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Inspiring by design: How passion fueled this entrepreneur’s vision

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Susan Drover - How to build a business that reflects your values

Susan Drover was working as a stockbroker in Toronto when news came her father had been killed in a car accident in her home province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The tragedy opened a tumultuous chapter in Drover’s life. She moved back to Newfoundland with her husband and young daughter to help her family deal with the tragedy and start over.

Once back home and with a growing family, she began to question her career choices and became drawn to the possibility of striking out on a new path in St. John’s. She took the plunge after working with her husband on a series of real estate projects.

At the age of 40, with three children, she went back to school to study design full time.

Make courageous decisions

In 2011, soon after graduating, Drover made another courageous decision. She launched her own interior design and furnishings company, SAM Design. Her first clients included people who had seen her renovation work or heard about it by word-of-mouth—an advantage of living in a smaller city.

The company got a boost in an unexpected way when Drover visited a local modern furniture store in search of design items for her clients.

“I had a flash: I could do amazing things in this space. In a split moment, I decided I wanted to own it. I called the owner with an offer to buy the store and she accepted.”

Six weeks after the sale, Drover had transformed the premises into a showroom, retail outlet and design studio. Besides offering stylish furnishings and accessories in the store, SAM Design also manages residential and commercial interior design projects.

Keep a tight rein on finances

“Because of my financial background, I know at any time what’s coming in, what’s going out and where I stand moneywise,” she says.

She worked hard to build a business that would inspire the confidence of a bank, allowing her to secure the money she needed to grow.

“As with many entrepreneurs, no one would lend me money to grow when I started. So I set myself a goal that in two years I’d walk into a bank with my financial statements and they’d give me what I want.”

That bank was BDC, where she was approved for a business loan to expand her store inventory and refinance her building.

Inspire your client

Drover’s next goal is to continue growing the business over the next five years to reach annual sales of $10 million. She’s confident SAM Design can do it, by offering more than products and services.

“I’ve set up my showroom as a place of inspiration,” she says. “We spend time with our customers, share our knowledge of modern design and discuss their needs in detail. We want them to walk out and say: ‘Wow, what an experience!’”

To make this approach work, Drover is very particular in her hiring practices and chooses employees for their “attitude and enthusiasm, rather than their C.V.”

“You can teach people how things operate,” she says. “But you can’t teach them to be passionate about the job or to have a good work ethic. I also look for diverse backgrounds and skills, because I can’t do it all myself.”

Build an “A team”

Drover has also found it’s important to maintain an “A team” of external contractors who share her commitment to quality in construction and renovation work. She cites quality control as one of the biggest challenges in her industry.

Drover named SAM Design in honour of her late father Sam, whose work ethic and values she inherited. She now credits those qualities for her company’s success.

“My father was an industrious entrepreneur who also instilled in me the importance of volunteering and paying back to the community.

Lessons learned

  1. When hiring, attitude and aptitude are more important than experience. Choose team members who care deeply about doing a good job.
  2. Build an external “A team.” Choose and maintain a group of reliable suppliers who share your commitment to quality.
  3. Execution is as important as planning. Manage projects closely to ensure quality.
  4. Work hard and be nice. Uphold your personal values in business and contribute to your community.

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