Annie Selke’s CEO improves profitability at premium home décor business

Lori King

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Lori King joined the Annie Selke Company in January 2020 as CEO. Over the past four years at the helm, she has scaled the premium home décor business and improved profitability.

Prior to joining Annie Selke, Lori spent 22 years as president and chief operating officer of Stonewall Kitchen, a global manufacturer of premium branded specialty food. During her tenure at Stonewall, King was instrumental in driving the company’s growth and led the sale of Stonewall Kitchen to a private equity firm.

How did you navigate the transition from the food business to home furnishings?

It wasn’t as hard as one would think. I came from a premium brand, Stonewall Kitchen. I started in the early days of specialty foods. As the leader of a premium food company, I learned how to navigate channel conflict.

Both Stonewall Kitchen and the Annie Selke Companies are also founder-led businesses that produce premium products. At first, there were big pieces of the journey that Annie Selke needed to keep an eye on, but over time she put her succession plan in place and recently retired.

With a founder-led business it’s important that the team feel empowered so the business can grow. Since I had a background in finance and operations, I was able to deal with the company’s infrastructure starting on day one.

Dealing with a pandemic two months after starting your new position with Annie Selke must have caused some challenges. How did you navigate the difficulties?

As you come into a new organization, you need to determine if it has what it needs to scale. We were in the process of evaluating the people and the processes and putting goals in place.

When you have incidents like a pandemic or a recession, you tend to tighten up and investigate things more in order to make organizational shifts. The biggest challenge at that point was in the warehouse since it wasn’t set up for what it needed to do.

We spent much of that first year getting situated and ended up outsourcing a large part of the warehousing. The warehouse at that time couldn’t handle scaling up. But the country opened up faster than we thought after the pandemic hit. It was unfortunate, since we couldn’t ship a lot of the product, and of course, we had to deal with the supply chain challenges. We had to work on making some changes to the supply chain to get the product. The product is made primarily in India with a 40-person team.

Annie was brilliant when she started Dash & Albert in India since it’s a wonderful place for manufacturing. She worked with the vendors very closely to develop the quality of product that she wanted.

Some companies have vendors print product and they buy it, but Annie had an innate sense of looking at what was happening and could accurately predict the trends. She looked at artwork and guided the team in India as a design center. She developed very close relationships with the factories in order to develop the product to her quality requirements.

As you said, company founder Annie Selke recently retired. What aspects of her legacy inspire you the most?

Both Annie Selke and the founders of Stonewall Kitchen were brilliant in their foresight. Founding a business in itself inspires me. Annie had an innate knowledge of how to lead the industry and could see things before the trend setters came out with the reports. We did not want to be copycatters, so we were able to stay ahead of the game with the knowledge of what materials were out there, what the Millennial customer might be looking for, and how they are living.

When you were in a meeting with Annie you truly were getting a piece of her. She also came up with an impressive succession plan. I’ve worked with her for four years, and we’ve been developing the plan all along and formalizing it. We carefully worked through the process of selling the company (to RugsUSA).

Annie has a vice president of product development who has been with her for 15 years and a design director who has been with her for 18 years. They have traveled with her to India and sat side-by-side in meetings for years. They are now empowered to continue what Annie started, and they are doing a phenomenal job.

We still need to fill in some gaps around assortment allocation, things of that nature. But the beautiful high-quality rugs will continue to be one of our core categories.

How does being a high-energy and competitive individual affect your leadership style?

I take everything as a competition when coming into a new company and knowing that we need to grow. First of all, we set up a plan to increase the company’s value for Annie Selke, then I worked with her on an exit strategy. We took one project at a time and put goals in place, and some were easier than others.

I enjoy taking on the captain and the cheerleader role. But I also roll up my sleeves and jump in when needed. I was fortunate to be able to take Stonewall Kitchen from a $3 million company to a $200 million company.

I believe the onboarding process is important but, when people are ready, I let go of the day-to-day and empower the employees and trust them to do the work as well as I do, if not better.

What is your vision for the company over the next five years?

I believe the rug market in the value category is quite saturated, and there is a lot of competition. We will continue to increase brand awareness while maintaining the premium brand value and the proposition of who and what we are.

Our goal is to provide the perfect rug for everyone, good, better and best. But our brand aesthetic is what makes us different, so we will continue to move forward with brand awareness while focusing on our core categories, which is one mainstay of our strategy.

People try to do too much. We don’t need to be a lighting company or a window company. But we can bring in new small accessories that make sense. At the end of the day, we are rugs and bedding. That’s where we plan to continue growth.

We just got on Amazon this year and were able to maintain our premium pricing and proposition. Our goal is to push into channels that don’t alienate our core.

Designers are a mainstay of our business, so we want to stay in the forefront of their minds. We have a lot of designer outreach in that regard. It’s been a place of learning for me, to watch designers with their customers and clients. We have a competitive advantage in that way that pure DTC companies don’t have. There are still a large majority of customers who want to touch, feel and see the product before purchasing.

I recently went to India for the first time to see how the artisans create our handwoven and microhook product, and I could see the quality difference.

How would you describe a perfect day at work?

A perfect day is when I can concentrate on one thing and not feel like a ping pong ball. We are still going through the acquisition, and we have that pretty much aligned, which really allows people to be able to focus more on the day-to-day. So, for me that means being able to look to the future and start to make that vision happen now.

We’ve spent time getting the company ready for Annie’s departure. We have new partners. This takes a lot of energy. It’s now time for me to set up a vision for where we need to be.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

I follow the best piece of advice that I’ve been given daily: Keep it simple, and stick to your core.

We have a great brand, and the goal is to enhance the current brand experience. Growth is more challenging since it must be carefully done since you can’t be everything to everyone. We stick to what we do well and put strategies around that. It’s better to grow your core.

Our motto is “Designed for happiness, made for life.” To me, the more that we go outside the core, it doesn’t make sense to go to places where the product can be made more cheaply but it’s not as durable.

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