Home furnishings CEO Judy George talks with Fortune about life as a working mom, cultivating a superhuman drive to succeed, and overcoming even the most public of failures.
In 2008, it looked like it was the end of the road for Judy George. The company she started, furniture store Domain Home, had succumbed to the financial crisis. Though George was still the CEO, the company’s new private equity owners were taking it into Chapter 11 to recoup whatever they could. But the finishing school-educated mother of four has never stayed down for long. Her recovery time from the bankruptcy and personal fallout? About a week. Then it was back to work on a new company.
Today, George is 72 and the owner of Judy George International, a new home furnishings venture she started with her partner, designer Kim Salmela. The company’s mattresses are in 600 Sleepy’s stores, and it has plans to license a range of home furnishings designs. The company projects revenue this year of $35 million. George talked with Fortune about life as a working mom, cultivating a superhuman drive to succeed, and overcoming even the most public of failures.
When I was 16, I interviewed to be the national junior spokesperson for the March of Dimes. It was right after the polio epidemics, and I just wanted to do something. I didn’t join on the national level because my mother wouldn’t let me travel, but I became the New England March of Dimes spokesperson. That was the beginning really of my love of presenting ideas and getting feedback that made me feel good. I don’t want to speak for everybody, but I think that sometimes entrepreneurs are very needy people. And the need isn’t necessarily emotional. It’s the need to do something important in their life. I was very needy.
I got married at 19 after I completed finishing school at the ChandlerSchool for Women. My mother wanted me to get an education in attracting a rich husband. That’s what finishing schools in those days were all about. So I went absolutely crazy with boredom.
That was when I began creating ideas and sending them out to companies. I would write down pitches for products, TV shows, newspaper columns. By the time I was 26, I had four children, a year-and-a-half apart. I sent in these ideas to companies really everywhere just to keep myself sane. Two of them caught on: A television show liked my idea and I became a regular guest, and I started writing a column for The Herald called “Decorator in the House.” I always felt that if you were poor, you could create one room and make it feel good, and you wouldn’t feel poor when you walked into your home. That’s what the column was about. The vision behind everything was to take what only the rich and wealthy could have, and bring it to a price point where the masses could afford it.
So here I am, a country girl, really, married with four kids. When I applied for my first job [as director of interior design for Hamilton’s Furniture in Braintree, Mass.], the owner — George Hamilton — originally said no because I’d never had experience. I thought,“I have to get this man’s attention.” I was thinking about that on the beach with my kids one day and I saw this plane fly overhead advertising something, I think it was Bacardi Rum. Everybody was looking at it.
So I went and hired a Hawker Beechcraft plane with a banner that said, “George, Judy George will make you millions.” And I flew it over his office every day for a week until he had the police contact me for disturbing the peace. The next week, he hired me.
Eventually his company bought the furniture store Scandinavian Design, and that’s where I worked my magic. Robert Darvin, the CEO, gave me the real chance of a lifetime. Working together, in less than six years we went from $3 million to about $89 million in revenue. But then I started bringing in all these ideas again, ideas for a new store.
One day, I drove to work, got in, and was fired. Robert said to me, “You have your own dreams. They’re not mine.”
I was heartbroken. There’s a lot of shame about being fired, particularly for women. I never thought I would survive it. Then I started putting a business plan together.
This time, I went all on my own. I hired the best law firm. I went to the best accountants. I went to Deloitte & Touche, and we made a deal that if they helped me put this business plan together, I would make them the accountants, but I couldn’t pay them upfront. They did it. They took a risk. And they were my accountants for 20 years.
For startup money, I went to Bain Capital, where I met Mitt Romney. I love Mitt Romney. I’m not political. I’ve kept out of that. But Mitt took a chance where nobody would at Bain. And he was relatively new there. What I think Mitt did is he picked up on my passion and drive, and said, “If anybody can do it, she’ll do it.”
It wasn’t because I was a genius. It wasn’t because I had the best idea in the world. I think the most important thing I ever did was treat people right. And guess who got me the money? It was the manufacturers and the employees who spoke so highly of me when Bain called and interviewed them. Within four years, I had $30 million in startup funding for the company.
We open Domain in 1986, and it really took off. The design was very different than Scandinavian [George’s former employer], which is Scandinavian. I was more European. Everybody I knew wanted to be in Paris, Italy, or Spain. And so I took all those countries and developed the look.
The revenue was $68 million when I sold the company in 2002. It was one of the top furniture companies in the country. We sold it for $30 million, and I didn’t keep the money. About 20 people at Domain benefited tremendously from the sale, because I knew I wanted to do something else, and if I was ever going to do that, I needed people to speak well of me.
Domain changed hands again in 2006, when the bottom starting falling out of the industry, but the company that eventually bought it wasn’t in it for the long term. They came in, and they wanted quick and easy money, and there was no way in the furniture industry that was ever going to happen. It was one of the worst economic climates for the industry since the Great Depression. They got impatient. Domain filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
I tried to go out and buy it back, but no banks were open to anything like that. It was the second time in my life I felt shame — disappointing manufacturers who cared about me, disappointing customers who cared about me. I worked tirelessly from my home trying to get goods and furniture to people, begging everybody who would help to get me trucks.
I decided to go away for a week and stay with my sister and brother-in-law when the news broke. As I’m getting on a plane, somebody’s handing everybody The Globe, the Sunday newspaper. And as I’m walking down the aisle, people were looking up at me as if they recognized me. I was on the front page of The Globe, with the whole story.
I just slunk down in my seat. And the guy opposite me says, “Is this you?” And it was so amazing. He said, “I’m so sorry. I know, judging from reading this article, how hard this must be for you.”
I went away for a week and came back and started on Judy George International, my new branding and design company. By the time I came back, I was ready to go to town.
Now, I’m working on the biggest deal of my life, which is Sleepy’s. You know, people say, “What’s so exciting about selling mattresses?” But we’re creating more than mattresses. We’re creating the whole top of the bed. They’re allowing us to do headboards, something Sleepy’s has never done. We’ll be in 800 stores.
So I look back, I look at my age — I’m 72 — and I don’t want to change who I am. I don’t want people to think I’m younger. I’m not going to get a face-lift I have more energy than I’ve had in 25 years. I’ve been given a Sleepy’s management team. I love them. They love me. And they’re giving me, along with my partner Kim, the chance of a lifetime to do something people only dream about.
Research everything. I do huge amounts of background research before every meeting. With investors and potential partners, I find something they’ve said and I quote it back to them. I’ll even pay researchers a lot of money to find out whatever I can about the people I’m talking to and their company. When I started Domain, I took a loan out on my house so I could hire a company to do market research that I could present at investor meetings.
Look at failure as an opening. I used to tell people they’ve got to get uncomfortable with their situation. If you’re making too much money, if you’re not taking enough risks, you can put off really great ideas with the notion, “I’ll do it later,” and it just doesn’t happen. There’s nothing like getting fired to get you uncomfortable enough to go out and live your dream.
Take the kids. My secret weapon was my family always. My whole life of work I’ve brought my kids everywhere with me. I needed to do that to prevent guilt and burnout, but it also taught me organization and people management. Now, it’s my grandchildren that I go everywhere with.