To embrace and acknowledge the contributions to this country by our diverse population, and to honor and celebrate Black and Woman’s History Month, Peter Bonnell on the Dun & Bradstreet Emerging Business team conducted a series of interviews with minority and women business owners. The interviews can be found on Dun & Bradstreet B2B’s Minority-Owned and Women-Owned Business Resource pages.
Carolyn Williams-Francis founded Williams Interior Designs, Inc. in January of 1985. The firm specializes in commercial interior design, AutoCAD, office furniture dealership, window treatment, floor covering, project management, delivery and installation.
Williams-Francis has been consistently recognized for her professional and community efforts. Her awards include International Women’s Day Recognition Entrepreneurs Award, Columbus Business First, Fast Fifty Award (2008, 2009, 2010 & 2014), Increase CDC – Micro Entrepreneur Award in 2008, South Central Ohio Minority Supplier Development Council – MBE Legacy Award 2009,and the SBA – Minority Small Business Champion of the Year in 2009.
She is a representative for the American Heart Association (and a heart surgery survivor) and the American Red Cross, and a member of the Diversity Council and Organization of Black Designers. She also works with seniors at the Isabelle Ridgeway Nursing Home, and is an active member of Second Baptist Church. At the church, she was a founder of Solomon’s Scholars Ministry, which prepares youths from 9th through 12th grade for college.
Williams-Francis has been married to attorney Stephen Francis for 29 years, and is a proud mom to Stephen, Jr., a CPA, and John, a junior at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, where he studies Industrial Systems Engineering.
We’ve all heard the lore surrounding great business ventures. Many entrepreneurs conceive and developed their ideas in collaboration friends or classmates in college. Others tried to solve problems they themselves were frustrated by, innovating as they developed a solution.
Williams-Francis dreamed of being an interior designer even when she was a child. She started her firm, Williams Interior Designs, over 32 years ago, but the concept for her business was a part of her life even before she entered the workforce. “After completing trade school, I worked for my [future] competition. I wanted to learn what I had to do [to run] my own business. I did warn them that it was my goal to be their competition, and learn from the best.”
She added, “They did not believe me.”
Partnerships & Staffing Hurdles
For many organizations, it’s necessary to explore the possibility of a partnership. Partnerships can offer expanded opportunities when two businesses can operate in synergy with each other – allocating resources appropriately to get the most out of the relationship.
Williams-Francis understood the value a partnership could bring to her business. When I asked her about an instrumental moment in her business’ growth, she replied, “I had an opportunity to partner with another company on a large project.”
“The opportunity was a true partnership, and it really opened my eyes to expanding and how many small firms could grow. It is always better to have part of the profit on a project, than none [and no project].” Tweet This
Of course, expansion means addressing new challenges, as the scope of a business’s operations will invariably change. Williams-Francis was not immune to the inevitable, and she discussed two main challenges she faced during that growth period.
“I had experienced an illness, and the challenge of bringing on more staff to handle a demanding workload. The illness put me out of work for eight weeks.”
“I am a very ‘hands-on,’ every-day, small business owner. I had to rely [on] and trust my staff.” She said she felt very fortunate that operations continued and the events unfolded with no major setbacks, as the situation also taught her the value of trusting her staff and allowing them to run with new responsibilities.
She added, “Hiring extra staff to handle a heavy workload without extra income (until the project was over) was a stretch. We made it work by having sub-contractors.”
Marketing, Contracting, and Building Lasting Relationships
At any business, CEOs must deal with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, as they will impact virtually every aspect of operations.
According to Williams-Francis, her biggest strengths are the ability to develop business and professional relationships, followed by the ability to close on sales. She revisited the notion of staffing, citing her primary weakness in designating work to others, or “giving up responsibilities.”
She said, “I have learned through the years to delegate more to my staff. I also have [external] accounting and payroll services.”
On the building relationships front, she talked about my Alma Mater, Ohio State University (OSU). “Our sales have come from secured contracts and word-of-mouth. For example, we have a contract with OSU, which we have had for 26 years. We started at OSU doing small departments. The campus started the contract that we were part of and it has grown from there, mainly because we offer great service and have great relationships.”
“All departments purchase off that contract. They select their vendor, contact us, and we service the contract. They contact us because we have completed so many projects on the campus, and we [get] referred. We also had a corporate contract that was for two years; each year they renewed the contract, [and] to date it is twelve years old.”
Williams-Francis also identified marketing as one of her biggest strengths, one which has provided opportunities her business to grow.
Professional Influence in Relationship Building
Williams-Francis knows the importance of relationship building, primarily because she values the impact it’s had on her personally and professionally. For many, it’s not unusual to develop a lasting bond with a person or company, especially return customers.
This is certainly the case with Williams-Francis, as she reflected on the friendship she fostered with a woman who was once just a client of hers.
“We were trying to do work with a major corporation in our city,” she said. “The Vice President of the foundation was an African American female. I met her at a social event, and she needed to redesign her entire suite, but the company wanted her to use their standard design and furniture company.”
“She was able to bring us in to design and furnish her space. She recommended our firm to different departments in her building and other corporations. She also invited me to attend a women’s executive retreat. At this retreat, I was able to network with other top African American executives. To this date, I am still friends with several of them. This is the reason I believe in giving back and mentoring other African American women.”
On Giving Back – Advice and Service
Williams-Francis offers this advice to prospective black and female entrepreneurs: “Go after opportunities that you can handle. Offer great customer service, so you [can get] repeat business.”
She then elaborated on the experience of black business owners, “The fact is, we are always looked at as an African American business. We have to go the ‘extra’ mile on projects to make sure they are perfect. Any small mistake will not affect [only] you, but other African American firms trying to get contracts with that company.”
Williams-Francis attributed her service to others to feeling and being “blessed that I had people who believed in me and my business.”
Her belief in the importance of giving back to others extends to her local community, not just her professional network. She said that she had great mentors, and in return, wanted to give back in mentoring others. She became involved in teaching smaller, younger businesses, as well as the youth in general.
“I do a lot in my community, mentoring to middle and high school students. I am a volunteer for several non-profit organizations. In the past 32 years, I have had over 20 students shadowing in my office, as well as [in] internship(s).”
Personally speaking, I can say the concept of “profit maximization” has been drilled into my head over and over throughout my academic career. Is it a necessity in business? Of course. Companies need to make profits and grow in order to drive the economy. Profitability ensures that all of a company’s employees have work to do and collect a paycheck. However, it’s incredibly refreshing to hear Williams-Francis’s story, as she offered a multifaceted perspective. It’s just as important to be rich in spirit, as it is to be successful in business. I wish her the best in her future professional and personal endeavors.