Betty Sullivan

CEO of Architectural Ceramics

Betty Sullivan is the CEO of Architectural Ceramics, a family, women-owned and operated national leader in the tile and stone space — serving the design industry, homeowners, builders, architects, and installers. Established in 1985, Architectural Ceramics currently has 5 residential showrooms in the Greater Washington D,C. and Baltimore area as well as a commercial sales team servicing the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

Betty is a widely respected entrepreneurial powerhouse and is regarded as the matriarch of Architectural Ceramics. The company has increased revenues sevenfold under her leadership.

Before joining the company full-time, she served as the President of Intellectual Property Licensing for a firm where she partnered with major corporations to provide patent licensing, mastered negotiating skills, and managed effective patent attorneys. Prior to her work with patent licensing, she garnered retail experience with United Colors of Benneton and L&L Bakeries — opening stores and streamlining production.

Outside of her professional activities, Betty is highly regarded for her philanthropy and care for the less fortunate in the community. She has created an internal living wage for the DC / Baltimore Metro areas at $19.25 an hour minimum wage for all staff. Additionally, under her direction, Architectural Ceramics created “Washington Cares,” which is a charity primarily devoted to disaster relief and which played a key role during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the Ellicott City flood. The company is also involved in providing food and shelter to children and families in need through multiple local and national organizations.

Beyond her entrepreneurship and philanthropy, Betty also has a creative side which finds expression in art, busts, designing tiles, and writing. She is a produced feature screenwriter for true story adaptations with social justice themes.

Her fruitful life of contribution has given living expression to the mantra, “Anything you can imagine, you can do,” which she learned from her father, an inventor at IBM.

Where did the idea for Architectural Ceramics come from?

I actually joined Architectural Ceramics in order to be with my husband and family when it was only a small tile shop. At the time, I had lyme disease and had previously done patent licensing which I needed a break from, and also worked for venture capital people. So I took over running the company and never looked back.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My typical day begins with morning prayer and self-reflection, as I always strive to do something meaningful with the upcoming day.

I then begin to turn my attention outwards, and look at my “dailies” such as New Yorker, Fast Company, Wall Street Journal, Interior Design, and highlights from LinkedIn. I then proceed to check in with my husband and review our upcoming day, while going on a walk together with our dog. I next check-in with with my leadership team and sales team, and then launch into my day of meetings and list of to-do’s!

As the day unfolds, I add to the list from my meetings, and I love getting new ideas that I file by topic, and always delegate in between. I spend as much time as I can helping my staff with whatever they may be stuck on, and learn as much as possible throughout the day. In addition, I make it a priority to leave extra time to focus on projects — personal, professional, and creative.

Every night before bed, I review and solidify my schedule for the upcoming day, and every few days, I make a concerted effort to plan 1-2 months into the future.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’m a firm believer that “ideas need heart.” I also borrow new ideas from other businesses, staff, or even a random moment or chance encounter. For instance, I recently bought sidewalk chalk for my grandchildren and it was delivered the same day. Likewise, an aggregator I am familiar with takes sample orders until midnight, and then ships overnight to arrive the next morning. So I thought, “At the minimum, where we have offices and showrooms, we too should adopt the practice and courier samples the same day!”

Great ideas are truly everywhere; we just need to have our eyes open to see them, and apply them to our own circumstances.

Beyond all of the above, I receive much precious feedback from my staff, and if they share my vision for a new idea for the company, it’s a ‘go’ and I am grateful for their superb execution.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Disruption. While it’s in vogue to apply the term to business innovation, I also like to apply the term as it has been classically used. It’s been my experience that disruption of normal life and routine can be scary (such as during COVID), but also exciting and filled with new opportunity as well, if only we are open to it.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

My productivity is largely fueled by my tenacity. I’m not one to shy away from difficult tasks, even if sometimes I feel like I’m turning a ship around, or pulling a train by myself. I’m the type of woman and entrepreneur who if believe in something, I won’t give up, and I’m willing to see my goals and visions all the way through,

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self to “do less,” assess my lists more often, and shed items from these lists even earlier. Over the years, I’ve noticed a tendency to take on too much, and I didn’t learn until later in life to shed, simply say ‘no,’ or to postpone projects. I’ve learned that much success comes in life not only from what we say ‘yes’ to, but also what opportunities and projects we decline. Indeed, there is power and simplicity in learning to say ‘no’ or ‘not yet.’

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

When appropriate, I can infuse ‘personal’ and ‘heart’ with work, right in the middle of a meeting. For many people, this is disarming and shows tremendous care, which is my objective. People either hate it or love it.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

To return to an earlier theme — when you have an idea, it has a ‘heart.’ But ideas or inspiration alone are ephemeral and quickly fleeting. An idea needs to be nurtured with a concrete plan for the day, the month, the quarter. To bring ideas to reality and success, I highly recommend that an entrepreneur consistently research, understand, plan, meet, negotiate, agree, do it, and regroup with your team. Much of the professional success I have been blessed with can be attributed to this entrepreneurial practice.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

The strategy that has really helped us grow Architectural Ceramics is “differentiation.” I define this as the notion that we want to leap ahead — not simply be ‘up to speed’ with our industry, but blow it apart. While we can’t do that daily, we must have a willingness to discuss the BHAGS (ie. Big Hair Audacious Goals).

For example: Where are we? Where are our competitors? What about outside the industry? Can we borrow something? What does the client want? We ask them, and then determine the change. Leading with the end result in mind is one of our core values.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Any true entrepreneur will find it difficult to elaborate upon only one failure! For me, one area I’ve had to work on as an entrepreneur is to be more encouraging of others. To be honest, I still struggle with this at times, as my nature is to be primarily focused on the end results. I overcome this trait by reminding myself that if I don’t get staff to ‘buy in,’ then whatever I would like our company to do won’t work.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’d open a drive-in theater, or a winery with a petting zoo. I’d also do a show called “Beer and Wine” with a lady Manhattan sommelier and two bearded dudes from Colorado who tour breweries.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I ordered an ice tea machine in robin’s egg blue. Mid-century style. It cost less than $100 and it brings independence from circumstances of the Trenta at Starbucks. For work, I got a zoom genie. It’s called a halo stick — in essence, a selfie stick that you put your phone on, with a light.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I use my notes on my phone and mac for day-to-day planning. I enjoy erasing tasks when they are done. Also, Grammarly Premium is awesome. It makes me a better writer and grammar girl!

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I’m inclined to say The Bible, but that won’t fly with everyone. In terms of general audience works for entrepreneurs, I’d say “Mastering Leadership,” or “STORY” by Robert McKee, or Donald Miller’s “Building a StoryBrand.” We all need to learn how to write or tell a story.

What is your favorite quote?

“Anything you can imagine, you can do.”

These words were frequently on the lips of my beloved father, who was an inventor at IBM and held many patents.

Key Learnings:

  • Structure your days with focus and intention, and once you know what you want, don’t let go until you get it. Tenacity and grit are some of the biggest secrets to success. Make sure you achieve buy-in from your team, though, because without the contributions of others, there is a limiting ceiling on how much we can accomplish.
  • Be open to pivoting as necessary, because life is full of disrupting moments. Don’t fret over the disruption of your normal, but instead use it -– along with chance encounters, and even the business practices of other industries — as a trampoline that can take you to greater heights in your personal and professional life.
  • “Anything you can imagine, you can do.” At the same time, be careful what makes it on to your to-do lists. Don’t be afraid to shed items, say ‘no’ to opportunities, or postpone them to a later time. As entrepreneurs, we all want to move the needle in our businesses, and this requires discerning judgment as to what truly merits our time and attention.