New leadership of Country Curtains aims to expand on Fitzpatricks' vision


Photo Gallery | Country Curtains

LEE — Photos of the late Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick still adorn the walls of Country Curtains' cavernous distribution center on Pleasant Street.

The table where the Fitzpatricks sat when they established Country Curtains from scratch at their home in Whitman 60 years ago is located in the back of new CEO Celia Clancy's office. The company moved to Stockbridge in 1958, the year after the Fitzpatricks came to the Berkshires.

There's also "Voices of Jane," a committee of women employees who meet bimonthly to discuss how to keep Jane Fitzpatrick's influence on the company alive.

"We don't want to lose the culture and heritage that made this company great," said Shane Wirta, Country Curtains' chief marketing and analytics officer.

Yes, the past is present at Country Curtains. But the company isn't stuck in it.

Under Clancy, a retail industry veteran who became CEO in March, Country Curtains is moving forward in a manner that respects what the Fitzpatricks built, while adapting to the changes that are occurring in the retail industry as a whole.

"I am leading by respecting that legacy," Clancy said during a recent interview. "But I am also leading the business to success by it being a contemporary, multi-channel retailer.

"We're not a catalog company, or a retail company," Clancy said. "We do business online, in stores, and through our catalog. I think that's different."

Country Curtains was the first mail order curtain company established in the United States. "People were just going from catalog-to-catalog [previously]," Clancy said. But now they have several other options.

The new choices include a new brand, Prospect & Vine, a home decor catalog that Country Curtains launched in August to appeal to younger customers: — "I'd say (age) 35," Clancy said.

The company also recently opened a design center in Shrewsbury, N.J., where products are displayed but not sold. Customers can use what's on display to conceptualize their ideas before they purchase anything.

"Experiential retail," is how Clancy refers to the new concept. "It's not only helping to put the customer in charge, but it also updates our brand."

Clancy, and the other members of Country Curtains new leadership team, Bob Kliewe, chief operating officer and chief financial officer, and Controller Steve Donnelly, have the experience to lead the company in these new directions.

Clancy is a former CEO of both Joyce Leslie Co. and Ashley Stewart, who also held high-ranking executive positions at Wal-Mart and AJ Wright, a division of TJX Cos. of Framingham, the parent company of Marshalls, TJ Maxx and Home Goods. Clancy, who launched her own consulting business in 2014, was consulting for a big-box retailer when she was recruited to join Country Curtains' accomplished board of directors — it contains three former CEOs — last year.

She decided to take the post after former CEO Phil McAvoy resigned abruptly last fall due to a family medical emergency. Kliewe had previously served as a CFO for three other companies, while Donnelly came from Wave Systems in Lee, which developed several cutting-edge internet security products before the company ran into financial trouble and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in February.

Country Curtains has had CEOs with prior high-level retail executive experience. McAvoy, who took over in 2010, had spent 19 years in retail management at TJX, including a stint as senior vice president of marketing. Another former CEO, William H. Booth, previously had served as the CEO of The Sharper Image, and had held a high-ranking position with LL Bean.

But Clancy's background certainly fit what Country Curtains was looking for right now.

"Celia's energetic and collaborative vision and leadership style is right for us," said board Chairwoman Nancy Fitzpatrick, Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick's daughter, when the appointment was announced. "She is a force that we are so pleased to be reckoning with."

"First of all, we needed somebody right away and there she was," Fitzpatrick said in a recent interview. "She had the experience that we need, she knew the players, she knew our strengths and weaknesses, and she also had the kind of energy that we're used to having.

"Quite frankly, she reminds me of my mother and we need that constant enthusiasm right now because it's a very difficult business climate."

Clancy acknowledges the comparisons to Jane Fitzpatrick, who died in 2013, two years after her husband.

"A few people have said my walk is a little like Jane's," Clancy said. "You know, strong, determined, energetic, maybe a little impatient.

"But what I really like is that the brand has this heritage that has supported culture and the arts in the Berkshires," she said. "I think that's very meaningful."

Clancy said all the pieces to lead Country Curtains into the new retail landscape already were in place when she took over.

In addition to the 110,000-square-foot distribution center, which the company built in the early 1980s and has been expanded three times, Country Curtains has 22 retail outlets in 11 states, and operates production facilities in Housatonic and West Hartford, Conn. All but 100 of the firm's 450 total employees are employed in the Berkshires, according to Wirta. More than 3,000 items are shipped daily from the distribution center in Lee.

"Everybody is very loyal to this company and everyone is working hard," Clancy said. "But they weren't working together and they weren't focused on the customer. It was like, 'Well if inventory would do a better job, then my department would have better results.' And, that's not how business happens, you know.

"So we've really been pulling things together to make one team," she said. "There's really a heightened sense of energy, and excitement. People can't wait for each catalog to drop, so to speak, because it's new news about the company."

"She's got a lot of great ideas," Nancy Fitzpatrick said. "She's the first person to come in here (as CEO) since my parents haven't been here, and she hasn't had to kowtow to the founders like the previous CEOs have. ... She is challenging in the most positive sense of the word."

Under the current economic conditions, brick-and-mortar retail outlets are struggling to stay relevant due to the popularity of online shopping sites like Amazon, and Country Curtains has been affected by that trend.

"It's just such a whole new world in business with the whole digital universe," Fitzpatrick said. "We have had to play with things like promotion offerings, sending out emails, offering discounts that have been entirely contrary to our corporate culture."

Country Curtains had a bit of an advantage when it came to adapting to the digital world due to its history as a mail order company.

"We already had the distribution center," Clancy said. But the changes in the marketplace have changed the company's philosophy.

"I think that we want to go in a direction where we think of ourselves more as a home-furnishing company than a curtain company," Fitzpatrick said. "We're definitely devoted to curtains, but we also have to think of ourselves in terms of other kinds of window treatments like shades and blinds.

"Traditional brick-and-mortar retail is very challenged," she said. "We have to figure that one out."

Clancy agrees with Fitzpatrick's emphasis on home furnishings. Her focus is having Country Curtains become a "contemporary, multi-channel retailer" with an emphasis on the digital side.

"We plan to invest significantly in our website," she said.

The turn toward home furnishings is being done because "it's a bigger marketplace," Clancy said. "Our customers told us in digital surveys the last month that they buy bedding more frequently to decorate a room."

Country Curtains has a solid customer base, Clancy said.

"I think our best customers are the ones who have grown up with us," she said. But the company is working on ways to attract a younger audience.

"What the company needs to do is appeal to younger customers who are also decorating, and renovating and moving, No. 1," Clancy said. "And No. 2, the customer who has grown up with us is younger than that age used to be.

"It's the boomers," she said. "The boomers are moving, and buying second homes; they're renovating or decorating when the kids go to college or move out. So we need to satisfy the boomers better, and then appeal to her daughter who is decorating. A kid that just gets out of college or a young 20-something isn't buying window treatments."

Prospect & Vine, and the new design center in New Jersey, appeal to that demographic.

"We're pleased with the results so far," Clancy said, referring to the design center. "It's still early in the game."

On Thursday evenings this month, Country Curtains will hold an event called "Sip & Shop" at all of its retail outlets. Customers can go to the stores, have a glass of wine, and talk with designers about their homes and ideas.

Clancy, a native of Dover, was a Country Curtains customer — and a frequent visitor to the Berkshires — before joining the company.

She is well aware of Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick's legacy.

"Before I moved to Lenox, I was walking my dog in Stockbridge and crossed Route 7 and saw a big rock with a plaque on it about something that Jane and Jack had done in the Berkshires," Clancy said.

"And wow, it kinds of hits you that they were so involved in everything from Mass MoCA to the Rockwell Museum to this business," she said, "and that they believed in a lot of people."

And started a company that is willing to embrace change.

Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413-496-6224.


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