For the past 50 years, Heida Thurlow and Chantal have been bringing consumers a colorful assortment of kitchenware with unique designs driven by her background as a mechanical engineer.
The road to success for Thurlow and her Houston-based company over the past half-century had a bumpy start that tested her desire to overcome several challenges at a time when there were few women-owned companies.
In the early 1970s, the idea of color in cookware and bakeware was still a foreign concept, but Thurlow saw an opportunity and despite initial resistance, her idea was proven correct.
In an interview with Kitchenware Today, she talks about being a pioneer in the kitchenware industry, who gave her a big break and the role a hat played in her company’s success.
KITCHENWARE TODAY: Over the past 50 years what have been Chantal’s keys to success?
HEIDA THURLOW: I would say there are two things. The first is that when I started out I quickly realized that there was really no color in cookware and other categories. In Germany where I grew up, we had enamel-on-steel products with color and I decided to pursue that. The other big thing was when I hired Cathy Korndorffer to be our CFO. We balance each other really well. When I see an opportunity I go for it without asking questions. Cathy slows me down and asks good questions. She has been with me for 37 years and has always been someone who reigns me in.
KWT: When you moved forward with your thought of kitchenware in colors, was there any resistance from retailers?
HT: The first problem I had was that I was basically a nobody and had a very difficult time getting meetings. I scratched together my last pennies and took a 10×10 booth at the Housewares Show in Chicago where I showed our roasters and deep fryer in cobalt blue. But no one stopped by. After the first day, I went shopping on Michigan Avenue and bought a beautiful hat that I wore the next day at the show. Suddenly, people started coming over to talk about my hat. One of those was Chuck Williams (founder of Williams Sonoma). After talking about my hat, I asked him if he wanted to see my products. We have been in the Williams Sonoma catalog for years. That was the start of my success and soon after other retailers wanted to do business.
KWT: How has Chantal been able to adapt to the many changes we’ve seen in the business over the past 50 years?
HT: Well, I’m a mechanical engineer and also very creative so I’m always coming up with grand ideas before Cathy puts me in my place. What has helped us over the years has been the relationships we have with retailers such as Kitchen Kapers and Kitchen Kaboodle among others. We present them with new product ideas and they are so good about giving us feedback. That has helped us tremendously over the years.
KWT: Chantal has had success in an industry that is highly competitive. What’s the secret?
HT: I’m very flexible, which sometimes drives my people crazy. We have more than 50 patents and that comes from my ability to look at products and figure out a way to improve them. For example, when I looked at the handles of kitchen tools, I felt the handles should be curved. When I presented the idea to a manufacturer, I was told no way. But six months later I had a patent for the idea.
KWT: You started Chantal at a time when there were few businesses owned by women. Do you view yourself as a pioneer?
HT: In a way, yes. In the beginning, it was very lonely and challenging. No banker would give me a loan and it wasn’t until meeting a female banker that I was able to get some help and information about how to get a loan. But overall, I have a habit of not remembering the bad things, only the good stuff.
KWT: What’s your vision for Chantal going forward?
HT: Most important for me is to keep looking for ways to reinvent the wheel. I also want to keep looking for opportunities to hire young talent and ultimately find a successor.