Office furniture business thrives

PORTLAND, Ore. – It’s the Indian design fabrics that grab you right away at
GEO & JEM, Inc. Some are Pendleton blanket replicas in bold blues and grays
and blacks, others in vivid reds and soft creams are inspired by Navajo
weavers, and then there are muted brown and ochre heather prints from
tribal cultures in the Great Lakes and Plains areas.

“People can choose designs from what we have accumulated over the past
three years from different mills we work with,” said owner of the
Milwaukie, Ore. firm and enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation,
Janie Millican. “Or they can design their own pattern and have some fabric
especially milled and designed for the tribe. What’s nice is everyone can
be a bit unique and businesses can have their own flare for the facility
they are furnishing.”

Only nine people form the company at GEO & JEM. It could almost be called
mom and pop, except that it’s two women at the helm, Millican with 51
percent ownership and partner Georgia O’Mary. The team launched the company
in 1994 after more than 25 years in the furniture business doing commission
sales, GEO & JEM specializes in office and hospitality furniture.

“I had come to a point where I was working 15 hours a day, and I decided it
would be better to go out on my own,” said Millican. “Now I still work long
hours – very long – but it’s not for somebody else, and that is a big
difference.” Millican cautioned, though, that the road to success hasn’t
been free from stumbling blocks. Just like the saying goes, she says that
“if it was easy owning your own business, everybody would do it.”

“Probably one of the biggest struggles was getting a line of credit,”
Millican said. “It was a challenge back when we were getting started, and
it still is now because when your volume rises, your line of credit has to
keep pace.” Millican explained that because of tax advantages, she and
O’Mary decided to register GEO & JEM as an “S” corporation, a designation
that puts no legal buffer between the personal wealth of the owners and the
business itself, unlike large corporations. “When you go for a line of
credit at the bank, if you don’t have any money, they’re not going to loan
you money. So our homes are on the line,” said Millican. “If something went
wrong, we could lose everything we have.”

Right down to the teaspoons in the kitchen drawer. That’s what Millican and
O’Mary risk in their business venture. “But that’s how it is when you’re in
the driver’s seat. We used to joke that it’s not ‘Sleepless in Seattle’,
the way the movie was titled,” Millican said. “It’s sleepless at GEO &
JEM!”

But the point is they could joke – even after the terrorist attacks on New
York City.

“After 9/11 came our business bottomed out to nothing until almost a year
ago in 2003. A lot of people just survived with the furniture they had and
didn’t buy anything new,” said Millican. “Had we not kept profits from
previous years in our company to keep our staff employed and pay our
manufacturers, it would have been almost impossible to survive.”

Another challenge of business ownership is managing employees. “Had I only
realized,” Millican said with a laugh. “But it does make it difficult. Not
only are you trying to get business into the company, you’re dealing with
personnel issues. I want to say ‘you guys don’t get it – be thankful you
have a job.'” But Millican realizes that employees tend not to think about
the larger picture. “When I was an employee I didn’t realize how decisions
were made. Now that I’m on the other end, I totally understand how
everything revolves around money.” That said, Millican pointed out that GEO
& JEM has very little turnover. “We’ve had employees that have been with us
for eight years now, and my own daughter, Kelly Anne Ilagan, has been here
the past three years and is my main support in Indian country.”

Indeed Ilagen’s enthusiasm makes her a great company spokesperson at trade
shows and business conferences. There she sits in an office chair covered
in a print that says “welcome home,” and she makes sure folks fingering the
book of fabric swatches get a GEO & JEM catalog, not to mention a piece of
chocolate. Women think of these things, of course.

“We didn’t do a lot of tribal business when we first started,” said
Millican. “Outside of accounts with the Grand Ronde and Siletz tribes, the
rest of our business was with non-Native corporations. But since we started
taking our Native designs to shows like Rez 2003, that’s changed.”

In response to where the idea for Indian designs came from, Millican said
“I wanted a chair that said ‘I’m Native.’ And Pendleton’s right in our back
yard, so I went over there and picked out some fabrics and had them put on
some chairs for Rez 2003. We always give the chairs we take to the shows
away at the end, and people love it. They don’t take them back to their
offices, they take them home. The chairs are really sought after.”

In addition to engaging with tribal officials who can make decisions at the
big trade shows, GEO & JEM also appreciates exposure to the bigger
corporations that do business with the federal government. “We’ve been able
to attract some of that business because of our minority women status,”
Millican said. “Like last year at Rez 2004, we picked up a Department of
Interior contract and did the office furniture and all of their space
planning at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, work that has averaged out to almost
$1 million in business for us in just one year.”

Because GEO & JEM coordinates the installation of its furnishings, it needs
crews on site to unload trucks and put the furniture together. Millican’s
brother, Bob Huckaby has a company that installs for GEO & JEM. “I do try
to use my brother’s company because it’s Native Americans. We also have one
Native employee full time, and we also try to hire Native youths when we do
installations. Whoever I contract for various jobs must make the agreement
with me that they will hire the youth. That’s part of the whole thing.
Giving back. If the youths learn how to put furniture together with us,
then later when the tribe orders furniture, they can get some work.”

Millican admits she is acculturated, born and raised in Oregon, far from
the Muscogee Creek Nation. But she hasn’t forgotten her roots. She is
president of the Oregon Native American Chamber of Commerce and sits on
national boards as well. “GEO & JEM donates a lot of time to the chamber,
especially its scholarship program for Native American youths. Our belief
is that we have to take care of our young ones. They are our future.
Hopefully they’ll be behind my desk taking my place when it’s time for me
to go. So we have to try and help as much as we possibly can.” The Oregon
Native American Chamber of Commerce provides $1,000 scholarships for
college students and offers anywhere from three to seven each year,
depending on how successful its fund raisers are.

In addition, GEO & JEM works with interns from Portland’s Native American
Youth Association. “NAYA’s program pays the wages for a certain period of
time so selected youths can get some experience in the business world. They
learn proper etiquette in answering phones, how to type – things that will
give them the edge when they go out to employers.”

So, not only is GEO & JEM doing well, the tribal community is getting a
product it appreciates and the next generation is being kept in the loop.

What goes around comes around. Clearly, Millican and O’Mary understand the
principle.

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