Finance Exec to Art Mogul
|by Kim Epp Frenette, May Issue|
As a former Corporate Treasurer for a $700 million company, Kate McGrady knows a thing or two about cash flow. What she didn’t know when she opened Kool Kat Designs, a jewelry and art gallery in Mt Lebanon, was just how little of it would be flowing, and how ultimately it didn’t matter.
With a Masters Degree in International Business and a Chartered Professional Accountant’s designation, McGrady is well trained to think in terms of ROI, that is, return on investment. But in a very un-accountant like manner Kate has redefined her concept of ‘return’. When she thinks of the art she is supporting, the values she is modeling for her children, and the personal satisfaction made possible for her self and others, Kate thinks her ROI on Kool Kat Designs is pretty darn high.
When Kate opened Kool Kat Designs 5 years ago as a consignment gallery for local jewelry artists, she thought it would be financially remunerative; it carried no inventory costs, rent was reasonable, and she “truly thought the volume would be better”.
Kate’s confidence is understandable the moment you step in the store: it is enchanting. A colorful and eclectic selection of handcrafted jewelry, purses, art cards, prints and originals grace every corner and shelf. Kool Kat Designs is an adult woman’s candy store.
Unfortunately, foot traffic at the Washington Road location turned out to be less than anticipated and because of her goal of supporting local artists, Kool Kat runs on extremely low margins. Sixty to eighty percent of any sale goes to the individual artist. Kool Kat’s share goes to rent, operating costs, and paying down McGrady’s initial renovation investment.
Kate takes no salary and tries to work only 2 or 3 days a week; a few of her artists help out part time on a volunteer basis. McGrady acknowledges at this point she is operating more like an un-official non-profit. But the upside for Kate is that because of her willingness to operate on a shoe sting, over 170 local artists have a place where their work can be represented.
McGrady is very proud that Kool Kat provides a source of empowerment for artists, the majority of them women: “It gives them a place to feel they have a purpose.” In addition to receiving exposure for their art, quite a few of her artists rely on the income they receive from pieces sold at the shop.
In part explanation of her willingness to work gratis Kate says, “You don’t just do this for the money – these people (the artists) are hard working, they are genuine. It’s really worth it when people are super proud and people are super happy.”
Kool Kat Design also represents Kate’s personal stance against hyper-consumerism: “In the US we are huge consumers of cheap stuff – we love a bargain. We go to museums and admire great artwork but we want to pay Wal-Mart prices ….We have too much stuff. We need to appreciate the things we have and use them.”
But mostly, Kool Kat Design fits into Kate McGrady’s life as an interested, dynamic woman and a dedicated mom. As the only female directly reporting to the CEO in her prior Corporate Treasurer position, Kate was used to international travel and rigorous intellectual challenge.
She managed to continue working through the arrival of daughters one and two but, as many women have realized, for her “it was just not possible to continue working after the third child. I didn’t have 3 children so I could have a nanny live with them…”
Kate quit and stayed at home but admits “it didn’t go so well with my mental state. Having small children can be kind of mind numbing.” It got to the point where for her own sanity Kate felt she either had to go back to work or start her own business, something she had always wanted. She was making jewelry at the time and after connecting with some fellow artists at a party, the concept for Kool Kat Designs was born.
Now that her daughters are 17, 13 and 11, Kate feels her choice has worked out well for her as a mom and as an entrepreneur.
“When they come up and see mom’s store and they feel part of it, it just shows them that there is more to what you choose to do with your life than just making money….If I was working in the corporate world leaving at 7 am and returning at 6pm, I’m not sure the choices I’d be making would be the lessons I want my daughters to learn.
Kate acknowledges that women often ‘sacrifice’ the high profile corporate job for the sake of family, but realizes she was fortunate to be able to do so. “We women also sometimes have the luxury of choice. We have someone who pays the bills; we can choose the career…”
With all her business training you wouldn’t expect Kate McGrady to operate in a non-remunerative manner forever; nor does she. But for the moment, given her personal goals and the stage of her children, she feels she is in a ‘Catch 22’: “If I did it full time I would be a lot further in the process but my family could not handle it….I could work more if it paid and I could pay more if I worked …so the balance is that right now I do this part time.”
At some point in the future, Kate has plans to either reorganize Kool Kat Design into a true non-profit, perhaps in conjunction with some local arts organizations, or to revamp for more profitability.
Why she is content to leave things as is for the moment is summed up in one description she and others have coined for Kool Kat Designs:
“We call this ‘the happy place’.”