Terri Madden streamlines workflow while keeping a creative edge.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“All of the steps required to achieve Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification placed my business practices under a microscope,” says Terri Madden, MFC, owner of Sand Sea and Air Interiors Inc. in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “The procedures and trail of paperwork leave no room to operate in the gray—everything is either black or white.”
In 1997 Madden founded the company—which now designs and fabricates marine, aviation, residential and commercial interiors—but her passion for all things textile began much earlier. One of 10 children, Madden designed and sewed many of her own clothes as a teenager. “I would stay up late at night when the house was quiet and work on them,” she says. “Deciphering a pattern was like a foreign language at first, but it gave me the patterning skills I use now in my business.”
She later earned a Bachelor of Science in textile design from Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science, Philadelphia, Pa., and went on to work as a textile designer in the Home Furnishings Division of Burlington Industries in New York. “My responsibilities there included research and development for color trends and woven textiles,” Madden says. “My formal education and work in the textile industry give me the tools to better educate my customers and help them determine the appropriate materials for their needs.”
Creating the paper trail
When Madden moved to San Juan and started Sand Sea and Air Interiors (SSA), the company primarily provided custom yacht interiors. She soon expanded the business to include work on residential, commercial and other one-off projects, such as props for movie sets, Native American Indian garments for a museum exhibition, a custom tote bag for Johnny Depp’s vessel and slings for manatee rescue operations. But it was the work she did repairing and fabricating ground support covers for the local aircraft facilities that led her toward FAA certification and the work she now does for aircraft interiors. “I learned through the aircraft facility owners that no one in the Caribbean was certified to provide interior services for aircraft,” Madden says. “All refurbishing jobs on airplanes were sent to the United States!”
Madden submitted a letter of intent to the local FAA in May 2005, was assigned an FAA inspector to provide guidance and began the certification process. It was a process that took nine months to complete—while keeping the marine side of the business running. “It was grueling. We worked nights and weekends,” she says. “We had to create a Repair Station Manual, a Quality Control Manual and a Training Manual. Fortunately I had an assistant who had been with the airline industry for more than 30 years and was instrumental in helping me understand the mindset behind the manuals.”
The creation and implementation of the manuals served more than their intended purpose of securing FAA certification and launching the aircraft side of the business—they improved workflow for the rest of Madden’s business as well. “Prior to having the manuals in place I’d just pick up a piece of paper when a customer would come in and write their name, date and project details,” she says. “Now there’s a standardized paper trail and a clearer understanding of what happens with a project from beginning to end. We track the time it takes to complete a project, which improves our ability to bid future projects accurately. And we have procedure checklists so if there’s a problem we can track where the breakdown occurred, fix it and prevent it from happening in the future.”
Expanding the workspace
For Madden to keep the certification, the FAA conducts yearly site and procedure inspections, which the first year resulted in revisions of the manuals. “I was shocked,” Madden says. “They had said the manuals were the best they’d ever seen. But the inspector was new and noticed that there were certain policies and procedures that required clarification—and he was right.” The FAA also requires that materials for aircraft be stored separately from other materials, so Madden relocated the company to a larger space to more fully separate the aircraft portion of the business from the marine, residential and commercial applications. “The FAA wants to be sure no one would mistakenly use marine materials, for instance, in an aircraft,” Madden says. “We could have continued to work in the smaller space, but it’s easier to separate the materials with the square footage increase.”
Madden designed the new space, which her New York consultant named “Studio 103,” to function as a showroom and workshop. “The ceilings are 16 feet high. We host art exhibits here because of the massive walls,” she says. “We also hang fabric samples on wave-like sculptured structures on the walls, and created visual waves on the floor to designate the showroom and work areas. Our 30-by-8-foot work table—our dream table—sits in the work area and provides function and atmosphere. It all makes a wonderful impression.”
Branding the business
Naming the space “Studio 103” was part of Madden’s effort to brand her business, as was the creation of the company’s tagline: “Stylized Solutions.” “My daughter Alayna, who is my right hand, came up with it,” she says. “We had been thinking about it for seven years or so, but it was something I would often say to customers: ‘We can come up with a stylized solution for this.’” The words—Stylized Solutions—brand SSA’s monthly newsletter and Madden posts a Stylized Solution of the day on her Facebook page.
Madden’s drive to make her business successful led her to expanding the business to include aviation, which led her to creating the manuals, which streamlined her workflow, which gave her enough time to brand and market the business, which brings in new customers. And once she’s done work for a client, she often finds ways to upsell and expand their working relationship. “Remember, everyone who has a boat or aircraft also has a home and office,” Madden says.