What I've Learned: Anne Folsom Smith

By Beau Denton January 6, 2014

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After 30 years running her own interior design business, Anne Folsom Smith is a presence in some of Southwest Florida’s most luxurious properties, from an art-deco Casey Key beach house filled with works by Marc Chagall and Helen Frankenthaler, to Michael’s On East.

Smith’s own workspace is in an exposed brick, second-floor suite of offices in the U.S. Garage building at 330 S. Pineapple Ave., where she started her business. Her husband, architect Frank Folsom Smith, redesigned the 1926 building.

Smith spent 15 years selling high-end furniture at Saba’s Home Furnishings until it closed in 1982. Her husband urged her to start her own firm. “I had no money but I had a lot of desire to do wonderful things,” she says.

So with $5,000, an assistant and the desk she still uses, she launched Anne Folsom Smith Interior Design in 1983.

She brought several clients with her from the furniture store so she had a base to start. “My biggest challenge was to make sure I had business continually coming in,” she says. “And credibility. I had to create trust that I’d be around to finish the job.”

She delivered what she promised. Today 75 percent of her business comes from repeat business and word-of-mouth clients, with the remaining new business coming from print media, the Internet, her high-profile support of the Sarasota Orchestra, where she is chairman of the board, and her corporate sponsorship of WUSF public radio, which credits Smith’s strong support on-air. “Nobody tells me ‘I give because of your affiliations,’” Smith says, “but I do hear how wonderful it is that they heard me on the radio or saw me on stage. It’s subliminal, but there’s name recognition.”

Smith now employs eight people, all of them involved in design and many who have been with her for years. The secret to that longevity, she says, is make sure your employees are on board with your company’s vision and “empower them to do their job.”

Rewarding employees without compromising the financial health of her business has always been a challenge, a task even more difficult during the recession when her business dropped by half. She made the decision to keep her employees, but asked them to work four days. “Everyone tightened their belts. It was mutual on all our parts,” she says.

Smith also always set aside some profit, knowing that with the vagaries of the real estate market, she’d need it. When the market started coming back last year, her business returned to a more normal level and she was grateful her team was intact. Today she juggles five to 20 projects at a time, from a $20,000 simple room renovation to multimillion-dollar jobs that start from the ground up.

Catering to an affluent market means a high level of service, and Smith adheres to the old adage that the customer is always right. “You have to know your person; you are selling a lifestyle,” she says.

She deals with difficult clients by focusing on solutions. “We all bring something into a relationship from past experiences,” she says. When she has made mistakes, it was because she was not paying close enough attention to cues. “If you are willing to meet people halfway, most people realize there are compromises,” Smith says. “If they are completely unreasonable, you have to walk away. But it seldom happens.”

She also makes a point of using only local vendors. “I have always supported local people and that’s why I have been so successful,” she says. “Most business is by referral.”

She recommends that anyone considering a business have a passion and a singular focus. “You have to do what you have to do to make it successful,” she says. Sticking it out when times are tough requires commitment.

Smith’s design projects have changed over the years, from model homes to Longboat Key penthouses and beachfront Casey Key homes. But the essence of what she provides to people remains the same.

“It’s listening and understanding a client’s lifestyle,” she says. “Everyone needs to have a nest work for them.” -By Kim Hackett

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