BEYOND THE BUSINESS
Each Saturday morning at 9 am, successful business leaders and entrepreneurs from across the lowcountry talk about what it takes to succeed in business and in life. Hosted by Eric Cox, Leslie Haywood, and Byron Stahl of Coastal Wealth Management.
Coastal Wealth Management is a full-service financial firm whose professionals are dedicated to helping their clients build wealth, protect assets, and preserve their estates. coastalwm.com
PART I – interview starts at 3:58
BEYOND THE BUSINESS
PART II – interview starts at 1:28
BEYOND THE BUSINESS
Part I Transcript
Intro: Opinions voiced this program are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investments may be appropriate for you, consult with your attorney, accountant and financial adviser or tax advisor prior to investing. Securities are offered through LPL Financial, member FINRASIPC.
Good morning and welcome to ‘Beyond the Business,’ on News radio 94.3 WSC. Each Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, successful business leaders and entrepreneurs from across the lowcountry talk about what it takes to succeed in business and in life. Now your hosts of ‘Beyond the Business,’ Eric Cox, Leslie Haywood.
Eric Cox: Great Saturday morning lowcountry. Welcome to another edition of ‘Beyond the Business,’ heard here every Saturday morning 94.3 WSC from 9:00 to 9:30. You may be listening to us via podcast from our website at coastalwm.com. Simply click on that radio icon. Here we are for another edition of ‘Beyond the Business,’ sponsored by ‘Coastal Wealth Management.’ If you need great financial planning and services, simply reach out to us at 843.388.4300. I’m your host Eric Cox, here this morning we got a full house. Yeah, we have Byron Stall and we also have…
Leslie Haywood: Hi I’m Leslie Haywood. Thank you for spending your Saturday morning with us, and make sure and continue the fun beyond Saturday mornings and find us on Facebook or on Twitter @BTBCHS.
Eric Cox: Leslie welcome back, we missed you. It’s so boring not having you around.
Leslie Haywood: I’m so glad I was missed.
Eric Cox: You light everything up.
Leslie Haywood: Oh, thanks.
Eric Cox: Welcome to October, folks hard to believe, Halloween is here around the corner. Have your costumes picked out yet?
Leslie Haywood: No, not yet.
Eric Cox: No, I know you and Jason get into Halloween.
Leslie Haywood: I do love Halloween yeah. You know our kids are teenagers and they are too cool for us or something like that. But we go around the neighborhood with my niece, with our wagon.
Eric Cox: You borrow kids?
Leslie Haywood: Yes, we borrow kids, I know. Yes, I still like dressing up.
Eric Cox: Speaking of kids, Byron how are you doing this morning?
Byron: Ha ha ha, you’re funny, oh man.
Eric Cox: Are you good?
Byron: I’m all right. A lot better now Leslie’s here.
Eric Cox: We’re gonna have to exclude Leslie for a minute and talk about our show from last couple of weeks. We had Miss Anna Rincon on. Anna is the franchise partner for Expedia Cruise ship centers here in Charleston. Matter of fact, we had her on last Saturday.
Byron: We had big grand opening last Saturday.
Eric Cox: Grand opening, so hopefully everything went well over there. Did you go pick up a cruise or a travel range?
Byron: I picked up a lot of great tips, I tell you what.
Eric Cox: Yeah Byron is working for the, he’s like give me the free tips on travel.
Byron: I’ll try and share one in a minute.
Eric Cox: I like that. So, if you happen to miss that show, again go to our website CoastalWM.com. Click on that radio icon and certainly listen to Anna and all her life journey. Byron what was a nugget or two you took away from her story?
Byron: Yeah, I’ll give two nuggets. The first was when she made the transition into entrepreneurship. I think a lot of people that go through that. It can almost feel like paralysis by analysis, where you do so much digging and so much thinking. Where you end up just not making a move. What she said is, she really just followed her intuition and feelings. Once she just had that gut feeling and knew that it was right, she didn’t think about it. She just made the move and went for it and she just kind of followed ever since.
The second one I said, I was gonna give a tip, a little free tip from the travel expert of Charleston. She said the best trip she’s ever been to is Machu Picchu.
Eric Cox: And India was on her bucket list.
Byron: That’s true. It’s always good to know where did the professional travelers travel. Speaking of professional traveler, you could be one Leslie.
Leslie Haywood: I could, I’m not a travel agent but I slept at a Holiday in Express last night.
Eric Cox: So, you partially qualified.
Leslie Haywood: Yeah, that’s right.
Eric Cox: That’s a whole another story, we’ll save for another day. Well let’s turn our attention to our guest today, who’s probably just over here sitting in the corner going what and the heck have I gotten into. Alex Fleuren, welcome to the studio. You are the founder and lead designer of Design AFI, if I got all that correct.
Alex Fleuren: You did, thank you Eric. Thanks for having me on the show.
Eric Cox: We’re excited to have you. Thanks for being here this Saturday morning and before we jump into a little bit about your background, if you don’t mind take a quick 20 seconds and give us a commercial on Design AFI.
Alex Fleuren: Well, Design AFI is an interior design firm. That’s located here in South Carolina, Mount Pleasant. We’ve been here for 13 years. I’ve been in the area in design for about twenty-five years. We do a full residential interior design.
Eric Cox: Wonderful. Well, we certainly know there’s a lot going on in the Charleston community and design work is a big piece of that. So, we’re excited to hear all about your business and what you’ve been doing. But of course…
Leslie Haywood: …we can’t start there, we got to go way, way back.
Eric Cox: We have to go beyond the business.
Leslie Haywood: Right, because what’s the tagline?
Eric Cox: People you know, stories you don’t. So, Anna you got to share some stories with us today, all right?
Alex Fleuren: Well, I will try.
Eric Cox: I called you Anna. Alex, I’m sorry, I’m all over the place. I told you it’s gonna be a rough morning this morning.
Leslie Haywood: All right, she doesn’t bite she’s cool. We chatted earlier, you’re off the hook.
Eric Cox: So, Alex where were you born? What was life like as a little youngster?
Alex Fleuren: Well, actually I was born at Ole Miss. But my parents are graduates of Ole Miss and my dad was.
Eric Cox: Hotty toddy.
Alex Fleuren: Law school and they moved to Atlanta right after that. I grew up in Atlanta,…in the suburbs … very typical Atlanta suburb kid.
Eric Cox: So, typical suburb kid. Walk us through, what was education like and what were some of the extracurricular activities you might have been involved in as a youngster?
Alex Fleuren: Well, my mother was an English teacher, a high school English teacher. So, the first thing I would have to say is, everything was grammatically correct. Which probably did influence how I work and I check, double check and pause before I speak. Because I want to make sure I get it right, I won’t be corrected.
Leslie Haywood: Oh, my goodness.
Alex Fleuren: But we grew up playing outside. We had a lot of land and my dad actually was a corporate prosecutor for the Internal Revenue Service and audited really large companies. But he kind of just put all that to the side on Saturday mornings and he would cut down trees. So, I spent a lot of my time cutting trees and hauling wood and taking lumber to people and shimmying up trees and tying chains around them. Just grew up very much outside and very outdoors. We also owned a lima bean farm. So, we picked lima beans in the summer and my parents did that really just for fun.
Eric Cox: I don’t know about picking lima beans. It doesn’t sound like fun to me, but hopefully they made some money out of that, right. So, as a kid being around obviously a lot of different disciplines, you know teaching, and a prosecutor, and farming. Did you formulate an idea of, when I grow up here’s what I want to do?
Alex Fleuren: Not really, I won an award when I was in high school for news writing. I won a position on a newspaper that was owned by Coca-Cola. I ended up becoming the editor of that newspaper and that newspaper went to every High School in five states and in some colleges. It was a great opportunity, because I got to meet people in the field and I got to go to press conferences and sit by people like Sam Donaldson at the time‑ which was really cool. Then I just walked away from that when I got into college. I just decided it wasn’t interesting to me but I do still love to write and I am a stickler for things to be correct.
Eric Cox: I’m gonna quite speaking this morning at that time.
Leslie Haywood: I know, I’m already thinking about all the horrible things I’ve said.
Alex Fleuren: Well, much more so in the written word than spoken.
Leslie Haywood: That’s good. Did you have any siblings growing up?
Eric Cox: I do, I have an older sister and a younger brother.
Leslie Haywood: What did they, are they entrepreneurs? Are they, what are they like?
Alex Fleuren: My brother is a high school principal in Georgia. He was actually a runner-up Teacher of the Year many years ago for the state of Georgia, which was an accomplishment.
Leslie Haywood: Wow.
Alex Fleuren: Yes, and my sister owns a Mercedes dealership in Atlanta.
Eric Cox: Wow, that’s pretty great. So, do you, where did you end up going to college?
Alex Fleuren: I went to University of Georgia.
Eric Cox: Okay. You wanted to continue doing what you were doing in high school?
Alex Fleuren: Well, I started off studying journalism and immediately switched, I knew it wasn’t right for me and changed to major in housing. Which most people had never heard of. It was an independent study at Georgia at the time. There were five of us in my major, which was really unusual for such a large school. So, they were actually kind of inventing that major, as in developing that major, as we were in the major.
The five of us were able to contribute a lot to how that major was developed. So, we ended up working on a smart house, designing, ergonomically correct electrical receptacles for people who have special needs. We did work on developing city planning for Atlanta and how they were going to incorporate mass transit into the new city, outlook for the cityscape- in the next 50 years really.
Lots of interesting projects like that, that really were in the scope of housing, but also hit on things that you just wouldn’t necessarily traditionally think about, when you think about residential concepts or concerns.
Eric Cox: So, along this journey where do you point back in time to say, hey my love for design and passion for that really it was birthed?
Alex Fleuren: Once, I became a designer which was 25 years ago, I realized I had really been planning to be a designer my whole life. I can remember as a child driving down the road and correcting architecture that I would see. I grew up like I said in a lot of woods, but there were 50 custom homes built on this large tract of land that my parents had built a custom home on, and those houses were built by all different builders over the course of 10 years.
So, growing up I was on a different construction site all the time playing. My dad would walk me through you know what was done correctly about a foundation or was something to code about the siding that was going up. It was really fascinating, because he had also been a land surveyor.
Leslie Haywood: What didn’t, he do.
Alex Fleuren: He was definitely inspirational for sure. He knew a lot, I think when you’re from the country you’re very independent and you kind of have to know how to do everything. He was definitely like that- he taught me a lot.
Leslie Haywood: So, when you were going through the degree in college, what did you think your end game was once you graduated? What was your dream job at the time?
Alex Fleuren: I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I actually had a job coming right out of college, working for Jack Kemp at the Department of HUD. Before I could get there, my job got cut from the budget. So, I had to quickly switch gears and I really thought that I would plan to be a lobbyist for the National Home Builders Association. Because I’d worked a lot with the National Home Builders Association on projects in college.
I was very excited about getting to Washington and working on some ideas I had. Then my fifth-grade sweetheart came back into my life and changed my life forever.
Eric Cox: You can’t leave there. Keep going.
Alex Fleuren: Well, I’ve known my husband since fifth grade. We were just always good friends and went all the way through school together. He went off to the Air Force Academy and I went off to Georgia. We were just always good buddies and we were actually the people who never had a date. So, he would come into town and he’d say, ‘Alex, are you going to this party?’ I’d say, ‘yeah.’ He’s like, ‘yeah, I don’t have a date. So, I’ll pick you up at 7:00.’
We just knew that we were each other’s go-to, because we never had a date. He told me when we were in high school that he was going to become a fighter pilot. Top Gun came out the year we were in high school. He said, ‘I’m gonna fly that plane.’ He was talking about the plane that’s the MiG, which is a T-38. He said, ‘I’m gonna fly that plane.’ I was like, ‘yeah, right sure okay. Right now, you’re working at Kroger bagging groceries.’ But he actually did end up flying that plane and he came back. We had both graduated from college I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. He said, ‘by the way, I’m flying this plane and I’m gonna be flying into Dobbins Air Force Base and I want you to be there.’ So, he arranged for me to be in the tower.
Leslie Haywood: Did he buzz the tower?
Alex Fleuren: He did, they did flybys, they did formations. They did all this cool stuff and I can remember thinking ‘that is my guy, I have to be with that guy.’
Eric Cox: Blaze, can we get the Top Gun music going in the background? Come on man, where are you?
Alex Fleuren: I just thought, he was the coolest thing. So, we never left each other after that and we’ve been married for 27 years.
Leslie Haywood: All the single guys see it’s so easy. It’s so easy to get a girl, You just, fly MiG, do all the things and head over heels.
Eric Cox: I flew a Cessna one time.
Alex Fleuren: That’s great.
Eric Cox: So, here you are thinking that you’re gonna go be a lobbyist. Have these job options that falls through, how do you find yourself going on to the next thing?
Alex Fleuren: Well, we ended up marrying, and his first duty station was Charleston. I actually got a job in city planning in Columbia. He said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You need to be in Charleston, we can’t be apart.’ I thought, ‘well. I don’t know about that. I can commute.’ He said, ‘No’. So, I came here and I actually just fell into it. Because a decorator friend said, ‘can you paint so-and-so on a piece of furniture for me?’
I said sure, I will paint this. It was really back when Ivy was all over everything, and there were murals on everything, and 80s 90s. I said, sure I can do that. I did, and she kept me so busy. I basically had to start a business, and it worked out perfectly because my husband’s job was crazy hours. Basically, on call all the time. So, it allowed me to be with him, and still do something I was interested in.
Eric Cox: Had you had experience in art work, paint work, anything along those lines in the past?
Alex Fleuren: Not even an art class in high school.
Eric Cox: You just had a natural talent for it then.
Alex Fleuren: I didn’t realize that at the time. I just played around with it, and I was really doing it just to help a friend, and then realize that I could paint anything.
Leslie Haywood: Clearly, your ivy leaf…looking way more than.. I mean you just can’t just go paint, do you have any talent in your family, like digging back, or you did your mom paint, like that’s just not something that comes out.
Alex Fleuren: That’s such an interesting question. Actually, my grandfather was a planter in Mississippi at a small farm. He loved to paint, so he would go out in the evenings, take his easel and he would paint. My grandmother had several of his paintings in their house, and I never really thought about it actually, until you just said that. It never occurred to me that he did that, because he did it just for fun.
Leslie Haywood: It had to come from somewhere.
Eric Cox: Look at you, Barbara Walters on the radio. Alright, is that kind of the seeds that started your business today?
Alex Fleuren: It definitely did start it. I ended up doing the Parade Homes for a designer here in Charleston. It was very well received, and I believe she got best interiors. I think, I painted seven rooms with different things. I painted a faux rug, and all kinds of things like that. Then, my husband got sent to Seattle for three years, and I thought well I’ll just do the same thing, and by that point I had actually gone and gotten a master’s in faux finishes and was doing custom marble, and things that would pass as the real thing. It was very high-end. I was getting really great commissions. He said well okay, well we got to leave. So, we left and we went to Seattle, and I really thought I’d do exactly the same thing.
I went to a big company, there’s actually a design firm in Seattle that’s the largest on the west coast or was at the time. Showed them my portfolio, and every picture that they said, we like this who designed that room. It actually ended up, it was like in my house, or it was a friend’s house that I had done, or they just over and over spotted rooms that were actually my designs, not just my painting.
They said you to be a designer with us. We want to hire you as a designer. So, I did that for three years, and I learned a whole new side of the business, with vendors and what furnishing companies I really liked. What reps I really liked, and what product I really came through on quality- which was really big with the company I worked with. They carried fantastic lines, and just learned about shipping and receiving, stock, and just all kinds of things like that. That was a great experience for me.
Leslie Haywood: All of those things that you need if you were ever to start your own design company.
Alex Fleuren: That’s true. Which I had no idea that I would do at that time.
Eric Cox: I’m sure, I’m the only one in the universe that feels this way. I know all of our listeners are up to speed. I know you two are definitely snuff on this, but for some way it doesn’t really know the difference between, you talked about doing the murals on furniture and things like that versus designing. Kind of give me a little insight, what is the difference in those different arenas?
Alex Fleuren: Well, I wasn’t a designer at first. I was a decorative artist, and that’s what I would say that you’re trying to classify with the paintings and murals. I don’t do that anymore at all. There’s actually a wonderful decorative artist here in Charleston, and she’s very talented. We actually trained through the same company, she’s very good. I would never even think to do it now, she’s excellent.
But a decorative artist does simply that, they artistically decorate something for you. It can be a cabinet, or a wall, or a floor. Then there are decorators, and there’s, in the industry, there’s a lot of controversy about what’s a decorator versus a designer. You’ll hear a lot of different answers about that. I think all designers can decorate, but all decorators can’t design. If that makes sense.
Leslie Haywood: I want you to go into that like what does a designer do or have that a decorator does not? What is the difference? What is the value added?
Alex Fleuren: A designer has to be able to know how to change space, if the space needs to be changed. A decorator knows how to make an existing space work.
Eric Cox: This is a whole education for me this morning.
Eric Cox: Learn something new every day. That’s actually, that’s fascinating. So, you were over in Seattle, and you were starting, you were learning about interior design. How long you said you were out there for? Three years?
Alex Fleuren: I was there three years.
Eric Cox: Three years, and then you came back to Charleston.
Alex Fleuren: We came back to Charleston. My husband got hired by Delta… Can I say that?
Eric Cox: Yeah, you can say that.
Leslie Haywood: You can.
Alex Fleuren: He had served for ten years. He ended up coming back as a reservist here at Charleston (AFB). Started flying for Delta, and we had just about decided that we were going to move to Atlanta, stop serving in the reserves, and 9/11 hit, and that changed our life forever. We were actually in Atlanta to sign a contract on a house, and my husband was actually in a sim(ulator) at work at Delta. He called me and said, I got to go to Charleston. I don’t know, when I’m gonna see you again, and don’t sign the papers. It changed our life forever.
Eric Cox: So, the unfortunate but our time running out but the opportunity for you to decide, hey instead of working for others and doing this for others, it’s time for me to go on my own and create my own, and be my own entrepreneur. Where did that come about from?
Alex Fleuren: That was really a 9/11 decision. It was, we knew when that happened, that my husband would be in war for years. We knew it was gonna last a long time, and it ended up lasting for us thirteen years. He ended up in 2014. He did retire as an active-duty pilot, and left the Air Force in 2014 and went back to Delta, but that changed us so much and we knew that with everything that was happening with the airlines, and everything that was happening overseas that we were going to have to make some decisions, because we had basically just walked away from everything, we’d built with the military. When we separated from the military, and then to go back right back into it with the airlines collapsing. We said let’s see what else we can do, and I knew how to design houses. That’s what I did, and went right at it.
Eric Cox: So, amidst, all this that’s going on, and your husband’s having to take off. Y’all have I believe at that time, some young children if I am correct.
Alex Fleuren: My first child was 6 months old when 9/11 hit.
Eric Cox: So, at that point, you decide hey I’m gonna start my own business. I’m assuming all the experience you’ve had up until this point has given you the confidence at point to say said ‘hey, I can go launch this, I can go do this, and I can go make that successful.’
Alex Fleuren: Yes. My husband was really supportive, just totally believed in me, and said here’s what I’ve got, take it, and make something happen. I did it.
Eric Cox: That was the birth of Design AFI.
Alex Fleuren: That was the birth of, yes, it changed names, but yes.
Eric Cox: So, as you were starting the formation of what is now today Design AFI. Kind of walk us through some of the biggest fears that you had kind of stepping out into your own.
Alex Fleuren: The only fear I can think about having is that I did have, I ended up with two small children going through all this with me. My husband was gone anywhere from six to nine months of a year, for years. It was kind of my kids and me going through it all, but it ended up being so positive for them. They are so independent, and so just incredibly inspiring to me.
They’re great to be around, and I think it’s because they’ve always been on a construction site, they’ve always dealt with adults. They’ve always interacted in business situations, and it’s made them. I think, have the confidence that to I had to have to do it with them in tow.
Eric Cox: Well, it’s a great spot to leave off, and unfortunately, we are out of time. But we’re looking forward to coming back next week, and certainly hearing more about the beginning years, and how it’s at 13 years now. This business has grown and matured. Again, Alex Fleuren thank you for being here this morning, sharing your story. Founder and lead designer for Design AFI here in Charleston. Again, you’ve been listening to ‘Beyond the Business’ here on 94.3 WSC, and until next Saturday morning, Low Country have a blessed week.
Closing statement: Thank you for listening to ‘Beyond the Business’ on News radio 94.3 WSC. Tune in next Saturday morning at nine o’clock for ‘Beyond the Business’ hosted by Eric Cox and Leslie Haywood. Heard exclusively on news radio 94.3 WSC.
Part II Transcript
Intro: Opinions voiced in this program are for general information only, and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investments may be appropriate for you, consult with your attorney, accountant, and financial adviser or tax advisor prior to investing. Securities are offered through LPL financial, member FINRASIPC.
Good morning, and welcome to ‘‘Beyond the Business’’ on News Radio 94.3 WSC. Each Saturday morning at nine o’clock, successful business leaders and entrepreneurs from across the lowcountry talk about what it takes to succeed in business, and in life. Now your hosts of “Beyond the Business”, Eric Cox and Leslie Haywood.
Eric Cox: And great Saturday morning, lowcountry. Welcome to another edition of “Beyond the Business”. People you know, stories you don’t, heard exclusively here on 94.3 WSC, every Saturday morning. We thank you for tuning the dial to listen to our great show about leadership and entrepreneurship from around the lowcountry. You might also be listening to us via our podcast at coastalwm.com. I’m one of your hosts, Eric Cox. We got a full house here today. We do Byran Stall is here again, along with Leslie Haywood.
Leslie Haywood: Hello, lowcountry. Hello and welcome to “Beyond the Business.” Make sure and follow us beyond Saturday mornings and come to our Facebook page at “Beyond the Business” or on twitter @btbchs. Thank you for having me back.
Eric Cox: You know what’s so great about this show? The tagline, right? It’s, “People you know”…
Leslie Haywood: …”and stories you don’t.”
Eric Cox: And we really do a great job, I think, of bringing out stories, and hearing the backdrops. And we all see different folks in life that are successful in their own businesses, but they just didn’t get there overnight.
Leslie Haywood: Right, right. No one is an overnight success.
Eric Cox: The journey, well, you were, but everybody else in life, took them a journey.
Leslie Haywood: Whatever, that was a 10-year overnight success. No, it didn’t take that long.
Eric Cox: Ten months, anyway, we’re excited to have you guys back this morning. Welcome to the middle of October. Here we are, screaming through the year-end. Just a few months left in 2019, hard to believe. Won’t be long, we’ll turn the dial and it will be another year. We’ll just keep on having great shows and great stories of entrepreneurship as we did from last week. We had Alex Fleuren in the studio, and she’s been kind enough to come back this morning. So, welcome back.
Alex Fleuren: Thank you for having me again, Eric. It’s so nice to be here.
Eric Cox: I can’t believe that Leslie did not run you off. I know she tries, so she told me she was gonna step her game up a little bit today. So, be careful, be ready. In case you missed the show last week, Alex is a founder and lead designer for Design AFI, here in Charleston. Alex, last week, as we were winding up the show, you were talking about sort of how the evolution of your business became, and really, all roads led back to 9/11. So, if you don’t mind, let’s go back and give a little recap, sort of what you and your husband were going through. I think at that moment, you were getting ready to move to Atlanta, and everything changed because of that infamous day.
Alex Fleuren: Right. We had plans to relocate back to Atlanta after being in Charleston for a number of years. And he was flying for the airlines, and when 9/11 hit, he realized that he would be going to war, we didn’t really know how long, what was going to happen with airlines, so we had to make some quick decisions, and we decided to stay here in Charleston, and build my company.
Leslie Haywood: And what gave you the courage to make that leap? Where did that come from, because that’s a scary endeavor thinking about opening your own company, and you had small children.
Eric Cox: Your husband is leaving to go off to war, a lot going on.
Leslie Haywood: Lot going on during that time.
Alex Fleuren: Well, when it comes to construction sites, I’m a fish in water. I am really comfortable and happy when I’m working with subcontractors, and working on sites with people. So, that was just a natural thing for me to fall into, and the building business was booming in Charleston, at the time. I knew a lot of great builders who needed design work, and it was really easy for me to help them. Then, it was easy for me to then develop properties of my own, and then those properties turned into not just designing construction, but also designing the home for the buyer.
That just lead to an interior design company that ended up concentrating on not doing the construction part of it, and just doing the interior design part of it. As my husband was able to go back to normal life with the airlines back in 2014, it was really easy for me to just drop the rest of it, and do the part that I was really passionate about, which is interior design.
Bryan Stall: So, walk us through the growth stage of your company. How did you find clientele? I know you mentioned that you had a great network of folks in construction. Was that the bread and butter of how you were able to grow your business?
Alex Fleuren: Construction sources, yes, but also Realtors. I knew a lot of Realtors from working with different builders, and developing properties. Realtors were always looking for a designer that someone could trust to come in, that would be able to make architectural changes that needed to be done. Not all designers know that part of the business and I am very fluent in that part of the business, and so it was just natural for me to take on those clients for them.
Eric Cox: You know, it is just kind of neat to look back on your journey, your gift and your skill has been honed in from, it sounded like, you talked about last week, your dad walking around to home sites, and talk about foundations and houses, and as you have grown through your entire life, I mean, design work has really been a part of your fiber from a little child. Did you ever imagine as you were kind of just coming through life that you would end up owning a design firm and that would become everything to you?
Alex Fleuren: No, I really didn’t see myself owning a design firm, or I knew, looking back that I should be a designer because of just my life built me to be a designer, but when I was a child, I had no idea.
Eric Cox: Again, another great moment when you go back last week, you were talking about the interview you had when you went out to Seattle. You were really going out there to be a painter, mural. I can’t remember the title, sorry about that, but in the interview, they tell you, you need to be designer by looking at your portfolio and the work that you had done.
Alex Fleuren: Right, they were amazing, and they have wonderful designers on staff. One of the people I learned so much from was a Polish designer. She actually had a PhD in Microbiology from somewhere in Poland, but she had grown up with great wealth, and had been exposed to fabulous art and incredible design. She taught me so much. I just can remember being in her home, and being surrounded by things that were exquisitely done. The quality of workmanship and craftsmanship, and it was the level of craftsmanship that I had been used to, working to achieve as a decorative artist, doing murals and things for people. It just felt like home to me to be able to work with other elements in design that were of that caliber.
Leslie Haywood: In those early years, when you started your company, what did you envision your company doing, because you said, it has changed over the years. What did you start out thinking your company was going to focus on or maybe your niche market, and how, what is it now? What has it morphed into?
Alex Fleuren: Well, the interior design part definitely started with decorative work, doing window treatments for people, and doing, custom pillows, and things like that. When I say doing them, I mean designing them, having them created, and installing them. We really do everything from dry in, and sometimes make the drywall, move walls and gut kitchens, and almost every job we do now is a kitchen or bath remodel attached to it. That’s usually how people find us. They want someone they trust to come in and run the whole project, but they don’t realize that they also need furnishings. The rest of their house needs just as much attention, and professional attention, as their kitchen or bath does. That’s usually how we end up doing whole house concepts.
Eric Cox: Well, I can speak from some experience right now because I’m going through a remodel. It has gone on forever, and my wife is kind of leading that charge. It’s not good for the sanctity of marriage to go through this process, so hire a professional.
Leslie Haywood: So, this is a testimonial on why you should hire Alex?
Eric Cox: There is no doubt on, it is imperative.
Leslie Haywood: You know, Lee listens to this show.
Eric Cox: Sorry honey, but it’s true, and the value of what you all bring to the table, I think, I totally underestimated. I might be a great person, like I said, to put a testimonial on your website.
Bryan Stall: I have a question, you know with your business being so closely tied to the housing market, and the growth of the housing market. Back around 2008, 2009 when the housing market slowed down, what did you see on your end during that time period and how did you navigate that, and come out to where you’re still in business and thriving today?
Alex Fleuren: That’s a great point. Actually, that was a huge turning point for my career because I was doing mostly new construction, and working for builders up until that point. When the housing market crashed, I wasn’t planning to scramble but I ended up really quickly rethinking, and I started getting all of these calls from people that I had done work on their new homes to now, make it their permanent home. Where they thought that it might be a home for 2 to 5 years, they knew now that they were not going to be able to get out of that house, and they wanted it to work for them. So, I ended up doing a lot more interior design work, which is exactly what I like. I ended up, really not going back to new construction.
I had some really interesting life events happen during that time too because in 2011, which is right in the middle of that crisis, my husband decided to go to Las Vegas for three years and fly drones. He really was ready to be done with the war, and they needed him to do that.
Leslie Haywood: You could work in Columbia.
Eric Cox: Sorry about that.
Leslie Haywood: Sorry, this is was very bad.
Alex Fleuren: Ed is the only crazy guy who said, “And I’m taking you with me. “
Leslie Haywood: Oh, my.
Alex Fleuren: So, we did. As a reservist, he got sent to Las Vegas, and I did take my kids with me. We took them out of school and I homeschooled them, we hiked, we mountain biked, and we had a great time for three years. We went back and forth from Charleston. I kept my business here.
Leslie Haywood: I was going to say, how did your business survive in Charleston with you in Las Vegas? Or you did you double your winnings every day? I take the money, and put it all on black, right?
Alex Fleuren: Las Vegas was such a great experience for us. It was like a rest for us, truly, because we were pretty war beaten at that point. We had, my husband had ended up serving, I believe, in seven wars and conflicts over 24 years. We were exhausted, we really needed to see each other, and with what he was doing for the military out there, we were able to see each other almost every day, and my children were able to see him.
We ended up having a great time, and my clients were fabulous. I actually told them, hey, I’m leaving for I don’t know how long; they didn’t really tell us how long we’d be there. But so, you might want to try working with this person or that person, and every one of them waited on me. So, I had one person wait for two years for me to come back, and do their space. I ended up doing a gut in their house. I was so grateful for them, and my clients have been so wonderful over the years.
Eric Cox: By the way, in case you were wondering whose story that is that we’re listening to, that of Alex Lauren, who is founder and lead designer for design AFI. Alex, like any business you’re talking about, sort of the twists and turns, right, the ups and downs. When you look back at this moment, is there anything that you would think, kind of the Monday morning quarterback, that you would do different as an entrepreneur, if you had that opportunity to do some of that over again?
Alex Fleuren: I definitely would have taken more pictures. Sometimes I would finish projects so fast. That’s probably my biggest downfall is I don’t really photograph my work enough, and I should, but I’m usually onto, okay everybody’s happy, now I’m on to the next thing for the next person, and I have a lot going on in my life. That’s one thing that I’m kind of bad about, not checking that little box and taking those great photographs.
Leslie Haywood: After your three years, how old were your kids, and how did you get back here?
Alex Fleuren: Well, my husband ended up retiring, and went back to the airlines. So, we came back here. He said, back to life, and enjoy what you want to do. He’s so supportive, and just such a great person to be doing this with. But he said, go back and start. My kids came back here and went back into school. I started back my company. And then I broke my knee, I tore my ACL, and completely severed it.
Leslie Haywood: Doing what? My daughter, playing volleyball, just had an injury.
Alex Fleuren: Oh, I would love to say I was chasing some bad guy or something really interesting, but I was riding my bike in my neighborhood in Mount Pleasant, that’s completely flat.
Leslie Haywood: Oh, my god. I like you. You were chasing a robber, being a superhero.
Alex Fleuren: FBI most wanted man, no, I was in my neighborhood. My ACL completely severed. They said, oh you know, you’re so fit, let’s use your hamstring. You really shouldn’t be doing it at your age, but come on, let’s use your hamstring. So, they used my hamstring. I t was a major, major thing to overcome. I still, I go see my therapist twice a week. I’m really serious about staying in shape. I
Leslie Haywood: How many years ago?
Alex Fleuren: I did that two years ago. So, I still go twice a week, and work out my knee.
Bryan Stall Wow. How did that affect your ability to work, and walk around these homes doing the interior design?
Alex Fleuren: Well, I really thought that, okay, I’m done. I’m just gonna enjoy life now, and just take it easy, not be quite so ambitious about getting everything done. I did, I paused for a long time, and I got mono, which is kind of weird to get mono at this stage in life but I did. So, that shut me down for a while.
Leslie Haywood: You got it because you were making out with Tom Cruise. We got to make these stories.
Eric Cox: While they were chasing robbers.
Alex Fleuren: They think I actually got it from the gym, from doing all that therapy on my knee, but all that sweat, and all that. But anyway, that changed my course for a while, and then I just went right back to it. I said no, this is good, my knees are back, and I’m back at it. People were still calling me, then I would do one more thing for one client that had moved or what have you. I just, I seem to be destined to be an interior designer. I love it.
Eric Cox: Alex, speak to the nature of being in a business, owning a business that has so much flexibility, right. There’s a lot of different entrepreneurs we bring on this show, I think, in a lot of their cases going through it, what you’ve gone through on some of these adversities, I don’t know, how they would have handle it. In your case, you had a business set and a clientele that allowed you to be flexible, probably didn’t know that when you jumped in, it had that opportunity, but now that you can reflect on it, what does that mean to you in your life?
Alex Fleuren: Well, certainly everything. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I couldn’t be flexible with my time because of my husband’s job, my daughter’s activities, and just life. But I also think that a flexible job requires someone who’s extremely responsible, and that’s probably my biggest strength. I take on, really, the whole responsibility of a project. I take that very seriously, so even though I had the flexibility to design my own time, and design my own life as I design people’s homes, that time is really allocated to them being my number one priority. So, that flexibility ends up being a big responsibility.
Leslie Haywood: What do you see yourself or your business five years from now? What’s the end game? And your kids, do they have any talents? Have them paint ivy, can they do it?
Alex Fleuren: Well, my son is in college. He’s studying to be a professional pilot, like his dad. He didn’t get the military route, but he did go to another SEC institution that I will not name.
Leslie Haywood: No, you will not name.
Alex Fleuren: My daughter is a classical ballet dancer. She dances for Charleston Ballet. She is a joy to watch, and she is very, very driven and disciplined.
Leslie Haywood: So, no one to pick up the, you don’t think there’s any legacy as far as the design business? This is, this is your baby?
Alex Fleuren: No, I really don’t. Who knows, I might be pleasantly surprised one day, but it’s been a joy for me, and maybe it’ll be a joy for someone else, but I have no idea at this point.
Leslie Haywood: You’re gonna keep on, keeping on.
Alex Fleuren: Yes.
Bryan Stall: It sounds like, even if you tried to get out of, it would just bring you right back in with the passion that you have, and the love that the clientele has for your work, which is tremendous. Looking back, how far back is up to you, what is one of your favorite projects that you’ve ever done?
Alex Fleuren: Oh, wow. I have had so many fabulous clients. If you go to my website, you see my portfolio. A lot of people see pictures, and they see different design concepts but I see people. I look at that room, and I just think about those people that I design that for. All my clients are to me, just so inspirational. They are so interesting, and they have crazy, active busy lives too.
One that I can really speak to is, actually ended up designing a master bedroom for a former POW. His wife wanted a pink ceiling in her bedroom, and he said, whatever she wants. I cannot believe that I had this really cool guy who had been a prisoner of war, just who had gone through incredible things in his life that required enormous strength. Every morning he wakes up, and sees a pale pink ceiling, and smiles, because it makes his wife happy. It’s things like that, that just give me great joy.
Eric Cox: They always say, it is about the people, right? Whatever you’re doing, it’s about the people. So, when you look back over your life, and your professional experience, Alex, you talked about your kids, and where they are in life. What advice would you give them, that you’ve sort of glean from working for companies, being an entrepreneur, kind of having all the different sides of that. What advice would you pass along to them?
Alex Fleuren: Well, I’d always say forgive. If you start every day forgiving other people for their mistakes, and forgiving yourself for your own, end the day the same way. I think you can pretty much accomplish anything.
Eric Cox: Honey, did you hear that? What I said earlier, just forgive. This is perfect. Thank you, Alex.
Leslie Haywood: You’ve got some value-added stuff going on. What is something to an entrepreneur that is maybe listening or thinking that they want to jump into that? What is a myth about owning your own company or being an entrepreneur that maybe you can dispel, or help someone to avoid a certain pitfall, when it comes to owning your own company?
Alex Fleuren: Well, it’s hard to do it all on your own, especially if you’re a service business, and my business is. I mean, obviously we sell product, we sell everything that’s in your room, but it is mostly a service that we’re providing. Not just the design but the procurement, the installation, and project management. That is a lot of time, owning a business is an entirely different job.
So, you’re really doing two jobs at the same time, if you are providing that service and owning that business. I would tell someone get help, even if you’re hiring someone to schedule or take down phone messages. Whatever it is, however small you can start with getting support, that’s really key.
Bryan Stall: Would you ever look in the future hiring someone to give you support, as you continue to grow this business, and stay in this business?
Alex Fleuren: Well, I’m very fortunate. I have a great marketing team, and I have a great group of subcontractors that I’ve worked with for years, have kind of culled into exactly who I want to work with, and we all work together really well. So, they’re definitely part of my team. I have a bookkeeper, office manager, and all of that, so I have really the support I need.
I think the biggest thing is having the support of your family to believe in you, to be patient with you, and forgive you for some of the time that you have to give to these clients who are really investing in the biggest investment of their life, in many cases, is their home. For us to be responsible for that investment is an enormous honor, and we take it very seriously.
Eric Cox: In our last little bit that we have left….
Leslie Haywood: Do we have time left for our lightening round?
Eric Cox: Yes, jump in and do that real quick.
Leslie Haywood: Awesome. I’m gonna just throw a couple questions at you.
Alex Fleuren: Sure.
Leslie Haywood: This is how we get to know you beyond the business. What’s the most important social media tool that you use in your business?
Alex Fleuren: You would have to ask my marketing person. I have no clue. I would guess Instagram.
Leslie Haywood: Instagram is where it’s at right now.
Alex Fleuren: Sure. I’m gonna say that, and they’ll probably correct me later today.
Leslie Haywood: The best book you ever read?
Alex Fleuren: Oh, sure, anything by CS Lewis. He is fabulous.
Leslie Haywood: The most influential person in your life.
Alex Fleuren: On earth? My husband.
Leslie Haywood: The thing that you are most proud of, an accomplishment, not your children, everyone uses the children.
Alex Fleuren: I’m most proud of having made it through as a military wife. That was hard, it was hard work.
Leslie Haywood: Right, sure. The final question, number one thing on your bucket list.
Alex Fleuren: Definitely the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Eric Cox: Very cool. You did great at that, by the way. Alex Fleuren, thank you so much for your time, and your story. Congratulations on your success, and certainly we all can see why your business is so successful. What a great testament to who you are, so, thanks for sharing.
Alex Fleuren: Thank you so much.
Eric Cox: Again, Alex Fleuren, founder and lead designer for Design AFI, here in Charleston. It’s another wrap here on “Beyond the Business.” Thanks again, lowcountry, for tuning, and listening, every Saturday morning from 9:00 to 9:30. And until next Saturday morning, lowcountry, have a blessed week.
Closing Statement: Thank you for listening to “Beyond the Business” on News Radio 94.3 WSC. Tune in next Saturday morning at 9 o’clock for “Beyond the Business”, hosted by Eric Cox and Leslie Haywood, and heard exclusively on News Radio 94.3 WSC.
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