William Hildreth, MBA '02: Capitalizing on a passion offers freedom, demands creativity
With over 20 acres, 11 buildings, and 12 employees, Mill House Antiques & Gardens “is no mom-and-pop operation,” as Hildreth puts it. Now well into his second year as a business owner, he is certain he made the right move. “There is great satisfaction in being one's own boss,” he says. “You immediately see what impact your decisions have not only on the business but also on those who work for you. While you are responsible for the lives of those who work for you, you are free of corporate policies and procedures that can stifle rapid response and innovation.”
At the same time, Hildreth acknowledges that he's applying essential skills gained during his years in the corporate world, as well as the risks that come with freedom. “When you move from a company of 160,000 employees to one that has 12, one would think that there would no common ground. Yes, there are the obvious differences like no IT support or even up-to-date technology. However, the ability to manage and motivate employees remains basically the same with the one caveat: In times like we are experiencing now, everything is much more visible and under the microscope in a small company. There is greater pressure that rests with you as the owner, as the decisions you make directly affect those who work for you. You don't have the safety net of a large company that can save you if decisions are not on target.”
In Hildreth's view, the intrinsic rewards of his career move simply can't be beat. “As they say, when you can take a passion and make a living from it, you really have it all,” Hildreth says. “I have had a passion for antiques all my life. It goes hand in hand with my passion for history. Growing up in Washington, D.C., I was exposed to museums and antique shows by my parents early on. When I lived in Rome I used to walk down Antiques Row when I went to visit my friends. Since I would make that passage several times a week, I got to know the owners and learned a lot from them. And when I would travel for work, I would always make time to visit antique shops. In fact, I collected cards from these businesses and would always ask myself why I was collecting them. Now I know why!”
Hildreth also enjoys spending more time with his family. “The best part of my day is being able to see my children before and after school rather than before they got up and after they went to bed, which was often the case when I worked in New York and traveled overseas.”
Below, Hildreth discusses his plans for expanding the business, talks about his most interesting sales, describes his work day, outlines challenges facing his business, and more.
Q. Could you describe a couple of projects you're currently working on?
Hildreth: We recently launched a new restoration service. I have some of the finest craftsmen in the workshop whose skills and knowledge of woods and finishes are first class. Consequently, we are working offering homeowners on-site restoration services. We are also working with major hotels in New York and resorts in Connecticut. This is giving us great exposure and opening a dialog that will hopefully lead to future purchases.
I am also in the early planning stages of a long-term investment to broaden and diversify the revenue stream. While Mill House is a destination for antiques, my long-term plans are to develop businesses that are complimentary to the current antiques. This would include creating a tea house, converting to the two historical houses on the property into country inns, and establishing a restaurant on the premises.
Q. Who are your clients at Mill House? What's the most interesting sale you made in the past year? The largest?
Hildreth: Our clientele is divided between retail customers and the trade – interior designers and architects. We have everyone from CEOs, entertainers, and actors to other dealers and families looking for a new dining table. But overall our customer base is global. A case in point is when we were visited by a woman who lived in Costa Rica. She was looking for a formal English sideboard and came to visit us since she had heard we had the largest selection of English antiques in the Northeast. She found what she needed and we had the sideboard shipped to her in Costa Rica.
Last year just before Thanksgiving we had a well-known author and her family come in looking to furnish their weekend home that was just being renovated. With the renovations almost completed, they were hosting their extended families for Thanksgiving and did not have a piece of furniture for the home. Through the recommendation of a common friend, the family called me to arrange a tour of our showrooms. We spent four hours going through our 17 showrooms. By the end of the four hours, you could see their minds were spinning and in no state to make decisions. I suggested they go home and review the photos of the pieces in which they were interested and look at the places where they were thinking of placing each piece. I told them to come back when it was convenient for them to fine tune the list. They did, and within a week we had all the furniture through our workshop and delivered to their home in time for Thanksgiving.
Q. I see that Mill House also offers custom furniture – you must have established relationships with specialty furniture makers?
Hildreth: We are also known for our custom pieces that we have made for us in England. There are very few cabinetmakers left that still use traditional methods in producing "bespoke" or custom furniture. For Mill House, dining tables are a main staple in terms of the custom pieces we offer.
Q. You mention your “passion for antiques.” Are you also a connoisseur who can detect what's authentic and what's not?
Hildreth: I would not call myself an expert. There is nothing black or white with antiques. Becoming a connoisseur is a life-long journey. One can never be 100 percent certain about a particular piece of furniture. It's sort of like economists who are always begin with "on the hand" and then end with "on the other." Even well-known museums have had their share of fakes.
Q. What's “hot” in antique furniture today?
Hildreth: Well, for the past couple of years, mid-century furniture (late '40s, '50s and early '60s) and furnishings have been center stage. But with the downturn in the economy, we see people and designers returning to the traditional – “brown furniture,” as the English refer to pieces from the 1700s and 1800s.
Q. Describe your job as proprietor of Mill House. What is a typical day like for you?
Hildreth: Since the residence is on the property, my commute to work is just a few steps vs. the two hours to which I was accustomed. With 20 acres filled with 11 buildings, manicured grounds and formal gardens, there is a lot to look after. I try to walk the grounds in the morning and quickly meet with the groundskeeper. I also make time to meet with my workshop team to review where things stand with customers' purchases and restoration work.
If I am not on the floor with customers, I am writing copy for our ads that appear in Architectural Digest or Antiques Magazine, working with mail houses, or addressing maintenance issues.
Q. What's the most frustrating aspect of managing Mill House Antiques?
Hildreth: The most frustrating aspect is the lack of technology. We have computers but we lack a robust data management system that can tie together our inventory, sales, and website function. As a result, we invest too much time in tracking inventory and responding to inquiries. Having come from Accenture where technology plays a vital role in the daily functioning of the company, I do sometimes feel that we are an antique.
Q. What key issues are affecting the antique business today? How is it changing?
Hildreth: The economy. Plain and simple. My fellow dealers are all feeling the recession. We track with the Saks, Wal-Marts, and Tiffany's of the world. When it's reported that retail sales were down or that consumer confidence is lower, we see it. The trade experiences. Over the past three months, I have spent a considerable amount of time talking with interior designers, and they are saying their projects are on hold and their pipelines are dry.
It's an endurance race right now. However, I am confident that the recession will end soon and consumer confidence will return, albeit slowly. In the end, Mill House will still be here as it has for the past 45 years. And when [the recession ends], we will be well on our way in implementing our long-term strategy of making Mill House Antiques & Gardens a true destination.