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From Home Furnishing Business

Take 5: Veronica Schnitzius

Fast delivery has been a hallmark of Dallas-based American Leather since the custom luxury furniture maker was founded nearly 30 years ago, and setting standards others in the industry will follow has long been one of the company’s goals.

When Veronica Schnitzius came to the United States in 2004 to work on her MBA, her goal was to earn her degree and then return to Colombia. But fate had something else in mind.

While the path up for most executives begins in sales and marketing, Schnitzius started her career as an industrial engineer with KPMG when she returned to Colombia after college to wait for her visa.

Back in the United States—after a brief time with The Leather Center, before it declared bankruptcy—she joined American Leather, also as an industrial engineer, and moved through the ranks to cutting supervisor, assistant production manager, director of product development, vice president of operations, and chief operations officer.

Last October, Schnitzius was named president of American Leather, a company with more than 500 employees and a facility with more than 350,000 square feet.

She recently spoke with Jason Schneider, associate editor of Home Furnishings Business, about her career path, her goals for American Leather, and how the company will continue to disrupt the market.

Home Furnishings Business: Your career has been built from an entry-level position. Besides working for a great company, what led you to take this path?

Veronica: When I was going to college, I had to do an internship, so I got a job here in Dallas with a company called The Leather Center, as an intern. I worked with them for six months, and when I finished my internship, they said they wanted me to keep working with them, but I had to go back to Colombia to finalize my degree.

I had one more year, so I went back [to Colombia] and when I was there, I worked for KPMG as an industrial engineer until my visa came in.

When my visa came in, I came to Dallas to work for The Leather Center; unfortunately, they went chapter 7 seven months into the job. As an immigrant, that’s not a great thing. A month later, I was working here at American Leather and I’ve been here for 16 years in May.

I wish I could tell you it was a plan. It was destiny, you know what I mean? God had a plan for me to come here. My plan initially when I decided to come to the U.S. was because I wanted to do my MBA in the U.S., so obviously having a visa and a job makes it easier to come and start a life here.

When I lost the job [at The Leather Center], I ended up doing the MBA while I was here at American Leather. My plan was to come, work, do my MBA at night, and then in five years I would be back in Colombia. That was my original plan, but it deviated a little bit.

HFB: The usual path up is through sales and marketing. Yours has been through production and product design. What have been the advantages?

Veronica: Advantages? I don’t know, because this job is pretty new to me. I only have been [in this position] six months, so I’m learning a lot.

Understanding the operations and how things happen is good, and now I’m learning the sales and marketing side. I don’t know if that is an advantage, but it’s a different learning you have to go through. I’m more about execution, about what can be done, what we can really commit to.

The only advantage I can think of is maybe credibility with the customer, because somebody in execution, they have done it and they know when it can be done. I know if I’m giving them a delivery date, I have that credibility because I have done it and I’m not just talking about it.

HFB: As a woman in the industry, have you experienced any discrimination?

Veronica: As far as my career in general, there’s still a bias to being a woman, as much as I don’t want to think that. Instead of me complaining about what we have to go through, I guess I try not to think about that; I just do my job, be very professional and show results.

There is discrimination, and there probably always will be. That’s the world we’re in. My job is to show that I’m capable of doing any person’s job—a man’s, another woman’s—and just show results. I don’t want to get too hung up on being a feminist; I want equality for everybody.

I don’t want to look at people based on gender, or the color of their skin, or their accents. Show me what you can do. Show me the results. The final product is [the result of] skills and capability. Because a lot of times, people have the skills, but they don’t want to do the work.

HFB: What changes have you seen in the industry?

Veronica: I would say not as much as you might think, in the sense that this industry is a little less like technology, that changes dramatically. I think people are comfortable with the way they do things.

I think there’s more pressure now for more transparency, what’s in the products. The regulatory aspect obviously is forcing some people to do it. I think that people are more into technology, more into cutting equipment. The employees are changing; after the recession a lot of people got out of the furniture industry because a lot of the manufacturing went to China. Now it’s coming back to the United States.

I think we’re being forced to put more technology on the manufacturing side; that’s just what I’m seeing in the industry. Now it’s harder to get experienced people, and technology is becoming a bigger part of the manufacturing process. As far as the retail side, there are a lot of big players coming along; there’s a lot of consolidation in the industry. Those are some of the things I see.

HFB: American Leather has an extremely loyal dealer base. How will your company assist them with the consolidation trend for smaller retailers?

Veronica: What we’re doing is continuing to learn. What we’re trying to do is help them make sure that we continue to have amazing products, quality, and delivery, and keep working with them on how we market the product, how we make people aware of how to buy there, why local, why American Leather, why the store.

Every dealer is different, and it’s not like there’s one magic bullet that fits all. Our job is being out there, learning, listening to what they’re saying, listening to what they need, reacting, so it’s a win-win formula.

I think there’s still going to be room for big and small, because people buy differently. The big chain stores are for some people, and some people, they hate it. Variety. I think that the biggest thing with the small stores is making sure that they can execute, making sure they can deliver, making sure they can pay the bills.

We always say that we do more dollars per square foot than anybody else, so if they don’t have to have any inventory because we ship fast, it can be more efficient, and they can get more money for other stuff, so that’s our job.

HFB: Is direct-to-consumer via ecommerce or American Leather stores a consideration to contend with a lack of retail partners in the upper/premium price points in all markets?

Veronica: We are continuing to learn how the landscape is changing. We don’t know where things are going to go, but we are going out there, learning, listening, experimenting, moving with the times. We have loyal customers and we want them to be part of that.

HFB: What opportunities for growth do you see for retailers?

Veronica: I think there’s a lot of opportunity. I think a lot of people want to buy online, but they still want the touch, the feel, of a store. I think the opportunity is, how do we make brick-and-mortar work with the digital world. Both are needed.

I think the opportunities are to make the process where there’s less friction for the end consumer, where they want to go in the store, spend time in the environment at retail stores. Make it easier for the end consumer to have a reason to go to the store. Those are things that you cannot get online—they cannot give you the touch, the feel of it, the comfort of it. The personalization of it is not as easy online.

HFB: Production innovation requires investment in an industry known for knock-offs. Why the American Leather commitment?

Veronica: For us, it’s like “why not?”—the opposite. For us, innovation is what’s going to separate us, what is going to differentiate us from the competition. Innovation is part of the core of this company; it’s the DNA of the company. Speed, innovation, quality, and people—those are the four pillars to us.

Why the commitment? We don’t want to be like anybody else. We want to keep separating ourselves, so we keep giving our customers an advantage.

If we’re like everybody else, it’s just a question of price, and it’s not just about price—consumers want value, they want something different, they want special. That’s what innovation can provide.

We in the company are very excited about the future. We want to continue to grow the products that are innovative for our customer. We’re going to continue to disrupt the market—being faster, bringing things that nobody else is wanting to do.

We want to be that company that people [look at our products and] say, “Wow, that’s cool.” I want them to be copying us because we don’t want to be copying others.

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