Andre Staffelbach and his wife, Jo Staffelbach Heinz, are not fit for corporate executives.
The longtime dynamic duo of Dallas Interior Design merged Staffelbach Design Group five years ago into a big league of suitors, hoping to stay afloat while allowing their firm to spread its wings internationally.
But the pair turned out to be a square peg trying to fit into the round holes of the Omaha, Nebraska-based employee-owned DLR Group.
“You can’t bring cats indoors from the outside,” says Staffelbach, opting for the expression of a furniture design friend. “Joe and I just didn’t deal well with the bosses. That’s us, not them. It’s a big machine and operation, so they need to run the business the way they do.
“But to keep my life sustainable, I need to work with teams, hands-on interactions and clients who are interested and passionate about the process and the work.”
In October, the couple announced they were no longer affiliated with the company and left on their own.
They formed J|a Kreativ LLC, a virtual company with no employees. All work is outsourced. Even Heinz’s longtime executive assistant, Carol Duckworth, is an independent contractor.
The company’s name is their initials and the spelling of Swiss Creativity. They both hold dual Swiss and American citizenship.
So how small is it?
“We all have big offices, and now we’re one office on the same desk,” Heinz said. “It takes real patience.”
They use a photo of a New York client meeting room during a Zoom call to avoid looking too minimalistic.
Staffelbach, 82, and Heinz, 72, aren’t aggressively courting new customers. Those who come knocking on the door must satisfy their desire for personal achievement, Heinz said.
The couple has learned that meaningful success has nothing to do with getting rich. They’ve been there and done it. It’s about having the freedom to do what you want, when you want to be with the people you want to work with.
“We’re entrepreneurs, and it’s hard to answer people’s questions,” Heinz said. “Andre’s passion is creativity, design and art. When he does this and works out details, he is very happy. When he answers others, he is not happy at all.”
back to the Future
Staffelbach came to Dallas in 1963, penniless, without a job, and heard it was a land of golden hope. Three years later, he started a business for himself, operating out of his Knox-Henderson flat.
In 1988, at the age of 53, he was inducted into the International Interior Design Hall of Fame.
Heinz owns a successful interior design firm in Kansas, which she merged into Staffelbach Design and moved to Dallas in 1985.
Business partners became partners in life in 1993.
Her name is Jo Staffelbach Heinz, which is a Swiss custom. “You always keep your maiden name, but it eventually goes away.” That’s convenient because she’s already established her name in the interior design world.
Together, they have created workspaces for GTE, Verizon, Mobil Oil, Goldman Sachs, The Crescent, American Airlines and other Fortune 100 and 500 companies.
“Earlier on, we had the privilege of meeting a Norwegian business consultant who told us unequivocally: ‘Don’t try to do the same thing.’ So Andre became our creative genius, and I ran the company. At one point, I had nearly 90 people reporting to me. Andre didn’t want to get involved.
“Each of us did what we were good at, and we loved it. It never seemed like a job. I hate to say it, but when we sold, it became a job.”
Staffelbach agreed. “Before, I didn’t mind working 12, 14, 16 hours a day,” he said. “I loved it. But after the merger, I did my work and then I left. My soul is gone.”
Rediscover the sense of achievement
DLR Group’s Dallas office, which no longer uses the Staffelbach brand, is involved in large-scale government, healthcare and educational programs.
The couple’s non-compete agreement prevents them from soliciting existing DLR customers. It’s great for them.
“Enterprise customers want everything these days,” Staffelbach said. “And there’s a lot of conflict. Their internal bureaucracy keeps changing and you don’t know they’ve changed,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll walk in and say, ‘What the hell is going on here?
“All of this made me have to say, ‘There has to be something else in life.'”
Instead, they focus on extremely high-end residential and small commercial projects, mostly located in Dallas, and mostly kept under wraps.
J|a Kreativ performs ongoing design work and coordinates general contractors and subcontractors for Sole Source Capital LLC from its corporate offices in Old Parkland.
“They have a passion for great design and quality,” says Heinz.
The feeling is mutual, said Robert Huang, the investment firm’s controller.
“J|a Kreativ has beautifully designed our office to provide an environment for our team to enjoy every time they come in and receive constant compliments from our visitors,” says Huynh. “It has been an absolute blessing to work with J|a Kreativ and I know I can count on Jo and Andre to help me with any future projects.”
The couple’s independent contractors, such as Brad Reid, president of Scott+Reid General Contractors Inc., have worked for Staffelbachs for decades. They said they were excited to continue working on the next chapter.
“At every turn, Joe and Andre pushed our team, as well as their own, to exceed customer expectations,” Reed said. “We recognize their prowess in design as much as they support our prowess as builders. The overall vibe of our partnership is based on respect, balanced with playful banter.”
That sentiment was echoed by Sam Weir, president of Fort Worth-based Paramount Wood Products.
“In the years of working together, I’ve never seen their enthusiasm diminish,” he said. “It’s always a pleasure to take on their challenging projects and know that they recognize and appreciate the skills of the talented artisans who bring their visions to life.”
Runyon Arts founder John Runyon is an art consultant. “Jo and Andre provide the best complementary environments for my clients’ art collections. Their spaces, finishes, lighting provide the best possible art viewing experience in an office or home environment.
“Our goals fit perfectly: solid architecture/design + stunning art = exceptional environment,” he said.
Unexpected challenges arise.
“The supply chain has not been kind to us,” Heinz said. “It takes a long time for the light to get here.”
“If you want a high-end ice maker, you’re waiting about two years now,” adds Staffelbach.
The couple recently wrapped up a three-week pilgrimage to Switzerland, where they gazed at mountain peaks and snow-capped glaciers, and visited a number of museums, including David Chipperfield’s new art gallery in Zurich.
They come back refreshed, more confident, and less is more.