.
The suites of matched furniture offered by many stores were out of line with current, more eclectic trends. And buying a piece of furniture often meant waiting weeks, sometimes months for delivery - a discouraging prospect for today's convenience-oriented customers.
To refine her sense of what women want when they shop for furnishings, George hit the road. She spent six months traveling and interviewing women consumers. And when they spoke about their dissatisfaction with furniture shopping, all she could see "was green dollars."
In 1986, with money from outside investors, she opened the first two Domain stores in the Boston area. They were more compact than many furniture stores - about 6,000 square feet, featuring just 20 eclectic furniture groupings - and kept a large inventory to allow quick delivery.
The sales staff was trained in George's "intuitive design" system - which she considers a better measure of customer tastes.
Customers responded enthusiastically, and 18 Domain store openings, throughout the Northeast, followed.
George says she plans to continue opening two or three new Domain stores a year, next targeting the Chicago area.
Sharon Hadary, executive director of the NFWBO, says George and other women entrepreneurs succeed in underserviced niches. Often, Hadary says, women's businesses thrive by providing services and products their founders considered missing in their own lives.
But George says she believes women entrepreneurs ultimately make a more profound contribution to the business world. An influx of women into executive positions, she predicts, will mean less hierarchy, more sharing of power and money, more intuitive decisionmaking, and a greater sense of "well-being and balance."
Domain Home Fashions
Founded in 1986 in Boston by current president Judy George.
$24 million in sales
$50 million in sales (projected)