Bright Entrepreneurial Stars
By Joseph Holt
Among the many stars in the constellation of clients at the IJ Clinic, none shines brighter than Carmen and McKinley Wells, the brother and sister entrepreneurs and owners of Chicago’s McKinley Design Ltd. The company designs, fabricates and installs handmade furniture for residential and commercial clients. Increasingly, the company has moved from creating individual furniture pieces to creating a total environment for its clients.
McKinley Wells, the founder, president and principal designer, studied theatre at Columbia College. He began to design furniture as a side job while designing commercial studio sets and received encouraging responses to his work from architects and interior designers. He followed his entrepreneurial and artistic urge to found the company in 1999 and has not looked back since. The company looks forward to celebrating its fourth anniversary this month.
Carmen Wells soon moved to Chicago from the family’s hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., to lend her organizational, marketing and financial expertise and her unflappable energy to the venture.
Despite a prolonged weak economy, McKinley Design has enjoyed an annual increase in gross sales of approximately 25 percent in each of the past three years. This sales growth is all the more impressive since approximately 90 percent of the company’s current business results from referrals only, with very little formal marketing effort. The IJ Clinic helped Carmen and McKinley perform a corporate reorganization that will make Carmen a shareholder and continues to offer critical advice on sales as well as other contract and regulatory issues. With Assistant Director Elizabeth Milnikel’s arrival at the IJ Clinic from the intellectual property practice group at Chicago’s Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, the Clinic has advised the company how to protect its unique designs.
Furthermore, the ample talents of the University of Chicago law students who worked with Carmen and McKinley over the years under the supervision of Beth and me have been augmented by an impressive team of MBA volunteers from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. The business school volunteers met extensively with Carmen, McKinley and IJ Clinic staff and students this past fall and are tailoring action plans for the company in such areas as marketing, finance and operations.
The IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship is the nation’s first program to help those entrepreneurs seeking to develop businesses in the private sector on the basis of their own energy and ingenuity, rather than those depending on government grants. It is a pleasure and privilege to help entrepreneurs who are as dedicated, talented and hardworking as Carmen and McKinley, to see their dream of economic freedom increasingly realized. One of the “problems” accompanying Carmen and McKinley’s success is deciding just how big to grow. McKinley expresses the desire to generate a steadily high level of profitability without work becoming a steady grind and without losing creative fulfillment.
With the well-deserved growth of their reputation, continued assistance from our Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, and invaluable counsel from the business students, the biggest problem Carmen and McKinley will likely face as they near a point of economic self-sufficiency from the Clinic’s free legal services is finding time to take a vacation.
Joseph Holt is the director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School.