Written by Janece Shaffer Tuesday, June 26 2012
Snapshot of Karen Hughes, CEO & Owner, Corporate Environments
Waltz into Karen Hughes’s office -- the owner and CEO of Corporate Environments – and you might be surprisingly underwhelmed as there’s not much there; but walk into her showroom, and you are sure to be filled with acute “office furniture envy.” Rich leathers, the latest “green” materials and modular offerings are among the thousands of options available. The furnishings, customized design services and vibrant online presence certainly inspire Corporate Environment clients, but it is incentives like sailing down the Nile and jetting to Buenos Aires that motivates Hughes’ sales sftaff. According to Hughes, “Our mission will always remain the same: to be the interior workplace solutions company most referred for its people, partnership and performance. “
How did a woman with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in accounting end up owning and running one of the leading office furniture companies in the Southeast? She took a risk…and it paid off.
Womenetics: Tell us about your first job and how you eventually found your way into the world of office furnishings?
Karen Hughes: My first job was actually working for my dad. He owned a gas company, and I would work for him in the summers in the office. I learned how to do the billing, which was done at that time on a big machine that you fed in ledger cards and posted the transactions onto it. I should have known then that I was going to be an accountant because I loved making sure everything balanced at the end of the day.
Womenetics: How did you go from employee to owner?
Hughes: The former owner John Harris was made a very nice offer for the business by a roll-up company which he decided not to take, but it got him thinking about how we had grown the business and how good the economy had been and that he wanted to secure his financial future for his family. He decided to pursue selling the company.
Our main vendor Knoll really liked how things were going and asked him if there was anyone internally he could transition to, and he came to me one day and asked if I would like to buy the company. I knew what he had been offered, and I did not have any real money. He said that he had thought about it and that he really thought it was the right thing for me, our clients and our employees and that he would work with me to make it happen. He believed in me and gave me an incredible opportunity.
Womenetics: Would you say you are a risk-taker?
Hughes: Without a doubt! When I look back and think of how I went into such debt to buy the company, I wonder, "What was I thinking?" Particularly now that the economy has been through a few ups and downs. It may have something to do with the fact that I am a middle child with two brothers that makes me believe I can accomplish any goal.
Womenetics: What is it like to have an accounting background and run a design-based company?
Hughes: I think accounting/business is a great background if you want to run a company. There are so many facets that it takes to make a company successful - great products, great people, great service and a desire to work to always be just a little bit better.
I think my accounting background has helped lay a great foundation for us to operate on, with specific measurements and goals that let us know where we are at any time.
Womenetics: Tell us about your philosophy around creating a “world of work” and creating great places to work that will attract and retain talent base?
Hughes: I believe that your work environment is extremely important. You spend more time at work than you do at home. People tell me that they get a really good vibe the minute they walk in our doors. There is a certain energy you can see and feel the minute Gayle greets them at the front. Our showroom hopefully reflects that as well.
The work environment you create will help you attract and retain like-minded individuals. People want to come to work in an environment that makes them feel productive, creative and able to accomplish their goals.
Womenetics: What does your office look like, and what’s your favorite thing in it?
Hughes: I just moved into my new office, and it is sort of empty right now. I am looking forward to filling it with art and pictures of my family. I did, however, recently purchase a piece by Harry Bertoia for my office, which will tie into the Knoll history.
Womenetics: How do you motivate your sales team?
Hughes: We have a great sales team, some who have been with us for quite a long time. I would say we motivate them by an attractive commission structure based on gross profit and bonus opportunities with unlimited earning potential. I also instituted an annual Presidents Club trip that they can qualify for, where I take them to incredible places. We have sailed down the Nile; we have gone to Buenos Aires, Uruguay and St. Barths, to name a few. These trips allow me to be with them outside the office and also be with their husbands or wives or significant others, which strengthens my bond to all of them.
Womenetics: How do you take advantage of changing technology to grow your business?
Hughes: The use of technology is a crucial part of our sales process, including our mobile app, which was developed to provide sellers with a tool to share with clients. Everything from product offerings to application and completed installations are included in this tool. We also use social media to communicate with our clients as well as designer/specifiers to keep them up to date on education opportunities, latest trends and opportunities to connect with one another. Ninety percent of the furniture that we sell and specify is also supported in electronic catalogs for order efficiency and accuracy.
Womenetics: Tell us about some of your most exciting projects? A great example of how your company transformed a workspace?
Hughes: Recent exciting projects would include the recent relocation of KIDS II from Alpharetta/Roswell to Terminus 200. The project was just featured in the June issue of Interior Design magazine. We worked with Design Atelier Melanie Milner to transform a traditional working environment to open/collaborative/playful workspaces conducive to shortening the product development to fulfillment process.
Also on the list is Emory’s Claudia Nance Rollins School of Public Health. There we worked to provide furniture that would help breakdown some of the hierarchy traditional in research-based learning. We lowered workstation heights, reworked adjacencies and created open/sharing work areas for students and faculty.
We are also proud of the renovation of the 755 Club at Turner Field for the Atlanta Braves. We transformed a worn out dining room through new product selections, which would provide long lasting quality and durability while maintaining a sophisticated casual elegance.
Womenetics: Was there a mentor that was important to your development?
Hughes: I would have to say that it would be my mom. My older brother and I went to a special school in elementary school called the enrichment center one day a week (I think). We were selected to go, and it was sort of a big deal. My mother expected us to do our best always (which meant A’s), and if we got a C on a report card we couldn’t watch TV for six weeks. That was horrible back then. I remember I got a C in writing and couldn’t watch TV until the next report card came. I thought I was going to die! It was her belief in us that helped make us who we are today.
Womenetics: Best advice to other professional women?
Hughes: Don’t limit yourself. I never dreamed I would own my own company, but I laid the groundwork by getting my education and then job experience and then had a good work ethic. Get to know what feels right for you and then do it. Don’t be afraid.
Womenetics: What did you want to be when you were a little girl?
Hughes: I grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., so when I was little I wanted to be an astronaut as we would watch the missiles take off down at Cape Canaveral (or Kennedy). I thought that it must be amazing to see the earth from way up in space. Maybe one day…
Karen Hughes meshed the green movement with interior design. Read more about women bringing environmentalism to their businesses:
“Going green,” usually refers to things like the foods we buy, carpooling and switching out our fluorescent light bulbs. But what about starting a green construction company? Learn how Julie Savitt is incorporating green principles into her business.
Ever heard of “green collar” jobs? Learn how eco-consciousness is expanding its reach from homes, neighborhoods and communities to the economy.
The Sabos family takes green living to the next level by growing their own fresh produce, buying meats locally and even getting milk from their own cows. See how they manage to only buy 5 percent of their food commercially.
Janece Shaffer, senior editor of Womenetics, is also an award-winning, professionally produced playwright. Her plays have been produced in theatres across the country including the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Alliance Theatre, and Taproot Theatre. She also has more than two decades of experience in the communications field and has held communications positions at Emory University, The NAMES Project Foundation/AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Alliance Theatre. Shaffer holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in communications from Georgia State University.