Furniture

From stay-at-home mom of four to furniture queen

November 9, 2012: 10:17 AM ET

Home furnishings CEO Judy George talks with Fortune about life as a working mom, cultivating a superhuman drive to succeed, and overcoming even the most public of failures.

Judy George

Judy George

Interview by Anne VanderMey

FORTUNE -- In 2008, it looked like it was the end of the road for Judy George. The company she started, furniture store Domain Home, had succumbed to the financial crisis. Though George was still the CEO, the company's new private equity owners were taking it into Chapter 11 to recoup whatever they could. But the finishing school-educated mother of four has never stayed down for long. Her recovery time from the bankruptcy and personal fallout? About a week. Then it was back to work on a new company. 

Today, George is 72 and the owner of Judy George International, a new home furnishings venture she started with her partner, designer Kim Salmela. The company's mattresses are in 600 Sleepy's stores, and it has plans to license a range of home furnishings designs. The company projects revenue this year of $35 million. George talked with Fortune about life as a working mom, cultivating a superhuman drive to succeed, and overcoming even the most public of failures.

When I was 16, I interviewed to be the national junior spokesperson for the March of Dimes. It was right after the polio epidemics, and I just wanted to do something. I didn't join on the national level because my mother wouldn't let me travel, but I became the New England March of Dimes spokesperson. That was the beginning really of my love of presenting ideas and getting feedback that made me feel good. I don't want to speak for everybody, but I think that sometimes entrepreneurs are very needy people. And the need isn't necessarily emotional. It's the need to do something important in their life. I was very needy.

I got married at 19 after I completed finishing school at the ChandlerSchool for Women. My mother wanted me to get an education in attracting a rich husband. That's what finishing schools in those days were all about. So I went absolutely crazy with boredom.

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That was when I began creating ideas and sending them out to companies. I would write down pitches for products, TV shows, newspaper columns. By the time I was 26, I had four children, a year-and-a-half apart. I sent in these ideas to companies really everywhere just to keep myself sane. Two of them caught on: A television show liked my idea and I became a regular guest, and I started writing a column for The Herald called "Decorator in the House." I always felt that if you were poor, you could create one room and make it feel good, and you wouldn't feel poor when you walked into your home. That's what the column was about. The vision behind everything was to take what only the rich and wealthy could have, and bring it to a price point where the masses could afford it.

So here I am, a country girl, really, married with four kids. When I applied for my first job [as director of interior design for Hamilton's Furniture in Braintree, Mass.], the owner -- George Hamilton -- originally said no because I'd never had experience. I thought,"I have to get this man's attention." I was thinking about that on the beach with my kids one day and I saw this plane fly overhead advertising something, I think it was Bacardi Rum. Everybody was looking at it.

So I went and hired a Hawker Beechcraft plane with a banner that said, "George, Judy George will make you millions." And I flew it over his office every day for a week until he had the police contact me for disturbing the peace. The next week, he hired me.

Eventually his company bought the furniture store Scandinavian Design, and that's where I worked my magic. Robert Darvin, the CEO, gave me the real chance of a lifetime. Working together, in less than six years we went from $3 million to about $89 million in revenue. But then I started bringing in all these ideas again, ideas for a new store. More

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