| Feb 28, 2014 |
How to run a long-lasting design business
Boh staff
By Staff

Not many firms can boast that 18 designers have spent over a decade working for them. Cullman & Kravis can. In business for over 30 years, the firm’s fearless leader, Ellie Cullman, shared her secrets to success in a panel discussion at the Decoration and Design Building earlier this week.

Cullman and two of her design associates, Claire Ratliff and Allison Davis, sat down with lifestyle blogger Stacy Bewkes of Quintessence to dissect how the team works together, how it’s lasted all these years and what truly makes the business thrive.

From left: Stacy Bewkes, Ellie Cullman, Claire Ratliff, Allison Davis

“Ellie treats everyone like they are her equal,” said Ratliff. “And she gives credit where credit is due.”

The business is run in a collaborative way. They have lunch together, they go out at night together, and it’s more like a family than a work environment.

“With our younger associates, we can usually tell within three months if they are going to be a good fit or not,” said Cullman.

The firm works on a “divide and conquer” basis. The office is broken up into three teams, each of which has senior designers, junior designers and assistants. “Everyone gets a hand in the job,” said Davis.

With multiple large projects going on in the firm, the key to completing them and completing them on time is organization within each of the design teams. The designers walked the audience through what they call their “cut sheets,” which meticulously list each and every item that will be purchased, how much it costs and where it will go.

“We take [clients] shopping with us,” said Ratliff. “It’s so important to stay organized and know where each little piece is since there are so many moving parts to a design process.”

Cullman explained that since she’s worked through two recessions she’s learned that being fiscally responsible is key. Every piece that is purchased for each project is always accounted for. When doing a budget, the design team will give a low price point, an estimate, a high price point and then will leave a space for the actual price to be filled in.

As they progress through the sourcing process, they are filling in prices and they know what range in which they have to stay. “We’ve never gone over budget unless the client requests something new,” said Cullman.

The budget sheets also highlight antiques and art purchased for the house with the final price for the client’s insurance purposes. “We really think about the client's needs,” said Cullman.

At Cullman and Kravis, there are no accountants or finance people who work on budgeting. Each design team is responsible for their own projects from start to finish. “That way we know nothing gets missed,” said Davis.

Cullman & Kravis design

Cullman also allows the younger designers to be hands-on when it comes to projects. “We do projects for repeat clients all the time who just want one room, or their children want a small space done,” said Cullman. “We don’t turn those away. By taking these on we can have a more junior designer complete the project and it's a great learning experience. You have to know how to do a project from start to finish.”

Aside from treating her employees well, Cullman also shared tips about treating clients well. “When we take on a new client, we need to figure out their ‘zip code,’” she said. “We take them to art shows and antique shows and shopping with us so we can get to know what they like. Once we have a sense, then we can do the rest.”

Davis explained that they also do what they call a “love it or hate it meeting,” where they show photos of things quickly and have the client declare whether they love or hate it.

Cullman & Kravis design

When it comes to buying the products, Cullman has a strict policy that she must see it first. “Never by from just looking at photographs,” she said. “You always have to see it first.”

Cullman said that she does shop online at places like 1stdibs but she still orders it and looks at it in person before she decides to use it.

“We need to see the scale and how it will work with other pieces,” said Cullman. “You just can’t see that online.”

Another thing that is extremely important to Cullman and her designers is completion. “Every single tabletop must be thought out and beautiful, book shelves must have real books and items on them and there must be art on the walls and flowers in the vases,” she said.

The design teams always leave an extremely healthy budget for accessories, because they are often forgotten about — and she feels they make the rooms complete. “You can’t have a beautiful shell with nothing in it,” said Cullman.

When it comes to installing the house, the Cullman & Kravis team asks that the family doesn’t come by the house at all for at least two weeks.

Cullman & Kravis' 2013 Holiday House room celebrating 30 years in business

“We need that element of surprise,” said Ratliff. “There’s nothing like the big reveal. We cry and they cry.”

Before the installation is complete Cullman and her team want the house to be absolutely livable. “We bring toilet paper, candy bowls, fresh flowers and dove soap,” said Ratliff. “We want it finished from top to bottom. The client can take a shower when they walk in the door. This makes them extremely happy.”

Cullman attributes her success to her ability to retain employees, stay organized, and make the clients happy. Her design motto is “good, better, best.” “Every room should have something that is best,” she said. Since the teams have a strict budget, there is always a price point, but over the years they’ve learned how to deal with that.

“You can use things that are good, things that are better and one thing that is best,” said Davis. “The art of mixing is really key.”

“Save the best items for the public rooms, that’s how you get the biggest bang for your buck,” said Cullman. “We cut corners in ways that no client would ever be able to see. If you use just one best piece in a room, it will truly elevate the entire space.”

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.