Success By Design: Hall-of-Famer Rita Williams Demonstrates Leadership by Example

By Lorraine Kelly

Florida Homebuyer Magazine

Maybe it was the afternoon sunlight glinting off the brass fireplace screen. Maybe it was the overstuffed crimson chenille sofa with fringed accent pillows. Or the spotted cow cookie jar on the kitchen counter. Or the antique partners desk. Or the old family photos clustered on the mantel-even though the photos were of strangers.

It could have been any of a dozen details that captured your heart. But when you finally saw that special home-a place that seemed to have been built with you and your family in mind-you knew it.

Of course, new homes don’t have history; they have potential. It takes a practiced hand and keen intuition to give the illusion of domesticity in a pristine model where the paint has scarcely dried and the sod has yet to take root.

But according to Jacksonville area builders, nobody weaves an inviting aura better than interior designer Rita Williams, who has recently become one of just a handful of interior designers to be inducted into the Florida Builders Hall of Fame, a project of the Tallahassee-based Florida Home Builders Association.

“People want a house to feel like they could move in with just their toothbrush and feel at home,” says Williams, 58, an effervescent woman with auburn hair and a dazzling smile. “That’s why I never fill a house with trendy things. Trendy means some people will love it, but a lot of people will hate it. Buyers have to feel like it’s is a real home, where they can sit back and watch TV and where the kids can do their homework.”

Williams, owner of Rita Williams Merchandising Plus, says that if a buyer is inspired to return to a model home three times, a sale is almost inevitable. Which is music to the ears of her clients, which include some of the region’s top custom and production builders. Indeed, in a career spanning 22 years, Williams has worked with hundreds of builders in Florida and across the United States.

“Rita understands the market,” says Ron Coppenbarger of Coppenbarger Homes. “She has the ability to decorate a home so that the specific people you’re targeting can imagine themselves living there.”

Coppenbarger, in fact, gave Williams her first job as a self-employed designer, decorating the Sugar Mill condominium complex in Mandarin. “That was more than 20 years ago and we had a very limited budget,” Coppenbarger recalls. “She did the whole thing-drapes, carpet, everything-for $3,500. I’m not sure that’s something she’d want to admit to today, but she did a great job.”

As her business grew, Williams immersed herself in the Florida Home Builders Association and its regional affiliate, the Northeast Florida Builders Association. Coppenbarger and others say she seized the opportunity to network and contribute to the industry. “If you needed someone to volunteer or pitch in, Rita did it,” Coppenbarger notes. “She pulled more than her weight, always giving 150 percent. And she got other people to pull their weight too. Rita is very hard to say ‘no’ to.”

Williams’ FHBA and NEFBA resume includes stints as associate vice-president for both groups. She is also an associate state director for the National Association of Home Builders and a member of the NAHB’s Society of Honored Associates. She is a past NEFBA Associate of the Year and has earned numerous other industry awards and honors.

“I’ve always believed there’s strength in numbers.” says Williams. “So I’ve always wanted to be involved. Of course, the builders are the people who made my business succeed. Being named to the Hall of Fame meant I got a chance to say ‘thank you’ to a lot of people who made me look good.”

Williams describes her work as “dirt to dollars.” Builders call her when they buy land and before the first blueprints roll from computer printers. “I get together with the builder and the architect,” she says. “I figure out what’s going to work for the clients they have in mind. I put in the details-colors, tile, carpet, cabinet styles-then I find the furnishings and accessories. I’m the last person to go into the house before it’s shown.”

Terri Weidle, owner of Interiors by Design and a former Williams’ employee, says her mentor taught her that industry involvement and hard work pays. “I’ve never seen anyone able to get into the heads of builders and buyers as well as Rita does,” says Weidle. “I learned a lot about business and marketing from her. She’s a powerhouse. She’s the most driven, hardworking person I know, and she’ll do what it takes to get the job done.”

Although Williams does take on private commissions for a few favored clients-she recently decorated Coppenbarger’s personal residence-most consumers know her only from the model houses that inspire ideas and prompt them to sign on the dotted line. She also conducts seminars to educate builders on design trends and the human instincts that make a buyer feel at home in a model-be it a condominium, a starter home or a custom estate.

Most of Williams’ emphasis these days is in the high-end market, but she says she still enjoys working in the lower price ranges “because I think you’re never so excited as when you’re buying your first home.” Speaking of first-time buyers, Williams has a word of advice for novices. “If you can only afford one upgrade, go with the best kitchen cabinets you can afford,” she says. “That extra investment can last the lifetime of the house.”

Williams grew up in Jacksonville, the daughter of a concrete contractor, and graduated from Landon High School-now a middle school-in San Marco in 1963. She got a two-year business degree from Jones College and worked part time in retail merchandising until her marriage ended and, at age 37, she was forced to find full-time employment. Like so many of today’s building industry movers and shakers, she started her career with legendary Jacksonville developer Chester Stokes.

“All of us who worked for Chester at one time or other-and there are many of us-say we attended to Stokes University,” Williams says. “When you go to work for Chester, he says ‘I need this, now get it done’ and you do it.” For example, Williams says she expected Stokes to inundate her with clerical work. Instead, he saw that she had some merchandising experience and sent her to out decorate some of his model homes. “That’s how I got my start,” she recalls.

After working with Stokes, Williams went out on her own as a decorator and merchandiser. For years, she worked with partner Judith Sisler-Sisler-Williams was a highly successful home-merchandising firm with an A-list of clients-before launching Rita Williams Merchandising Plus late last year. The solo company has continued to thrive.

If the building industry has been good to Williams professionally, she has also reaped some significant personal benefits. She met landscape architect Warren Powers 18 years ago while both were working on a job, and the pair married two years later. “Warren was working on the outside of the house and I was working on the inside,” says Williams. “I always say one of the greatest things this industry has given me is my husband. It takes a very special man to move in with a woman and her four daughters.”

Williams’ daughters and her stepson are adults now. Twins Dawn Mendez and Terry Jones live with their husbands in Fort Lauderdale; middle daughter Alaine Ducharme and her husband and two children live in Jacksonville; eldest daughter Tammy Doerer and her two children are stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, while Doerer’s husband serves in Iraq; and stepson Wade Powers is a lobbyist in Washington. The girls, like their mother, are avid cross-country runners.

When asked to reflect on her accomplishments, Williams doesn’t hesitate to place her family at the top of the list. “The one thing I’m most proud of is my children,” she says. “I was a single mom, and in some ways I think they raised me. They grew up to be wonderful people.”

After family, she quickly acknowledges Florida builders. “I’ve been honored to have friends in the industry who supported me, who gave me tasks and opportunities,” she says. “All I had to do was not let them down.”

According to Arnold Tritt, executive vice president of NEFBA, the appreciation goes both ways. “You know how they always say 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work? Well, Rita’s a 20-percenter. She’s an overachiever. She volunteers for everything and does a remarkably good job. Plus, she has a way of inspiring other people to do their best. Rita offers leadership by example.”

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