THE RAFFERTYS: IBB DESIGN
Beth Rafferty started her interior design business from her home 33 years ago, when her daughter Shay was just 2 years old. Rafferty’s first clients were attorneys and plastic surgeons who hired her to design their offices—and then their homes, vacation homes, planes, and RVs.
By the time Shay was 10, she was “going to market” with her mom at the Dallas Market Center and tossing in her two cents on projects. At age 13 Shay started her own linen business, which was later folded into the company.
“Shay is an only child, and when I was working out of the home, the business was always there,” Rafferty says. “She would see the projects I was working on and she would add her own interpretation.”
“I always hoped she would come into the business with me,” Rafferty adds, “but when she was in high school she said ‘No, you work too hard. That’s not what I want to do.’ ”
Geyer changed her mind after graduating from college in 2001, joining IBB Design Fine Furnishings as a professional interior designer. “My parents never forced me into it,” she says. “They always encouraged me to do my own thing. But it was home for me and where I was comfortable.”
Today the $20 million company is housed in a nine-year-old, 40,000-square-foot furniture store and design studio in Frisco. A total of 49 employees, including 26 designers, work under the IBB umbrella, which includes Sunrise Blinds, a blind and window-covering company started by Rafferty’s husband, Robert Rafferty, and a design office in Houston.
IBB offers a selection of designer name-brand home furnishings that can be purchased directly “off the floor.” It also provides design services, including in-home design consultations, space planning, and special-order furnishings for high-profile clients including CEOs, celebrities, and professional athletes in North Texas and across the country.
Rafferty and Geyer personally travel to locations such as Beaver Creek, Colo., and Bermuda to oversee design projects for their mostly referral clientele.Some clients prefer to pick out specialty items from the showroom, while others “don’t want anything to do with it,” Geyer says. “They just want it to be beautiful. There’s a lot of trust there.”
As marketing director, Geyer, 35, helps foster relationships and make connections in the community through her charity work and as the design expert for the last seven years on TV’s Good Morning Texas. Her technological savvy through the use of blogs and social media has helped the company garner national exposure. When IBB photographs a project with several brands in the shot, for example, Geyer alerts the brands’ public relations people.
“Working with the younger generation, you see the differences in their business connections and the way they do business through the Internet and social media,” Rafferty says. “Shay has brought that to the company. She’s brought in younger clients. It’s a giant asset to look at it through the younger generation’s point of view.”
Now in her early 60s, Rafferty doesn’t plan to retire for at least another decade. But she’s encouraging Geyer to learn the business side, including dealing with vendors and managing inventory online, so she can take over the business eventually.
“The main market is in High Point, [N.C.], and we usually take a team of 16 people,” Rafferty says. “This year, for the first time in 20 years, I didn’t go to market. Shay led the team and was in charge of the buying and getting everybody in the right place at the right time. I trust her completely.
“She’s very motivated,” Rafferty adds. “ I don’t have to tell her do this, do that. She’ll be the first one here and the last one to leave.”
Geyer, for her part, appreciates how her mother runs the business. She says Rafferty is fair, hands-on but not micromanaging, and treats employees like family with a focus on work-life balance.
“I’m really proud of the legacy my mom has created, so I hope I can live up to what she’s created,” Geyer says. “I’m excited to take over the business one day, and hopefully my daughters will want to work here as well.” — KAREN NIELSEN
THE FREEMANS: THE FREEMAN CO.
The lines between family and business have always been blurred for Carrie Freeman Parsons. She used to spend summers working at The Freeman Co., where members of the company’s management team were her uncles.
“Growing up in the business, what I liked the most were the people,” says Freeman Parsons, now vice chairman at the Dallas-based company.
Her father, Donald “Don” Freeman Jr., says her ability to communicate and connect with people is still her greatest strength.
“She’s a great communicator, much more than I am or have been,” he says. “As things change within the company, she’s the one you can call and talk to and provide the direction we’re going.”
The company’s business model has evolved since 1927, when Carrie’s grandfather, Donald “Buck” Freeman, began decorating for county fairs, state associations, and conventions. When her father took over leadership of the company in 1972, he focused on growing organically and then “Freemanizing” acquired companies. Over time The Freeman Co. became a worldwide provider of integrated services for trade shows, exhibitions, and other events.
Today, the privately held, $1.6 billion company with 4,500 employees is considered the largest exhibition contractor in North America, he says.
Don, 75, now serves as chairman of Freeman, leaving the company in the capable hands of his daughter and his son-in-law, Joe Popolo, who’s married to his other daughter, Chris Freeman Popolo.
“The most important thing a CEO needs to recognize is it’s his responsibility to find a successor,” says Don, who had been thinking about it for more than 15 years before retiring from his full-time duties in 2008. “We’re very fortunate. If we didn’t feel like Joe and Carrie were qualified, we would have gone in another direction.”
That’s not to say they haven’t earned their stripes. Freeman Parsons, 50, joined the company after graduating from Baylor University in 1985. She started as an account executive in Dallas, transferred to Nashville as general manager of the new office, and later became GM of the Boston office. She returned to Dallas as president of the Freeman Exhibit Co., and was promoted to chief marketing officer in 1998.
“I had to earn the respect and the opportunity,” she says. “There was such respect and admiration for my dad, and a lot of people gave me the benefit of the doubt. They wanted me to do well and help me succeed because they cared about the company.”
Don said his wife discouraged his girls from going into the business, because she didn’t want them standing on concrete floors on weekends and attending trade shows late at night.
“Part of the reason Carrie is so well-respected is, she did those things,” he says. “With anybody in this company, the people that have been successful have a strong work ethic.”
Popolo also invested the time, first joining the company in 1997 and working his way up to chief executive in 2008. The management shift to the third generation came at a good time, as technology began to transform the business.
“I’m glad we made the transition at the time we did,” Don says. “I would have had difficulty staying up with the programs.”
Freeman Parson says she worried her dad would “ride off into the sunset and we’d never see him again.” But he still comes to the office when he’s in town, and recently advised on a United Kingdom company acquisition that opened the door for international expansion.
Her father is “not second-guessing Joe and me,” she says. “There’s a lot of trust in that relationship.”
Another binding factor is an employee stock ownership program, which Don created in 1980.
“Our employees have ownership, and it’s always been an asset to operate as a family-owned company,” he says. “When we talk about the Freeman family, the ESOP is pretty critical in carrying that culture through the years.”
Adds Freeman Parsons: “When you go through a large transition and you’re not transparent about it, you’re not in a place where there’s a great deal of trust. We’ve been fortunate, so when we do need to make a seismic shift, we can foster that relationship.”