Brenda Buell is the kind of CEO who you’d like for a mom. She’s also the kind of mom you’d want for a CEO.
There is nothing extraordinary, anymore, about women who lead large companies. Whether they’ve scaled the corporate mountain or hatched businesses of their own, people of the female variety have captained many a prosperous operation since they realized that they could. In the past couple of decades, women have ascended to the helms of diverse industries with such frequency that their presence in those spots is no longer noticed. What is worth observing, though, is the manner in which they have both earned the reins and chosen to steer.
“Why not take the natural maternal instinct, how we approach and nurture our children and our families, and bring it into the business world?” asks Buell, president of Domistyle, Inc., the home décor manufacturing company that she founded in 1993 and sold for an undisclosed figure three years ago. “It’s who I am. It is possible to be yourself and make it work.”
Buell, it would seem, has known for a long time just who she is. Raised eight miles from the Mexican border by distinguished and devoted parents, she has a keen awareness of the impact of hard work, belief in oneself, and empowerment of others. “The most important lesson I learned was to do the right thing, always, at any cost,” she says.
The guiding principle has served Buell well, casting both personal and professional questions in an easy light. It is what has enabled her to build a multimillion-dollar company, skip out for her son’s soccer games, travel to China to source materials, cultivate a dedicated staff, run the annual auction at her daughter’s school, and share it all with “the love her life,” her husband Chris.
“We met at a Halloween party in 1988. I wore my Dad’s Navy flight suit from the Korean War,” says Chris. “Brenda was not in costume, but I always tell her that she was dressed up as a princess.”
The path from princess to queen had humble beginnings. With aspirations of working at a Madison Avenue advertising agency after graduating from Southern Methodist University with degrees in fine arts and marketing, Buell, now 43, took an internship with one of the largest advertising firms in the Southwest. She worked 60 hours a week, earning $12,000 a year. Soon, she found a new position with a company that imported textiles and fragrances from overseas and sold them to stores here in the States. After a few years studying the wholesale/retail dynamic, Buell had an idea.
Buell grew up on the border and crossed it many times with her father, Wayne Showers, who for 35 years was a leading grower and distributor of fruits and vegetables. As a result, Buell was intimately familiar with the country’s artisan-crafted glass and metalwork. Fluent in Spanish and at home in the Mexican business community, she figured she could bring these pieces to market in the U.S. She would begin with one item, choosing it for its distinction and wide appeal.
“Remember the margarita glass with the cactus on the stem?”
In Texas, the stemware is almost iconic.
“Life is about taking advantage of opportunity,” she says.
JCPenney was the first to buy, testing the glass in 24 stores. They ordered 5,000. Buell’s father had longtime friends who owned a glass factory in Monterey and could manufacture the product. But the box supplier dropped the ball the Friday before the Monday the order was due to be sent, leaving no time for the factory to package the glasses for safe travel north. “They said they’d get it across the border, but that was it,” Chris says. So he and Brenda, who was eight months pregnant, and his sister Ann flew from Dallas to McAllen, where Brenda’s dad had made his off-season produce warehouse available.
“We boxed, crated, and shrink-wrapped the palettes ourselves, until the truck came Monday morning,” Brenda says. Not one glass broke en route. Brenda Buell and Associates was open for business.
Immediately, the company began diversifying its merchandise, developing a broad range of decorative glass accessories and expanding into metal. Buell partnered in 1993 with Mexico-based friend Jorge Chousal, and together they opened a 10,000-square-foot metal manufacturing plant. By year two, the space doubled, and doubled again the following 12 months.
“I may do the right thing, but I have people around me who help me do it,” Buell says.
Clearly, her South Texas roots and close witness of her father’s expertise fostered a sensibility that would serve her later on. “These experiences helped her to have the flexibility and sensitivity you need to do cross-border business,” says Rafael Garza, president and managing director of Bravo Equity Partners, a private equity firm that focuses on the U.S. Hispanic market and former director of corporate finance for Ernst & Young’s Mexico City operation. “Not every CEO knows how to make sure business is done right regardless of the country they’re in. For me, Brenda shines.”
Highland Capital Management currently owns the company, whose name was changed in 2003 to Domistyle, Inc. Today, all merchandise (which has branched into ceramics and furniture) is designed in-house for specific national retailers, who then sell it primarily under their own private labels. Customers read like winners in a Favorite Places to Shop in America contest: Pier 1 Imports, Bed Bath & Beyond, Michaels Arts and Crafts, Kohl’s, Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts, Linens ’n Things, and Dillard’s. Domistyle now manufactures in China and India and owns a candle factory in Laredo, as well.
“We are successful because we can create the right look, feel, and finish at the best price, 100 percent on time,” Buell says. “We study the people who buy at these stores. Who are they, how old are they, what colors do they like? Sometimes we’re wrong, but we’re right more often than not.”
Talking with Brenda Buell, who is demure, graceful, and entirely engaging, one gets the feeling that “we are successful” because she has engendered the kind of atmosphere in which, simply put, people can succeed.
“Certainly there are people who do very well who are hard-charging, edgy, who will things to happen. That is absolutely not Brenda’s style,” says Bob Lilly Jr., CEO of Bob Lilly Professional Promotions, who knows Buell as a friend and customer. “She is the epitome of Southern charm, intelligence, and diligence. You never feel as if you’ve had a full-court press put on you, which you don’t find in many people, especially the typical, high-powered businesswoman.”
In her 13 years of entrepreneurship, Buell has honed a leadership philosophy rooted in promoting a workplace’s positive emotional energy. The way a mother would think of the best language for prompting an 8-year-old to action, fostering self-esteem and responsibility along the way, Buell, as corporate matriarch, takes the same care to imbue her direction with praise and motivation.
“Brenda instills a confidence in the people she leads—and in customers and suppliers—and she has built a business around that,” says Garza, who has known Buell and her family since high school.
“I see myself as a transformational leader who influences by example, who inspires performance and innovative thinking by taking the individual into consideration all the time,” she says. “When people are aligned strategically in their values, visions, and goals and you create an environment that taps their potential and encourages independence, you get a very committed team with a deep sense of meaning for their work.”
It is critical for Buell to empower her staff with the notion that each person can make an impact on not only the company, but also himself, or herself, as most of the Dallas office employees are women. “All that Mommy stuff? It has made me more sensitive to each person who works here. This connection sets us apart from the competition.”
In May, with the intent to broaden Domistyle’s spectrum of accessories into new materials and concepts, Buell offered award-winning designer Steven Yarbrough the opportunity to direct all of the company’s product development and design. Yarbrough, who had held posts at Donald McEvoy, Ltd., one of the largest showrooms at the Dallas Market Center; Global Views, a producer of decorative wholesale accessories; and Banana Republic Home, was on the fence, initially.
“I went home and thought, ‘Oh God, she is so excited about this. She thinks I’m going to take the position,’” he remembers. “I saw it on her face, and she just won me over. I had to take the job.”
For Yarbrough, the experience so far was well worth the leap. “Brenda respects your thoughts and appreciates you for them. She gets you focused and excited about what you are doing, and then leaves you alone so you can do it,” he says. “I know whatever my tenure here is, working with Brenda will facilitate the rest of my working life.”
when Dr. Davis L. Ford needed counseling about his three daughters, he turned to his closest friend Wayne Showers. As the father of two girls a few years older than Ford’s, Showers had inside-track perspective when it came to parenting female teenagers.
“I’d tell him,” Ford reminisces, “‘I don’t like some of these boyfriends of theirs.’ And Wayne advised me, ‘Don’t worry. They hang around turkeys. Then they marry eagles.’”
Ford, a respected environmental engineer and author of numerous academic articles and books, gave the eulogy for his old pal a year and a half ago. “There is no question, I tell Brenda now, that I feel as if I’m talking to her father when I talk to her,” he says. “And I feel that is comforting to her.”
For Buell, the responsibility learned at an early age formed a steady foundation for productivity and optimism. “Brenda responded to that and ran with it, turning the training she got at home into something real,” Ford says. “Her Dad bragged about her all the time.”
Buell’s father was, indeed, her ultimate mentor, her paragon. She describes her mother Reba as passionate and strong; her father, “the ring leader” of the family. “He taught me never to doubt myself, to just go do it, and do it best, whatever it is.”
Showers, like his younger daughter, put his family first and, in the process, rose to estimable state and national status in the agriculture industry and served his community in numerous ways. He established student scholarships at Texas A&M University, his alma mater, and served as vice chairman of its Board of Regents and board member of the Texas Ranger Foundation Association, among other appointments.
“He was a whole person,” Buell says. “I hope that I’m a role model to both of my children in the same way. I hope that they, as strong, independent children, know that they can do whatever it is that they decide to do.”