Portland Business Journal recently released an article about the advancement of Heritage School of Interior Design since it was purchased by Stephanie Plymale a year ago. The article is fantastic, thanks to contributing writer Pete Danko. We have provided a few clips from the article below with some additional comments from Stephanie. Read the entire PBJ article here.
PORTLAND BUSINESS JOURNAL: New Owners Give 20-Year-Old Heritage Design School a Makeover
When lunchtime comes, it’s a whole new world for Heritage School of Interior Design students.
Instead of Jack In The Box, Carl’s Jr. and McDonald’s — the fast-food joints that surrounded the school’s old Beaverton strip-mall location – they’ll now find the likes of the Mississippi Marketplace food cart pod, sushi at Samurai Blue and Middle Eastern at Wolf and Bear’s.
The shift in dining options is emblematic of the remaking that Heritage, founded in 1996, has undergone in the year since Portland entrepreneurs Stephanie Plymale and her husband, Jim, bought the school.
“When I learned Heritage was for sale, I saw a rich history of fabulously successful designers, a respected name and the credential of being an accredited school,” Plymale said. “But the school hadn’t kept up.”
“I do believe that the skills I gained as a designer were transferable to designing a beautiful school and building a business. I’ve always been able to see great potential in everything, whether it’s a business, home, or person trying to find their career path.”
Relocated to a “loft-style space in the trendy Mississippi Avenue neighborhood in April, Heritage is wooing students with a contemporary curriculum taught by a roster of new instructors; revamped marketing that emphasizes a fast, affordable path to employment; and the promise of personal commitment in launching a career.
So far, the makeover is working. Enrollment is up dramatically, said Plymale — “I’ve already made back my investment in buying the school”
Heritage will soon open a retail design center in the Sellwood neighborhood, and an expansion of the school is on the horizon. Seattle is the next outpost.
The timing on their purchase was good: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the interior design sector is on the upswing in Oregon after crashing during the Great Recession. From a peak of 800 workers in 2007, interior design employment fell to 300 in 2011, then began to rise as the economy improved, hitting a new high of 850 last year.
In its new incarnation, Heritage has hopped on that wave.
“According to IBISWorld, Interior Designers in the US Industry has generated 11.7 billion dollars in revenue in the past five years. It has grown at a rate of 3.8% and I want my students to be prepared to take a piece of the action.”
Most students are enrolled in Heritage’s Master Program, which includes five advanced courses including AutoCAD & SketchUp, one of the school’s tech-oriented curriculum updates, and a four-week internship.
“We are always adding the most up to date classes. We are in the process of developing a course for Adobe Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop. These courses not only accommodate our current students but also our alumni and the community of designers.”
Much of Plymale’s focus since acquiring Heritage has been to implement a business model that better matches the brand. The move to Mississippi Avenue is the most evident of the changes.
“It’s Portland, it’s growing and booming. We’re in the heart of it,” she said. “It adds to the appeal. People move here to be in Portland, they don’t move here to … go to a (design) school in Beaverton.”
She has also completely remade the teaching staff. Heritage long had one instructor. Today, there are eight.
In addition, Plymale has made a concerted effort to attract students who aren’t necessarily after a professional license. Heritage’s students typically have an unrelated college degree and a long-lingering love for making rooms beautiful. They’re HGTV junkies who’ve remodeled their own home and maybe a few others, and now want to start a real business.
“The four-year degree in interior design is fabulous,” Plymale says. “If you have $100,000 and want to spend five years of your life doing homework every night, then you should do it. But there’s a big pool of potential students – smart, passionate people who’ve dreamed of being designers forever – who are looking for a way to enter the industry without spending years in school and without being saddled with debt.”
“I recently read that the average bachelor’s degree in the United States costs $127,000 and that nearly 70% of students take out loans to help pay for school. If I had it my way, people would take the extra $100,000 and start their own design firm.”
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Heritage’s pitch rang true for Ian Dougherty, 29, who came to Portland three years ago from Bend. He’d been working as a massage therapist, but interior design was his true desire.
“The price didn’t scare me at all,” he said, “not for what you get, and not compared to $80,000 or more for college. In five months, I’m confident I’m going to have the tools I need to succeed.”
In January, Plymale will open Heritage Home in Sellwood, a retail design center that will feature and sell “heritage, heirloom and custom-made” furniture. It will also give students a place to intern and connect with industry players.
After the Sellwood project, the next big item on the growth list is the expansion to Seattle, although Plymale is wary of moving too fast on new outlets.
“I am totally hands-on, completely committed to every one of our students,” said Plymale, who interviews each student who applies to the school. “I want to make sure I have great partners and directors in place wherever we grow, so every student gets that same level of commitment.”