Peg Conley
Peg Conley
Influencers 10 years ago No Comments

From interior design to graphic design, from practice to sales, from dealer to manufacturer, from commercial furniture to carpet, from Midwest to West Coast (and several places in between), Peg Conley has done it all. Almost. Now this Purdue University Interior Design graduate – who was only two courses short of an additional degree in Graphic Design – has refocused her diverse talents once more and is a full-time artist and entrepreneur with Words & Watercolors, a line of greeting cards showcasing her watercolor paintings. Those who have been in the interior design industry a while will relate to her journey, and those who are just starting out will learn about the varying opportunities it has to offer and why networking is key to getting where you want to go. Whichever category you fall into, you will certainly be inspired – not only by Peg’s uplifting messages, but also by the way in which she navigated the industry over the years and ultimately found her passion.

Tell us about your first steps after graduating from Purdue.

My first position right out of school was as a Graphic Designer for the Division of Forestry for the State of Indiana. It was a one-year, government-funded position. I was very lucky to be working with one of my best friends, who helped me get the job. She had been hired as an “Urban Forester”. I really enjoyed the position. I designed brochures, a bumper sticker, created the booth for the State Fair, took photos of trees, and sometimes just walked in the woods. It was an ideal job to help me transition from school to the work world.

Prior to the year being over, I began looking for another position and found an interior design posting in the Indianapolis Star Sunday Want Ads. Even back then it was common knowledge that you didn’t find a job out of the want ads, but I did! I interviewed and secured a position doing hospital interiors with a company called Hill-Rom in Batesville, Indiana. Hill-Rom designed (and still does) top of the line hospital beds, medical technology and furniture used in hospital rooms. At that time they offered interior design services to those hospitals that purchased their equipment. I enjoyed creating room schemes, learned about specifying furniture, textiles and discovered a bit of how politics plays out in a large company.

I was able to take a month off with no pay in July one summer. Going to Europe had always been a dream of mine. To see Ghiberti’s doors, Michelangelo’s David, and many other places I had studied about in college. I could wait no longer. I bought a Eurorail pass and with my college roommate (and others) we flew to Germany for an exciting 4-week adventure traveling to Germany, France, Ireland, Switzerland and Italy. I was a changed woman after a month of seeing so much history, museums, churches and even bathrooms. (I loved the design of the bathrooms!) I had chronicled my trip in my journal with sketches and notes plus captured the many sights on slides (this was way back in the day) on my little 35mm camera.

While on a boat on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, surrounded by mountains, I made the decision to “Go Out West”. Going to Europe was one dream I could cross off, now I wanted to do another: move to the mountains. I had never seen a mountain until I had gone on a ski trip to Breckenridge, Colorado, during spring break of my junior year at Purdue. Captivated by the unending view of the mountaintops from the ski lift, I decided then that someday I would move out west.

It was five years later and two months after returning from my European excursion when I quit my job at Hill-Rom for my 26th birthday present to myself, packed up my VW and headed out to Denver, where I had friends from Indiana who had already moved “Out West”. I didn’t have a job but I had my portfolio and my belief that I’d find one, which was naïve on my part because this was the fall of ’81 and the oil market had dropped, so the economy wasn’t great. Yet I did find a position with an architectural office that was based in Salt Lake City. They were just opening a small Denver office to work on the Caterpillar Dealership project that they had won. I learned about doing inventory of existing furniture at that position. I was also able to do some small space planning projects. This was all done prior to computers. One drew with their hands!

After a few months, I was asked to relocate to Salt Lake City as they had more work in that office. I was flown to Salt Lake where I fell in love with the Wasatch Front (the Rocky Mountains are literally in the back yard of Salt Lake City) and answered in the affirmative. My sister flew out and helped me make that 10-hour drive over mountain passes in my once again packed up VW Beetle.

After working for A&D firms, you moved over to the industry side, taking positions with furniture dealers, furniture and carpet manufacturers. Why and how did you accomplish these transitions?

Life is a journey, and looking back it is much easier to “connect the dots” as Steve Jobs talked about in his Stanford Commencement speech. The economy was still tenuous after I arrived in Salt Lake, and nine months later I lost my job at the architecture firm. It took a few months but I was able to find a position as an Interior Designer for the Herman Miller dealer in town, Henriksen Butler.

They were a small company that had just started a few years earlier, and I was the first full time designer they hired. I learned a great deal as I became an expert at systems furniture, specifically Action Office. Again, this was before computers, so all space planning, bubble diagramming, and drawing was done by hand. All the “parts and pieces” (as a friend used to call it) had to be counted by hand when generating estimates and purchase orders. I loved working for them. After awhile I was able to go out on the client calls and present my designs, and I found that I loved being in front of the client and instinctively knew the questions to ask for planning purposes.

I watched the two owners closely and learned a lot about the sales process as well. I had wanted to go into sales, as I saw the opportunity to make more money. Returning to work after my maternity leave provided the perfect time to transition from designer to sales. Having a design degree helped me immensely in my sales process because I wasn’t perceived as a “salesman”. I had learned the Herman Miller “consultive sales” role easily.

After six years with Henriksen Butler, my husband and I had made the decision to leave Salt Lake City. I began looking for another opportunity and found it with a growing Herman Miller dealer in Seattle, BiNW. I was lucky again to be connected to a great company and was hired to be one of their sales people in their Seattle office, one of their three locations.

I learned to enjoy “cold calling” in that job as I did not know anyone when I moved to that city. I called on facility managers, company owners and the A&D community. I used the Business Journal “Book of Lists” as a starting point for Industry’s to target. BiNW had a policy that salespeople could have their own sales assistant if they sold a certain dollar volume, and I was thrilled when I had help in managing my business. I worked on large accounts and began to facilitate teams of people that included project managers, designers and my assistant.

I was doing well and often received calls from recruiters but typically didn’t listen to them until one day a recruiter called for a position open with Kimball. Kimball was headquartered in Indiana, where I had grown up, and the thought of working with a manufacturer rather than a dealer intrigued me. I interviewed for the position and got it. It was challenging. I had no idea of the history and challenges with the dealers that Kimball worked with in the market.

After a rather tumultuous 18 months, I left Kimball to work for the large Steelcase dealer in town, Bank & Office Interiors. The owner recruited me, and I was thrilled to return to the world of the dealer that I knew so well. That job offered me the position to grow from Dealer Sales to the Sales Manager of New Business Development team. I had seven sales people reporting to me.

During that time I also grew close to my counterpart in the contract sales position. When he left to join DuPont Flooring Sales, DFS, he vowed I’d be coming with him. I told him “no thanks” as I didn’t want to keep making changes, but shortly thereafter I was going through my own personal changes of divorce and thought it might not be bad to switch up my work world too. So once again I left a job I enjoyed to start over. By this time I saw a pattern and called it “I grow and go”.

The flooring industry was in a state of flux and DuPont had just purchased a network of dealers across the country. I was with DFS for nearly three years when Knoll came calling. I didn’t know the Regional Manager of Knoll, but he was looking for a Senior Sales person and my name kept coming up on his radar. I politely thanked him declining interest, but he asked me to come in the showroom and meet him for coffee. How can one say no to the classics” I walked in, saw a Bertoia chair, and that was it. I began working for Knoll once we could get the package worked out.

Knoll did not have strong dealer relationships at that time. I worked on cultivating relationships with both the dealers and large-end users. I was very successful with some huge wins while at Knoll. It was always a collaborative team effort between the dealer personnel and our Knoll team. I loved working on large projects. We won the landmark Boeing headquarters move to Chicago project, along with a large law firm, a large biotech company and other smaller projects. I went after the Washington Mutual account as I knew the people at WaMu, and that they were ripe for leaving Herman Miller. It took 2-1/2 years and a lot of work but we secured the WaMu standards.

During this time the Regional Manager for Knoll, whom I adored, left to return to Wisconsin, and a new manager was brought in. We didn’t see eye to eye on things. My last year at Knoll was very challenging and difficult for a variety of reasons. Once again a phone call offered an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse. Someone I had worked with at DFS was now the A&D rep for Tandus, and she called me to tell me about a new position they had created: “You’d be perfect!” Tandus, comprised of C&A (carpet tiles), Monterey and Crossley (both broadloom) wanted someone to call on end-users and with my experience I was the perfect candidate.

The job was perfect for me at the time because I was going to be working from home. I no longer had an office to go to each day. At first I missed the camaraderie of an office but over time relished the freedom it offered. I joked that my kids and my cats became my coworkers. I was at Tandus for three years until political upheaval at the mill in Dalton, Georgia, caused my position and others similar to be eliminated.

Thankfully, my networking skills and my knowledge of both the office furniture and commercial carpet industry in place, I was hired within two weeks by Constantine Carpet. Again, someone I had worked with in the past referred me to Constantine. I had a choice of jobs offered to me and chose carpet again over a furniture dealer. With Constantine I called on both end-users and the A&D community. As I did with Tandus, I had both Washington and Oregon as territories to call on.

I would happily be still working for Constantine had I not gotten married (I’d been a single mom for 10 years) to a friend from high school who lived in San Francisco. I got married to Mark in the fall of 2007. He initially moved to Seattle and was able to transfer with his job but, for a variety of reasons, we decided to move to San Francisco. I sold my home, left my kids (now adults and on their own), my Sales Queen persona, and my friends and moved to SF, not sure of what I’d do next.

You now have Words & Watercolors, creating greeting cards featuring your watercolor paintings and inspirational messages. Please tell us what led you down this artistic path and why you decided to start your own business.

All the while I was selling product in Seattle, I was still painting and playing with my watercolors. I had always wanted to have a greeting card line. In the mid 90s I did introduce my first “Words & Watercolors” line of cards, but I was married at the time, had two young children and was in sales. Too much to do, something needed to give, and it was my greeting card side business.

peg_conley-cards.jpg Shortly thereafter, however, I found Brush Dance, a publisher in San Rafael, California. They licensed two of my designs for holiday cards in 1999. I grew within their line and by 2006 had a calendar called “In the Garden” published with them as well. I also had my artwork licensed for other product through Creative Connection, artists reps on the East Coast whom I found when walking Surtex / National Stationery Show one year.

After moving to SF, I stumbled about for a year trying to decide what to do next. It was 2009, the economy was in the tank, I couldn’t find a job in either commercial office furniture or flooring. I had wanted to do more with my art but also knew it would be hard work to develop a company and hoped to find some easier way (ha!). I considered licensing my artwork with a card line but when I discovered the challenges associated with the company I was considering I decided to do my own thing.

My neighbor in SF had been laid off from her position as a graphic designer and she said she could tutor me in InDesign and PhotoShop. So given all that, I embarked on resurrecting the Words & Watercolor line. It was (and continues to be) scary but also rewarding and fulfilling!

So many people dream of starting their own business unaware of all that is entailed. What has been your toughest challenge as an entrepreneur?

Hands down the biggest challenge is financing. My husband and I have been financing this through our own savings. After money, the second biggest challenge is growing the company in a sustainable way. Finding reps to take on the line, getting stores to order (and re-order), and adding products that make sense. I remind myself that I’m learning a new industry. I could go on and on…

Suffice it to say that I used to refer to myself as a “Sales Queen”, but I no longer feel like a Queen. More like a servant as I learn to serve my business, my reps, the stores that carry my line, etc.

What is a typical day like for you?

Up early and exercise. My husband drives to his gym (3 miles) to work out and I slog (slow jog) down to meet him. We ride home together, have breakfast and I begin working. No day is typical. I like to say I feel like a Dr. Seuss character with a number of different hats sitting atop my head. They are titled: Production, Artist, Accounts Payable, Sales, Sales Manager, Planning, Gift Shows, etc.

What’s the best advice that you could give someone who is thinking about pursuing a career in art or design?

Just do it! Don’t worry about what jobs you’ll find (or not) – follow your passion. Have FUN. Play with your creativity. Talk to anyone you can that is working in the field you are interested in. Be open to opportunities that come to you. Your journey will meander here and there and take you to places you can’t even imagine now.

Cultivate relationships with everyone you meet. Be authentic as well. Love what you are doing and love those you are working with and for. As you can tell from my story that one day someone could be calling you to ask you to come work for them! Networking is a skill. Learn it and live it!

Are there any final thoughts you would like to leave with P&C readers?

I believe in the concept of giving back. I read a book about Paul Newman’s company, Newman’s Own. It discusses the challenges they encountered when they started and how they came to give away their profits, and it inspired me to donate a percentage of my profits as well. The two charities that I chose are San Francisco-based non-profits that work with kids to provide art education: The Imagine Bus Project and ArtSeed.

Want to connect with Peg or see her work? You can do either through her website [wordsandwatercolors.com] or her blog [aspiretoyourdream.wordpress.com]. Better yet, meet her in person this summer at these upcoming shows: