10 Questions is a new interview series featuring some of the top designers in the field. In the first interview, Closets & Organized Storage magazine Publisher Laurel Didier talks with Lisa Carlquist, owner of Artisan Custom Closets, located in Atlanta, Georgia.
Lisa has more than 20 years’ experience in the custom closet and storage industry. Her journey began as a designer with a national franchise, The Closet Factory, and then on to a locally owned company for more than 12 years prior to forming Artisan Custom Closets in 2011. She vowed to make Artisan the best custom closet company in the Atlanta market and has taken it to new levels by hiring the most experienced space planners, designers, engineers and installers in the Atlanta area.
1) You had an interesting beginning before you broke into closets. Why don’t you tell us a little about that?
My first job was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee at a nuclear weapons plant. It was Union Carbide when I went to work there. It was later bought by Martin Marietta Energy Systems. So, a completely different career route and it’s a place where people go to work and never leaves. My dad worked there 40 years and retired. When I told him I was leaving the company, he literally teared up, said it was the biggest mistake of my life. Like, “Nobody quits this job. This is where you retire. What are you doing?” So, a lot of second guessing happened.
2) What’s your favorite color?
Not melamine color, just color?
LD: Just color.
You can tell what business I work in. As far back as I can remember, my favorite color is orange. I’m a Tennessee Vol fan. A whole section of my closet is dedicated to orange wear, hanging, folding, and shoes. The walls behind me they don’t look really orange, but they’re a shade of orange.
There was a movie, The Blind Side where Sandra Bullock said, “I will not wear that gaudy orange.” I love gaudy orange. So, that’s definitely my favorite color.
3) What gets you motivated?
Honestly, what motivates me, as far as work goes, is the smile and reaction from people. Seeing how happy it makes them to have something new motivates me to get up every day and teach my employees how to make that happen every day. It’s a constant battle. It doesn’t happen all at once, and then you have new people. So, you’re always training and I’m always saying, “You’re representing me. So, make sure whatever comes out of your mouth, you’re representing me and Artisan Custom Closets.”
4) Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in a lot of places. There’s obviously the ACSP with people always posting photos, and I won’t lie, I just redid my closet based on a photo I saw. I moved in March, six months ago and I did a room conversion. I converted a bedroom to a closet and now I’ve already re-done it. I saw a photo and fell in love, but I look at kitchen photos because it seems our color trends in the closet industry sort of follow the kitchens. Kitchens are a bit ahead of us. I love Europe. I love everything European, so I’m always looking through photos of what they’ve got going on because three or four years later, it will be happening here.
But, we’re quite a bit behind. Atlanta is a very traditional town as far as design style, so I love when I find that customer that will let you play a little bit.
5) You just talked about that you just moved in some a new place and you’ve already been remodeling, what’s your favorite space in your new home?
I would say I have two favorite spaces that are equal. One, I love having my own master closet. It’s the first time in my life that I had my own closet with my own Island of my own seat. So, it’s a joy just to go in and look at the new colors. But overall, I think my favorite space is the garage because when we leave our door up, our neighbors see it and we get so many compliments because it’s neat and organized. And when you think about your garage, it’s the first thing you see when you get home from work every day and the last thing I see as I pull out in the morning and there’s no mess. It’s all beautiful cabinets and I just think it looks great. It makes the garage feel like another room in my house, not just a garage. It’s another room that I happened to park in.
6) If you had one important question you wish your customers would ask you, what would that be?
I don’t see a lot of customers anymore, but my favorite thing is when they whip out some designs and say, “Here’s what somebody else did. Can you make this better?” It opens the door to within two seconds I know I’m getting that sale. It doesn’t matter if even what they’ve been given was a good design. I can find something, make a suggestion to improve on it. And I do want to throw in, we never ever, ever say anything bad about a competitor, but you can talk about the design, “Well, I wouldn’t put the drawers here because, or I wouldn’t do hanging there because.” And even in the best of designs, after 25 years, I can find something to zone in on that will assure I’m going to get that sale.
7) What important qualities should a business leader possess?
Hire people who are smarter than you. Don’t be afraid to hire people who know more, who are smarter, and be open to their suggestions. For the most part, everything’s a conversation. I have a management team. We have a management meeting every Monday morning. I ask for input. I take their suggestions. If they don’t have any, I’ll come in at 6:00 a.m. and meet our installers and while they’re loading up, chat with them, “What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” So, getting input from the people who are actually doing the work is a key difference. I love that I have an open door policy.
And so, I’m always asking for suggestions. Asking how it’s going. I take a walk through the shop. I walk through the shop every morning and talk to the guys running the machines. I know the guys; I know their spouses. Sorry. We have girls too. I know their spouses. I know who has dogs and who has cats. I know who has kids. Even though we have quite a few people now, it’s more family. I know every person here; I could call anybody here at any time and I love that.
8) Where are you the happiest, Lisa?
I’m the happiest when I talk about my daughter… that’s my pride and joy. She’s super successful. She’s not what you think about when you hear about millennials. She has a great job. She lives on her own. She moved to New York for four years. and recently moved back to Atlanta in the nick of time, I might add. So, that makes me happy. But boating is my passion. We are at the end of boating season, so I’m a little depressed, although my leg is broken, I couldn’t go on a boat anyway. But I love being on the lake. It just gives me peace. [It’s] my favorite thing.
9) What is your greatest achievement? Your daughter or you have another one?
She took me on a trip to Europe last year. She did the planning, the paying, the hotels, airfare. So, I’m quite proud of her. So, that and Artisan is right there. I love that I’ve provided people jobs, that makes me feel really good. I love that I’ve been able to help people, employees and customers. I think it was Richard Branson that said take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your customers and I love that. I try to live by that, and I find for the most part, it’s true. If they’re happy in their jobs and liking what they do, they’ll go that extra step for the customer. So, I worry less about the customer and I take care of the employees and let them take care of the next step.
10) Is there anything that would surprise people about you that maybe they don’t know?
I’m a nerd at heart. Everybody thinks I’m this outgoing person. [But] I was very shy in school. I was not the person with 10,000 friends. I stayed to myself. I read a lot. So, it wasn’t honestly until I was about 30 that the shyness went away. I guess I was a late bloomer in some way.
See the full interview at bit.ly/3ocEKak.
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