Family Roots Branch Out: A Story of Loyalty, Creativity & Perseverance
(Originally published in Johnson County Lifestyle Magazine Article Lisa Allen)
Few people think of downtown Olathe as a destination spot for home decor and home improvement shopping. Those who do find an oasis at Olathe Glass and Home Decor [now Olathe Glass Co., and Olathe Home Decor], a sprawling showroom filled with all the little details that make a house a home. What many may not notice, though, is that behind all those porcelain birds, Trapp candles and unique candlesticks is a trio of distinct yet complementary businesses that operate under one roof.
Rebecca Shipley, the current co-owner with her husband John and brother Trey Schroeder grew up in the world of glass after her parents bought a one-man auto body shop in 1977. “My dad lost his job and went to the want ads to look for something else,” she says. “He said ‘I can either buy a glass company in Olathe, or a patent business.’ When my mother pointed out that glass was more of a consumable product, because it breaks, they chose the glass company.”
In reality it was a failing business that Rebecca’s parents worked hard to turn around, and did so by adding additional glass products to their reper- toire. In addition to the auto trade, they sold glass shower doors, mirrors and replacement windows.
Outgrowing their original spot in downtown Olathe, the family built the current building in 1986. “My dad said this was more space than we’d ever use,” says Shipley. As her parents began to contemplate retirement, her husband decided he was ready for a change from the career he’d built in insurance, and told Rebecca that he wanted them to buy her parent’s business.
Knowing the darker side of the business, Rebecca was cautious. “I knew from growing up here that it’s not always easy. The paychecks for staff always come first, and some months were really lean,” she says. She also knew the challenges of long work hours, never ‘turning off’ the business even after hours and the challenges of financial success. But because of her husband’s strong financial savvy, and her brother’s support, they bought the business from her parents and have been running it as a team since 2005.
Rebecca signed on with the understanding that she would focus on only the home decor side of the business. “Mom did a little bit of it in the show- room before,” Rebecca says, “because she’d put out mirrors for the builders to look at and they looked so sad just flat against the wall with nothing else.” The home decor element was not a developed part of the business, however, until Rebecca took the reins.
On the advice of home decor icon Mary Carol Garrity, Rebecca exhibits each year at the Junior League’s Holiday Mart and credits that decision for the showroom’s success. The booth takes three full days to complete, and is a destination point for Holiday Mart shoppers. “I want them to feel like they’re actually in the showroom when they’re at our booth,” says Rebecca.
A proponent of family owned, local businesses, Rebecca welcomes other local businesses to the showroom and has spots for merchandise from Junque Drawer Studio, Kansas Coffee Company and a local chocolatier who refuses to share the family secrets that make her chocolate a favorite of many. She considers the proprietors of The Yellow Barn, another local business, as not only competition but friendly supporters.
Purchasing local whenever she can, Rebecca sports an eclectic mix of products ranging from picture frames to cloches to knick knacks that express personality and individual style, all arranged in interesting vignettes that transition from living area to dining to bathrooms. Thinking outside the box not only in terms of visual displays but in business development, Rebecca was challenged to offer a way to accommodate an increase in the request for donations from school and civic organizations by creating an after hours program. “These groups can bring in shoppers for an evening, and we give back 15 percent of the total purchases from the event,” she says. It’s a win-win because the organization gets the donation they need and Rebecca welcomes new shoppers who often turn into loyal clients.
“I want our clients to walk into the showroom and feel like a kid again; I want them to look at the displays and take the ideas home to make their own place beautiful. A big box store offers product only, lined up on shelves, and expects people to know how to use it. I want them to see that they can be creative; ornaments don’t have to hang on a tree, they can hang on a chandelier. Other merchants won’t let people take pictures; I encourage it. I want them to come for inspiration and leave with not only great products but the knowledge of how to create something beautiful at home.”
Like other businesses, the three arms of Olathe Glass Co. and Olathe Home Decor find themselves subject to the ebbs and flows of seasons. During the mad dash of the holiday rush, when Rebecca is frantic, the other segments of business experience a lull. When the home decor aspect dips after the holidays, the remodeling side of the business picks up and keeps them hopping typically through March. The part of the business that caters to builders typically slacks over the winter but remains steady the remainder of the year.
With a staff of 23, Rebecca notes that each employee can work in any part of the business. This has resulted in never having a lay off, and with some employees with tenure that tops 30 years.
Always a realist, Rebecca acknowledges that even with a recent expansion they may soon run out of room and be forced to be creative once again to overcome that hurdle. Knowing that the economy might not foster a huge increase in the home decor side of the business, Rebecca doesn’t see the glass side changing, and knows that their attention to detail in their shower door line and their ability to think outside the box and find new and innovative ways to expand will keep them in business for many years to come.
“I’d love to spend more time with my daughter,” she says, “but she tells me she’s going to work here when she grows up. So we’ll see what happens.” JcL