By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine
When it comes to creating inspiring and healing spaces in offices and healthcare facilities, few companies are as innovative as Bialek Environments, which has provided services to the commercial, government, healthcare, and research industries in the Mid-Atlantic region since 1991. (Its founding company was formed in 1949.)
The original company was founded by Joan Bialek’s father—Samuel Bialek—as Bialek’s Medical Arts Pharmacy. With his brother Ted, the company grew into a chain of stores in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Additionally, the two brothers established a successful medical supply company.
Joan Bialek slowly but surely made her way through the ranks, starting by purchasing one share of the stock, and eventually buying the business from her father in 1991. In 1995, she sold the medical businesses and focused her attention exclusively on Bialek Environments.
In 1991, though, Bialek saw a new niche develop in her industry, which was increasingly becoming more environmentally sensitive. She established Bialek Environments, which today is a full-service provider of workplace solutions that encompass the design, sale, installation, and project management of clients’ furnishings and modular interior construction. With annual sales topping $55 million in 2011, Bialek has secured a position as one of the area’s largest firms of its kind in the DC region.
We recently had the opportunity to interview this Truly Amazing Woman, who shares her story of how she rose up through the ranks in what was once a boys-only club. We’ll learn how she built a company that has the unique ability to adapt to the rapid changes in markets, while creating opportunities for substantial growth.
Hope Katz Gibbs: First, tell us about Bialek Environments—especially the exciting Breathe™ Living Walls that you sell.
Joan Bialek: At Bialek Environments, we believe every workplace should inspire excellence. And we’ve been helping make that happen since 1991 by providing full-service office furniture, interior modular construction, and interior design services that foster creativity, encourage collaboration, and support our clients’ ultimate success.
Our projects vary from a single conference room to the complete furnishings for a major corporate headquarters facility with hundreds of employees, and even a
complete replacement hospital. Bialek strives to create dynamic workplaces that are inviting, motivating, and captivating for everyone who comes into contact with them.
Breathe™ is a (patent pending) system that incorporates plants into another popular green product called DIRTT Walls, which we are also proud to distribute. The plants mount to the tile layer of the wall, can be retrofitted on existing DIRTT walls, and mounted to any flat, vertical building surface: gypsum, concrete, stone, etc. The walls are scalable and easily expand from one panel to a monolithic wall of plants. This really is bringing nature indoors to beautify and detoxify interior spaces.
Talk a little about the growing field of office furniture and designs that are not only good for the environment—but are healing to the people who work in them.
Joan Bialek: Taking responsibility for your business and staff members, along with the planet, is becoming much easier and even more beautiful. At Bialek we offer several lines of sustainable furniture with Greenguard certificates, and we offer interior modular construction solutions, which minimize waste with much less dust, which is critical in healthcare environments.
Like the Breathe Living Walls we discussed, our goal is to create beautiful, inspiring environments where people can thrive. This means recommending furniture with ergonomic adjustability, reducing noise levels between offices—perhaps through sound masking, shrinking footprints to avoid wasted space, designing collaborative meeting rooms, building technology into the walls, and more.
How do you see your field growing and changing in the next three to five years?
Joan Bialek: I believe this field will change dramatically in the near future. For example, we’re already seeing evolution in fabrics that can withstand bacteria and living organisms. Carpet is moving in this direction as well. In healthcare environments, we’re seeing innovations to improve patient management and reduce injuries to nurses.
Are you seeing a lot of companies adding these living walls to their interior spaces? If so, why? And what is the average cost of these walls?
Joan Bialek: Absolutely. Breathe Living Walls are healthy, they bring additional oxygen into environments, and they are aesthetically beautiful. Also, they are simple to change out seasonally should clients wish to refresh them, and they are easy to maintain. Importantly, they feature a soil that doesn’t attract bugs. The cost is inexpensive and varies depending on the type of plants used.
*You work closely with the architectural and design community, as well as with its clients directly. Tell us a little about your ideal customer.
Joan Bialek: Our ideal customer understands its current needs and can foresee future needs. Most importantly, they involve us early (which helps them save money), involve technology in new ways, and “see” what their space will look like before the shovel hits the dirt. Through the revolutionary ICE software, we can electronically generate interactive plans that show interior modular construction, furniture, and finish selections. This enables our clients to have a window into their space and make final decisions before any construction begins, eliminating delays and costs associated with modifications.
Tell us a little about your staff. What skills do you need them to have, and what advice would you give anyone who is looking to work in your field about landing a position with a company like Bialek Environments?
Joan Bialek: Our staff consists of experienced account managers, designers and architects, client services representatives, project managers, service technicians, administrators, information technology experts, and financial personnel. If there’s one quality everyone at Bialek has in common, it’s that we have very high expectations for ourselves and the products and services we deliver to our clients. And we are passionate about what we do.
Tell us a little about your path—from the owner’s daughter to buying the company, to starting your own firm in a related but completely different field. What has helped you get through the obstacles?
Joan Bialek: When I was growing up, it was understood that my brothers would be offered an opportunity to join my father’s business. As the only girl, that wasn’t expected of me. I understood that this business was a man’s space. However, I had another idea. I decided that I had a passion for business, and I believed that I could make a difference. So, I asked my father to join his company and purchase a single share of stock.
I believe that if you truly want something, you need to go for it and ask for the opportunity. Don’t wait to be offered the chance, or to be recognized. Find a way to make it work. It is critical to stay focused on your goal.
When dealing with obstacles, I’ve found it very helpful to look at them from the other side after you’ve passed the obstacle. By doing so, I know I can make it through the next one. And, this has helped me form a solid plan to overcome each one.
Part of success is being willing to take risks. And it is understanding that you may fail. But you need to take that leap, with a solid plan in place, and reach to exceed expectations—even your own.
You have accomplished so much in your career. You must be very proud. What, if anything, would you like to do next?
Joan Bialek: I plan to keep going for it. I see innovation on the horizon and I’m excited to be a part of it. I love change. I look forward to incorporating our knowledge and current resources to get there.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurial women, who are hoping to make a difference in the field of business?
Joan Bialek: Women are truly realizing we can do anything we want when we put our minds and willpower to it. Here are some ways to accomplish your goals:
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Don’t let people tell you it can’t be done. Instead, persevere and go after it.
2. Be willing to take risks. I laugh and say that sometimes it has felt like I’ve put on a blindfold and jumped. I know I will land somewhere with my feet on the ground. Believe you can do it!
3. Inspire others and be inspired. I have found boundless value in joining organizations with other business people—not just women—from whom you can learn. This has been vital in my success.
4. Stay focused on the positives. Have a well-thought-out business plan. Find someone to help you if you can’t do it yourself.
5. Judge favorably. It is your positive mental attitude that will help you persevere, and will show others that you have what it takes—even when the going gets tough. And, don’t be afraid to take a stand when it is necessary. Believe in who you are and what you do. Protect it. And grow it.
For more information, visit www.bialek.com.