Conversations on Resilience
By Sue Strachan (NC ’86)
Peggy Stafford (NC ’86), founder of Stafford Tile & Stone, on leading a small business through the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for Stafford Tile & Stone. Because of the pandemic, Peggy’s business has had to deal with the impact on its physical locations, like other businesses, being temporarily closed, then re-opening with restrictions.
With the issues that businesses are facing now and will be in the future, we asked Peggy how Stafford Tile & Stone is doing and what she has done to pivot her business to survive and thrive during this time, and how her Newcomb College education helped prepare her for the ups and downs of the business world.
Newcomb College and Beyond
As a political science major, what led you into the tile and stone business?
While I was finishing my degree at Newcomb College, I worked on a paralegal certification through Tulane University. Many family members had chosen to study and practice law over the generations. My mother was the only female in her Tulane Law School graduating class of 1955. She was also a Newcomb College graduate and studied with an all-female constituency. In the time of the ’40s and ’50s, Newcomb College students studied and ate meals in Josephine Louise Hall, where I later lived as a Freshman in 1982.
While I thoroughly enjoyed being a paralegal, I realized that a lifetime commitment to that profession would not be my calling. In 1989, I enrolled in graduate school to study English Literature at University of Colorado, Boulder. I completed the degree with much hard work and determination. During the course of my graduate program, I worked at a design store that focused on tile and curtains. This began as a part-time job, because I was teaching and finishing my degree. The business was booming then — 1990 — and I loved working with tile and design. I grew up in a creative environment with artists and creators, but never thought that I could make a career working with products that excited me so much.
Hence, a “tile geek” was born. I collaborated with contractors who would fly me to San Francisco to work on big tile projects because there were not many high-end tile stores in Denver at the time. As these wonderful experiences developed, I eventually started my own business in Boulder specializing in the “finish work” of construction projects. I managed the projects for customers, designed and contracted tile, hardwood and finish carpentry. Of course, the tile and stonework was always my passion. Although the business was thriving, I longed for Louisiana and my native surroundings. When I decided firmly to relocate, the logical step proved to be a focus on tile and stone.
Are there unique challenges to running a woman-owned business?
There are always challenges in starting a business as a woman. Louisiana does not have a strong history of encouraging the entrepreneur and is less inclined to support a young woman in the tile and stone business. However, the New Orleans community has embraced our showroom and has strongly supported us throughout these 20 solid years. I am very grateful for the outreach and support, especially during a lull.
What are your favorite memories of your Newcomb College days?
I enjoyed all of my four years at Newcomb College. The professors in my departments were supportive and stimulating. My freshman year at Newcomb was especially exciting as I became immersed with women from all over the country who exposed me to different ideals. Those early Newcomb friendships remain very dear to me even 30 years later.
How did your Newcomb education prepare you for business and life?
My years at Newcomb College taught me independence and to know no boundaries in life. At a supportive women’s college, I learned to trust myself, others, and the process of life that is sometimes not perfect. Strength and tenacity are important qualities that Newcomb instilled in students. I hope to always empower my staff and others as the Newcomb College community empowered me.
Business During the COVID-19 Pandemic
When businesses in New Orleans and Baton Rouge were told to temporarily close their stores due to the pandemic, what strategies did your business implement?
Stafford Tile & Stone did not actually “close” its showrooms but only held virtual appointments for a period of time. We are offering both virtual and in-store appointments now as we navigate through the pandemic. Our sales associates will have a pre-appointment questionnaire with clients so that we can save time during the in-house appointments. We are fortunate that some things can be accomplished with Zoom or video conferencing. As the state of Louisiana mandates, all staff and clients who enter the showrooms must wear masks and we limit the number of persons in the showroom at any one time.
How have sales been since the pandemic?
Sales were drastically low for the second quarter but are slowing picking up. We are in it for the long haul. We have 20 years under our belt and will do everything to survive this rough patch. We received Paycheck Protection Program and Small Business Administration loans to cover rent and salary expenses for a period of 60 days. It helped tremendously.
Any advice for storeowners?
My best advice to owners of small businesses is, “Hang in there!” Louisianians and Americans are resilient and will rebuild quickly. I hope that this pandemic teaches us all the importance of supporting local small companies and the value of personal service.
What advice would you give to Newcomb-Tulane students who are graduating and want to start their own business in a difficult economy?
My advice to any person interested in starting a business today is to keep the business profile as simple as possible and be prepared to endure long, hard hours. My business began on a “shoestring” in a small location on the residential side of Oak Street where many Tulane/Newcomb students live. I could not have survived these years if the company had incurred too much debt in its inception. As you noted, these are lean, challenging times and it is easier to maintain a business when you have operated within your means. The unwavering support from the design community of New Orleans and Louisiana allowed us to stay in business all of these wonderful years.
Photos: Liz King