Tutu Close for Comfort?

by Jayne Pearl

The smell of fresh paint and the sound of electric saws and hammering is not new to Nan Hurlburt, founder and CEO of $2.6 million (sales) DesignWorks, Inc. which in December moved from its former 13,000-square-foot Springfield headquarters to its new 20,000-square-foot digs in Ludlow.

Hurlburt has weathered her share of growing pains since she founded her firm, which designs and manufactures frilly tutus, spandex jazz dance costumes and cheerleader uniforms, in her Monson, Massachusetts home in 1981. And as is often the case with fast-growing start-ups, most of Hurlburt’s family has shared those growing pains. For instance, her daughter, Amy Scott, then 10, had to give up her 8- x 10-foot bedroom and move in with her then three-year-old brother, Rory, so her mother had a place to design and sew.

Hurlburt began sewing doll’s clothes and selling them in front of her home at age 7. By the time she turned 11, she was designing and sewing bridal gowns, making her own patterns out of paper bags “and anything I could get my hands on.” Hurlburt’s talent for design and sewing propelled her through several early career challenges. She began freelance designing and sewing anything clients couldn’t find anywhere else, such as the Channel 57 mascot, performance-based garments, children’s theatre and puppet theatre costumes, and historical garments for Ware-based children’s book illustrator Ruth Sanderson and several other children’s book illustrators across the country. When her daughter began taking dance lessons at age 5, her dance teacher asked Hurlburt to fix popped buttons and torn seams on students’ costumes, which led to custom dance costumes. Jim, who had a contracting business, had built a two-story building behind their home in the mid 1980s for Hurlburt’s thriving firm. Before long she hired a few neighborhood ladies to keep up with the growing demand.

DesignWorks’ continued growth led to a move to a building in Springfield in 1991. Jim began overseeing the move of DesignWorks’ plant and inventory. With the economy so poor in the building industry, “I told him to come in, give the economy time to recover and then see what he wanted to do from there,” recalls Hurlburt. “Once he was on board, it appealed to him, mostly because we don’t have any receivables-our customers pay in advance. He said, ‘Wow, I don’t have to call customers at 9 o’clock at night?’” Today Jim is plant inventory control and physical plant manager.

During the 1990s, the company’s furious growth inspired Hurlburt to put both her kids to work. Amy Scott, now 27, who started answering phones, now heads sales and marketing. Rory, now 21, got pulled in to help lift and lug stuff when he was 12. Before he left to attend college a couple years ago, he was able to nurture his interest in art by learning Computer Aiding Design (CAD) and add his illustrations to the company’s slick catalogs, designed by daughter Amy. Eventually, sister-in-law, Mary, and Mary’s daughter, Donna, joined the work force. Hurlburt’s parents, always supportive, also got into the act with Mom sewing “bonkers” (antennae that go on head pieces for worm and bug costumes) and Dad building “Ribbon Racks,” “Tutu Spools,” and machine tables.

In 1994 Jim’s sister, Mary, got laid off as a financial manager during the big banking shakeout in the state and joined the family business. She provided DesignWorks with more formal bookkeeping and accounting, and created what would grow into a human resources department. “At that point we didn’t even know how much the company was selling,” says Amy. “Mom and Dad were still writing the checks. Aunt Mary relieved us by painting a clearer financial picture.” Soon after, Mary’s daughter Donna came on to help out as a production operations clerk.

“We put people in positions because we needed help, not necessarily because we were good at what needed to get done,” notes Amy. “We learned by necessity and sometimes were poor managers. We couldn’t confront anyone to say they weren’t doing a good job. However, there’s no politeness when you work with the family. It’s like being in the living room all the time. I tend to be cynical and volatile. Dad, who is equally blunt, won’t think twice about storming into my office, and vice versa.”

As they’ve added staff-including salespersons, a customer service supervisor, financial manager, production manager, human resources coordinator and a design assistant for Hurlburt-Amy says the outside bodies helped the family learn to treat each other better. Aunt Mary retired a year ago, and Donna left a few months after to pursue a new path. There are still some issues that need to be dealt with, but the experience has convinced Hurlburt to approach personnel issues a little less, well, personally. She explains, “Part of the difficulty is not being emotional about those types of issues. To have an HR department in place is a tremendous asset as far as sanity goes.”

In the last two months the new HR manager has been researching industry standards and pay scale for all positions. Early next year, the company will realign pay, incentive rewards, promotion criteria and job descriptions. This is part of Hurlburt’s plan to reach $8 million sales and have 75 year-round employees.

To get there, Hurlburt has worked to improve communication between family members. “We are often so inundated with making on-command decisions and the stress of growth, that we don’t often take enough time to talk about issues and resolve them.” For starters, she has outlawed “hallway debates,” where “two people going in different directions tell each other something in passing. Two days later, one would say, ‘I thought you said you were going to take care of that!’ And the other would say, ‘No, that’s not what I said.’ That was decimating us. Now, if it’s worth it, we must sit down and talk about things. We make time for meetings, and communicate in writing and via interoffice memos.”

More help came last year when Amy married Jeff Scott, who works for Bassette Printing Company, printers of DesignWorks’ catalogs. The family has yet to convince him to work for them, but Jeff serves as a peace maker by “pointing out what seems to be obvious to everyone but us,” says Hurlburt. She recalls everyone arguing over pizza one night about how to restructure the company’s budgets. “Jeff convinced us all to sit back, decide what’s important to each of us, and be realistic about what we could accomplish. I realized I was pushing for details before anyone agreed on the basics. I made a form factoring in Amy’s and Jim’s points and once they had it in their hands they were happy because it became actionable.”

One thing that has yet to be communicated is Hurlburt’s retirement and succession plans. She says she’d like to see Amy take a more controlling interest in the next few years. However, recently married Amy says she has no interest working the hours and taking on the stress she sees her mom juggling. “For the next few years,” says Hurlburt, “we are all committed to growth, and will discuss succession plans at a pace equal to our goals.”