FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Wendy Brownie
October 3, 2017
Her daughter announced a marriage, for the spring of 2010. Wendy’s tradition, like her linen merchant grandmother, was to always have an ‘inventory’ of fine European linens on hand – but she'd given the last tablecloth away. Short of a hurried trip to Europe to stock up, late one night while she was lamenting her inability to provide her own daughter with a good tablecloth as a wedding gift her husband suggested, “why not start your own [importing linens] business?” That evening, in haste, she sent off the first of many emails to explore doing just that. Her typo, she’d meant to type ‘inspiration’ in a note to a friend, in the subject line but left off the last two letters… and so,inspirati was born. It was, however a much longer journey from her linens history and heritage until now.
I’m not easily amused, or entertained – but this interview was way more than amusing and entertaining; it took longer, I took more notes and it was more ‘thrilling experience’ than ‘just another interview’. So, if you aren’t immediately drawn to a story of a middle-aged woman selling towels – stick with me for an entertaining ride. And it was like show+tell – every few minutes she was pulling something out of a tote bag to show me, to illustrate her point and to show off her linens …
She says, “I’m in the threads business, one towel at a time.”
And they don’t advertise. What do they sell? Tea towels, tablecloths, bedding, towels and custom sewing projects – everything for the home laid out in a store to make Martha Stewart fans drool and old-school merchants beam with appreciation for ‘how it ought to be done’. But, here’s the best part – real people who seem to be really interested in knowing their customers and providing old fashioned service, product knowledge, passion for their product. Where do you find that any more? In all those years – selling millions of dollars worth of tea towels, less than 10 returns/refunds in eight years? Who runs a business like that anymore? Wendy Brownie does.
And, if you’ve ever cursed that vewwy long school zone on Elbow Drive – well, she made that happen too, but that’s only one of her many accomplishments.
Wendy Onda was born in Welland, Ontario. She’s changed names – Leitch from her first husband (one daughter, a doctor living in New York), one amicable divorce and then 2nd marriage to Don Brownie (of transportation/aviation/logistics fame in Calgary) ...
Childhood - eldest of two girls; mom was an English teacher (high school/college) and community activist, dad was in management at Ontario Hydro. Wendy wasn’t the valedictorian in high school (“I was close”) but a strong student, politically active (student council president) and figure skater. She was accepted by every university she applied to – she chose University of Western Ontario (it was Huron College then), studied fine arts and education, coming away with B.A. (Hons) and B.Ed. degrees for five years work. She almost got to Woodstock … had a ticket, but didn’t want to risk being fired from her summer job at the golf course. She considered law school but thought five years in university was enough. She worked at Imperial Oil in Toronto, but when offered a job running the library said no. She got married, came with her husband to Calgary (he was with Petro-Canada then) and began life as wife, teacher (taught ESL at Mount Royal College), mom, Junior League, activist (that playground zone “we’d had three injury accidents in one week”), ran for city council (lost by 200 votes). Her Junior League work allowed her to put her art talent to work on advertising sales/production – and her hustle sold the ads. She sat on the Development Appeal Board. And travel. Lots of travel – with plenty of shopping with a purpose, bringing special things home for gifts, linens chief among them. And there is her grandmother’s history too, a linen shop in a small town in Lancashire. Wendy showed me some 100 yr. old towels and tablecloths – still in fine shape.
Do all these ingredients sound like the recipe for an incredible retail venture, philanthropy and some ‘joy spreading’? Well they are.
Her mantra: fine linen for every day. Suppliers from Europe – she wrote to them all, got samples for a ‘Trunk Show’ venture – private showing by invitation, when she invited people – they came. She took tons of orders. Those shows gave rise to a tiny store, a bigger tiny store, another hole-in-the-wall off an alley – and then finally (but I suspect she’ll outgrow it soon) the current store in the Mission/Cliff Bungalow retail strip on 4th Street SW – opened February 2014. “We sell tea towels, one at a time”.
How did I hear about her? Friend George Brookman unfurled a towel at one our ‘chubby-guys weigh-ins this spring’ and told a bit of her story. The Canada 150 towel (Wendy’s design from a tracing of a West Coast Maple leaf found under a bench near the Wickenish Inn, designed that same night she found it while walking after dinner - yes she's a bit ADHD - when the game on TV ran too long), woven in France.
As a ‘once upon a time retailer’ myself I was intrigued to check out the store. I bought two as a thank you gift for a client. I’ve told friends who’ve gone and spent much more. I’ve been back and bought some more – the whole ‘how that project came about’ is partly detailed on the inspirati website … and even better when you hear it directly from Wendy in person; in short, 2,000 sold so far (at $40/towel), a chunk from each goes to WE charities. The store sells a wide range of towels - $28-38-48.
Why are you successful? “Stick-to-it-iveness. I love people. We are successful because we make people happy. Working with people who want the same things. People turn off their phones when they come into our store – how cool is that? In terms of a ‘why is the business successful’ statement, our business definition: we guarantee the quality and we out-serve the market.”
What has held you back? “Every detour has been a different journey – and I’ve learned more from the detours.”
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I want to know, “what’s your story?”, “what’s your street-cred?” Quality, it’s the heritage, the reputation. The relationship we foster together …
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Wendy Brownie/inspirati, and why do they do business with you, why have they patronize you over your competitors?
… quality and service – they go hand in hand. We cultivate a relationship with everyone who comes through our door.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… constant connection. We have six staff. Thank everyone. And post it notes. I have post it notes everywhere …
… not always …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I don’t lose sleep and I don’t worry. We don’t have quotas for our staff in our store, we take life and business one customer at a time, one day at a time. I learned something from my father. He taught me to always say thank you. He taught me that when you put in a good day’s work you will always sleep well.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… having the ticket to Woodstock, then not going – I’m sure my life would have been different if I had, and I’d have lost my job; to have a world-view and travel beyond the Niagara peninsula; I had a summer job at the Chateau Lake Louise as a chambermaid – was selected to do the linens in his suite for his entire stay for the Shah of Iran - very particular, and a big tipper.
… entertaining, I love to set a table - I like to curate a table. Needlepoint, gardening, travel, yoga.
What do you read?
… the classics, and [at this point Wendy hauled out three books – from her childhood in pristine condition – each one with a story too long to write here].
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