Studio M Draw up plans to go national
Interior Design Tampa-Studio M Interiors©
Tampa Bay Business Journal - by Margaret Cashill Staff Writer
TAMPA — A book of business 20 years in the making, low operating costs and the avoidance of debt have allowed Michelle Jennings Wiebe, president of Studio M Inc., to expand the interior design firm as others in her industry shut down.
After years of operating independently with an occasional intern or part-time assistant, Wiebe has added four full-time employees and two contract employees since late 2003, and she plans to hire more.
Her husband, Tom Wiebe, joined the firm about two years ago and is now CEO.
The firm’s revenues have grown consistently over the last several years with the exception of 2007 when, due to personal reasons, she chose not to take on new projects.
Wiebe said she wants to add customers around the country, and someday, overseas.
“Within next five to 10 years, we want to be a national firm, those are turbo-charged plans,” she said.
Studio M, which operates as Studio M Interior Design, specializes in design for residential and commercial spaces. Its work can be seen at Signature Place in St. Petersburg, the Florida Orchestra Guild Designer Showhouse in St. Petersburg and the homes of high-profile residents throughout the Tampa Bay area.
Internship leads to entrepreneurship
Wiebe, who studied interior design at Florida State University, said she always wanted to run her own business.
After she left college, she set up shop in the offices of Gail Olsen, a designer then based in Clearwater who employed Wiebe as a high school and college intern. Olsen offered her office space and access to samples, vendor accounts and clients in exchange for help on projects.
With Olsen’s guidance, Wiebe founded Michelle Jennings Design Studio Inc. in 1991.
“With the economic situation at the time, I felt she was offering me an opportunity of a lifetime,” Wiebe said.
When Olsen moved to Chicago in the late 1990s, Wiebe purchased her business and merged it into her own.
They agreed on a purchase price for Olsen’s clients and vendor accounts. Wiebe paid Olsen with profits from the first few projects she took over from her.
A couple of years later Wiebe decided to shorten the name of her company to Studio M and to look for new offices in Tampa.
“The move to Tampa was because I like the energy,” she said. “I like the vibe of the projects.”
In partnership with an architect she had met on a project, she purchased a commercially zoned, 3,600-square-foot Victorian house in Tampa Heights.
“We didn’t want to be in a normal office with fluorescent lighting,” she said of the 106-year-old house.
Wiebe and the architect formed an umbrella corporation to finance the purchase. She took out a renovation loan and a mortgage, which she rolled together years later.
Although Wiebe and the architect split the mortgage 50-50 initially, Studio M occupies about 80 percent of the building, the architect has a smaller office and they lease an additional office to a psychologist.
Along with the purchase of the building, Studio M occupies about 80 percent of the building, the architect has a smaller office and they lease an additional office to a psychologist.
Along with the purchase of the building, Studio M has made significant investments in technology, including AutoCAD software, laptops and new accounting software about to launch.
Revenue comes from design fees and purchasing. She stores products in subleased warehouses in Largo and Tampa. Wiebe said she operates mainly in cash and stays away from debt.
In the recession, customers are likely to try to decorate themselves or look online for furniture deals, said Pamela White, CEO of the Interior Design Society, a residential interior design industry organization based in High Point, N.C.
“People go online to look for everything, where they previously relied on a designer to help them find things,” White said. “A lot of times they pay more for it because they don’t know the best resources.”
Wiebe has seen competitors go out of business, but she said she refuses to adopt a recession mentality.
“One of our other quotes around the office is we are not participating in the recession,” Wiebe said. “It is our mindset — we are going out there to get projects.”
Studio M is broadening its outreach with new print collateral, an updated Web site, Twitter and Facebook pages, and a design blog in the works.
While the marketing has given the company an extra push, in a business that was built around referrals, taking care of customers and working with their budgets takes priority.
“At the end of the day, it’s got to look great, the client’s got to be thrilled,” she said. “We stay within the budgets we are given, and somehow it’s added up.”
Nature of business: Interior design