From CPA to Expert Kitchen Designer: Sandra Brannock’s Career Path

As human beings, decision making is an essential skill.  Unfortunately, when we enter college right out of high school, we are required to plan our future careers without the benefit of the insights we gain as we mature.

Throughout my various careers I have observed that high school and college students (at least in my experience) are not encouraged to study or do what you love or taught that if you love what you do you will be on your path to “greatness”.

During my first two years of college, I had a hard time deciding on a major. Initially, I chose a pre-med course of study. But after completing the basic course requirements in chemistry and biology I lost my enthusiasm. I did not understand exactly why. All I knew was that I felt somewhat “listless” about doing what I was doing every day.

Instinctually, I began investigating business majors. Accounting caught my attention because of its practicality and because it was the essential “language of business”. I enrolled in Accounting 101, learned a bit about its practical application, and decided to take it all the way by obtaining my BS in accounting.

My First Career: Accounting

In my senior year, the major public accounting firms visited the George Mason University campus to conduct screening interviews for entry level positions at their firms. I interviewed in depth with three firms at their offices in Washington, D.C. My favorite was Ernst & Young (E&Y). They hired me as a first year staff accountant in their audit division at 1225 Connecticut Avenue. I later passed the CPA exam and continued to practice at E&Y for almost four years.

Initially, public accounting was a terrific learning experience. I learned how to “work and play” hard with others. I had 20 other peers in my “class” from local universities which contributed to great camaraderie and competition. But as time went on, again, I found myself feeling lackluster for the constant “black and white” required day-to-day work.

A change was required. I thought, erroneously, that if I pursued a position in private accounting, I would be more rewarded in terms of job satisfaction.

I made the decision to leave E & Y with no job prospects on the table. To make ends meet, I temped for a few accounting placement firms. During this time, I found a position as a financial reporting supervisor for a privately held homebuilder. Almost two years later, I was recruited for a position as an assistant controller for a publicly held construction company.

The end result of my private accounting experience led me back to the exact same place when I left E&Y: I enjoyed accounting for a few hours at a time, but found myself completely uninspired beyond that. In a nutshell, it essentially did not fit my personality.

From CPA to Wine Sales Rep

I began to explore another avenue. As an alumnus, I was able to take the Myers-Briggs test at George Mason University, a 2-3 hour personality assessment test. Lo and behold, my profile fell into a category somewhat on the other spectrum from accounting: I was an E-N-F-P (extroverted-intuitive-feeling-perceptive). The test also summarized the areas for which I would be best suited: education, sales and service. Suddenly, I recognized why I had been unhappy. I recognized that my intuition was correct—that I needed to engage in a career more suited to my personality. Now I felt energized and extremely motivated to begin another career chapter.

I decided I would pursue sales first. I literally “threw” myself “out onto the pavement” and began exploring sales positions no matter what they were—as I figured this process would educate me and get me closer to my end goal.

Initially, I was not inspired by the positions I investigated—mainly because the positions were “hard sell” types. Then one day I stumbled across a Washington Post help wanted ad for a wine distributor sales representative. The company was family owned –small — located in the warehouse district of Alexandria. It paid much less than I was making as a CPA. Commissions only with a small territory to start, but the ad said, “If you love to learn, this is for you.”

I had nothing to lose. So I sought out the interview, and then spent a day with a sales rep in his territory. I found myself extremely stimulated even though I knew nothing about wine. I was far from a “wine aficionado”. But because the products were so diverse and changed from year to year, it became obvious that this business was anything but “routine”. They hired me. I learned a tremendous amount about wine, and by default, all things culinary and gastronomic. I felt totally alive, excited and enthusiastic about the business. And that is how I began my career in sales.

$1.25 Million in Wine Sales to Restaurants and Wine Shops

Seven years flew by. My last year there, I sold $1.25 million worth of wine to restaurants and specialty wine shops. My closest client relationships were with the owners of the specialty wine shops. They were extremely particular and higher maintenance than other clients, but I thrived when working with them. My sales work centered on sharing and tasting wines with them and understanding what was important in their business. Accordingly, I wanted to make sure that when I came to them with a new wine, I came to them with something of value that would “fit” their needs.

Listening to Clients: My Key to Success

This brings me to a fundamental principle I hold highly in my business practice always: A universal truth for me in designing kitchens is that it is always about listening to your client … carefully. Unfortunately, at the end of seven years of selling wine, and because I listened to my clients, I witnessed a market shift in my clients. They wanted more boutique-type wines. The company I was working for, as good as they were, had a different market focus—a focus that did not align well with my clients’ wine preferences and needs.

I recognized, reluctantly, that it was time to shift gears again.

Initially, I was going to go work for a well-respected wine importer in the “boutique” end of the business. But that did not work out. I had already left my original company, so I was not sure what to do. But as the saying goes, “things happen for a reason.”

Career #3: Saddle Fitting

At the time, my hobby was horseback riding. One day while I was trying to fit a saddle to my horse it occurred to me: how do you know when your saddle correctly fits your horse ?

I went to the local tack shop, brought multiple saddles back to my horse and put them on him. But the answer to the question of what defined proper saddle fit eluded me.

I began researching all things related to saddle fitting. I discovered that the Society of Master Saddlers in England had an answer to my question. Boldly, I contacted the Society and asked if I could visit and learn about saddle fitting. Initially they put me off. I continued to persist, and finally, it was arranged. I bought my plane ticket and planned my 2-week trip in October 1997 to meet and work with Ken Lynden-Dykes. Ken was the senior lecturer of the Society’s Qualified Saddle Fitters course (at that time, they only allowed UK residents to take the course). He was extremely generous and gave me a basic but fairly thorough introduction to saddle fitting.

We traveled throughout the English countryside performing saddle fit evaluations. Throughout our trip, he learned how serious I was. He became my mentor and made a few trips to the U.S. shortly after I started my business, Grand Prix Saddle Fitting. He observed my implementation of the 7-step method he taught me and provided constructive feedback.

Over the next several months as I continued to practice, what unfolded for me was amazing. I discovered horse owners everywhere who had been in the dark and did not know how to get help. I placed small ads in local horse publications. Clients responded saying, “I am so glad you exist!” and “I don’t know what’s going on with the saddle on my horse.”

Friends and Family Thought I Was Crazy

In the meantime, on the personal side, my friends and family were very concerned about my new “career” path. How could I cast aside my previous professions for … saddle fitting?? Who in their right mind would pursue such an endeavor?

Nonetheless, because I believed so fiercely in the cause, I soldiered on. I enjoyed being out in the stables, meeting horse owners and their horses of all types. I enjoyed eliminating their frustration by demonstrating, on the spot, how a saddle should fit their horse. And, the ultimate reward was to see their horse “move” better while being ridden, and to have the horse owner exclaim: “Wow! What a huge difference!”

A New Talent for Design Emerges

Happily, I did this for seven years. Ah, the “seven year itch”. I became a bit bored. Oh no, time to make another change. By now I realized the familiar signs of discontent. I could not visualize myself saddle fitting for the rest of my life. I began to tap into another aspect of my personality that had not been fully explored.

Since a young girl, I have always had a passion for organizing rooms and experimenting with color. I used to change the paint color in my bedroom regularly—and would often shift the furniture to see what “felt better”.

During my saddle fitting days, I purchased an old 1937 farmhouse. A hovel it was, and all thought I was undertaking a daunting project when I bought it, as it was such a mess — but I had a vision for how it could be improved. Now, as a testament to my insight from back then, over the years, people have visited and said, “Wow, what a transformation!”

Transforming Spaces Energizes Me

So in short, transforming spaces energizes me. When I reflected about what should come next in a “design” career, obviously the question became: what kind?

I had a friend in California who had changed her career from wine into kitchen design. She shared with me a bit about her transition. This filled up my “gas tank”, and I literally knocked on the door of a kitchen and bath showroom, introduced myself, and announced to them “I’ve never professionally designed a kitchen but I would like to learn.” I was hired shortly thereafter!

Career #4: Kitchen Design

I spent the next four years working for the kitchen and bath company. I learned CAD (computer aided design). I made mistakes. But I made a lot of clients happy.

My happiest clients were the ones that wanted my advice on the whole project, but the showroom did not embrace this business model. They wanted me to “sell” cabinets, countertops, appliances, and anything related. The truth was my added value was mainly in the design, for which I was not patently paid.

I decided it was time to create my own venture. I wanted to be a consultant who assisted homeowners with kitchen design and then the how and where to spend their dollars on their kitchen remodel.

I began my company, Expert Kitchen Designs in 2010. As the owner of my own company, I am not under pressure to sell any particular line of products. My clients feel comfortable in their exploration and enjoy the remodeling process. They are educated and therefore feel confident, not pressured, when they make their decisions every step of the way.

I love working with odd kitchen spaces, as difficult as they may be. I enjoy thoroughly letting my clients express themselves, their wants and needs, and guiding them through the entire process up until the very end. I get to use so many parts of my brain, both the left and right, so I never feel like I am “stuck” doing one thing all day long.

Tying It All Together to Serve My Clients

Looking back on my career path, there is nothing I’ve done that I regret. I think all of it is relevant to what I do today. Accounting is relevant because when you do design, you have to use numbers. You have to pay attention to technical data. You have to be precise. So that experience obviously has been key.

The wine business introduced me to the culinary, and the latter happens in the kitchen. So indirectly, the wine business gave me a direct connection to kitchen design through cooking.

Saddle fitting taught me that, no matter what business you are in, it is all about balance and paying attention to details, spoken and unspoken. Balance is key and pervades almost every aspect of our lives. Including kitchens!

Sandra Brannock, Owner, Expert Kitchen Designs
Sandra Brannock, Owner, Expert Kitchen Designs, Virginia
Sandra Brannock designs beautiful, timeless, functional kitchens that reflect your personal style, within your budget. She helps discerning homeowners throughout Northern and Central Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC get the kitchen of their dreams and select the perfect cabinetry, fixtures, flooring, lighting, and appliances to make their dream kitchen a reality.

Call Sandra today at (703) 801-6402 to schedule a kitchen remodeling consultation. Sandra will help you get the most value out of your kitchen remodeling budget and ensure that all the details of your kitchen renovation proceed smoothly, on time and within budget.