Mary Ella Gabler moved from small-town Pennsylvania to the Big Apple in the 1960s. Her plan to work as a flight attendant in New York fell through, but she didn’t run back home. With hard work and perseverance, she became one of the first two women licensed on the NY Stock Exchange.
When she later moved with her husband to Dallas for his work, Gabler began making patchwork pillows from home, and it wasn’t long before she turned that cottage industry into a burgeoning enterprise. Her first big break came through a friend working at Neiman Marcus who thought her pillows would be perfect for the store’s Fête des Fleurs (Festival of Flowers) theme. Now, her brand of luxury linens, Peacock Alley, is sold in major department stores and other outlets globally, and the brand is credited with changing the way Americans dress their beds.
“Relationships are such an important part of business success,” Gabler says. It’s a point she also emphasized in her autobiography, “Uncommon Thread,” writing, “Throughout my life, one thing has been paramount—relationships.”
“Whether it’s your relationship with people you work around every day, or the people that you sell your products to, or the people who help supply what you’re producing, I think nurturing those relationships is so important,” she says. “You really do help each other in good times and in bad times.”
It wasn’t until the 1990s that Gabler discovered another key to boosting her success, and she wishes she had found it sooner. “Get better financial advice,” she says she would tell her younger self. “Build more of a financial cushion. If I had had better financial advice on an ongoing basis, I would have been more consistently profitable over the years. We tended to have highs and lows seasonally.”
One of her toughest times was in the 1990s during the national savings and loan crisis, when her loan was up for review as institutions were looking to close less profitable accounts. Peacock Alley was still growing and only marginally profitable at the time, and Gabler recalls sitting at a big conference table in a banker’s office, feeling like she could lose it all.
But she had an appointment with her financial advisor—and bringing him in was one of the best decisions she ever made. He told the banker, “‘We owe you this much. You can either shut us down now and you’ll never get any money really, or you can give us a year to pay it off. We have a plan here that we can do this,’” she says.
“I remember working so hard every month to exceed the amount that I had to pay the bank back,” Gabler says. “It helped the bank. It helped us internally. I think it helped everyone I was working with to have more of a positive attitude about what we did. I think it helped the relationships with the people we owed money to because I made sure that everyone got paid back the money that we owed them, and a little more. Those are the kinds of relationships and trust that are important to build over the years.”
Although it took a lot of hard work to pull through, she had help and motivation from her employees. “I always felt this responsibility that these people I work with and had a relationship with for so long—there are a few that are still with me for 50 years—and you think about them and their families and how responsible you are for supporting them. I think that was also a driving force.”
Gabler learned as a child the importance of treating people well and nurturing relationships in business. Her father and his brothers ran a furniture business together, and “they treated each other with such respect,” she says. “I don’t ever remember a time where there was a harsh word between the brothers.”
She recalled another lesson she learned from watching them. They had sent one of her cousins off to college, paying his way, with the idea that he would return and apply what he learned to the business. When he graduated and returned home, “He went into the store all excited about working there,” Gabler says. “My father handed him a broom.
“My cousin said, ‘Well, you didn’t send me to college to go and sweep the floor, did you?’ My father said, ‘This is your first lesson: You do whatever needs to be done, and the floor needs to be swept for the customers.’” Gabler gets right in there with the seamstresses and doesn’t just make executive decisions from afar, she says.
Her family wasn’t interested in bringing her into the business because they saw it as the men’s responsibility. She studied physical education in college, and especially loved tennis. “It’s such an individual sport. It depends on how hard you try and how much effort you want to put into it. I think maybe from that I learned that I’m the one ultimately responsible for what I do.”
Gabler says that after college, her father “thought I would probably come home and get married. That’s not what I was interested in.” Instead, she sought adventure in the big city. “It was exciting. I wanted to get out of the small town where I’d grown up,” she says. “That’s an excitement I still feel today when I go to New York. There’s an energy about it.”
Lessons in the Big Apple
Gabler’s first job was as a switchboard operator for an all-women public relations firm. “I graduated to serving tea to these women in the afternoon. It was so interesting to watch their business grow.”
Then, she had an opportunity to work as a receptionist for a firm on Wall Street. “They were very dynamic men in that business,” she says. “The more I worked with them, they could see an ability in me to try harder, work harder, so they offered to send me to this school to learn what I needed to become registered [on Wall Street]. It was a little bit scary, because it was a whole world I didn’t know much about. But, then again, I found the excitement of it.” That chapter in her life taught her how to weigh business decisions, which later helped her linen business evaluate the risks and benefits of opening accounts with customers.
Eventually, Gabler was able to identify a hole in the linen market, and fill it.
Building an Industry
Working with Neiman Marcus, Gabler started to change America’s approach to the bedroom. Bedding was rather plain and utilitarian at the time, she says. But with Neiman Marcus, she was having “conversations about how to add fashion to sheets and bedding. What can we do to the rest of the bed to make it prettier?”
Bed skirts weren’t being made at the time; she made them. Pillow shams and blanket covers made it easier to dress up the bed. Today, these ideas are much more widespread. Peacock Alley (named for a restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City—a tribute to the city’s influence on Gabler) prides itself on quality.
The company’s linens are finished by hand in Dallas. Imported materials are carefully inspected. Each product takes about a year and a half to develop, Gabler says. Her style is based on the “little black dress” concept: “You start with the best basics that you can and build from there, like you do with your wardrobe.” She adds different seasonal colors and designs onto the strong base she has established.
Her two sons now run the business, though Gabler remains involved, especially in product development. It was hard raising her boys and growing her business at the same time, and Gabler counts it as one of her successes that her sons decided to join her.
Regarding balancing business and family, she says, “There really is no balance. Just put one foot in front of the other and do what you can fit in. When you’re raising your children and you can’t make them lunch or go to a basketball game or whatever, you deal with the guilt for that or wonder how that’s going to affect them.” Having talked to her sons about it as adults, “They don’t see that as a negative, so I’m glad to hear that,” she says.
Gabler promotes self-care in her company culture, and describes the legacy she hopes she has established: “I hope we can be known for our integrity and quality. I think trust and transparency is so important with whomever you’re dealing.”
Gabler’s Tips for Sheet and Towel Care
Iron your sheets. Even if you only have time for doing the pillowcases or the top sheet, you’ll experience your sheets the way they are meant to be. Ironing helps the fibers lay as they were intended and makes the fabric more soft and supple. If you really want to treat your guests, bring your sheets to a laundry for pressing.
Wash new towels with vinegar. Towels are shipped in potato starch. To remove the starch and make the towels more absorbent, add 1 cup of vinegar along with your detergent when you first wash them. Vinegar, as a natural disinfectant, can also revive old or musty-smelling towels.