April 13/20, 2015; Volume 29/Number 1
By Jenna Lippin
“Sometimes things don’t go as planned,” Laurie Bray, marketing manager at Godfrey Hirst USA, said while reflecting on her career.
While most people move from the ground up in their professional lives, Bray flipped the process upside down in a more literal sense. Starting on the contract side of the interior design business, her career began selling ceiling tile and evolved from there. “I walk into a room and I know something about the ceiling, furniture and floors.”
Bray worked her way up while working in the commercial design field in New York, which provided “exposure to [design] sophistication and forward thinking that changed my life immensely as I may not have been exposed to those things in other parts of the country.”
Family life progressed for Bray as well, and she was married and pregnant early in her career, which led to a sabbatical. But she wasn’t out of the game for too long—she soon went back to work and entered the world of carpet in Atlanta, where she moved after leaving New York. Bray was approached by Charleston Carpets, then owned by Mannington, to work in sales. “I thought, ‘Carpet. OK.’ But I fell in love with carpet. This is where I belong. I really enjoy the process of selling, the creation of designs and creativity involved in marketing. I wasn’t involved with all that per se at that time, but being involved on the selling side was exciting for me.”
After taking time off again for her second pregnancy, Bray decided to stay away from the intense, fast-paced contract side of the business. She had a connection at Wools of New Zealand, who mentioned the company Helios. “I went and interviewed and at that time it was pretty much the premiere wool carpet manufacturer in terms of tufted carpet,” she recalled. “There weren’t a lot of wool carpet manufacturers and they were really making a mark in this country with their products. They hired me as a salesperson and I worked in marketing and product development. I remember knocking on wood saying, ‘OK this is it—I love working on the residential side and I love wool.’ It has a wonderful story, so it is easy to talk about and to sell.”
After Bray found her niche, Horizon Carpet—then the umbrella company for Helios—was sold to Mohawk. Instead of making the move with the company, she set her sights on something much bigger: starting her very own carpet mill.
The confidence for such an undertaking came, in part, from Bray’s husband, who helped in the founding of Veranda magazine. “I married a man who was entrepreneurial and felt I could [start a mill]. I also had the support of people in the industry who felt I could do it. Surrounding myself with a strong support system was critical. I went forward with it and it was wonderful.”
The company was Atelier, of which Bray handled all facets, including marketing, manufacturing, sales and selection of staff. “It really gave me a unique perspective in all aspects of the flooring industry.”
Created in the mid 1990s, Bray ran Atelier, which manufactured wool carpet, for five years before she sold it to Stanton Carpet in 2000. When asked what she is most proud of in her 30-year career in the industry, Bray proudly stated, “Starting Atelier. At that point there were really no other women running a carpet company. That was an achievement. I enjoyed every aspect—starting the company, seeing it grow, creativity, making decisions that would influence its direction. It placed me in a world within our industry that was different from where I had been before. The creative aspect of my life is what is really important.”
Despite her passion for running her own mill, Bray came to a crossroads when she had to consider her family’s future while trying to balance her home life and work. Her husband’s magazine was sold to Hearst, and he was travelling to New York every week. In the interest of her daughters’ stability at home she decided to take a step back and sell Atelier to avoid travel and relocations. “I kind of slowed down a little bit for a while and spent more time with my daughters, focusing on my family. I was travelling a lot, working with people all over the country—I decided it was a good time to stop and concentrate on my daughters.”
After her respite Bray started consulting and was soon approached by a former colleague to help with Godfrey Hirst’s marketing in the United States. The company started to make an impact in the U.S. as one of the largest wool manufacturers in the world and needed a boost from a marketing expert. “They had nothing in place so it was really starting from Ground Zero, which was an exciting opportunity for me. I was able to help establish an identity [for Godfrey Hirst] and formulated a marketing plan for them in North America. I have been given the responsibility to market Godfrey Hirst’s ever expanding product offering, both in wool and synthetics. The challenge has been very fulfilling and the opportunities very rewarding. It isn’t every job where you can be developing a POP one day and having tea with the Prince of Wales for the Campaign for Wool the next.”
With exceptional professional success and an esteemed ability to balance work and family, it is difficult to imagine that Bray faced any challenges during her career. While she did not have to confront any extreme circumstances, she said, she did have to work hard to make executives realize the floor covering industry is, in fact, female driven.
“It has taken them a while to come around and admit we know what we’re talking about,” Bray said. “All women [in the industry] say, ‘We are the consumer,’ and it’s true. When you walk into a floor covering store, it’s the woman making the decision. Certainly men are part of the process, but by and large the demographics show women are making the buying decisions. In my career I’ve had to convince management across the board that women are the industry standard. But they are coming around and understanding that women make the buying decisions.”
What has helped Bray in her achievements—which includes opening others’ eyes to flooring being female-centric—is a strong support system and “sticking to [her] guns.” She said she has always had support from men in the industry, which has helped her progress despite being in the minority.
She suggests other women be prepared and knowledgeable about a topic/project/initiative for which they have a particular passion. “If you know what you’re talking about and not just grabbing things out of the air, if you have facts and figures, people will respond to that—especially men.”
Bray also recommends professional women be aware of outside influences, whether good or bad. “Things around you will affect your job and work, and you may not realize it. People you surround yourself with will influence you. This can be a good thing, like being exposed to different industries. You can take away something from an outside industry and use it for your own. You cannot have tunnel vision and stay within your neck of the woods, so to speak. Look to the left, look to the right and pay attention to all aspects of the working world. Take bits and pieces from different experiences, jobs and learning opportunities.”
The confidence and comfort Bray exudes in the “boys’ club” that is the flooring industry comes from her childhood, she said. “The first five to seven years of my life I was one of the only girls in the neighborhood where I grew up in New Jersey. It prepared me to feel comfortable in a male-dominated industry, and gave me the confidence to move forward with my goals. I’m certainly not intimated by anybody.
“I’ve never felt disadvantaged as a woman,” Bray continued. “I may have had to work a little harder and prove myself a little more, but I never heard anyone say they weren’t going to listen to me because I’m a woman.”