Mary Jo Martin asks interior designers and lighting showrooms to speak frankly about the positive aspects of the lighting showroom and interior designer partnership, along with advice on how to create better synergy between them.
Before becoming a highly recognized interior designer, Meredith Heron was an elementary school teacher, who decided by the second year that, “I needed to find a new career,” she laughs. “I was just not meant for that job.” Still, she stayed on for five years, trying various types of work on the side while deciding what she ultimately wanted to do.
At one point, Heron was arguably the most popular Home Depot paint department employee in Toronto when she took a temporary job there mixing paint. She was such a natural that she earned a legion of customers as word of mouth about her talent with colors and blending spread. That experience opened her eyes to her love for working with color. It was serendipity when she found a brochure for an evening class in interior design at a local college in her mailbox.
“Having my own accounts [with manufacturers or importers] allows me way more control over how the look I want is achieved.”
“I decided to give it a whirl,” she shares. “Within three weeks, the program instructor pulled me aside and said this is what I was meant to do, that I needed to pursue a career as a designer, and that he’d help me get my start in any way he could. So, like I do with most everything in my world, I went all in and straight through all the degree programs — Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s. I got asked to redesign a nightclub while still working at Home Depot, which added up to working more than 18 hours a day!”
To help raise money for a local children’s charity and generate interest in her fledging design business, Heron contributed a “Redesign Your Home” package for the group’s fundraising auction. It was indeed a launchpad for her — in more ways than one.
“I was onstage as they auctioned off my package and it turned into a two-person bidding war,” she recalls. “A well-known local sports broadcaster was one of the bidders, and there was another bidder very far back in the room, but I couldn’t see who it was. I was thrilled at the prospect of doing a redesign at the home of this big local ‘name’ because of all of his connections — but the other person outlasted him and ended up as the highest bidder. It turned out, it was my Mom! She thought doing that would help me, not realizing how valuable that sportscaster’s connections could have been.”
In a twist of fate, a casting agent who was also at the auction approached Heron afterwards to do a screen test at a local TV production company. Comfortable in front of the camera, having been a debater and public speaking champion in high school, she was cast as a host on several series on HGTV in Canada and a Food Network series in the U.S.
That visibility – and the strengths she had gained from all of her experiences – were a great boost as she transitioned full-time into her design career.
“The variety of jobs I had and people I dealt with put me at ease in any environment,” Heron remarks. “I’m comfortable being a brand ambassador. I found my voice – which is what customers are hiring me for – and discovered that maintaining discipline in a classroom is very similar to keeping clients focused. I have an authenticity that people looking for design professionals seem to latch onto,” she explains, adding, “I only take projects that I feel are the right fit for my interest and skills — and that I can get excited about.”
Sourcing Unique Products
Renowned in design circles for her customized pieces and distinct styling, Heron prefers to be involved in literally every step of the process with her clients. “I am absolutely committed to having my own direct accounts with manufacturers,” she says. “I don’t shop retail. I travel the world for inspiration and go to High Point and other markets. I also use some antiques websites and Italian websites because they give me access to things I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. I look for pieces that have a bit of a story, with a patina or aged finish. I don’t want lighting fixtures to look like they just came out of a box.” Electrifying antiques is no problem either as Heron has them professionally certified to meet code.
“Having my own accounts [with manufacturers or importers] allows me way more control over how the look I want is achieved,” she notes. “If I am the person specifying it, I should be the one buying it. This gives my clients reassurance. Some of the manufacturers will even do custom pieces or let me work off a catalog piece and make modifications to make it my own. If there are problems, I’m going to have to fix them anyway.”
It’s a matter of pride for Heron. “My name is on this project. If a fixture is installed and doesn’t work out, that affects my reputation and client relationships,” she affirms. “By having those one-on-one relationships with manufacturers, they will often go all out to help me resolve any issues. One of my contacts literally looked through their entire warehouse for some lights I really wanted that no one could find — but I was determined, and I got my lights!”
Not that gaining the trust of manufacturers was easy or fast. “I needed to prove that they should take me seriously,” she recounts. “One thing that helped was the following I’ve built on social media. Manufacturers took a look at my number of followers and decided it’s worthwhile to work with me.”
Price & Service
Margin is another reason Heron chooses to work direct with manufacturers. “Maintaining that margin is what allows me to be profitable,” she explains. “If I only charged design fees, I wouldn’t make any money. In Canada, all the clients know that we’ll get 20-percent off at lighting showrooms — but you’re assigned someone to work with, and we may or may not click. Plus, they work retail hours, and that doesn’t meet what I need. Some of our multi-million-dollar projects have been going on for several years,” she asserts. “I’ve got so many moving parts that I need to constantly know what is going on, and my manufacturers keep me up to date with weekly updates. I’ve also got someone in my office who tracks shipments and arrivals of all of our products and confirms when everything is here for each particular job. That is so much more cost-effective because then we can arrange to have all the lighting delivered to the site in one load. If I’m working with a retailer, it’s not been my experience that I get that call.”
Service is highly important in this business, and Heron has found the showroom experience lacking. “They aren’t offering the same type of service that we offer to our clients,” she remarks. “A showroom salesperson just isn’t available when I need them and doesn’t have the answers…which means they have to contact the manufacturer. It often takes too long to get information, and if I don’t have it at my fingertips for my clients, I sound incompetent.”
For Heron’s design team, “At end of the day, we’d rather have fewer clients that give us great projects so we can truly be excited about what we’re doing and make an impact.” Instead of searching for new clients, most of Heron’s marketing efforts are targeted toward those she’s worked with before. “Some clients have been with us for 3 to 12 years. They’re just wonderful people and have become like family.”