This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dave Holliday spent decades marketing consumer products, from baked beans to body powder, before a corporate layoff led him to change gears. As the owner of ShelfGenie of East Tennessee for the past three years, Holliday has reinvented his career and built a new life as an entrepreneur and an expert in operating a successful franchise.
Q: The coronavirus pandemic has led a lot of people to rethink their careers, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. What was your path to switching gears after 20 years in marketing?
A: Even before this crisis, people go through this, and when you get to a certain age, you can say, 'Well I'll go to another company and continue doing what I'm doing.' Or you can make a change. I was in my late 40s, I'm not near retirement, so do I want to transplant my family and continue this career path or is now my opportunity to do something new?"
Q: Marketing has to be a useful skill in growing your own business.
A: Marketing combines a lot of the aspects of business I love. My first job after college in 1997 was at C.B. Fleet in Lynchburg, Virginia, in brand management. I knew going to C.B. Fleet I'd be doing everything and doing it quickly: new product development, advertising, [profit and loss] responsibility, everything you have to know to run a business. Then in 2000, I went to Bush Brothers in Knoxville, which is a phenomenal company. I was there 7 years, met my wife, who was working there, as well, and then came to Chattanooga in 2007 to work for Chattem.
Q: What made you want to work for Chattem?
A: Bush Brothers was very long-term thinking, very deliberate, slow to make decisions. I kind of was chafing at that. I love getting products out the door. Chattem was 100 miles an hour in every direction, had outstanding leadership, a wide variety of brands, was very entrepreneurial, very efficient, ambitious, competitive, wanted to grow. I loved that whole idea. Over my time at Chattem, I had several promotions and ended up a marketing director working mostly on skin care products.
Q: What changed at Chattem that led you to change your career?
A: I had a really good time at Chattem. We launched products at a feverish pace, and that was my favorite part of marketing. I love the consumer research, trying to find that new angle. In 2010, Sanofi was looking for a consumer marketing company to help them transition Allegra to [over the counter] and Sanofi had no consumer marketing expertise at all. Here's this $50 billion company and they looked at a lot of the smaller players. They found us, and upper management and our team impressed them to the point they said, we want to go with Chattem and they're small enough we can buy them. They bought us in 2010. Everything was going pretty well for about 5 years — they let Chattem be Chattem.
Q: But then?
A: They started to get really involved with things from headquarters in Paris. They would send us commercials, and that was so foreign to us that we're not doing commercials or our own product development. I started seeing the writing on the wall, thinking about my own time at Chattem, that it could end any time despite me doing well and liking it. On May 17, 2017, I got the axe, and I wasn't terribly surprised, though I wasn't really happy either. I wasn't crushed — I would have been if I had done something or screwed up, but I just think it was someone in Paris who crossed my name off a list.
Q: Why not look for another marketing job?
A: Now I have a couple paths ahead of me, and I can continue to do the kind of work I'm doing in consumer packaged goods, I can go to another company. But we really love Chattanooga, our daughters are really into their school, my wife is into the community, we have great friends, and the amount of consumer packaged goods companies here is small. So I saw this as an opportunity to get off the corporate treadmill and try something new.
Q: How did you land on the ShelfGenie franchise?
A: As part of my exit package from Chattem they put me in touch with an outplacement coach, and we talked a while and the idea of a franchise came up, so I got in touch with a franchise consultant out of Atlanta. I have a good idea of what my skills and talents are, but it's always a great idea to consult others who have been there. She shaped my thinking as to how I match my talents and experience and interest with a company. It was a several month process, and that's how I met the ShelfGenie folks and signed on with them in August 2017, three months after I was laid off.
Q: Why ShelfGenie?
A: It's a lot to sift through, a lot to take in, when you actually start looking into franchises. There are thousands of them in every conceivable industry and they vary on a lot of factors like initial investment, ongoing costs, do you need a brick and mortar facility, the strength of the brand. One thing ShelfGenie did not have was a lot of brand recognition, but I really liked the product and leadership team, and I thought we could communicate the value of the product and get people on board and grow that industry.
Q: Are you a home improvement guy? Was this an extension of a hobby or interest?
A: One of the things the franchise consultant helped with was thinking about what would be a good fit. A lot of people think they know the type of franchise they want. A lot of teachers want to open up a tutoring company, but the people who really excel at those tutoring opportunities are business people. You can hire the teachers, and it helps to have an interest in educating kids, but your skills might not match up the way you think they will. With ShelfGenie, most of the partners in our system don't have a background in home improvement or woodworking or things you might consider hands-on. I actually do, it was a hobby, an interest of mine when we bought our franchise, but it's not a necessity at all.
Q: You and your wife Kelli launched the business together?
A: Yes, she had been in the workforce, but got out when our oldest was born. After 10 years, with her background in finance, she was ready to get back into it, so we split things up. She became a ShelfGenie designer and I became an installer. We figured, if we're going to hire and train and coach, we should have the key positions and we should be able to do all that stuff. As it turned out, I just really like installing. I like the work and I love getting out. I really enjoy interacting with our clients and I didn't know that would be such a fun part of it. I always learn from them — what advertising they see, what made them pick up the phone and call us.
Q: What else do you love about the new job?
A: I'm on the franchise board of ShelfGenie now, and that makes me more knowledgeable and I can help ShelfGenie upper management by representing the client and franchise owner. I'm on the new products board. I've launched dozens and dozens of products and I love doing that. In a franchise system, you get so many diverse backgrounds — finance and business, marketing, accounting, people that made a dramatic change, a teacher or someone from health care, so when you get a board together of people, it's very diverse.
Q: How has the pandemic affected your business?
A: We got our home shows in at the end of February, and we had a lot of leads, a lot of appointments for design consultations in March. But by the end of March I just made the decision, no more design consultations through April, just to be on the safe side. We tried to do some virtual appointments, but had mixed results, but we also had a lot of installations ahead of us. Those you can do with little to no interaction with the homeowner — you sanitize all tools, the truck, the shelves, clean up afterwards — so we are able to continue to do installations. Some folks just want to wait, and we totally understand that, but there have been number of people saying, hey this is a great time to do it. A lot of the homes I go to, there are other companies there. There was one with a painting team, someone in the bathroom doing something, and I was in the kitchen installing.
* Business: ShelfGenie of East Tennessee / Yourclosetcompany.com
* Age: 50
* From: Western New York State
* Education: Bachelor’s in marketing from Wake Forest
* Family: Dave and his wife, Kelli, have daughters who are 14 and 15
Q: Did you ever think you'd end up a business owner?
A: I know people that have to work for themselves, and I was never like that. I enjoyed working for companies, I enjoyed being part of the team. What I really liked was there's the upper management direction and I would take it from there and execute it the best I could. But I do have some independence. I might not have had that at 25 or 30 years old, but 25 years in, I have learned a lot, I understand what I'm doing and I'm pretty good at it. But it's the unknown. You're going from a steady paycheck you could budget for the next year, and when you step away from that, it's kind of on you to produce and do the right things or you suffer financially. On the flip side, you can course correct really quickly, make decisions, and you're not all on your own. There are lots of resources out there for small businesses — associations, courses, you can talk to people and get advice.
Q: What if it hadn't worked out?
A: I had the feeling I could make this work, and if for some reason it didn't, I thought I could go back to what I was doing. Once I got into it, I realized I didn't want to go back and I'm going to make a go of this. It's slow, I'm not making as much as I was making, but I see progress and I'm going to stay on this path. I don't know if I'd be doing this if I didn't get nudged out the door. Sometimes that's what it takes.
Q: So what's next?
A: We had so many ShelfGenie clients ask us about closets, we got to the point where we could open up our own closet company at the end of 2018. It's been going great, and especially during this shutdown, it seems like with minimal advertising we're getting tons of leads. I ran an ad that dropped on a Friday and over the weekend we got eight leads. It's a great complement to ShelfGenie. They know I'm doing this, and we grew it a little slowly, but I couldn't have done it if I hadn't gotten the experience with ShelfGenie. I learned a lot and applied it.