It takes courage and commitment to buy a business during a global pandemic. CharRae Chwialkowski, Kim Dean and Amy Hannaher-Overby know this firsthand, as the owner-operators of Connect Interiors, a privately held, certified women-owned office furniture company and one of the top dealers of Steelcase furniture products, with locations in Fargo, Grand Forks and Detroit Lakes.
As long-time employees of Hannaher’s Workplace Interiors (the company’s name prior to the change in ownership) with deep industry expertise, the three completed their purchase of the business in August 2020. The new ownership structure includes two additional female owners, Carlene Wilson and Catherine Mika, from Atmosphere Commercial Interiors and their parent company, Omni Workspace Company. Carlene and Catherine serve as senior business advisors to Connect while also being personal investors. The five women serve as the majority owners and Omni Workspace is the minority owner.
One of the first things CharRae, Kim and Amy did was apply for certification through Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, a comprehensive process designed to provide access to opportunities and programs that accelerate growth for women-owned businesses like Connect Interiors.
“It took a lot of work to achieve this certification, but it was well worth it,” said CharRae, President of Connect Interiors. “Being a certified women-owned business has made a positive impact on sales, opening doors to doing business with large corporations that have supplier diversity goals to meet.”
As the day-to-day leaders of Connect Interiors, the three work closely as a team, with clear individual roles and responsibilities. As President, CharRae manages the sales and operations teams. As VP, Kim manages the design and project coordinator teams. And Amy, as Client Experience Manager, is responsible for communications, branding, marketing and HR. The women share a strong commitment to company culture. They have weathered the labor shortage by balancing turnover with the addition of strong new talent, resulting in an organization that is 30 employees strong.
Owning a business for the first time is not without challenges, especially during a pandemic.
“Things are changing constantly which can create challenges for our team and customers. We’re the last ones into a job site, so if construction is delayed, then we’re also delayed. But we work through it,” said CharRae.
“There’s so much minutiae that you don’t think about before you become an owner,” said Kim. “Things like transferring vehicle titles at the DMV, becoming a notary because notarization is constantly needed on contracts, and the complexities associated with human resource regulations. It’s one thing to know the industry and our customers, but we’ve discovered there is so much more to ownership.”
Despite the growing pains of starting a new business, Bremer Bank Business Banker Josh Herbold says the women’s strengths as business owners have been evident from the start. “They have significant industry expertise, as well as extensive experience at the company, and they’re poised for success through the partnership with Omni,” he said.
Bremer Bank has been proud to be a partner, first with Hannaher’s, and now with Connect Interiors. And the feeling is mutual.
Amy, daughter of previous owner Paul Hannaher, recalls Bremer’s support during the recession of 2008. “I was just graduating from college and I remember Bremer Bank was one of the only partners that was willing to step up to the plate and help. I’ve never forgotten that,” she said.
“Bremer helped us see the potential for our ownership structure from the very beginning,” Dean added. “We talked to several banks as part of our due diligence and there was no contest. There was a lot of transparency and respect from Bremer. They are very much a partner to us.”
As a top Steelcase dealer, Connect Interiors has exclusive access to comprehensive research, analysis and insight into how people work today.
“Steelcase is first and foremost a research company, and then a manufacturer of furniture,” CharRae said. “The Connect team is confident that, while work may look a little different these days, there will remain a strong need for a workplace where people can come together and collaborate, as many days a week as necessary.”