Material Girls: The women behind the details that define home design

It’s the little things that make the overall design scheme of a home work, bringing together elements to create a polished look and making the space more fun and functional. And what could be better than a woman’s touch when designing and dealing with the details? Savvy clients prefer working with experts who have seen their products define and transform the look of a space. So we turned to some of San Antonio’s best-loved businesses to ask the women behind the scenes — most of whom started their own companies — how their products can help enhance our homes and how they became some of the Alamo City’s most successful “material girls.

Christi Palmer, Palmer Todd
Christi Palmer is proud to be the president/owner of her successful San Antonio business, Palmer Todd. She’s been involved in every aspect of the enterprise for more than 15 years, since the company’s inception. She enjoys working with her husband, Trey Palmer, and together with the Palmer Todd team they are pleased to offer the finest products and services to clients. “I always wanted to be an interior designer, and I always wanted to work in the commercial design world,” says Palmer, whose first job was with Rehler, Vaughan, Beaty & Koone (RVBK), specializing in commercial space planning. “I loved my job, but the economy did not love San Antonio at the time, and during my employment with RVBK they went through major downsizing due to the tight economy. So I chose to leave RVBK in 1986 when I gave birth to my son. I was fortunate and happy to be able to stay home with Mitchell.” In 1988, Palmer joined Focus Lighting & Control Systems as a lighting representative. She then worked with Wagner & Co. as a lighting consultant and joined the organization in 1990 as their kitchen designer.

“Little did I know my commercial space-planning background would dovetail perfectly into residential kitchen design,” says Palmer. “It seems I had found my calling completely by accident, and it was something I loved to do. I was working as a lighting consultant for Wagner & Co., and the owner knew about my design background and realized that I could draw — yes, with pen and pencil! This was before the days of computer-aided design. He made the correlation between my space-planning background and kitchens, and the rest is history.” So in 1995, (with the help of William J. Todd), Palmer purchased Wagner & Co., and Palmer Todd was born. In 2009, Palmer and her husband became the sole owners of Palmer Todd, and now she is busier and happier than ever in her work helping others make their kitchen, bath and home designs come together. When asked what it is that Palmer Todd offers the San Antonio community of homebuilders, remodelers, and everyday customers who just want to add pizzazz to their homes, Palmer replies, “We have the finest showrooms in South Texas, specializing in custom cabinetry, closets, tile and stone and specialty surfaces. Our award-winning showrooms in both San Antonio and Austin are staffed with certified kitchen designers and licensed interior designers to assist the building community.”

The Palmer Todd showrooms are indeed a must because it is necessary for customers and builders to visualize what the finished products will look like in their homes. There are so many products and materials — from custom cabinetry and closet systems to tile and stone and specialty surfaces like glass and miners stone and much more. The showrooms offer products you can see and touch. When asked about the favorite product Palmer Todd carries to enhance a home, Palmer didn’t hesitate to come up with an enthusiastic answer: “I love our cabinets. They are custom made by Downsview’s Kitchens to accommodate Palmer Todd’s designs. We can do anything from sleek contemporary styles to an Old World traditional look. Downsview’s finishes are sensational and have set the standards for the kitchen and bath industry.” Each job has its challenges, and for artistic and detail-oriented people who get things done, there is always a task or two that is a bit more difficult to tackle. Palmer Todd is a family business, so the environment is relaxed and easy; however, Palmer admits that her greatest challenge is sometimes simply managing people at all levels, from staff to clients. Still, the rewards of the business outweigh the difficulties.

“Many of our projects now are for returning clients, their children and friends of past clients. I am blessed with an amazing group of people that work with me to make Palmer Todd successful. Everything we do here — the business itself — is truly a team effort,” says Palmer. She is modest and plays down the enormity of her business success, but still she admits that quite by accident Palmer Todd has become known as what she calls “a true luxury brand.” She says, “Palmer Todd is all about customer service and quality products. We stand with our customers from the beginning of their projects at the dream-it stage until the finished happy end. It’s this philosophy that has resulted in long-lasting relationships and credibility with our clients and given my husband and me a business that we’re proud to have carrying our name.”

Jana M. Ward, Clear Choice Flooring and Design
When we asked Clear Choice Flooring and Design president Jana Ward to tell us about herself, the first thing she said was “I am not a quitter!” For Ward’s story is one of a long line of challenges she’s overcome through hard work and a good knack for being able to reinvent herself and her business in order to achieve success. Born in Oklahoma City, Jana moved to California when she was 3 years old after her parents divorced. “My father was a builder, so I spent a lot of my summers following Dad around as he built everything from condos to million-dollar homes. I always loved seeing how a piece of real estate could be transformed into a gorgeous home or a unique building,” recalls Ward. “I would look at the blueprints and sometimes make suggestions to my father. Believe it or not, even though I was just a kid, some of my suggestions were ideas he actually used. So I guess you can say I got an early start in interior design.” Ward went on to study broadcasting and journalism at Oklahoma Central State University. “After a short time in college, I decided I was ready to see the world, so on a whim, I moved to Los Angeles, where I became a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines. I moved from LA to Phoenix to Houston with Southwest,” she says.

It was in Houston that Ward met and married. Soon the couple moved to San Antonio to open a remodeling business in a partnership with Jana’s father. Later, following a divorce, Ward opened a flooring and design business, Clear Choice Flooring and Design, at Vance Jackson and Loop 410, where the focus was on remodeling, interior design and flooring. “It was 1998, and business in San Antonio was really great,” recalls Ward. “But then came the road construction and expansion of Loop 410, and suddenly my business went from great to almost nonexistent. It was awful,” she says. “I had to find a better location. So we made the bold move to take Clear Choice Flooring and Design to its current location at Tradesman and Loop 1604 in January 2005. The Rim and the Shops at La Cantera were not yet built, and 1604 was still pretty barren. Still, I sank everything I had into the new showroom and store, even selling a lot I owned in Fair Oaks just to be able to do it.”

But then another crisis hit.

“I was told that the title company would close on the sale of my property and fund the next day, so I released checks totaling several thousand dollars to pay for the finish-out of my beautiful new store and the inventory I needed to start the business,” says Ward. “The timing seemed perfect. However, at the last second, at 6 p.m. on a Friday, the buyers’ investor backed out — and I was counting on the sale to be able to cover the finish-out of my store! I’d already written and sent the checks, and now there was no money coming in to cover it all. “My business was facing a crisis situation, and I didn’t know what to do. So I called my pastor’s wife and several other friends, and we prayed for guidance as I stood there in the middle of my brand-new store. After that, I talked to my banker, Billie Galvin, and told her what had happened — that I had released the checks. Galvin and the bank said they would cover the checks because they believed in me. You probably couldn’t find a bank that would do that today, but back then, banks actually believed in the people with whom they did business.” The lot then sold within the next 30 days, and business began building rapidly, so Ward was “back in the black” soon after the recently averted crisis. Ward believes not only in the power of prayer but in the value of hard work, trustworthy business relationships and loyal friends. By 2005, Clear Choice Flooring and Design was up, running and prosperous. “My retail business had increased considerably, and I also increased the number of custom builders for whom we did design work. Builders sent their customers to my showroom for design work and to select their lighting, floor covering, tile design, vanities and sinks. Builders were accustomed to having to send their clients to the tile store, the paint store, the lighting store, etc., and now they could just send them to Clear Choice Flooring and Design to make all their selections in one place,” says Ward.

Clear Choice Flooring and Design has won numerous awards at the Greater San Antonio Builders Association’s annual Summit Awards, including awards for interior design and best showroom. Then the recent economic recession hit and hit hard. “Soon there was too much inventory in the housing market, and suddenly custom builders were building fewer homes. Once again Clear Choice Flooring and Design was at a crossroads. So I realized that again I needed to change my focus if I were going to survive,” says Ward. After careful thought and humble prayer, Ward decided her business needed to return full-circle and focus on remodeling once more. “Although we have always done remodeling, I decided a little over two years ago that we would pursue more design/build remodeling jobs. What sets Clear Choice Flooring and Design apart is that our clients get the benefit of making all of their selections in our showroom with me as their personal designer. And, if I may say so myself, our work is impeccable,” says Ward. “Since builders are not building as many homes and consumers are staying put in their existing homes until the market levels out, this opened a new opportunity for more home-remodeling projects.”

Ward, a Certified Green Professional and Certified Graduate Remodeler from classes offered by the National Home Builder’s Association, is also the construction expert “Construction Chic” for WOAI Television’s San Antonio Living show.

“Clear Choice Flooring and Design creates beautiful, well-constructed bathrooms, kitchens, outdoor kitchens and room additions for homeowners with homes valued from $100,000 to $2,000,000,” says Ward, who smiles when she admits she truly “loves making homes beautiful.”

Jennifer Maples, SM Design Group/Stone Masters of Texas
Jenny Maples is excited. Why? Well, it’s Monday, of course, which means she’s knee-deep in her work, enjoying every aspect of what she does as president and owner of the SM Design Group, commonly known as Stone Masters of Texas. Of course, she worked over the weekend too. If that seems odd — that someone could get such a kick out of working with stone, glass, tile, countertops, flooring, fixtures and even plumbing — then you don’t know Maples, who says that she loves her work because “every day is different; it’s never dull. There’s always a new project, a new client, a designer to meet, an old friend — someone exciting to work with on a new and fabulous job and beautiful materials to put together for great design.” But most of all, Maples loves working with her team. “We work hard, but we laugh every day. It’s the best environment for creating good things and getting work done well,” says Maples. Her team includes Ashley Ullmann, director of client design services, and Vicki Lynn, a plumbing specialist with more than 16 years of expert experience. Ullmann, who has a degree in interior design from the University of the Incarnate Word and who has worked with Maples for more than five years, takes the helm whenever Maples has to be away from the office. Lynn’s skills are also invaluable, as are those of the many fabricators, installers, contractors and workers who make up the network of professionals at Stone Masters. Maples, who founded SM Design Group/Stone Masters of Texas in 2007, is a married mother of three and hails from St. Louis. She now considers herself a Texan and is happy to be filling a niche in San Antonio that she felt had been lacking. Maples’ business is unlike so many others because Stone Masters works not only with individual clients and builders but with designers as well. “We help them in finding the best products, materials and deals for their clients,” she says.

But designers and people with big budgets aren’t the only clients Maples and her team serve. “We don’t just cater to those with high-end projects — though we can definitely handle that too. These days, people are concerned about working within a budget, and some people are afraid they can’t afford to get the look they want. I’m here to show them that’s just not true. So we help them consider things they might not have known were available. We bring together materials and ideas that are amazing and affordable. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune to end up with an outstanding design,” explains Maples, who says many of her clients are budget-conscious homeowners with small remodeling projects. Stone Masters has another service that many don’t know about — they’re a great resource of contacts for quality tradesmen and subcontractors. “We refer hard-working, reliable professionals whom we trust to do great work. You could say we’re the concierge to the design and construction industry,” says Maples. “At Stone Masters we have established accounts with manufacturers, importers and distributors locally and around the world to provide our clients with a wide range of items (tile, plumbing fixtures, cabinet hardware, carpet and wood flooring), all at excellent prices. We also fabricate and install granite, marble, soapstone, quartz (i.e., Silestone, CaesarStone, Cambria), concrete and hardwood countertops for residential and commercial projects. We like to say we’re a one-stop shop,” she says.

One thing Maples likes most is her company’s fabulous selection of tiles. “Tile is beautiful because it is ever changing and encompasses endless kinds of fabulous textures, colors and materials to create stunning vertical surfaces, making every space unique and personal,” she says.

Vanessa Turney, Light by Design
Businesswoman Vanessa Turney established her own lighting and lighting design business more than three-and-a-half years ago and enjoys working with her husband, Corey, the company’s principal lighting designer — so theirs truly is a family business. Turney grew up in San Antonio, where she and Corey met as childhood sweethearts before marrying and beginning the business of raising their two children. The couple moved quite a bit, and Turney picked up a lot of experience as she lived and worked around the United States while her husband served in the military. The couple returned home during the booming business years of the mid-1990s, and she worked in her husband’s family business for several years. “It was during that time that I noticed that a niche market was being underserved in the San Antonio area, and that’s when my husband and I left and started our own company with a financial backer in 2007,” recalls Turney. “Today, our company, Light by Design, specializes in two key areas — lighting design and distinctive/custom fixtures for large-scale residential or commercial or specialty remodeling projects. “We have a highly specialized staff that accommodates every stage of a project, and most of our projects are much more complex than the average home or business project. We have provided design services for 30,000-square-foot residences, and we’ve even built custom fixtures integrating blown glass, LED and fiber optic lighting. We’re definitely not the average lighting company, and we like to say we make lighting personal to every project we touch.”

Turney says that her favorite product she sells “always ends up being the one that makes the space unique or gives the owner a conversation piece, whether it’s a custom-crafted piece or a manufactured one.” The use of LED and fiber optic lighting in certain architectural areas is also a bonus, Turney explains, both because of the application of the product and the opportunity to educate clients about new options in lighting technology. Turney goes on to say, “I first became interested in the lighting business several years back. My husband has a local family business, which is how we began our adventures in lighting. While we were there, we saw technology changing, and we got to see the emergence of a higher-end specialty market that didn’t seem to have easy access to the same products and services that other builders and designers could get in Houston or on the East and West Coasts, so we felt like we could provide something no one else was offering to San Antonio-area clients.” Owning a business, being a wife and mother and working long hours is never easy, but Turney enjoys it — though it also means wearing multiple hats in a small business, which can be a challenge.

“In addition to all the financial aspects, I also oversee marketing, development, website, social media and clients as well. Sometimes it feels like there’s not enough time in the day to do all the things I want to do for my company,” says Turney. “But the most rewarding part of my job is getting to see our fabulous lighting designs (which Corey heads up) integrated into amazing spaces.” People don’t realize how important lighting design is to one’s overall space — especially in large-scale projects, explains Turney: “Our clients are used to having the very best, and when they tell us that working with us was their favorite part of the job, it makes us very happy.” Turney also enjoys the opportunity to meet wonderful people, such as her clients and other business owners who also strive for excellence. She is quick to praise other colleagues and business owners in the area who work hard, too: “Christi Palmer is a mentor and friend, and I know how vital it is to have support from her and other fabulous San Antonio businesswomen like her — such cooperation and support are vital to short- and long-term success for all our businesses. I really value the great San Antonio women I know who are out there every day making our homes — and our city — a better place.” A helpful tip that Turney shared with us is to remember that “lighting can be overwhelming because there are so many choices and opportunities to enhance lifestyle and aesthetics. Because lighting is vital to the overall design process, it’s important to get assistance early from a lighting professional who can help you create and execute a plan that enhances your architectural space and lifestyle.”

Turney is especially excited about her upcoming trip to the Middle East for a United States Business Expo in Qatar, an event sponsored by Microsoft, American Express and Harley-Davidson. “We will represent our state with a handful of business owners from Texas who will advise conference participants on American products and services. We’re thrilled to be a part of it,” she says.

Barbara Gilmartin, Design Materials, Inc.
While other businesswomen’s focus may be primarily on providing unique and lovely materials to their clients, Barbara Gilmartin, president of Design Materials Inc., feels that part is a given — she knows her company offers fabulous materials — but the aspect of business that she focuses on most is customer service and satisfaction. Design Materials is known throughout South Texas for its great service and fine quality products such as tiles, porcelain, ceramic, natural stone, custom stone, metals, glass and more. It also carries accessories and fixtures to complement its numerous products and materials. Like many good things, it all started with a small package. Back in 1982, Gilmartin began with only a tiny room, a little bit of carpet and tile and not even a business card — let alone a business plan. But today Design Materials comprises a 20,000-square-foot warehouse and showroom, and Gilmartin is happy that she is able to provide salaries and benefits for more than 30 much appreciated employees. “San Antonio has been so good to me,” she says. “When I first came here from Chicago, I didn’t know a soul. But I just had a feeling that this town was going to grow, and I would grow with it. And now I’ve had this wonderful life — I’ve enjoyed getting a great team together, I’ve traveled all over the world buying products in gorgeous places like Italy, and I’ve worked with top architects, designers — it’s been exciting. So when I see young people full of nervousness as they start out in business, I want to help them and tell them it’s possible. I hope I can give back to the community by helping others who started from scratch like me, so I talk to and counsel young people whenever I can, even at my church,” says Gilmartin.

One of her favorite parts about having her own company is being able to work with family members and friends. Her husband, Ron, joined the business in 1986, and her sister Cecilia Holden has been with the company for 11 years. Gilmartin’s youngest son, Rob, joined Design Materials this year. “Building or remodeling can be stressful, and we make it fun and guide you through the process, helping our clients to create beautiful spaces in their homes,” she says.

“Some of my favorite products are our tiles and stone and our columns and fireplaces,” says Gilmartin, who knows that the perfect texture and surface can tell a story about one’s home — make it earthy and comfortable, formal and regal, open and spacious, natural and inviting. Natural materials, like stone for a fireplace surround, can dramatically transform the look of a room and update rooms whose design scheme seems dreary or outdated.

Gilmartin first became interested in this business after working at another tile company for five years before opening her own business. Being the president and owner of a business is hard work, and the biggest challenge she says she faces is constantly working hard to keep her wonderful employees happy. “The most rewarding part of my job is meeting neighbors, friends and clients and hearing from those who return to thank us for a great experience. It really is all about that — about service and happy customers,” she says. “For 28 years, Design Materials, Inc. has been, and remains, a supplier of the world’s finest porcelain, ceramic, natural stone, marble, granite, metals, glass and accessories. Our showroom is designed to give customers great ideas, and our goal is to provide them with excellent customer service. When you walk into our showroom, we want you to be able to leave with an entire plan for your home, building or remodeling project — we want to inspire our clients to create something beautiful and meaningful for their home, and we certainly have the design elements and materials to make that happen,” says Gilmartin.

Bringing a little bit of beauty to everyday life is what all these women do best.

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