We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Hillary Waters a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.
Hillary, appreciate you joining us today. What do you think it takes to be successful?
I have so many thoughts on this. First, success is going to be different for everyone. But regardless of what it means to you and how successful you are, there will be times that will test you in business ownership. The traits that I have that work to my benefit in this regard are grit, tenacity and a bit of stubbornness. I feel certain that most business advisors would have told us to throw in the towel more than once over the years but I never would have listened. I always have faith that the “sun will rise” as they say. Staying calm is a superpower but staying calm when things are uncertain is next level. My tenacity in that way has worked in my favor. Our company is 10 years old this year. I’ve also always had a natural chemistry with people. I understand and can speak multiple styles of communication language. I’m comfortable adapting to whatever our clients need and that makes people feel comfortable. When they feel comfortable, that’s when we can really do something special together. Relationships with people are the only thing that matters.
Hillary, love having you share your insights with us. Before we ask you more questions, maybe you can take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers who might have missed our earlier conversations?
We are a design-led, custom fabrication practice with a focus on commercial furniture and architectural elements. We work primarily in the corporate, higher education and hospitality sectors to help our clients create unique projects. These can include feature walls, logo displays, ceiling elements, reception desks and boardroom tables. More often than not, we create full “rooms”. What I mean by that, is that we often design everything that goes into one space, not just one table or one wall. Materials in our palette include steel, aluminum, brass, copper, stainless, hardwood, veneer and plywood, glass, stone, upholstery, etc. If as a designer or a project manager, you find yourself asking “where can I get that”, we are likely a good fit. We started this business because we had all the right skills between the two of us. I have a degree in commercial interior design from LSU and practiced professionally at firms like HOK and HDR for over 20 years. Ford has four degrees but always came back to his love of metalworking that was conceived as a kid in his family’s cast aluminum mailbox business. He’s also a talented artist and has the mind of an engineer; pretty unique. After he worked as the shop foreman at another firm, we decided to open our own. It was initially focused on small pieces for residential clients. But as time went on, my contacts, experience and passion for commercial work just kept pulling us in that direction. Custom work is hard on everyone. It’s not inexpensive nor a quick process because we spend a lot of time showing the client exactly what they are getting. We take the time through all phases – from programming, design and engineering to fabrication and installation – to ensure we have considered as much as possible. And we really get to know our clients and vendors. A personal connection goes a long way in ensuring a successful project. I’m very proud that we will reach 10 years of business this year. That’s an exciting milestone for a company that started with 2 people in a garage. People ask us a lot if it’s hard to work with your spouse. In many ways it is. I want to be really honest about that. We’ve worked just as hard on us as the business because we are together all the time. But simultaneously, the trust and synergy that we have with each other IS the reason we have built something so solid. It’s taken time, like everything we do. But I’ll take slow growth that lasts forever over being a flash in the pan any day. I’m also very proud of the team we have built and continue to build. The group we have right now is just phenomenally talented and self driven. Our company culture is Do The Right Thing. That’s it. That one sentence drives everything. When there is a question, we ask ourselves, ‘what is the right thing to do?’ And this group embodies that. The last thing I want to say is that this business is incredibly personal for both me and Ford. Our pride and joy is in FMW|FabLab. When you’re working with us, you’re in good hands. We’ve got you.
How did you put together the initial capital you needed to start your business?
We are a true grass roots business, especially from a funding perspective. We had no idea how to write a business plan or who to ask for help when decided to start this business. So we didn’t write one. Honestly, we had no business even starting a business if you want to know the truth. But anyway, without a written plan, we were pretty sure that no one was going to give us a loan so we took a $1000 engagement gift from Ford’s aunt and uncle and bought everything we could – tools, business legal docs, etc. And FMW|FabLab was born. I still had a fulltime job in the design industry so I supported the both of us for years while Ford put everything he made back into it. We bought small amounts of equipment as we could and we stayed in our garage for the first three years of existence before finally moving into dedicated space. When I tell you that we didn’t see a profit for a very long time, I mean it. It’s not an easy way to grow a company. The upside is that we never had to pay anyone back. We had no investors so we were completely free to do things the way we wanted to and that is worth a lot of sacrifice to both of us.
How’d you meet your business partner?
Obviously we are spouses so I will just tell you how we met. The very short version is that we met on social media. But there is much more complex web underneath that surface level. Ford and I grew up in the exact same neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with less than a mile between us for our entire lives. And we never met. We moved in concentric circles of friends and were likely in the same place at the same time, many times. However, he went to schools with more targeted academic programs for his entire childhood and I went to the neighborhood public schools. So even with some overlapping friends, somehow we never met. Fast forward to the year 1998 and I got married and moved from Baton Rouge to Houston. Coincidentally Ford moved to Houston around the same time to attend an automotive technologies college in Spring. But we still had never met and didn’t cross paths during that time. He eventually moved back to Baton Rouge and then to Austin. In early 2009, I was divorced and that same year, Ford moved back to Baton Rouge to finish another degree at LSU. At the end of that year, an old friend I had not spoken to in 20 years asked if I wanted to join a group for New Years Eve. I declined. Unbeknownst to me, Ford was part of that group. We still did not meet. Finally in January 2010, we randomly crossed paths on social media and began chatting online. Six months after that initial chat, Ford moved to Houston so we could be together. The rest is history. Despite being in the same place for almost our entire lives, we met on the internet!