Why Reinvention, Not Change, Is The New Game In Town

When hospitality venues in Nashville and elsewhere were forced to close by pandemic restrictions … [+]

This time last year things were falling into place for Patrick Hayes and the small craft business he had started in Nashville, Tennessee six years before. Inspired by a desire to preserve the workmanship on display in the old houses being torn down as part of his adopted city’s transformation into a dynamic urban centre, he was starting to see the artworks he and a small team of fellow creatives were making from discarded timber appear in the hotels and up-market stores arriving as part of that regeneration.

A California transplant — the company takes its name, 1767 Designs, from the distance between his former home and his new one — Hayes and his partner decided to take a chance and try to establish themselves somewhere away from highly expensive Orange County, in a place where — as he puts it — a life was “more attainable.” They didn’t have any money, but Hayes says he was always creative and liked working with his hands, so when he saw a building being torn down near their apartment he picked up some of the lumber and made a coffee table. “I was really just creating something for myself,” he says. But a friend convinced him he could sell it, so he paid $50 for a pitch at a local flea market and took a couple of pieces along. When the first person said she wanted the table without the legs it was “a light-bulb moment.” Most of the work became art for hanging on the wall rather than furniture.

That was, if you like, the first pivot. Then came the pandemic. With the hospitality industry effectively closed down, hotels and restaurants were not looking for wall decorations, no matter how quirky or how their Art Deco or South Western style fitted with their image. “It’s been tough,” Hayes says of the crisis. But as a small business — the team was only about five-strong at the time — it has been able to adapt. “We’d start every day on the phone figuring out how we could do this,” he adds. In practical terms, it meant each person working remotely — in their yards, on their porches or under tents.


Crafts people in 1767 Designs’ Nashville workshop create artwork out of materials from old houses … [+]

Hayes prides himself on being open to ideas. “My life philosophy is collaboration,” he explains. “Something beautiful happens when you open up to other people. Too many people hold on too tightly to their vision. It’s so limiting.” So, when it became apparent that the business was shifting to a greater extent than before from supplying venues to providing individuals with decorations for their homes, Hayes and his colleagues went with it. Design sessions had always been conducted via video-conference so, with the pandemic preventing meetings, they built on that — and on the website — to keep the business going. Hundreds of items, all sourced from the wood obtained from stripping houses before they are torn down, are sold via the website each month. And then there are the bespoke pieces designed through remote contact with customers. Admitting that it has been “a learning curve,” Hayes says that in an effort to be as transparent as possible he has asked for “grace and patience” while he and his colleagues make the pieces. After all, social distancing requirements have also affected the collection of the materials from the construction sites. “Our work is not a necessity. It’s a luxury,” he adds, pointing out that such a purchase would normally compete with a vacation or a dinner out. Now that people are stuck at home, provided they still have income, they might be more inclined to spend money with him. The result is that the team has more than doubled in size over the past year.

Nor are Hayes and his colleagues the only ones to have experienced this phenomenon. Here in the U.K., nationally-renowned chefs have turned to selling takeaway burgers, farm shops have seen queues like they have never had before as customers stay away from supermarkets and independent record stores and bookshops have suddenly acquired huge online customer bases — provided they were prepared to make the changes in the way they did things.

In the months ahead, it will be interesting to see which businesses are able to rise to the challenge. Small businesses like 1767, while short of resources to tide them over a problem period, are generally agile enough to flip operations. Older, bigger businesses tend to have too much at stake to make a change — even if they have both the manpower and the funds that might enable such a switch.

Executives in such businesses seeking to improve their chances of survival might do well to study a timely new book by self-styled “chief reinvention officer” Nadya Zhexembayeva. “How To Thrive In Chaos” is an easily-accessible, large-format book that is subtitled “The chief reinvention officer handbook” and as such is filled with lessons and steps to take to embrace success in an era of change. But perhaps the most powerful message is that “change is no longer a project.” As Zhexembayeva says, “The challenge we face isn’t about trying to survive until things stabilise, but rather about learning to thrive in constant chaos.”

People like Patrick Hayes know that instinctively. The trouble is that in many big businesses — even after years of hierarchies being flattened — too many people are still too far from the customer to properly understand their market or even to know whether they still have one.

I am a U.K.-based journalist with a longstanding interest in management. In a career dating back to the days before newsroom computers I have covered everything from