In Business of Home’s series Shop Talk, we chat with owners of home furnishings stores across the country to hear about their hard-won lessons and challenges, big and small—to find out what they see for the future of small industry businesses like theirs.
This week, we spoke with Brooklyn-based Kelly Richardson, the new owner of The Farmhouse Store in Westfield, New Jersey. With an education in business and a career that’s taken him from global corporations to charter schools, he decided to purchase the store despite having no background in the design industry or even retail; an early hire was interior designer Sabrina Mizerek as creative director. Farmhouse celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. Richardson explained why he leapt in, what he’s slowly changing about the inventory and aesthetics of the store and why the shifting demographics of the surrounding area (which just happens to be one of the wealthiest in the country) support where it could go next.
Courtesy of The Farmhouse Store
What was your career like before The Farmhouse Store?
I started in Fortune 50 companies: finance accounting, operations marketing support. I did that for a number of years, supporting large national and global brands at Procter & Gamble in particular, then transitioned into banking and moved to New York. Living behind Excel for 16 hours a day was not my dream, so I left that space to pursue what I would call “soul work.” An opportunity came up to step into a leadership role in K-12 education in New York, and over the course of about six years, I opened around 15 schools in New York, New Jersey, D.C. and Louisiana. I worked as chief operating officer for a charter network in Brooklyn for a little bit and that was super great work—felt great.
I did love the private sector, and I also loved the impact I was able to have in the nonprofit and education space; I wanted to figure out how to make a life that accommodated both. That led me to seek out buying a business. I was looking for a business that met my financial criteria and was ready for the skill set I brought to the table, and had owners that were either retiring or transitioning out. A lot of the businesses I talked to had late-stage owners who didn’t have an heir. Through that search in my area, Farmhouse came up. The previous owners were looking to sell; they had been operating for 14 years and given it their blood, sweat and tears. They had a fantastic brand and a gorgeous store. I thought it was a great opportunity.
How did you literally find it?
It’s just like searching for real estate: There are public listings. I was engaged with those platforms and with lenders and brokers to see what was on the market. Let’s say it took about a year and a half from my starting the search to closing on The Farmhouse Store, and during that time I maybe looked at 300 or more businesses to find the right fit. It was certainly not what I was looking for. I wasn’t even focused on retail, and I didn’t have any experience in furniture, interior design, fashion or style. In fact, those are areas I shied away from! But with the support of some mentors, and then getting to know the community, I really have become invested in the industry and just how important it is to our daily lives.
How hands-on are you day-to-day right now, and do you expect that to change?
There’s the customer-facing, and there’s the back of the house—all the operations, accounting, managing, community organizations and municipalities regulations, etc. I am extremely involved in the brick-and-mortar retail. I am not the leader of the customer-facing work. One of the first things I did was hire a seasoned designer as creative director to lead the store and the customer experience. Sabrina Mizerek and her team are who the customers mostly engage with. Most of my time is spent keeping it together, which is three full-time jobs. I’m not even sure how the previous owners did it, to be honest!
Courtesy of The Zap Group
What is the general aesthetic of the store? Is there a type of home goods you specialize in?
It’s about feeling at home and comfortable—fun. It’s where people come to find unique pieces to accent their home. The first floor is our gift shop, where we have gifts for all types of occasions: jewelry, pillows, throws, candles, fragrances, clocks. The second floor is our furniture gallery. We sell all custom upholstered pieces. We [also] have living, dining, bedroom and accessories, so coffee tables, side tables, mirrors, wall art, standing art and lots of custom lamps as well. Sabrina has done a fantastic job putting it together. When people come up the stairs, they’re just like, “Oh, wow.” It’s so elegant.
Did you change much? Is the general merchandise selection similar to what was already there?
The idea was, the store is 15 years strong at this point. We are stepping into changes as we move forward, but we’re going to pace slowly to make sure that we don’t mess up what’s already working. The store has had more traditional pieces that cater to what the community has historically been—larger homes, so larger farmhouse-style furniture. We have started making our offerings more contemporary: pieces that have metal finishes rather than all wood, upholstery in more vibrant colors. We’ve also updated a lot of the art. The reason we’re doing this is the demographics of Westfield and…
Read More: Why a lack of retail experience didn’t stop this entrepreneur from buying a beloved