One of the most challenging of Boston GLOW's initiatives is planning our annual IGNITE the NITE fundraiser - primarily because we have no budget and no staff. Putting on an event for 450 people in Boston's best event space relying solely on donations from caterers, event and rental companies, small businesses and individuals is a daunting task. New England Country Rentals was the first major company to step up to the plate - offering us full access to their inventory completely for free, because they believed in our mission and wanted to support it. Again this year they have donated their beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces to our event.
We visited their showroom on a snowy Saturday to see their newest products and sit down with owner Kelly Ucen, to see what it's like being the female owner of the fastest-growing event rental business on the East Coast. We were incredibly inspired by their beautiful space and our conversation with Kelly, who is a fierce businesswoman and an extremely giving human being. She exemplifies the modern day superwoman that GLOW seeks to nurture and connect with every day.
Kelly and Matej Ucen were married in 2009. When planning their wedding, they couldn't find the farm tables they envisioned using for their backyard wedding, so they built them by hand. What started as a small project for their wedding quickly grew into a booming business that has rocked the events industry from Maine to Virginia and beyond.
Q: At what moment did you know that the first farm tables you and Matej built could lead to a growing business?
About 9 months before our wedding we started renting out the tables through a website we put up, farmtablesforrent, on a one-off basis and then a couple of designers came to our house, where we were storing them in our attic, to see them. When those designers started ordering large quantities for weddings before ours, we said "wow, this could actually be something."
Q: How did you come to decide to leave your job and take the risk of starting your own company?
I loved my job, absolutely loved it, loved everyone I was working with - my boss was one of my best friends in the world - so I was really dragging out the decision as long as humanly possible. But, when I continued hiring third parties to fill a void - answering phones if I was in a meeting etc. - it came to a point where it just seemed silly to pay other people to do what I should be doing.
Even after we had the Atelier space (the NECR showroom in Scituate Mass), I was still contracting for my old job and would be sneaking off to take conference calls and it just got insane. For the sake of the business and for my employees, I finally dove into this headfirst.
Q: When did you decide to take the plunge, buying a showroom space and hiring full-time employees?
Matej and I live in a duplex, so when we started, we lived in half of our home and used the other half as our showroom, which was great in the beginning. For about the first year, we would show people things from our home. When we started doing tablescapes we turned our third floor, which has a separate entrance, into a showroom and we started getting walk-ins all the time - I had jeans strategically placed around my house because on any given Saturday or Sunday morning, a car would show up and I'd have to jump into clothes and business mode to greet people - it was a little insane.
But, the biggest turning point for me was when we had a customer show up for an appointment who was handicapped, which I didn't know beforehand, and she showed up in her wheelchair and couldn't get upstairs to the showroom. I was crushed. I felt like the worst human being alive. It was the Mother of the Bride and I had to bring just the bride up to see our inventory and couldn't focus the entire time. So after that, I realized it was time to separate church and state, so to speak.
We had already opened two satellite offices in Connecticut to service our clients in the New York area but then this space opened up and it was perfect. I love rental items and I love our inventory but there's not much curbside sex appeal to rental items - you're not going to walk down the street and say "sweet! a rental store! let's go in and take a look!" so I wanted to create a space that was appealing from an outside perspective to make it more valuable. I invited the other vendors to share our space and it has been great - the calligraphist, stylists and designers meet with their clients, the catering company does tastings, and it brings in more bodies and gets people to talk about NECR. Even if they don't want our rental items, they might tell someone else about them.
Q: What was your biggest challenge getting off the ground?
Honestly, that we didn't know the industry - neither my husband or I had any background in the rental or events industry. Fortunately, we made a lot of correct decisions and made sure not to burn any bridges. We came out of left field - all of a sudden we were getting a lot of publicity and we needed to make sure we were talking to and working with people we could trust and wouldn't take advantage of us as a young business. Also, we throw a lot into the business but we had to be careful not to cross the line where you're taking risks that aren't worthwhile.
Q: I feel like of you and Matej, you are the more public face of the company. As a female in this industry, do you feel like that presents you with more challenges or because of the nature and the industry maybe not so?
The challenges, I think, are triggered by a combination of my gender and my age. The rental industry is very male-dominated. There's a lot of logistics on the back end and operating issues that arise- every single thing needs to be cleaned, it needs to out in racks, needs to be stored in a warehouse, needs to be delivered in a truck - every little thing has so much back end that no one will ever see. And people assume that women aren't involved in that side of things - but thats really the meat and bones of the industry. In the beginning, my husband and I made every delivery and people would laugh when I showed up, driving the truck.
I distinctly remember one day in particular - September 11, three years ago, when we were so inundated with business I called on my sister to help me make deliveries in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. We showed up at the Naval Yard in Cambridge, I was driving the truck, and all of the gates went up around us because there had been a Penske truck driving around with bomb barrels in it (I had no idea). Guards with huge guns came out and searched us and everything in the truck, convinced we were a front. When they found that the wine barrels we were delivering for an event were empty (decorative) they were totally puzzled by the fact that two women would be making a delivery and driving a truck. And it was a gender thing - they never would have been so suspect if it had been a guy driving a truck full of rental items.
One of the hardest things is understanding that as a female you're perfectly capable at doing just as much as what the guys are doing. What really helped me was that in the beginning, starting this with my husband, I had to do both sides so I respect and know what the guys are doing in the warehouse and on deliveries. I can sit there and talk to the leaders of the rental industry, who are all men in their 50's, 60's and 70's, about the operating side, and it throws them. I'm this 26 year old girl who owns this company and is telling them what to do. It took them a while to respect my decisions and presentations and take me seriously, which is sad.
Q: So your sales team is all women. Did you specifically decide to hire only women or was it more of an organic thing?
It definitely was organic in the beginning - we did have a lot of men come in but they don't have the same interest in talking about every little detail of the event is our "ladies" do. Brides want to talk about themselves and their dream wedding and our team has the interest and passion to take a call from a new customer and spend an hour and a half on the phone talking out those details - that's something that makes a big difference in our relationships. We invite all of our brides to come in and set up their tables just as they envision and talk through every little choice and the females are a more natural fit for those conversations and for understanding that it's more than just china and tables and chairs - its about creating an atmosphere. For a lot of brides, it's the most important day of their life.
Q: As an all-female customer-facing team, what do you find to be different about the day-to-day work life compared with a mixed work environment?
There's definitely a separation between the spheres of sexes. The women on our team haven't driven the trucks, they haven't worked in the warehouse, they don't what the guys are doing on the back end and the guys don't know what the women are doing here in the showroom. Ironically, one of our delivery guys was here the other morning working on something and we had ten walk-ins, we had phones ringing, we were completely flooded, and he asked me "is this how it is every day?!" There's a challenge in respecting and understanding the every day on both ends.
I said to one of the guys recently "you can show up every day and we can have thousands of products but at the end of the day, if our ladies don't sell those products, you have nothing to do. Don't think we're not sitting in the office twiddling our thumbs, we're keeping this business going."
One of the things I find most funny is when we hire new male employees for the peak season - we'll have 50-60 guys in the warehouse - it's 24 hours a day, we're driving from the tip of Maine to the tip of Virginia and we need bodies. So every morning from 6 AM - 9 AM and 5 PM to 9 PM I'm in the warehouse, in my gym or painting clothes, cleaning china and helping load or unload trucks, and the new guys will see me carrying something and immediately rush over and try to take it - and I'm like 'no, I've got it, seriously.' And the guys who have been with us for a while will laugh and assure the new guys that I'm quite capable. It takes them for a while to accept that I can carry a 45 pound bench by myself and that I can jump up into the truck to help rearrange or pack things in with ten fingers. The guys instantly judge me and think I don't know what I'm doing or can't handle things. I'm always tempted to remind them that I was here, doing this, long before they showed up!
Q: What do you think helped you avoid the pitfalls facing a lot of young, small businesses in this economy and continue to grow so fast?
I think one of the biggest things has been remaining who we are as a unique company but understanding that not every customer is going to want our products. We're going to have to carry the basics to meet the needs of our clients but also accept that there will be times where a customer's budget or their aesthetic may not be what we do best so it's been important to know when to recommend a vendor who is a better fit for what they're looking for. We couldn't get greedy or try to do every little thing, understanding there is value in not carrying every little thing and servicing everything and building relationships with the right companies who can fill those voids. Our farm tables were the start of this company and that is the meat of our business - yes, we need to carry the folding tables for our clients who have a kitchen staff that needs prep stations and don't want to add another vendor so we have to carry those things but we also have to remain focused on our roots and our identity as a company.
Q: Have you thought about expanding and what that would mean? Especially given that while the industry in New England is male-dominaed, it's much worse in other areas of the country?
In a given week during peak seasons, we're mostly in the Maine to Virginia geography but people do send us to Jackson Hole, Dallas, Tampa - but those are one-off events. In terms of actual expansion, I think we want to rock the Northeast and build a solid foundation and then consider satellite options. Yes, we need to open an office in Newport because we're there a dozen times a weekend and yes, we need a location on the Cape because we're there 20 times a weekend but that's still close. I would love to eventually go to other places - one of our partners, the Nantucket Tent Company, which is male-owned, has a lot of requests for our inventory so we meet at the ferry once a week, we kiss trucks and they deliver our stuff - and they do a lot of business in Florida in the off-season, which could be a consideration for us but for now, we really want to stay focused on our main business first.
Even in New England, there is no company in the rental industry that I've found with a female owner. People think 'Okay, your husband owns the rental company and you do the event planning and the visual design, the pretty fun stuff. But we joke around that I am the CEO and he is the President - and I don't promote that in my business dealings because I don't want it to deter brides or anyone from feeling I'm approachable - but the truth is in function, that is how we're structured. And people aren't used to that - every company I can think of has a male owner and the person in charge of sales and marketing is a female.
At first I was frustrated by the judgments and opposition from men but I learned quickly to internalize it and then use it to my advantage - I let them assume I'm weak and clueless for as long as I want then I flip it on them and show them just how strong I am. My husband and I meet with a lot of the bigger companies together - last week we had the owner of a tent company and another owner of a rental company, this week we have a big designer coming in - and Matej is quiet, he likes being in the background and managing the day-to-day in the warehouse. I do all the talking in these meetings and at the end people always say 'wow, you really do run the business.' And I do.
Our Interview with Kelly's Staff...
Q: What are your professional backgrounds and how did you each come to NECR?
Sara: I originally heard of NECR from a close friend who used to work with Kelly at Trip Advisor. I was told that Kelly was a smart and successful woman who had already accomplished an incredible amount at such a young age, and that working for her would be an excellent experience, so I pursued the opportunity. Through this connection, I ended up finding my way to NECR.
Kassie: My educational background is in English with a concentration in Mass Communications and Writing. My professional background is in Marketing and Development/Administration for Schools. I began my career at NECR in the Summer of 2012 as a part time employee during school vacation. I was looking for a career change and absolutely loved working at NECR after a few short months. Being able to help others during such a joyous time in their lives was a positive change and made work lovable and fun. I soon left my job and became full time as NECR's Director of Sales.
Kristin: I received my BFA from Massachusetts college of Art and Design were I studied Fibers. Studying textiles was a rewarding experience that influenced many aspects of my growth as an artist and professional. After college, I moved to New York City. I loved the city, but missed the sea. I still freelance for a New York based designer, but I am quite happy to be part if the team at NECR.
Q: What is different about working in an all-female environment? Challenges? Positives?
Sara: Working in an all-female environment is awesome. For me, working around anyone, male or female, that is passionate about his or her work is ideal. Kelly is extremely hard-working and professional, and everything gets done in a very timely manner. At the same time, whenever I have a question, it is welcomed warmly and answered immediately, and in my experience, that is not always the case in the workplace. Despite popular belief, the atmosphere is not even remotely catty or chatty, but instead, there is an incredible balance of professionalism and comfort, and that is rare in the professional world.
Kassie: After being an employee in schools for 4 years, I am quite familiar to an all female environment. It can bring challenges among personalities and healthy competition is not always evident but present during the work day. However that healthy competition is extremely motivating. It pushes you to do better and try to reach for your "big hairy audacious goals" . However, the camaraderie is a wonderful aspect of working in a mostly female environment-it begins to feel like a little family.
Kristin: I like having the guidance of a female team. I mainly sew by myself, but feedback and collaboration of ideas is crucial to the success of the team in its entirety.
Q: What do you think have been the factors in Kelly's success as a female business owner and manager of a team?
Sara: Being a female business owner certainly contributes to Kelly’s success. I think she has managed to do so with grace, and has lived up to, or exceeded everybody’s expectations for her and her company, and that is certainly a success to be proud of.
Kassie: Kelly is an extremely driven and intelligent person. Kelly has been a close friend of mine for almost 4 years now and I am impressed by her wide variety of skills as a business woman, as a leader, and coworker. Being able to work for and alongside Kelly is an eye opening experience. She drives me personally to reach for the stars and even above and beyond. her personal and professional motto is that nothing is impossible. Watching NECR grow into a successful, competitive company in a few short years is nothing less than amazing. Kelly's hard work and dedication is a key factor in the company's growth and success. As friends, we lost her for a few summers and hardly saw Kelly but it was clearly worth it as her dream of owning a company like NECR is paying off. Kelly continuously raises the bar not only for the industry but for herself and the team. At a young age she branded and grew her company in partnership with her hardworking and motivated husband Matej and both have been scouted as Biz Bash's Top 25 Young Entrepreneurs to Watch. We don't call her Kelly Jobs for nothing!
Kristin: I really appreciate having strong female role models. Having a strong aptitude for long term goal planning is just as important as being able to make decisions quickly. I think Kelly's fearless yet fun approach to event planning is motivating for everyone involved.
Q: Do you find that most of your clients and the vendors you work with are women? And if so, how does that differ from your past professional experience? (pro's? cons?)
Sara: In the past, I worked for a General Contractor/Architect, and a large majority of the people I dealt with were men, so I’ve really experienced both sides of the spectrum. I’ve learned (both educationally and through personal experience) that women are naturally drawn to this field. Women also tend to be better listeners and also tend to be more empathetic, and these qualities are extremely important in this field. It is no surprise that most of the people you deal with in this industry are women, but I don’t think that means that men are not capable of such a job. I think women are passionate about the field, and are also naturally good at it, and those are two qualities needed for success in any field.
Kassie: The event industry is chock full of powerful and talented women-however there are more men behind the scenes then most would know. Working with women, personally, does not differ for my own past professional background. It always amazes me at every networking event that we attend, the amount of powerful, unique, and talented professional who are all able to bring so much to the event world.
Kristin: I really like how much I feel like I am part of a team at NECR. I have not been with the company for that long, but I really do feel as though I am part of a team. I think the outlook that "she works with us not for us" is incredibly motivating. I feel fortunate that I look forward to working. I am excited to see what the upcoming months bring.
Q: What advice would you give to a woman of any age looking to run with a business idea?
Sara: My advice would be to always follow your passions, but start out small. It’s important to get a feel for the environment you’re getting into. I think Kelly is a prime example of a success story, in my opinion, because she originally started NECR as something of a side job. Upon realizing the demand, she took the project on full-time and hasn’t looked back. Kelly knew what she wanted and would settle for nothing less, and now she gets to live and breathe her passion. My advice to any woman looking to run with a business idea would be to follow in Kelly’s shoes as best you can!
Kassie: Have a well thought out, detailed business plan, research all of the facts, have a solid support system, and nothing is impossible as long as you are willing to work long and hard for it.
Q: Who are your female role models?
Sara: Personally, my female role models are any working women who are serious, and who are good at their job. When a person is truly good at their job, their sex becomes completely irrelevant, and I hope to always be looked at for my hard work and not my gender.
Kassie: When I was a child- my favorite female role model was Mary Tyler Moore and now my female role model would probably have to be my mother. She is incredibly strong, smart, independent, and determined.
Kristin: I would have to say that I really look up to female artist figures, particularly Louise bourgeois, Kiki smith and Tracy Emin. I have looked up to these women for many years. They are women who made themselves fearless in the act of creating art. They are truly role models in my life.
Q: What would you like to see change for the role of women in our world? For the future?
Sara: I do hope that women be taken more seriously in the workplace. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses, and if we can consider these strengths and weaknesses as attributes of that particular person, not attributes of their gender, I believe we could see a lot more overall success in the professional world, as well as the world in general.
Kassie: Equality in the workplace.
Kirstin: I hope that over time, more dreams will be realized for women. Dreams can change and grow and adapt, and the women who encourage dream realization truly are the role models for tomorrow's women.