Art business launched over a bottle of wine

Ann Huff thought she had no entrepreneurial spirit. Then a French artist asked the former corporate marketing executive to sell his paintings to Americans. She did.

Now, 60-year-old Huff and business partner Meg Harrington, 50, own a Buckhead art gallery (Huff Harrington Fine Art), a Buckhead home goods store (Huff Harrington Home) and a tour business in France. Each business fills the financial dips of the others. Combined they have more than $2 million in sales, Huff says.

I have about 20 years of corporate background where I manage large groups of people in marketing. (Now) I make less than I made in corporate life, but I am a thousand hundred million times happier.

About 15 years ago my husband and I were in a very fortunate situation where we were able to take a year off from work, moving to the south of France, renting a little house on a vineyard. We enrolled our children in the little village school.

During that year I started meeting a bunch of artists. (One) said, ‘I think you ought to take some of my work back to Atlanta with you and sell it.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ Then I started thinking: I really love this work.

I am the most non-entrepreneurial person that you can imagine. I never sold lemonade. I didn’t even babysit. It was kind of scary for me. As an art history major I think I have a pretty good eye. But I wasn’t positive. (After returning to Atlanta) I invited 15 friends over for kind of a focus group. I watched their reactions. I could tell they really liked the work.

I had come into a small inheritance by a cousin I didn’t know. It was $10,000 that afforded me the opportunity to do something I didn’t think I could do otherwise: I went to back to France, and I bought a whole bunch of paintings. I negotiated to get some of these prices down. In all I had 80 paintings. In May 2002 I had my first art show. I invited all the people I knew and I asked (friends) to invite all the people they knew. I hung paintings all over my house. I sold 80 paintings in two days.

She paid $10,000 for the paintings and sold them for $40,000.

Normally we don’t have a four-time mark up. Typical galleries are two-time mark up. Fifty percent goes to the artist and 50 percent goes to the gallery.

Huff had a financial safety net many entrepreneurs don’t have: Her husband had healthy financial reserves.

(But) I felt very strongly that I wanted this to be self funding. I wanted to do this on my own. I got on this streak of having art shows. Over the next few years they had became a little bit less successful because at that point most of my friends had filled their walls, and I ran out of people that I could reach out to because I was selling out of my home.

Huff and her husband owned a home in the south of France that they rented to tourists. One, Meg Harrington, lived in Brookhaven and was selling artists’ paintings out of her home just as Huff was. The two didn’t really know each other, but they visited each other’s art shows. They agreed to meet for lunch.

We had a bottle of wine. Well, we both grew up in Europe. We talked about our businesses. We both said it is getting a little bit old. I had done it for five years out of my home. I was trying to decide whether or not open a gallery. I really didn’t want all the responsibility. The nice thing about doing it out of my home was the freedom to be able to do it when I wanted to do it. Meg was at that point, too.

We started feeding each other ideas. We realized how much more fun it is to be able to bounce an idea off another person and then not just have them bounce it back but take it a notch up. By the end of lunch we shook hands and we decided to open a gallery together.

And when we went home to our respective spouses, they both said, ‘You did what? Are you crazy?’

We needed to find a gallery that was like a home. We knew that had been our strength: inviting people into our home, socializing with them, making them feel comfortable. Showing them the paintings over furniture was the key to our success.

We started a very aggressive email campaign. We did some advertising and a lot of direct mail. Our target audience is women, primarily 35 to 64, who love to travel, love to decorate, are of comfortable means and who are interested in a lot of different things, including art.

We had a couple of issues at the beginning. (Meg) brought some paintings over from an artist, and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t like those.’ She’s like, ‘Really? OK, let’s not show them.’ And then we realized that if we agreed 100 percent of the time we wouldn’t ever do anything new and different and take any risks. We also decided that we were always going to learn from our mistakes, and we were never going to hold our mistakes against each other. Thank God, because we have made tons.

One of the trickiest things is working with artists. It’s also one of the most fulfilling. As gallery owners you are always wanting to give direction and say, ‘If you do it this way, it will sell,’ and at the same time wanting to give the artists the freedom to do what they want to do.

The recession hit their gallery business late.

It was a little bit scary because it was happening after most other businesses. So we weren’t sure if it was the recession or if we were doing something wrong. That’s when we stated thinking about having another business that would help us with cash flow.

They decided to sell their gallery customers week-long, seven-person tours to the south of France, staying at the Huffs’ home there and having Meg or Ann as hosts.

It’s all about knowing who your customer is, knowing what they are passionate about and building on it.

(On the first trip) we tried to do it all ourselves. We drove. We fixed all the meals. We ended up learning that you can only do so much.

Now, they pay locals to help with housekeeping, driving and food prep. Trips go for about $4,000 a person, covering all but airfare.

We realized we need to be selling more than paintings. We were selling a look.

So they started the home goods store, aiming at the same kind of customers they served with the gallery.

When Meg and I first started the store the only thing we knew was our audience. You have to build on a base. Retail is really tough in terms of cash flow. There are times of the year that you have to put out a lot (of money), and they happen to be the times usually when business is the slowest, like in January and July.

We have a profit-sharing plan (for store employees) that we think is one of the keys to our success. We wanted to make sure that we hired the best people, and we wanted to hang on to them.

Our customer doesn’t respond to a sale. Our customer responds to something going on here: a new shipment arriving, an event, a book signing. One of our best sellers last Christmas was a cashmere wrap that women of all sizes could happily wear. It was an expensive price point, $350. And we sold them like crazy.

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Huff’s comments were edited for length and clarity.