magazine | Feb 5, 2020 |
This designer is taking her firm global—by franchising it

Houston-based designer Jillian O’Neill reveals how she turned her interior design business into a first-of-its-kind franchise across two continents.

Baskin-Robbins, Dairy Queen and designer Jillian O’Neill have something in common, and it’s not just being sweet as spun sugar. They’re all franchises.

O’Neill launched her eponymous design firm in 2005 in Chicago and spent more than a decade making a name for her easy, elegant interiors—in time, building her business from a solo endeavor to a team of up to six. In 2013, when her husband’s job took the family to the Houston suburbs, she reopened the firm in Texas. It wasn’t until O’Neill began developing a furniture line a few years later that she realized she might be ready to pursue a new passion within the industry.

The solution? Turning her firm—renamed the Jillian O’Neill Collective—into a franchise, with additional locations in Chicago and London helmed by former members of her team. “Though I’m flattered that this [has been called] the first design franchise, hospitality and commercial firms have been doing this forever with offices around the world,” she says. But the truth is, the model is relatively unheard of in the residential space—and an alluring option for designers feeling pulled in too many directions as they grow their firms.

Professional reinvention tracks for O’Neill, who had multiple careers before landing on decorating. “I was a sixth-grade math teacher, a competitive golfer, and a runway model with Ford,” she recalls. “I loved design, but didn’t know how to translate that into a job.” She enrolled at the now-defunct Harrington College of Design in Chicago, then founded her own firm in her final semester. O’Neill fell into her first project—a two-year, 5,200-square-foot residential new-build for a young family—through a mutual friend, and the rest is history. The project, which appeared in Chicago Home + Garden, launched her career.

The designer’s trademark look was heavily influenced by her fashion days, albeit with a family-friendly twist. “I didn’t love the fashion world, I did it to pay for design school,” she says of her stint on the runway for the likes of Armani, Gucci and Oscar de la Renta. “But the textiles and the form and the attention to detail were almost a better design school than design school. Just wearing those clothes influenced my design aesthetic completely.” With some 80 percent of her clients being young families with children (and as a mother of four herself), O’Neill carved out a niche pairing high-quality design with a livable sensibility. “I was upholstering these gorgeous $3,000 dining chairs in Holly Hunt’s outdoor fabrics because they wore so well,” she recalls. “Gabriel Scott had a beautiful dining table—perfect for kids because it’s kind of indestructible—and I went all the way up to Montreal just to specify the perfect marble for the top.”

As her furniture line, the Jillian O’Neill Collection, began to take shape, she realized it was time to shift her attention away from the residential design firm she had spent nearly two decades growing. “When I launched my furniture collection, I made a really conscious decision: I’m going to fully move to this,” says O’Neill. “But as much as I knew that’s what I wanted to do, I was still trying to figure out how to keep my hands in the interiors world.”

The idea for the expansion came up organically in conversation with former colleagues Jane Thorburn (who had recently moved to London) and Kelly Barnett (who was still in Chicago). “Around the same time, both of them asked me, ‘Do you think I should go work for a firm, or start my own business?’” recalls O’Neill. “I didn’t have a great answer.” In thinking about how best to guide them, she chafed at the idea of either designer joining another firm in a less-senior role. But she also knew firsthand that launching your own firm involves a mammoth pile of work. “And it’s kind of an island—it’s a lonely endeavor,” she says. “It got me thinking: What if there was a way for us to all work together [again], support each other and collaborate without competition?” Within two weeks, she had a business plan.

The Jillian O’Neill Collective functions similarly to any other franchise: Barnett and Thorburn run their own firms in Chicago and London under the name O’Neill had been building for nearly 15 years. “I get a percentage of the money that comes in, but I also pay for back office support and marketing,” explains O’Neill. But when it comes to projects, O’Neill is as hands-off as Thorburn and Barnett want her to be. “We’re all really close, so if there’s something that they want to consult with me on, I’m there for them,” she says. “It’s very informal.”

“Every designer wants autonomy—to have the chance to live out their creative voice—yet collaborate with like-minded talents. I tried to build a firm that I would have wanted to join.”

For Barnett and Thorburn, the arrangement has led to fulfillment and success. “I’ve always admired her eye for design and business savvy, and was honored when she asked me to reopen a Chicago office under her name,” says Barnett, who had worked for O’Neill for four years. “It is a smart model, because it gives designers support and structure while simultaneously offering the autonomy a creative often desires.”

Thorburn, a native Australian who worked for O’Neill in Houston for four years, also embraced the opportunity to rejoin the firm in a new capacity: “Jillian and I worked really well together, but I very reluctantly had to resign when my husband got a job in London in 2017,” she recalls. “When she offered me the opportunity to continue working with her from the other side of the pond, I jumped at it.”

Having a global footprint has also been a godsend for creativity—and a way to actually be in several places at once. “Jane can pop over to the London Design Festival to discover new sources that Kelly and I can specify,” says O’Neill, who doesn’t fret about maintaining a unified design scheme across the continents. After years of working together, she finds that there’s a semblance of continuity. “I look up to their design aesthetic as much as I hope they look up to mine,” she says. 

Though franchising seems like an invention that came about with the advent of the mini mall a century ago, its history stretches to medieval Europe, when breweries enlisted regional taverns to market their drinks in exchange for financial backing. According to the International Franchise Association, Isaac M. Singer started the practice in the U.S. in the 1850s with a slew of sovereign offices for his sewing machine company. Since then, franchises from UPS to Ace Hardware have evolved to sit on seemingly every other corner; in 2018, franchises grew faster than the U.S. economy.

“She’s found a way to leverage her design abilities, taken a model more often applied to other businesses, and put it to use in the design world,” notes New York–based architect Thomas A. Kligerman, who got to know O’Neill when they became members of the same Design Leadership Network forum in 2017. “Most of us feel like we have to be hands-on every second of every project, but her business empowers other like-minded people to create.”

For O’Neill and her team, the concept is chockablock with perks. “I love that we have [each other] to share successes and struggles with and gather inspiration from,” says Barnett. Thorburn agrees: “It really is the best of both worlds,” she says. “I get to dictate my own workload, daily schedule and creative process, but also know I have the complete support of Jillian and Kelly whenever I need a hand.”

It’s not just design advice they’re swapping. Being part of a larger company also means trading tips on how to navigate a difficult meeting or discuss fees with clients. “Our strength and value as a firm and the way we’re proposing our services is backed by a company-wide fee structure and contract, which protects us from clients trying to amend or negotiate our contract.”

O’Neill herself is deeply immersed in the furniture line, which has grown to include an assortment of customizable to-the-trade seating options and case goods; she also takes on a limited number of design projects in Houston and dedicates one day a week to the Collective; the three also convene on Skype once a month. For the past two years, the trio have also met up for annual retreats—first in Palm Beach, then in Paris. “We went to Paris Déco Off, but we spent our first 48 hours in an Airbnb knocking out questions like, What do we want to change in the contract? How do we get a more consistent voice in our social media?” says O’Neill. “I think company retreats are trending a little bit within the design industry, but they’re especially important for us, being across the world from each other.”

And yes, O’Neill can envision more offices on the horizon. “I would definitely encourage somebody to think outside the box like this,” she says. “Every designer wants autonomy—to have the chance to live out their creative voice—yet collaborate with like-minded talents. I tried to build a firm that I would have wanted to join.”

Homepage photo: Jane Thorburn, Jillian O’Neill and Kelly Barnett | Kallima Photography

This article originally appeared in Winter 2020 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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