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Beth Slifer: designs on prospering in lean times.

Beth Slifer, president and owner of Slifer Designs in Edwards, worries that her executive prowess might not match up with the legends of Colorado business.

Yet she has managed Slifer Designs, the nation's third largest residential interior design company, through one of the worst recessions such companies have felt, and still plans to come out of it this year with about $14 million in sales.

Slifer's company has shrunk over the past five years, from peak of about 100 employees and $20 million in revenues when it was rated the nation's leading residential interior design company by her industry's trade magazines, to about 60 employees now, and $16 million in sales in 2002.

She recalls the boom days, when million-dollar homes were sprouting like wildflowers on the slopes of the Vail and Roaring Fork valleys in Eagle and Pitkin counties near Vail and the Aspen.

But she realizes her management discipline may have been a bit too loose for those times. And that realization becomes a measure of her executive skills.

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"The sad reality is, up through 2000, we were so busy and growing so fast that we were pretty sloppy," she said.

"We made money, but we should've made a higher percentage than we made. We were just trying to get the work done, and often that meant some carelessness in our own internal management of processes and systems.

"All of the 90s were steady growth, and profits growing with that. Then, in 2001, we had an abrupt decline in revenue. It was before Sept. 11, but in retrospect it was completely tied to the economy and real estate sales.

"Of course, 9/11 just compounded the issues of people starting to hold back on their extravagant spending."

By that time, however, Slifer had already laid off 13 people, and moved to new, larger space in Edwards despite the slowdown in sales. She closed an Aspen store and subleased some of her space in Edwards to a coffee store and to a rug merchant, both of which helped drive traffic to her own retail store, which she decided could no longer be operated as a break-even service but had to become a profit center in itself.

"So, we've tried to buy with the walk-in client more in mind than perhaps we've had him in mind in the past," she said. She said more people, even among the rich and moderately wealthy "in this slumping economy" are doing more do-it-yourself remodeling, and her new focus on the retail side of her interiors is capturing more of that traffic for the business.

"We've had a nice increase in our retail store," she said. But her pride in sales growth this year--and she hopes in the future--is Slifer Designs' expansion into the hospitality or commercial markets.

Not only is she doing the interiors for a remodeling project at a major Denver hotel, she has grabbed a share of the market for interior design of shared-deed properties, a phenomenon that started in the Rocky Mountains where buyers have begun to buy a fraction of a piece of property (a single-family home, or a condo, or even a resort clubhouse) and move in for a week or a month of the year, rotating their personal property into the home when they get there.

And through it all, Beth Slifer said the company has prospered.

"We've gotten much more cost conscious, much tighter. And our margins have actually improved because we've been more careful," she said.

"We were number one in the late 90s, when we were $20 million," she said. "That's a lot of homes."

Now, she said, Slifer Designs is more of a "lean machine."

"If there is a turnaround, we are going to look awesome because the margins have never been better," she said. Which, of course, is the stuff of legends.

BY ROBERT SCHWAB

EDITOR, COLORADOBIZ
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Title Annotation:Executive Edge
Author:Schwab, Robert
Publication:ColoradoBiz
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1U8CO
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:647
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