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From Home Furnishing Business

Grief Leads to Success

By Home Furnishings Business in Furniture Retailing on April 2007 Provencal Home, a multi-million dollar Texas retailer that has charted remarkable growth selling high-end furniture, rugs, linens and lighting, was nobody€™s dream 13 years ago. When it opened then as a5 tiny gift shop in a rented yellow house, it was the only thing Sue Norris could think of to cope with a mother€™s worst nightmare.

Norris, the year before, had lost her youngest child and only daughter. Aimee Melissa Davis was only 18 when she died of complications of juvenile diabetes. A grieving Norris had been a full-time mother before Aimee died, and had never pursued any sort of career. She looked out at the wide and open road of her life and thought to herself: €œWhat am I supposed to do now?€

She had occasionally talked about opening a gift shop, and when her husband Don Norris saw that a 1,750-square-foot yellow house in a quaint, older part of Austin was available for rent, he encouraged her to take a look. Norris€™ son David Davis, a college student who moved back to his home town in the wake of his sister€™s death, plunged into the renovations. Sue and Don Norris went to their first Market, and made themselves buyers. Within a year of Aimee€™s death, €œProvencal Home and Garden€ was born. Norris filled the space with crystal and china, and established a wedding registry.

€œJust a creative outlet for me,€ Sue Norris described it. €œThis wasn€™t going to be a business that supports a family.€

That was then.

Less than 14 years later, Provencal Home€“it dropped its garden department€“is the full-time occupation of three members of Norris€™ family, and supports a payroll of 12. Growth during the past year averaged between 12 and 15 percent, and sales this year are projected to surpass $4 million. In a new location, and after four expansions, the one-time gift shop is now a 9,000-square-foot furniture and accessory store that has won customers far beyond Texas, customers who, like Norris, are attracted to the warm tones, solid woods and craftsmanship of traditional French furniture makers.

Norris, it turned out, had a dormant love of the South of France, a landscape that reminds her of the Texas hill country of her childhood. As it also turned out, she had a talent for matching fabrics, woods and accessories, and a personal taste that many others gladly pay to call their own. At Provencal Home, there is no testing of the market. What you see is what Norris and her family admire, and, in some cases, have helped designed themselves.

€œWe really try to find things you€™re not going to see everywhere else. When we go to High Point, of course they want you to buy the market special or what you see in the showroom. I just can€™t do that. To me, that€™s cheating,€ Norris said.

From France to Texas

Thus the many trips to France and Italy, where the couple€”she is chief executive officer and president, Don Norris is vice president€”visits small factories and workshops. On a recent trip, Don Norris spied some strikingly lovely distressed oak tabletops at a small factory outside of Paris, and pictured in his mind the iron work of Charleston Forge in North Carolina. Would they make the bases? They would. Don traveled to Charleston Forge€™s workshop to help with the design. Provencal Home offered the 72-inch and 84-inch tables for which Norris had vainly searched in markets everywhere. They sold for $3,495 and $3,895 respectively.

Southern France, as the store€™s name suggests, inspires the look and feel of Provencal Home. Norris first discovered her affinity for the region in a book her husband gave her. The photos reminded her of the land around her native Munday, Texas, in particular the warmth of the light at sunrise and sunset. She drew still more parallels reading about the lives of the people of Provence, who reminded her so much of the small-town Texans she knew growing up. The soul of Provencal Home, Davis said, is American and French and purely his mother€™s. It was captured in a newspaper ad they ran a few years ago: €œThe South of France in the Heart of Texas.€

Setting the Stage

Davis understands his mother€™s vision for the store, and like her, buys what he likes. Now general manager of Provencal Home, he focuses on the store€™s furniture, and travels the world in search of pieces remarkable in their originality and quality. €œI cherry pick. I don€™t buy entire lines,€ he said. He loves talking to customers about the pieces he sells€”where he found them, the people who made them, and the techniques they used to achieve that warm, woody glow. He dislikes that word, though€”€œsell.€

€œI don€™t feel like I sell anything,€ said Davis. €œI never want to feel like I sold anybody anything.€

Instead, he said, he tells stories about Provencal Home furniture, which is why he needs to go to their birthplaces. Otherwise, €œHow am I supposed to tell the story?€ he said. €œI can€™t make things up.€

If Norris creates the vision for Provencal Home, Davis sets its tone. The feel of the place is €œprofessional but informal,€ he said. The store is social, relaxing, and that€™s the way he likes it. Recently, Davis said, he realized that two of his customers had both flown F-4€™s in the Air Force, and should meet each other€”perhaps wind up as friends. So he introduced them. For one of those former pilots, he loaded up his wife€™s minivan and personally made the delivery of a dining room table and six chairs.

€œEverybody I do business with is a potential friend,€ he said.

Those potential friends travel long distances in Texas to get to Provencal Home, a phenomenon Davis owes in large part to sensible marketing. Texas Monthly magazine and television are best bets for their dollars; billboards didn€™t do much for them.

Davis€™ personal concern for the environment further shapes the family business. He favors South Cone, a Peruvian-based manufacturer devoted to using sustainable woods. €œThe green part of the furniture industry is very important to us,€ said Davis. €œI€™m thinking of my children and my children€™s children,€ said the father of two young children.

He also presided over the store€™s several expansions. Provencal Home moved in 1996 from the modest yellow house to an outdoor, upscale Austin mall, its current location, at the invitation of the mall€™s developers. The Norris and Davis families wrote Aimee€™s name, in addition to those of other lost loved ones, into the concrete foundation. Two years later, the family knocked down a wall and expanded into the space next store. They acquired more adjacent space in 2000 and 2002, bringing them to the 9,000 square feet they own today. Their 6,000-square-foot warehouse, plus 2,000 square feet of showroom space, are a 15-minute drive away.

Surprising Growth

As the business grew, and the payroll expanded, Davis jokingly took to calling his mother €œSue€ at work, to get her attention. But Provencal Home is as much a family affair as ever.

In addition to the paintings for sale on the walls, there are family photos that are not. And the sign over the display of decorative wooden angels reads €œAimee€™s Angels.€ But could a store founded as a hobby and run by people who will only sell what they personally like grow this robustly without some kind of a game plan? Did some brilliant consultant whisper in their ears? There was no such consultant.

€œLuck,€ said Davis, explaining the success of Provencal Home. €œYou€™d like to think it was smart business.€

If Norris surprised herself by building and running a multi-million dollar furniture and accessory store steeped in French country design, her son is no less astounded by his livelihood.

He thought he was going to be a lawyer like his father. But his path in life, like his mother€™s, veered sharply when Aimee died. Before her death, he was a college student in Lubbock. After her death, he moved home to Austin to grieve with his family. When some months had passed, he tried to return to Lubbock, but the college wasn€™t making it easy for him to make up for lost time. So he remained in Austin. Helping his mother open a business seemed the most logical thing to do. €œIt was my first real job,€ he said. Davis would later enroll in Concordia University and receive a bachelor€™s in management.

Today, he looks at the vibrant business he and his family built, and sees that it is different from most, because it sprung from such an unusual source.

€œBusinesses are started to make money,€ said Davis. €œBut ours began as a passion to grieve in a constructive manner.€

For her part, Norris is still taken aback when someone asks her, the president and CEO, for her card.

€œI have to stop and remember. I carry a business card,€ she said. €œBut I€™ve been a mother all my life.€ HFB

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