Have you ever read or heard about someone and instantly wanted to be friends with them? That’s the instant reaction I had when interviewing Sara Fritsch, President of Schoolhouse Electric. She is equal parts thoughtful, creative, humble and driven. With a dual major in mechanical engineering and studio art, this is a person who can see unique angles in just about everything.
Sara’s distinctive skill set ranges a broad spectrum of categories and her intrinsic joie-de-vivre is infectious. It was only natural that Design*Sponge wanted to learn more about this brilliant woman – especially since she is such an integral part of Schoolhouse Electric, a company we have loved and admired for years! –Margaret
At the time you accepted the position of Director of Product in 2015, you and your family were moving back from Amsterdam. What was so compelling about Schoolhouse Electric as a company that inspired you to take the position?
I joined Schoolhouse in November of 2015 as the Director of Product. This was just after we had returned home to the states after 3+ glorious years abroad in Amsterdam. A global move from Amsterdam back to Portland was a big disruption to our family, and I was committed to focusing on the transition to ensure the kids and Oliver (my hubs) had a smooth re-entry rather than pursuing my own work ambitions right away. I had also just completed 15 rewarding years of a business consulting career, which ended for me when the boutique firm I had been with sold to a larger firm. Although I had a great option to stay on through the acquisition, I knew it was time to shake things up professionally.
So there I was, committed to focusing on my family and helping them through the big changes ahead. Then I met Brian (our founder) in person (we had been talking from Amsterdam), and I toured the factory… and I met the team… and I saw the products… and before our shipment of belongings even arrived back into the USA, before we even moved out of temporary relocation housing, I accepted a full-time position at Schoolhouse. I knew in my heart that opportunities like this one were once in a lifetime. I knew in my heart that the kids and Oliver were capable of adjusting to re-entry without me as a crutch (I was right, they all stepped up and rocked it). I knew that jumping in at work would not prevent me from being the best mom/wife that I could be, instead I believed it would enable me to be those things.
The reason this opportunity felt worthy of such a major pivot was that it is the perfect intersection of my skills and passions (engineering, art, business consulting, team-building, design, interiors, home making). And there it was, mine to grab, right here in Portland, OR – the place we strategically committed to building our life, raising our babies and chasing our dreams. Without hesitation and with full support from Oliver, I dove in and have never looked back.
Once you started at Schoolhouse, what was an area of the business you really wanted to develop or enhance? In what way?
I joined as the Director of Product, so naturally I focused first on the assortment and the process by which we bring products to market.
I was in a product role at a product company, however, I knew all along that my job needed to start with people. Once I realized that the existing product team was wildly talented and capable, I simply set up a framework to support them and got out of their way. This approach was a win-win because it empowered them to go for it and enabled me to focus on leading across departments.
My initial goal was to create a strong foundation for us to build upon for growth together. I saw clear opportunities to unite the product team more tightly into the sales and marketing teams… and from there I looked to unite those teams with their peers and partners in the operational parts of the business (supply chain, planning, manufacturing, IT, HR, Finance). I knew that with the combination of growth and constraints we have, the most efficient way to delight customers and chase our potential as a vertically-integrated business would be to get after it as one unified team.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off? How has it remained relevant in your position as President at SE?
Keep showing up. Such simple advice, and I think about it all the time.
Show up every day, over and over again – physically and emotionally. Show up for yourself, show up for your family, show up for the team, show up even when you think you don’t need to or you think you don’t want to. You have to show up to learn, to engage, to build relationships, to build trust, to be part of it, to understand, to enjoy it.
As President I take it further. I try to remind myself and others that every day we get to make the choice to be here. This is a team of very talented people. People that could work elsewhere if they wanted to. Yet we each choose to work here, together. We choose to show up. That is powerful. By making a deliberate choice to continue to show up demonstrates that we are all-in. At Schoolhouse, showing up means that we are active listeners, we bring empathy, we feel and express gratitude to one another, to the brand, to the customers, and to our vendor partners. We support each other. We take risks together. We win together. We fail together. We have tough conversations. We point out problems and treat them as opportunities.
Seeing people continue to show up in their Schoolhouse way, day after day… it adds up and it motivates me. As Annie Dillard said, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I believe that to be true and I find a lot of meaning and purpose in how I am spending my time. I believe in our company mission which is “to provide a new generation of heirlooms that inspire people to create unique, meaningful spaces in which to live and work.” I love serving the mission right here and now with this team by showing up.
My husband also gives great advice and perspective. Together, he and I are committed to having fun and enjoying life along the way. “Fun” is a filter we apply to most things, including how we spend our time – personally and professionally. I love to laugh. Here at Schoolhouse (and at home with Oli and my kids) I find myself laughing a lot. I love that. It is such a simple thing… but its power cannot be underestimated.
What was a “lightbulb” or “a-ha” moment for you in expanding the Schoolhouse business footprint successfully, even more than it already had done before your arrival?
In college I interned with GE Lighting, in London. After joining schoolhouse I tapped into my old connections there and secured an invite to tour GE Lighting world HQ in Cleveland – just months before they shut down. It was clear from that visit that the lighting industry was changing VERY fast (hence their shutdown soon after I toured) and that we needed to keep up. Almost overnight we doubled down on innovation, specifically LED technology. LED advancements and adoption has caused rapid disruption and I am very proud of how well our engineering and product development teams have ensured that Schoolhouse has kept up and continues to keep pace.
Did you know I would get to take the question literally? My lightbulb moment was an actual lightbulb moment, ha.
Since joining Schoolhouse in late 2015, what has been the largest team/company accomplishment in your eyes?
Tangible achievement: the beautiful completion of our 3-year Pittsburgh project. You can actually see it here on Design*Sponge.
Intangible achievement: Tight alignment across all departments towards the rewarding achievement of ambitious goals. This unification has been enabled by deliberately and openly elevating employee engagement to be our top priority and the number one metric by which we measure success. I knew that if we put employees first, great things would happen. This talented team has taught me so much and continues to exceed my very ambitious expectations.
What is an example of a positive “scaling-down” within the Schoolhouse product portfolio? How has that been beneficial for its employees and business growth?
At the time that I joined, our product assortment already had a lot of amazing products, the result of a visionary founder and a very talented past and current team. However, I also noticed that some aspects of the assortment were confusing and overall it was bloated. I recognized that inherent assortment and supply chain complexities were not setting our operations team up for success and were therefore contributing to a negative customer experience (unacceptably long lead times, complex ordering experience, missed delivery dates, etc.). I saw opportunities to edit the assortment, using some clear filters to help us get crisper about what we were going to stand for and why. This helped us to confidently eliminate products that were unnecessary, duplicative, overly complex or underperforming. Ironically, my first “big launch” at Schoolhouse was an un-launch, where we methodically discontinued a very large percentage of our active SKUs. The resulting more lean offering has helped to elevate our customer experience and our fulfillment capabilities, confirming the theory that sometimes the best additions are subtractions.
You oversee (in no particular order) manufacturing, operations, finance, product development, marketing, brand and sales. How are you able to strategically prioritize your focus while maintaining sanity and business growth?
Who says I am maintaining my sanity? JK JK. Sanity is intact.
When you say it like that it sounds very overwhelming. I tell myself a different version of the same story. In my version, I lead one unified team of fully functioning, highly-talented, committed, professional, smart, funny and tightly-aligned adults. Within that team, we value mutual trust and respect, which has been built in all directions over time. In my version of the story, I don’t feel overwhelmed, I feel so fortunate and motivated.
At Schoolhouse, priorities and business growth come into focus out of necessity. We are entirely self-funded. We don’t have debt or investors. In order to exist we need to be profitable and growing. When profitability and growth are required for survival, priorities snap into focus. We embrace constraints by working smart, we are cool to each other. We have very high standards and make sure we are having fun along the way – and we go for it – every day. For us, embracing the highs and lows of the journey together is where the magic lies.
Beyond Schoolhouse, I am extremely mindful of how I spend my time and energy. I make sleep and exercise priorities. I take vacations. I keep up connections to my best friends (quality, not quantity) and extended family. I set and chase goals that are unrelated to work. Ice cream is my vice and I don’t hesitate to indulge in it. Annually, my husband and I make time to establish themes for the coming year and we adhere to those themes to guide us – making sure our values, perspective, and focus stay in check. 2019’s theme is “energy rich” which is a commitment to allocate our time towards things that give us energy vs. things that take it away — it has been a very powerful framework.
Given all your responsibility, what has been a surprising realization about yourself you never recognized before assuming this role as President at Schoolhouse?
- D*S wants to talk to me? Seriously? Wow! That is awesome.
- Common sense and the golden rule can take you very far personally and professionally.
- A supportive partner is a super power, so grateful to have and love mine.
What books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone trying to successfully grow a business?
- Spending real time in real life with inspiring connections is a very valuable resource
- Podcasts (I listen while I run)
- Books (when I say I read books…I usually mean audio books which, along with podcasts, I devour while I run)
- WSJ (mainly Life&Arts, Business, Tech, and Real Estate sections)
- Sunday NYT (once a week I try to sit down with a cup of tea and read the Sunday Times. My goal each week is to make time to do it before the next one arrives – sometimes they pile up, but I usually get it done and I always love it).
- All the design blogs
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? If so, walk us through that.
Initially I went to school as a physics major. High school physics and the first few years of college physics came easy to me, I loved it – it was all so logical and practical. Then it got very theoretical and it stopped clicking for me. In parallel with the fact my brain couldn’t keep pace, I panicked a little about what I would do with the degree. So I switched gears into the Mechanical Engineering curriculum. This proved to be the destined path forward as it helped me hone logic and problem solving strategies, opened a lot of career options, and perhaps most importantly I quickly established a study buddy relationship with the cute and smart skateboarding guy who is now my loving, supportive, and ridiculously handsome husband of 15+ years.
Until 4 years ago, business consulting was the only professional career I had known. Consulting was really good to me and I was good to it. For 15 years I honed my craft, I was loyal to my firms (6 years with one, 9 years with the other), I grew and learned a lot along the way. But not a day went by that that I didn’t wonder “is this really it for me?”. Every day that passed I knew I was meant to do something more, something different, something creative, something fun, something that sparked joy. I also had a calm confidence that my intended career would find me and I would know when it was time to make the change. Turns out I was right. 15 years was a long time to hear that voice in my head, but 4 years ago when the voice told me it was time to shake things up, I listened and here I am.
You have a degree in mechanical engineering *and* studio art. Which part of your degree do you find you utilize on a daily basis more? In what way?
In my mind those curriculums are more similar than they are different. To excel at either you need to be creative. I apply concepts from both every single day at home and at work. These days I am happy to leave the engineering to the talented and brilliant engineers on staff. I leave design and creative direction to the elevated taste levels and high-standards of our design team.
I am grateful for my education (shout out to the University of Vermont – go cats go) and I do think my studies along with my passions and past work experience all combined like a perfect storm to uniquely qualify me for this post. My education and past experience also solidify my confidence if and when I need to go deeper into any particular aspect of the business with the team, which I always embrace as an opportunity.
Beyond art or engineering, leadership is where I am adding value at Schoolhouse. In my career I have learned that leadership is a true blend of art and science (and experience). In my current role (aka my dream job), leadership means putting in deliberate efforts to maintain alignment on our collective purpose and direction while working hard to remove obstacles and stay out of the way of the high-performing team we have built.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Of all your thoughtful questions, this is the only one that created a bit of stress for me. The way I see it, if there are things I wish I was doing, I would want to find a way to do them within the 24 hours I have. It is important to me that I spend those real hours with intention. However, after some reflection and allowing myself to not overthink the question I decided that if I could get 3 more hours I would:
- Chill with my people
- Explore Portland like I was a tourist
- Organize all of our closets
- Binge-watch some amazing series that everyone talks about but I never make time to enjoy
- Indulge in some me time, embracing the fact that doing nothing is doing something
All photos courtesy of Schoolhouse Electric