The first week at a new job is always a little strange, but Marc Szafran’s was downright surreal. He took the helm as president of iconic design brand Holly Hunt on March 16, just three days before shelter-in-place orders began rippling across the country. “By March 20, I had closed down the central [Chicago] office and showrooms,” he tells Business of Home. “We had moved to a remote and virtual model.”
Not many new executives have to pivot to an entirely new way of doing business on their fifth day in charge, but Szafran seems to be taking it in stride. The coronavirus, he says, won’t force Holly Hunt to make any abrupt changes in strategy. Rather, the company will keep going in the same direction—only faster. “COVID-19 has accelerated both what was happening in the industry and what needed to happen at Holly Hunt,” he says.
More on that in a second. First, some bona fides: Szafran comes to Holly Hunt after two successive experiences running operations for well-known designers. In 2004, he began working with New York interior designer Thom Filicia, helping to develop the Queer Eye star’s product business (Szafran also has some entertainment law experience and acted as Filicia’s manager for a time). More recently, he was president and COO of Los Angeles–based designer Michael S. Smith’s company. Again, there he helped develop a product line and streamline operations.
“What I loved about working [for Smith] was that it wasn’t just the core business of interior design—he also had showrooms, manufacturing and all the fundamentals of a great business, and he was looking to grow.”
In short: Szafran brings 15 years of experience on the operations side of businesses fronted by famously creative people. At Holly Hunt—where Hunt herself still plays a creative role, and SVP Joannah Kornak oversees creative direction—he’ll be on familiar ground. The difference is scale: With 300-plus employees and 13 showrooms, Holly Hunt is a bigger, more complex ship to steer.
In the early days of his tenure, Szafran’s approach has been to focus on the fundamentals. Especially in a topsy-turvy time, the most important thing Holly Hunt can do, he says, is not to explore new revenue channels or reinvent the wheel, but rather to prioritize relationships with designers.
“I know what decorators have to deal with, and I know that they are as good as the support they’re relying on,” he says. “I’ve looked at ways to improve upon our customer service and our support. From that, a lot flows: faster lead times, more innovation in products, showrooms being equipped properly to serve designers no matter what the situation. When you have an organization as large as Holly Hunt, it’s important to make sure that one-on-one connection with the client doesn’t get lost.”
Which is not to say there won’t be a little wheel-reinvention going on. One of Szafran’s key initiatives will be to give the brand’s website a much-needed glow-up. A new version will launch in August, he says, with tools that allow designers to monitor quotes and track orders. A following phase of development will see the the company incorporate e-commerce.
Plans to overhaul the site had already been underway, but the closure of showrooms across the country injected urgency into the process. “There are a number of areas where we have pulled back on expansion and growth, given what’s happening in the market, and we’ve scaled the business accordingly,” he says. “Then there are a number of areas where we’ve redoubled both our resources and efforts. One of them is a digital transformation.”
With the new site, says Szafran, will come an uptick in the volume of the brand’s quick-ship and in-stock selections. However, don’t expect Holly Hunt to become an e-commerce company. Pandemic or no, Szafran is bullish on the power of a physical showroom. Holly Hunt will unveil a spacious new showroom in the Boston Design Center once local restrictions are lifted, and a new 20,000-square-foot location in Los Angeles will open in 2021.
Of course, both projects had been in the works well before COVID-19 struck, but Szafran is open to further expansion. “Big picture, showrooms are a substantial component of our business model,” he says. “It’s part of my philosophy [that] designers need showrooms, they want showrooms. [Showrooms] will have a different importance as we move into the digital age, but at the end of the day, we believe that designers and their clients want to see the product in a beautiful, inspirational environment.”
That’s true, he says, of both established designers like his former business partners, as well as the rising generation. Indeed, keeping Holly Hunt top of mind for younger designers is a high priority. “The overarching direction from Holly was: We want to ensure relevancy, to address what’s most important, [including] the design and the quality—being best-in-class for all of that.”
A tall order even during normal times, but a health crisis and a chaotic environment for business certainly ups the ante. Szafran, however, is optimistic that multiline showrooms in general, and Holly Hunt in particular, can thrive. “I think the multiline showroom model is a great model. I think it serves designers really well—you just have to be smart about it. It can’t be run in the old-school ways that showrooms were being run,” he says. “Those that can adapt and innovate … will do well. But it doesn’t just happen.”
Homepage photo: Marc Szafran; courtesy of Holly Hunt