Four sisters carry the Walter E. Smithe brand into the future

  • Only a year apart in age, the lively, fast-talking Smithe sisters consider one another best friends. Now, the fourth-generation leaders of Walter E. Smithe are learning to balance their busy personal lives with the big responsibility of carrying out the legacy of their family-run business.

    Only a year apart in age, the lively, fast-talking Smithe sisters consider one another best friends. Now, the fourth-generation leaders of Walter E. Smithe are learning to balance their busy personal lives with the big responsibility of carrying out the legacy of their family-run business. Courtesy of Walter E. Smithe Furniture and Design

 
 
Updated 7/20/2020 6:05 AM

Chicagoans came to know and appreciate the three Smithe brothers who starred for years in quirky TV commercials touting their family-run furniture company.

Their interactions were zany, their dialogue lighthearted, their catchy jingle -- "you dream it, we build it" -- recognizable throughout the region. And they represented Walter E. Smithe with a sense of drive and zeal that can only exude from the third-generation stakeholders of what has become a household name.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"They were loved," said Colleen Smithe, the youngest daughter of Walter Smithe III. "People really did love seeing them on their TVs."

That's why when she and her three sisters -- Maureen, Meghan and Caitie -- were asked a few years ago to transition into the role their father and uncles held for so long, they weren't immediately receptive.

How, they wondered, would longtime customers respond to four new female faces on their television screens? How could the Itasca-based company break the mold and reach a new audience while still carrying its message into a fourth generation?

How could they ensure the 75-year-old brand would be sustainable for decades to come?

The answer -- and the sisters' secret to success -- can be summed up in three key words: Fresh. Young. Relevant.

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"That is the top priority for the four of us," Meghan Smithe said. "It's a big responsibility. We don't take that lightly."

Three generations are involved in the family-run Walter E. Smithe Furniture and Design, including Walter Smithe Jr. (far right); his sons Walter III (far left) and Mark; and his four granddaughters, from left, Maureen, Caitie, Colleen and Meghan.
Three generations are involved in the family-run Walter E. Smithe Furniture and Design, including Walter Smithe Jr. (far right); his sons Walter III (far left) and Mark; and his four granddaughters, from left, Maureen, Caitie, Colleen and Meghan. - Courtesy of Ken Carl Photography
A family business

Meghan can recall her pigtails bouncing as she ran through the Walter E. Smithe warehouse as a young girl, pulling sales tags in exchange for a nickel or dime from her grandfather, Walter Smithe Jr.

Growing up, she and her sisters held various roles at the furniture and design firm, earning their first paychecks and gaining job experience and exploring interests that would later launch their careers.

The business grew in popularity as they approached adulthood, at which point friends would regularly sing the jingle and colleagues would ask about the creative TV ads.

Colleen loved being able to point out that her dad and uncles, Mark and Tim, brainstormed and executed the ideas themselves. No outside agency required.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

To the Smithe sisters, the company has always been a piece of their identity, an integral thread of their childhood.

"It was kind of ingrained in us," Caitie Smithe said. "It almost feels like the business is, in a weird way, a member of the family. You have this sense of passion and responsibility for it. You want it to succeed and do well."

And yet, as they went off to college and moved into the next phase of life, they were never expected to someday return full time.

As the oldest sibling, Maureen was the first to officially join Walter E. Smithe in a professional capacity in 2004.

She had been a buyer for Abercrombie and Fitch for a few years after college when a job opened up in the Smithe merchandising office. It was a natural fit, she said.

Her sisters had fallen into their own specialties and were pursuing different paths at the time. Meghan and Colleen spent several years working at advertising agencies in Chicago. Caitie was a manufacturers' representative before becoming a stay-at-home mom.

But one by one, they followed Maureen's lead and rejoined the family business.

Meghan was hired in 2013 and now serves as director of sales strategy. Three years later, she recruited Colleen to become advertising director -- a position she accepted without hesitation.

Around the same time, Caitie was ready to return to the workforce as a designer and stylist, a skill she had honed early in her career.

"As needs within the business grew, positions opened up organically," Maureen said. "If our specialties fit those needs, then we were invited to have a conversation and explore the opportunity, but it was never a demand placed on us."

Sisters Colleen, Meghan, Maureen and Caitie Smithe, from left, say three key words have helped them carry their family-run furniture company into a fourth generation: fresh, young and relevant.
Sisters Colleen, Meghan, Maureen and Caitie Smithe, from left, say three key words have helped them carry their family-run furniture company into a fourth generation: fresh, young and relevant. - Courtesy of Stoffer Photography
Making their mark

The Smithe sisters have always been close -- and growing up, it wasn't always by choice.

They were each only a year apart, at one point covering all four grade levels at Barrington High School. They got on each other's nerves and learned to talk quickly at the dinner table if they wanted to get a word in.

College was a turning point for the sisters, who now call one another their best friends.

For the most part, that relationship translates well in the business world, they say. Their camaraderie is genuine, and they can easily share ideas and bounce between conversations.

But learning how to work together while also juggling their busy personal lives -- they have 18 kids among the four of them -- can be a delicate balance.

"In a family business, everyone has to wear all hats at all times," Maureen said. "We're all rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty. There's a lot of blurred lines, and we have to learn when to defer to each other."

One of the first opportunities to test their compatibility was through a partnership with interior designer and TV personality Jeff Lewis. It couldn't have gone more perfectly, Maureen said. The company gained national exposure from Lewis' collection, and each sister was able to shine in her own specialty.

"That was the best part," she said. "It was kind of a neat way to kick off our involvement in the business as a group."

Still, the Smithes have had to weather various challenges since joining the company, including the retirement of their uncle, Tim.

Their dad, the company's president, continued filming his signature ads with his brother, Mark, for a short period of time, Colleen said. But it wasn't long before he approached his youngest daughter with a proposition.

"I think it's time for us to get out of these TV commercials," Walter said. "What about you and your sisters?"

His daughters were hesitant at first, questioning whether they were ready for such a responsibility.

But when they finally decided to accept, they knew they needed to come up with a unique and effective way to introduce themselves to the Chicago market as the new faces of Walter E. Smithe.

They brought in real clients, worked with real designers and demonstrated each sister's essential role within the business. To their delight, the reaction to that initial campaign was primarily positive, as has been the case for every commercial they've produced since.

"There are still people who ask us, 'Where are the brothers? What are they up to?' We get that question all the time, and that was to be expected," Colleen said. "But we've also gotten some really nice feedback from people who are happy to see four working women on their TV."

Sisters Colleen, Caitie, Maureen and Meghan Smithe, from left, are breaking the mold as fourth-generation leaders of the 75-year-old Walter E. Smithe Furniture and Design. "Staying fresh, young and relevant is how we're going to sustain the brand into the next 75 years," Meghan said. "We take that very seriously, and we have so much passion for it."
Sisters Colleen, Caitie, Maureen and Meghan Smithe, from left, are breaking the mold as fourth-generation leaders of the 75-year-old Walter E. Smithe Furniture and Design. "Staying fresh, young and relevant is how we're going to sustain the brand into the next 75 years," Meghan said. "We take that very seriously, and we have so much passion for it." - Courtesy of Walter E. Smithe Furniture and Design
Fresh and relevant

There's a preconceived notion that furniture stores are stuffy and tired, run by men in suits and catering to older generations.

The Smithe sisters have heard it all before, and they've set out to dispel those misperceptions.

"We're not your parents' furniture company," Caitie said.

Reaching a younger demographic and expanding their clientele has required some creativity, the sisters said. They've spruced up their styles, selling more contemporary pieces among their traditional designs. They've relaunched catalogs showcasing their furniture in fully designed spaces.

"It's been about reworking how we approach visually what we want to convey about the product that we're selling," Meghan said.

That sentiment applies to their lively commercials, too, which frequently feature the sisters chatting on a stylish couch or gathering with family members in a beautifully staged home.

In one of their most memorable ads, the four women get into a food fight -- spaghetti and red wine included -- and seemingly destroy a bright white couch, which is then scrubbed clean.

The commercial, Colleen's brainchild, aimed to show off the company's new "worry-free" performance fabrics that repel stains, a trend Maureen recognized at a major industry trade show and brought back to the Chicago market.

"We're kind of strategically positioned in different departments," Meghan said. "By being so close and meeting so regularly, we're all in the loop with what's happening in each other's sphere. We can be real nimble when we're this tight and this spread across the business."

That collective experience comes in handy ahead of any major decisions. But the sisters also know they can always turn to the leaders who came before them.

Their grandfather, who is in his 80s, remains active in the company, frequently visiting showrooms and making connections with clients. Then there's their father, a hardworking industry expert who leads by example and walks into any work setting saying, "We check our egos at the door."

Walter E. Smithe is a family business in every sense of the word, the sisters say. Even their more than 250 employees are treated like family.

They have a younger brother, who lives out of state, and plenty of younger cousins who have yet to join the team, though the sisters say there's still time.

And it's not uncommon for their kids to make cameo appearances in advertisements or to help sort through fabric samples, "which would technically make it a five-generation business," Maureen says.

Building upon the Smithe family legacy is a big responsibility, the sisters said, one they've embraced with fervor.

They've transitioned into the spotlight. They've been able to weather the unexpected storm of the coronavirus pandemic.

And now with the company's 75th anniversary approaching in August, they're ready to push forward plans to expand and evolve.

"We're dreamers and we have big ideas," Meghan said. "Staying fresh, young and relevant is how we're going to sustain the brand into the next 75 years. We take that very seriously, and we have so much passion for it."

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