Denise Blankemeyer of Crow Works: Stay Humble, Remain Grateful
Staying Humble, Remaining Grateful — I focus on three words when interviewing candidates and also when facilitating team members reviews: Hungry, humble, and smart. Maintaining a humble and grateful spirit is what guides me when making business decisions and collaborating with my team.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Blankemeyer. Denise is the Co-Founder and Chief People Officer of Crow Works, a design-centric furniture manufacturing company based in Ohio.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My husband Dennis and I started in business together as co-owners of a 1200 sq. foot furniture store called American Furnishings in 1995. We had the desire to bring well-built timeless arts & craft and prairie style furniture and furnishings to the marketplace. The career path I am on was not one that was strategically planned out, it organically happened over time. Learning how to persevere, be patient, fall gracefully, brush the dirt off, get back up, smile, and most importantly treating people with respect and love has brought me to where I am today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
While still operating our small vintage furniture retail store, a representative from a large retailer came by and fell in love with a one-of-a-kind metal shoe rack we had — and wanted to place an order for 50 of them for their stores. Instead of turning away this golden opportunity, we said yes, wrote up the order, collected the payment, and then internally put our heads together on how to make it happen. Ultimately, we found a small, local father and son welding business that was up for the challenge, and magically made it happen out of their garage. This was a turning point for us, and the beginning of our transition into manufacturing, which evolved into the business Crow Works is today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During my very first interview back in 1995, I used the word “stuff” to describe the furniture and fixtures we were selling in the phrase “this stuff isn’t cheap.” The word stuff ended up in a newspaper article what seemed to be at least 10 times. Over the years It has been a running joke that we sell “stuff.” And every time it is said, I chuckle, and my thoughts go right back to that interview. And now we are much more conscious about how we describe what we do, what we sell and why. Everything that we make and sell create the spaces for our clients and each item is more than just “stuff.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are proud of our deep Midwestern roots and how we integrate that DNA into every aspect of the brand — from our company culture that emphasizes gratitude and what we call “grit” (or a strong work ethic), the way we sustainably source our materials, and the fact that we manufacture all of our pieces in Ohio. We’ve continued to hold ourselves to the same standard of quality and authenticity, even more so now working with high-caliber clients like Starbucks and Shake Shack. Throughout recent growth, we continue to strengthen our commitment to our team members and our corporate social responsibility program by supporting local and surrounding communities, through charitable donations, volunteering, and contributing to reforestation.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have a few big projects in the works. First, we are in the midst of moving team members from our Columbus office to a new space in Downtown Johnstown which will not only bring our people closer to our manufacturing and distribution campus in Killbuck, but also give us the opportunity to put down roots in another rural Ohio town with a strong sense of place. In addition to the office, we have very exciting plans to open a public space in Johnstown that will also be a living showroom as we will be outfitting the space with furniture and fixtures custom made by our manufacturing teams in Killbuck. We are also in the midst of construction on a 50,0000 sq. ft. distribution center on our 100-acre site in Killbuck. Later this summer, we plan to launch a consumer goods collection, so people can have our products in their own homes. All of the projects we are working on bring excitement and drive to our team. Being able to wake up every morning with purpose and passion to work hard and do something that you love is the best reward.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Lead with confidence and courage. Don’t hold back on expressing positive gratitude, even if it may seem insignificant to the recipient.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Work hard to earn trust and respect before you tackle any big projects together. Once you have earned trust and respect, rally your team. When working hand and hand, be clear, concise and sincere when communicating what you need and expect from all of them. Show your team what part they each play in the big picture, motivate and encourage them to take risks and push themselves beyond what they think is possible. If you can create a culture with this type of mentality, you will have a team that will move mountains and make great things happen.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband Dennis has been my equal and partner, in both our business ventures and life. We have built this brand together from the bottom up, despite not knowing what we were in for, playing off each other’s strengths and knowing what part we each play in our business has been the secret to our success. Dennis is my biggest cheerleader and always encourages me to be the best version of myself. It’s been incredibly rewarding to nurture the growth of our vision together. Recently, we participated in the Killbuck Elementary stage dedication ceremony, a child pointed to a person in the audience and cheerfully shouted out “That’s my daddy!”. This was such a gratifying moment as we truly saw that a sense of pride in our work is shared by the families of our team members and subsequently the community as a whole. The outcome of every small impact we make is greater than we will ever know.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One of my greatest passions is cultivating community, which I strive to do within our company as well as in the surrounding areas our offices and campus are in. Some of my biggest achievements at Crow Works has been establishing Crow Works’ team member wellness program, team member tuition reimbursement, and team member philanthropy and charitable giving programs. All of these programs have a ripple effect. By learning, educating and opening opportunities for individual growth, the growth empowers people to gain an awareness and understanding as to how one can contribute to society in a very positive way.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Staying Humble, Remaining Grateful — I focus on three words when interviewing candidates and also when facilitating team members reviews: Hungry, humble, and smart. Maintaining a humble and grateful spirit is what guides me when making business decisions and collaborating with my team.
- Adaptability and Curiosity Fuel Inspiration — When leading a business and having a goal of growth, one has to be adaptable or else your competition will pass you by. Being in a state of stability is being stagnant and not growing. In the midst of our growth and constant push to change and move the ball forward, I find it’s super important to ask questions and to take risks. Often, the answers revealed or the risk taken can make a positive impact.
- Cultivating Meaningful Relationships — I am a people person. I really enjoy having one on one conversations versus being in a room with many people. One of my favorite opportunities at Crow Works is interviewing potential employees and communicating with our company’s hard workers. Beyond the typical the meet and greet, I strive to really get to know someone on a personal level. I rely heavily on my intuition, this helps me to very quickly identify when someone needs a hug, needs an ear to listen, needs advice or just needs to vent.
- Invest in Your Community — I have witnessed first-hand what it looks like when you invest in community. I have volunteered with Opportunity International, an organization that offers business loans to those that cannot walk into a traditional bank and get a loan to start a business. You can start with investing in one person and the ripple effect that investment has grows outward.
- Surround Yourself with the Right People — I often take inventory on the people in my life. I like to spend the majority of my time with people who are positive, uplifting, motivated, forward thinking, kind and grateful for life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to inspire and create a movement based on the pay it forward mentality. People get inspired and gain self-worth and confidence when helping others. I am an avid gardener and love cooking. I would love to see a movement of bringing groups of people together to learn the basics about planting, growing, and harvesting crops. Ultimately having the groups gather to cook and eat the food they produced. Food is a universal theme that everyone has in common. This type of movement could take place in green spaces at work, school grounds, neighborhood yards and beyond. Food has a way of organically creating community because everyone can participate and share in the experience.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Look good, feel good, sell good”
This quote has become my mantra every day the past 24 years. I literally get up every morning, go to my closet and pick something out that I know I feel good in. When I add the look good and feel good pieces together, my armor is on and I walk out into the world feeling confident, poised and ready to tackle any barrier that stands in the way on any given day.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I would love to sit down at the breakfast table with Oprah Winfrey. I have watched her, admired her and have related to her for most of my life. Oprah has a servant leader heart and always looks for the positive in every situation or story. I believe she has been put on this earth to make the world a better place. I aspire to do the same, one story, one effort at a time.