From being raised in a Beale Street bakery to co-owning her own business before she turned 20, Karen Garner has always been filled with an entrepreneurial spirit. When she founded Magnolia Homes in 1987, her willingness to take on new challenges led to both professional and personal growth. Since then, the home-building business she started as a single mother has not only sustained her family and become an ongoing source of their connection, but it’s also led to some of the most sought-after residences in the Memphis area.
Let’s meet this week’s newest FACE of Memphis, Karen Garner!
Where were you born, and what was your upbringing like?
I was actually born in St. Louis, Missouri, but I consider myself a Memphian because I moved to Memphis with my parents when I was three months old. They had lived here previously, and they returned from St. Louis to open up a bakery on Beale Street. My parents took me to work with them every day. They would get me up very, very early in the morning, because you have to get up early to bake donuts.
It was called Sue’s Bakery. My middle name is Sue, and I had just been born, so they named the bakery after me. And it was across the street from A. Schwab, which is still there. Elvis used to come in to buy jelly donuts.
How did you become interested in home building?
Well, I married when I was 18, and when I was 19, we decided to start a plumbing company. We had $400 cash, and we had a pickup truck.
I used to go out on the jobs all the time and watch [my ex-husband], and I’d walk through the homes killing time. I got more and more interested as I’d go and look at those homes. Finally, I said, “Let’s start a building company.” I think he thought I was crazy at first, and then I got him more motivated about it. We actually moved to Searcy, Arkansas, to do that because that’s where he had graduated from high school and he had contacts there. Then we moved back to Memphis and continued our business here.
I became a single parent, and I immediately opened up Magnolia Homes. My children were my motivation. My daughter, Abbey, who is now in real estate, is also one of my agents, and my son, Reggie, is now my partner. I wanted to survive; I had to succeed.
How do you think your multi-generational entrepreneurship benefited your children and the family as a whole?
It’s helped them learn integrity and that you have to always do what’s right. They also know to put your customer first and make sure your customers are happy. Our advertising comes from referrals and people putting pictures on social media and saying that they love Magnolia Homes.
What were some of your biggest challenges as you were starting the business?
First of all, it was a totally male-dominated business, and it pretty much still is now. I just took it by the horns, and I turned it around and made it work for me. I became friends with all my builders. Building is kind of different than most businesses because most businesses are very competitive. But there are so many people and so few builders that we all seem to have our own niche.
What would you say is the Magnolia Homes niche?
Our niche is customizing each person’s home and making it theirs. I can have a floor plan, but we allow people to make changes. We’ll let you move a wall or add a bath. We’ll build it exactly to your design.
I’m a woman, so I know what women want, and if I want that room purple, then I want that room purple. Sometimes I’ll be in my homes and people will come in and I’ll hear them say, “This is weird, this home looks like a woman built it.” I think it’s hilarious because I do put my signature on every single home, whether it’s sold or available.
What are some of the newer home building features or trends that you’re seeing?
I’m starting to see that light fixtures are a very trendy part of the home, and, fortunately, light fixtures are something that can be changed out to update your home over the years. I’m also seeing different colors of finishes or metals, so you may have gold and black and antique nickel all mixed into one home.
One of the words that I’ve been hearing and saying myself is transitional. It’s not old, and it’s not modern … it’s transitional. I’m seeing paint colors starting to change, cabinet colors starting to change. I’m starting to see more circular shapes. I love having the curves and the different looks and not so much boxiness.
What about your home, in particular, would make me walk in and say, “Oh, this is Karen’s house!”?
Well, you picked a perfect time to ask that question because I just built a home. It’s actually close to my son. I wanted to have a home that had a bedroom for every grandchild because I want to have my grandchildren over to spend the night.
When you walk in my home, it is totally Karen Garner. I’ve got two different walls and two different areas that are all thin brick. I’ve got a lot of brushed gold. It’s very open. It’s a French home, and it’s got limestone corbels all across the front. When you drive up, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. That’s how I am, and that’s how I like my homes to be.
What is your very favorite element of your new home?
I have a limestone French hood over my range. When I picked it out and the installer said, “I’ve never put one of these in a home before,” I said, “Well, good.”
Where is the first place you take visitors to Memphis?
Because of our bakery on Beale Street, my heart’s in downtown Memphis. I love walking down Main Street, and I love going to plays at the Orpheum. I love the lobby of the Peabody. Oh my goodness, I can just sit there all day and people watch. My favorite restaurant is Paulette’s, and I love to go up on the River Terrace to have a drink and watch the sunset as the barges come down the Mississippi River.
What is your best advice?
My best advice would be to take every challenge and adversity and learn from them. Take that experience and move forward and learn from it.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My Key lime pie, going out of town with my husband to the Caribbean — that is my chill pill — and my trip with my grandchildren and my children once a year. Spending time with them together, that’s the best … better than peanut butter and jelly!
Thank for chatting with us, Karen, and thank you to Elizabeth Looney for the photos.
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