“That couldn’t be it...could it?” I asked Wayne. But, finally, with both our GPS systems pointing to the spot, and a confirming phone call later, we perceived that big mansion of a building, all by itself up on a hill, was in fact, the headquarters and production facility of Eglomisé Designs.
The proprietor was even more of a surprise. An engagingly young-looking woman met us at the door, welcoming us, as if to her old family compound. How could this be the woman who started a company that was now almost 50 years old? It was disconcerting.
How many businesses that started in 1965 are with us today? And how many of those were started by a woman? When you realize the rarity of the answers, it goes a long way to understanding the rarity of Martha Demerjian.
A few months ago, Martha returned the favor and visited our headquarters here in Delray Beach. After our upbeat business discussions, celebrating the early success of Levenger selling her classic collegiate gifts, Martha sat down in a comfortable leather chair beside our editor of Levenger Press, Mim Harrison, and recounted the days when Don Draper and Mad Men ruled the business world (or at least, thought they did).
Here is Mim’s report.
Trendspotters will tell you that more hotels these days are catering to women business travelers. Some are reserving entire floors just for women, while others are customizing rooms more for their needs.
But Martha Demerjian will tell you that she remembers being eyed suspiciously when, on a business trip, she checked into a hotel alone. (Where was her husband?) And that she was often the only businessperson on the plane not wearing a tie.
Neither fazed her. After all, it was 1965, and she had a company to run.
And so she has, ever since, run a company called Eglomisé Designs, of which Martha is sole owner. Like many American small-business success stories, it started with a small idea that grew into something more.
Funny thing, though—it wasn’t supposed to start at all.
“I wanted to be a bohemian, but I couldn’t go to Paris by myself because nice girls didn’t do that,” says Martha, with a wit and a way of speaking that instantly tell you she’s from Boston. She had majored in what nice girls did then—French literature—as a student at Brown University. Well, not quite. Brown wasn’t a co-educational institution then; Martha went to the women’s half of Brown, Pembroke.
After she graduated, she got a job marketing books, something she enjoyed. “I spent my childhood wandering around the Boston Public Library,” she says. “It was wonderful.”
When another job opened up at the company, Martha applied for it. You’re qualified for the job, they told her, but you can’t have it. You’re a woman.
“I was so angry, and back then I didn’t know why I was angry,” Martha says. “But that’s when I decided I didn’t want to work for someone else.”
Then you’ll have to sell those picture frames, her mother told her.
Martha had a self-described obsession with mirrored frames from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She had amassed hundreds of them, and they were lodged in her mother’s basement. (Breathes there a budding entrepreneur who hasn’t benefited from a basement or garage?) Now to find something to put in those frames to help sell them.
“I adored mirrors that had painting on them, so I decided to see if I could paint,” says Martha. Painting on the back of glass so that the picture shows through is a technique known in French as églomisé. Martha tried her hand at it, even though she says she’s no artist.
“I decided to do primitives,” she says. “It’s what you do if you can’t paint or draw.”
But she could paint well enough. And she could sell even better. She showed her wares to a local shop, which bought every painted mirror she had.
“I’d never sold anything directly to anyone before,” says Martha. “I liked it.”
In the big leagues
One day she came across a Harvard book cover with a shield on it. She wagered that if she painted that shield on framed glass, she could sell it across the river in Cambridge, home of Harvard. The shopkeeper in Harvard Square told her to paint one of the historic buildings on the campus instead.
She did, and the Harvard Square man immediately wanted the picture with the Harvard building in it. When a Dartmouth man saw it, he wanted one with a Dartmouth building in it. On went the light bulb.
And then some. Soon she had colleges and universities throughout Massachusetts. It was time to venture beyond the basement and out of her mother’s house (even though nice single girls lived at home in those days).
Martha got on a plane and started calling on prospective customers in other states. Her very first, the Marshall Field’s department store, canceled on her after her plane touched down in Chicago.
What should she do? She’d never been alone in a city other than the one she knew. Her parents already considered her, as Martha says, “a fallen woman.”
She came upon an Armenian church. “I’m Armenian, so I went inside,” says Martha. A priest was chatting with some people, and she joined them.
Among them was her future husband.
“He was the first man I met who actually was interested in my business,” says Martha. “We got married after eight dates, in that church.”
Married, and still solo
Given the times, that should have been the end of the business story for Martha, especially since she had two children after she married. But that’s not how this nice girl finished the story. She continued with her business. When she traveled, she took her children with her so she wouldn’t miss them so much. Her daughter was a seasoned (and weary) traveler by age 5.
The business succeeded despite Martha’s not having a business background. “I have good people working for me,” she says. “Some have been with me for twenty-five years.”
From applying paint on glass, the company has moved to digital prints of images on a variety of surfaces. Martha also moved her company in 1991 to a former Army hospital building outside of Boston, at Fort Devens, that she refurbished. Equipment, inventory and personnel are all under the same roof.
Today Eglomisé Designs remains a privately held company. Colleges and universities continue to be a core customer, although Martha has branched out into other markets, among them the legal and medical professions.
Her products are in a few catalogs, Levenger being one, but Martha is selective about which ones she approaches. “I don’t want to be in every store in town,” she says.
After all, nice girls are particular about the company they keep.
How about you, dear reader? Do you know of other successful women entrepreneurs like Martha? I’d love to hear about them if you do. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you’ll connect to Comments).