Andre Staffelbach and his wife, Jo Staffelbach Heinz, weren’t cut out to be business executives.
The longtime dynamic Dallas interior design duo merged Staffelbach Design Group into a big league contender five years ago, hoping to continue while allowing their business to expand internationally.
But it turned out the pair were square pegs trying to fit into the round hole of Omaha, Neb-based DLR Group. and owned by its employees.
“You can’t bring an outdoor cat indoors,” says Staffelbach, co-opting an expression from a friend of furniture design. “Jo and I just haven’t handled the bosses well. It’s up to us, not them. It’s a big machine and a big operation, so they have to run the business the way they do.
“But to keep my life sustainable, I need to work with teams, hands-on interactions, and customers who are interested and passionate about the process and the work.”
In October, the couple announced they were no longer associated with the business and were retiring on their own.
They formed J|a Kreativ LLC, a virtual company without employees. All work is subcontracted. Even Heinz’s longtime executive assistant, Carol Duckworth, is an independent entrepreneur.
The company name is their first initials and the Swiss spelling of creative. Both have dual Swiss and American nationality.
So how small is it?
“We both had big desks, and now we’re in an office at the same table,” Heinz said. “It takes real patience.”
They use a photo of a New York client’s conference room on Zoom calls to avoid looking too minimalistic.
Staffelbach, 82, and Heinz, 72, are not actively seeking new clients. Those who come knocking must respond to their desire for personal fulfillment, Heinz said.
The couple learned that meaningful success isn’t about getting rich. They’ve been there, they’ve done this. It’s about having the freedom to do what you want, when you want with those you want to work with.
“We’re entrepreneurs, and it’s hard to respond to people,” Heinz said. “André’s passion is creativity, design and art. When he does that and works out the details, he’s so happy. When he responds to others, he is not happy at all.
Back to the future
Staffelbach came to Dallas broke and out of work in 1963, after hearing it was the land of golden promise. Three years later, he went into business for himself, operating out of his apartment in Knox-Henderson.
In 1988, at age 53, he was inducted into the International Interior Design Hall of Fame.
Heinz, who had a successful interior design business in Kansas, merged his business with Staffelbach Design and moved to Dallas in 1985.
Business partners became life partners in 1993.
It goes through Jo Staffelbach Heinz, which is the custom in Switzerland. “You still keep your maiden name but it’s okay in the end.” This came in handy as she had already made a name for herself in the world of interior design.
Together they have created workspaces for GTE, Verizon, Mobil Oil, Goldman Sachs, The Crescent, American Airlines and other Fortune 100 and 500 companies.
“Early on, we were lucky enough to come across a Norwegian business consultant who told us unequivocally: ‘Don’t try to do the same thing.’ André therefore became our creative genius and I ran the company. At one point, I had almost 90 people reporting to me. Andre didn’t want to know any of this.
“We each did what we were good at and loved it. It never felt like a job. I hate to say it, but when we sold it became work.
Staffelbach agreed. “Before, I didn’t mind working 12, 14, 16 hour days,” he said. “I loved it. But after the merger I did my job and then I left. My soul wasn’t there anymore.
The Dallas office of the DLR Group, which no longer bears the Staffelbach brand, is involved in large-scale government, medical and educational projects.
The couple’s non-compete agreement prevents them from soliciting existing DLR clients. It’s good for them.
“Client companies want everything now,” Staffelbach said. “And there are so many conflicts. Their internal bureaucrats change and change, and you don’t know they changed it,” he said. “Sometimes I would walk in and say, ‘What happened here?’
“All of this led me to say, ‘There must be something else in life.'”
Instead, they focus on extremely high-end residential and small commercial projects, mostly in Dallas and mostly kept under wraps.
J|a Kreativ performs ongoing design work and coordinates general contractors and subcontractors for Sole Source Capital LLC at its headquarters in Old Parkland.
“They are passionate about good design and quality,” Heinz said.
Robert Huynh, controller of the investment firm, says the feeling is mutual.
“J|a Kreativ has designed our office beautifully, providing our team with a pleasant environment every time we walk in and constant compliments from visitors,” Huynh said. “Working with J|a Kreativ is an absolute blessing, and I know that I can count on Jo and Andre to help me with all my future projects.”
The couple’s independent contractors, like Brad Reid, president of Scott+Reid General Contractors Inc., have worked for the Staffelbachs for decades. They say they are happy to continue participating in this next chapter.
“At every turn, Jo and Andre pushed our team and theirs to exceed client expectations,” said Reid. “Our recognition of their strength in design is also shared by their support of our strengths as builders. The general atmosphere of our partnership is one of respect, balanced with playful banter. »
Sam Weir, president of Fort Worth-based Paramount Millwork Corp., echoed that sentiment.
“Throughout the many years of working together, I have never seen their enthusiasm wane,” he said. “It is always a pleasure to undertake their ambitious projects and to know that they recognize and appreciate the skills of talented craftsmen who turn their vision into reality.”
John Runyon, founder of Runyon Arts, is artistic advisor. “Jo and André offer the best complementary framework for my client’s art collection. Their spaces, finishes and lighting provide the best possible art viewing experience in an office or home environment.
“Our goals align beautifully: solid architecture/design + amazing art = exceptional environments,” he said.
There were unexpected challenges.
“The supply chain hasn’t been kind to us,” Heinz said. “The lights take forever to get here.”
“If you want a high-end ice maker, you’ll be waiting about two years right now,” Staffelbach added.
The couple recently returned from a three-week pilgrimage through Switzerland, where they gazed at snow-capped mountain peaks and glaciers and visited numerous museums, including David Chipperfield’s new Kunsthaus in Zürich.
They came back refreshed and even more convinced that less is more.