In our industry, the name Holly Hunt is synonymous with exquisitely designed furnishings and textiles. You’ll find our team selecting at least one piece from the Holly Hunt collection for nearly every home we design, and it’s pure joy seeing each come to life within a space! As you can imagine, I jumped at the opportunity to spend time getting to know the bold woman behind the brand. Entrepreneur, mother of three, and an industry leader passionate about the quality design experience, Holly Hunt is everything you imagine she might be and so much more. Let’s dive in!
Marie Flanigan: I am so thrilled to be speaking with you today! Is it true that you used to live in Texas?
Holly Hunt: I actually grew up in Texas and my very first job was in Houston at the Foley’s department store’s executive training program – back when they used to have those! That was a big deal back then and, following that, I moved on to New York and from New York I went on to Chicago.
MF: I would love to hear more about your personal story and how it led to the creation of the Holly Hunt brand. What is the source of your vision and passion?
HH: I tell this story quite a bit but I found myself in the middle of a divorce and I had a 4-year-old, a 6-year-old, and a 7-year-old, and I needed a job. I originally looked at rehabbing houses, particularly in Palm Beach, but the sale of the home I was hoping for fell through and I found myself in Chicago still hunting for a job. At that time, I was a client of a showroom in Merchandise Mart because of the houses, apartments, and offices I had designed for my husband and myself, and I decided that I was going to buy that little showroom. It was a big, hairy plan and I had nothing in favor. It wasn’t because I had some fabulous idea of growing a billion dollar business. I just needed a job and I knew I could do what those showrooms were doing better than they were all doing it. And that’s how it all started!
MF: What did you feel you could improve upon and how did you do it better?
HH: I always placed a high value on customer service because of how little service I found out there at the time. Some, like Karl Springer, were very good, but many of the showrooms at the time were cluttered and service was mediocre. I knew that if I could offer premier product paired with extraordinary service and beautiful presentation, it would be a success. I spent a lot of money on interior architecture and design within my showroom versus just throwing product into it.
MF: Your story is so inspiring to so many, especially women! You’ve encountered great growth in your business over the years – can you speak to the key elements you implemented that you believe have placed you at the forefront of our industry for decades?
HH: When I started, I recall thinking, “How am I going to make this better?” I believe that you have to have a very clear point of view, and looking around the Chicago showrooms and across the country, there was very little vision and no clarity. It was a time when everything was very, very traditional. Everyone was doing layers upon layers and I saw a need to declutter. And nothing was transparent. Pricing was a secret and sometimes the markups were horrendous! Everything was trade only and nobody was paying attention to pricing and that’s just the way it worked. With my retail experience, I decided it would be so much better for everyone if everything was more transparent because it all just seemed kind of messy. I believed that with a little clarity of vision and new, interesting products, clients would come. And I think that worked out very well.
MF: Do you feel like your point of view and the style of your products have stayed consistent over time or do you feel as though you continue to evolve?
HH: Of course it changes – everybody changes! But I think there was always a clear point of view and you can find that point of view threading through from the vendors I originally chose to represent down to the pieces we design and craft today. Whether selling traditional pieces or more modern ones, I’ve always maintained a focus on high-quality furnishings and textiles. There’s definitely a vision that runs through it all and I don’t think it’s become drastically different over the years, but I do believe that it’s grown.
MF: Well, our firm loves specifying your products because the attention to detail is always exquisite! There are certain brands that have an unmatched level of quality that we know we can trust, and that’s why I wanted to feature you on this series. I feel strongly that you’ve done a wonderful job building a powerhouse brand in this industry.
HH: Thank you! I’m so happy to hear that because it’s the whole purpose of what I do! If I can’t provide the best quality products, then why am I in the business? I’ve thought that way since the beginning.
MF: When I saw your apartment in Architectural Digest, I was blown away! It’s so stunning! What was that process like? Did you work with someone or did you design it yourself?
HH: No, I did it myself! It’s an apartment in a 1916 building I purchased after my younger son graduated from college. It had been redone a little bit but it still needed a good deal of work, so I gutted it completely in 2008 and moved across the street to the Palmolive building to wait the 1 – 2 years it would take for me to rebuild it. Then everything fell apart in September 2008 and I didn’t touch it again for 2 years. Everything was in upheaval and business was crazy, but I finally decided to go back in and redo the interior architecture. It’s still a more traditional building and I didn’t aim to modernize my apartment to a great degree. It’s actually a mix of my personal style – not too traditional and not extremely contemporary.
MF: I saw that you sold your company to Knoll in 2014. How did you decide to make that decision and how did your life change once you did?
HH: I figured I would be doing this forever, so I wasn’t in the market to sell, but somebody came to me expressing great interest in buying us out. One of my board members at the time suggested that we hear out the offer knowing that we could always walk away. Well, the numbers came in much higher than I could have ever expected! It was a considerable offer and they promised that they would allow Holly Hunt to remain a stand-alone company which has been primarily true. Being part of a public company is a very different experience than being your own private, entrepreneurial business!
MF: I’m sure it is and I would love to hear what your typical day is like now versus before.
HH: Before, I walked in every day worrying about sixty things! What are the current issues? What needs to be done about them? What are we doing next? What’s currently in design? The whole thing! I had a very good team that I could trust and I encouraged very active, entrepreneurial behavior, but I always had my hands in everything. I really didn’t have to worry about accounting or HR very much because everyone did their job so well. But there were always issues with design and production. There was always a pile of stuff to do and I loved it all! After selling, they asked me to stay on and I’ve really enjoyed it. They’ve hired a new president who I think will be a strong leader for this team whether I’m here or not, but I love that I’m able to be so actively involved.
MF: I bet it’s freed you up to focus on the pieces of the company you truly love!
HH: Yes, I still have my hands in a little bit of everything, but now it’s primarily the creative and design components! I love the product development and the showrooms. When you start a business and build it up, you basically learn how to do everything. Some pieces you’re naturally better at doing, so you hire people you trust to do the other things you’re not as strong at. I’ve found that the smarter, better people you can hire, the easier your life will be, so surround yourself with people who are better than you at all sorts of things!
MF: Speaking of building, we heard that you opened a showroom in London.
HH: We did open in London and that took way too long! We were going to open there 10 years ago but we never found a place that was big enough and everything was so expensive, so we opened in Brazil instead. I didn’t figure out early enough that the tax and government situation there were impossible to deal with and the year I sold to Knoll, we decided to let the Brazil showroom go. Sometimes things just don’t work out and you have to pick up the pieces and move on to the next thing. We already had a lot of business coming out of London – they would come over to New York to buy and they all spoke English which makes things a lot easier! So, we knew there would be business there.
HH: Funny story – we were working with a very good PR firm there and I was having lunch with the woman who owns it talking about opening in London. I had been complaining about how all of the spaces there were too small and expensive and how my furniture was too big for the spaces and she said, “Holly, things are not going to get any larger and they’re not going to get cheaper either. You may as well do it!” So, I called my guys that afternoon and everything went from there.
MF: I can only imagine the logistics that go behind growing and managing such a large company.
HH: There’s only one way to do it – you have to have a lot of good people and know that you’re going to make mistakes. The idea is to fix them and move on! But it’s the passion, commitment, and pride that your employees share that makes any business work. Along with offering the best product and best service experience. If you have the best product and service, the money will come; never worry about the money first. Looking back, there was natural growth because our team had a good time building this business together. I loved my associates and sales team and we loved the business we were in. We were very proud of the difference we were making in each showroom.
MF: What’s next for you? What do you see on the horizon?
HH: I’m open to the universe and we’ll see what happens! I’m committed to staying on with Knoll for another year which is exciting and then I’ll be finishing my house in Aspen. I have 3 sons and I’m a grandmother now, so we we’ll see. I have no doubt that it will be something fun!
MF: Sounds wonderful and I would love to hear more about your home in Aspen – I’m sure it will be stunning!
HH: It’s a big house! I currently have a townhouse in Aspen and I’ve been going down there for a long time. I decided that, after selling the company, I would build a house there! I bought the property 3 years ago so I’ve been procrastinating but things are moving forward now. We’ve been in permitting for 3 or 4 months now and we’re hoping to a break ground in October!
MF: We’ll be staying tuned for more on that and here’s a bit more Holly Hunt eye candy before we go: