How a Burnt-Out Screenwriter Left Hollywood for a Starring Role in a $22 Million Business
By Lisa Wirthman
Nearly half of 40- to 59-year-olds say they want a change in their professional lives, according to research from the AARP’s Life Reimagined Institute and USA TODAY. But switching careers in mid-life can be a scary prospect.
Former Hollywood screenwriter Meridith Baer faced down that fear and wrote her own “second act” at the age of 50 when she launched Meridith Baer Home. The company she started in 1998 is now a $22 million home-staging and design business with 200 employees.
Though she’s no longer a screenwriter, Baer believes there’s still an aspect of storytelling to her work. She helps prospective buyers imagine life at a new address through visual design instead of written words. “We want to appeal to different emotions in them,” Baer said. “We want to make them feel a reaction.”
But Baer’s most interesting story may be her own. After working as a screenwriter for nearly 20 years, her career was stagnant. Frustrated and bored, she began to spend more time gardening and redecorating her leased Southern California home.
When the owner came to town, Baer’s new look inspired him to put the home up for sale—and he gave her six weeks to vacate.
Left with 250 potted plants and her furniture, Baer was terrified. “I was thinking: I’m not married, I’m not dating anyone, my career is going nowhere and now I’m kicked out of my home,” she said.
“It was the worst thing that could happen to me, and it also turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” she added.
The Second Act
Baer used her potted plants and furniture to decorate a home with a large central courtyard that a friend was trying to sell. She saved on storage costs, and her friend sold the property for a significant amount over the asking price. Both realtors who worked on the sale asked Baer to stage other properties, lifting the curtain on her second act.
“I used my terror as energy,” Baer said. “I just went for it, and I gave it my all.”
To launch her impromptu home-staging business, Baer used whatever resources she could leverage. She asked antique companies if she could take items on consignment. She borrowed other things from friends.
At first Baer’s staging business was a story of survival. Then she hit a crossroads. Barbra Streisand’s film production company approached her and said they wanted to buy one of her previous screenwriting projects but offered only 20 percent of her quoted price. With a handful of staging jobs under her belt, Baer turned down the job and decided to make home staging a full-time career.
“I thought, I moved this pot from here to there and everybody tells me I’m brilliant. And as a screenwriter I’m pouring out my heart and soul and they say, ‘I don’t like where you put the comma,’” she said. “I knew right then that I had really made a decision.”
Working on Instinct
Although she has no formal training in design, Baer has a long habit of rearranging her surroundings. As a teenager she would frequently rearrange her mother’s furnishings. As a student at the University of Colorado–Boulder, she would buy and flip small homes after minor cosmetic work like adding a coat of paint and hanging new shutters. Even today Baer finds it hard to resist rearranging hotel lobbies when she goes on family vacations.
“Design is very intuitive to Meridith,” said Brett Baer, her nephew and the company president. “Every space she’s ever in she alters and changes it.”
Today, the family-owned business also includes Meridith Baer’s niece and her niece’s boyfriend as the company’s chief creative officer and chief financial officer, respectively.
“It’s a more wonderful experience than I could ever have imagined,” Baer said. “Because I ended up not raising children, it gave me something that I never had before, which is this deep, deep connection to family.”
Poised for Growth
Baer continues to evolve her business by finding new ways to meet the design needs of her celebrity and executive clientele. Whether she’s leasing luxury furniture to furnish a temporary home for actor Robert De Niro or staging a fundraising event for President Barack Obama hosted by producer Shonda Rhimes, Baer is growing her company at a rapid pace.
The company is expanding into manufacturing, from fabrics to furniture, and opened its first retail store, Meridith Baer Home showroom, in 2015. Sister company Meridith Baer Cineprop does set designs for movies and commercials. The next chapter of Baer’s story includes expanding her company geographically, both nationally and to international locations like London, Canada and Mexico.
One of the biggest lessons Baer learned along the way is to always keep an open mind. “Pay attention as you go through life to other possibilities,” she said.
“I’m proud of building this company with my family and starting it at 50,” Baer added. “When you love what you do and work is a joy instead of a torture, life is good.”
Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.
Lisa Wirthman writes about business, sustainability, public policy, and women’s issues. Her work has been published in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Investor’s Business Daily, the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.