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A star of home staging and design

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The gig: Meridith Baer is the founder and force behind the house-staging, furnishing and interior-design company that bears her name. Started in 1998, Meridith Baer & Associates has about 100 employees, upholstery and drapery making capabilities and a 130,000-square-foot furniture warehouse in Vernon. At any given time, she has about 170 homes outfitted. Baer has warehouses in Connecticut and Florida and is expanding slowly into Manhattan.

The accidental stager: The University of Colorado at Boulder journalism graduate and onetime screenwriter always loved fixing up homes, especially those she was leasing. When an L.A. landlord gave her six weeks' notice to vacate, she faced the problem of storing 250 potted plants. She ended up artfully placing the pots around a house a friend was trying to sell. Then Baer persuaded the friend to let her place her furniture in the house too. It sold soon after. Before long, her services were in demand.

"I didn't know there was a need," said Baer, whose business grew through word-of-mouth referrals. "I was in the right place at the right time and just ran with the ball."

Secret to success: Baer, 64, credits taking risks, caring about quality and working 24/7 early on for her achievements. "I did sleep but that's about it," she said. "I arrived at my point in my life when I was ready to go for it. I lived it, breathed it, slept it."

Celebrity cachet: Baer's clientele includes about 300 celebrities and billionaires. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver once visited a house where she had done the interiors and "bought $10,000 worth of stuff in about 10 minutes," Baer recalled. Actors Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford have bought houses she staged. Sharon Stone has used her services.

Time is money: Her largest payday for staging was about $200,000 for a home in Montecito that had been on the market for a long time. Baer bid the job at about $75,000 and added a clause that in the event the house sold in 30 days she would get a $125,000 bonus. She focused on making the home look comfortable and inviting, and she collected the bonus.

Financial realities: As the economy tanked, the business expanded beyond high-end projects to more modest properties, including foreclosures. "Once, we wouldn't do a job under $10,000 and didn't want the smaller homes," Baer said. "Now we have a lot of young designers with lots of energy, and we have a whole division that does that."

Weathering the recession: The company has had to write off about $2 million in unpaid work in the last few years as home sellers went bankrupt or simply didn't pay, she said. "We rode it out."

She cut back employee hours and days when business was slow but didn't let anybody go because of the economy. "We just kept going," Baer said, "and became conservative when we had to about spending."

Greatest strength: Baer is not fearful of unexpected twists and turns. "If I see an opportunity, it doesn't scare me, it interests me," she said.

Inspiration: Her mother's curiosity and interest in finding unusual accessories helped launch Baer's career. "She was always out exploring," she said. "I started my business with everything in her garage."

Advice: "Follow the trail of what interests you and don't be afraid of changing paths," Baer said. "I wasn't formally trained in design, I just loved it."

Up next: After an appearance on the HGTV series "Selling L.A.," Baer was approached by the network about doing a staging series. The pilot was a success and the show has been picked up.

Greatest accomplishment: "I'm the most proud of providing a livelihood for so many families," Baer said.

Payback: The company recently made a commitment to donate furniture and design time to Beit T'Shuvah, a residential treatment and worship center in West Los Angeles.

Out of the office: The Brentwood resident enjoys gardening — perhaps not surprising for someone who once owned 250 potted plants.

lauren.beale@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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