'We Are the Holidays': Martha Stewart on Gift Giving, Vacations, and Her Global Ambitions

Photographer: Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival

Martha Stewart, 73, is starting a "new chapter" in her career. The domestic diva’s parent company Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO) shed the non-editorial functions of its unprofitable magazine division this fall (it will still supply all the content) to focus on merchandise and making sure people all over the world can slide into cozy flannel sheets or buy perfectly decorated trees. Soon she'll open up a brick-and-mortar cafe as well amid the art galleries of Manhattan's west Chelsea. Bloomberg Reserve's Peter Elliot met with her at her office overlooking New York’s Hudson River.

How did you become so associated with the holiday season?

Associated? We’re not associated. We are the holidays. Here, the holidays never really end. It’s a huge focus for our business -- an almost a $100 million part. We’re at Home Depot. We’re selling trees on Black Friday. Last year we sold 90,000 trees on Black Friday. So everything we do, from photo shoots, to trees, to -- well everything -- it never really stops.

Could we define your core business now as “the holidays?”

No. The holidays are just a part. Flannel sheets. I’m not kidding. I’m all into flannel sheets. Would you have ever thought flannel sheets would be a profitable business? But they are.

Last-Minute Gifting

What’s the Martha Stewart quick fix for last-minute gifts? What do you tell the trader or executive who has run out of time?

It wouldn’t be bad to give them cash. Especially for kids. They would be thrilled to go out and buy what they really want. For your wife, you should really be better at planning that -- listen for something she’s been hinting at. Wives have a way of doing that.

For a woman who sells sheets, do you recommend household goods as gifts?

No. Women can get those things themselves. What they want is a beautiful piece of jewelry, a handbag -- something you’ve thought through. That's something you don't mess up.

What if you’re the kind of guy who has no idea what that even means?

We’ll have to have a whole discussion on that another time! The secret here is to ask. If she’s hinted she wants a handbag, go to one of the better stores -- she’ll have hinted at that, too. And ask for help. And you know what? Your wife wouldn’t mind a wad of cash either!

Vacation Habit

So if you’re planning a holiday vacation, how do you fit that in?

Like many men, I forget to make plans, too. So then I try to be creative. I’m a business person. I want a vacation at the end of the year, but I also love the habit of family, the kids and grandkids, Christmas Eve, opening the presents. But then? I want to be off to the airport, not too early.

That sounds hard to execute.

It's easy. Agree on a holiday plan by Oct. 1. You both agree what you’re doing and where you’re going. Have your assistant put it in your calendar so it’s not a secret. It’s a pact. Decide where -- or if -- you’re going away. Whatever you decide, plan it, agree to it, and put it in the diary. It’s a pact that over the years can become a habit, too.

International Expansion

There's a saying, “In business, never look back. Only forward.” Does that apply to you, too?

1000 percent. I’m only looking forward. I want to make our business match our brand. That’s why last week I was in Korea, the week before in Istanbul. I’m learning about the different countries which will accommodate our brand and almost all of them do.

How do you define the MS brand?

We have thousands of products that have to do with the home, the holidays, the indoors, the outdoors. Everything related to a home. They’re well made, they’re good looking and they’re affordable and that’s exactly why it's appealing to a homemaker in emerging middle classes all over the world.

Are you starting over?

I feel like a new chapter is beginning. A new international chapter. The world, as Mr. Friedman says, is flat. There are no boundaries. People all over the world want and need the same things. They’re looking for comfort, they’re looking for a home. They’re looking for a place to put their heads so they can go out and build businesses.

Quality Leads

As you start on this next chapter, what will you do differently that you might not have done before?

Now I’m more devoted to making things really, really good than making things monetarily successful. If you make them good, the success comes. My company is a case in point. This company has to grow now. It has to. It has every single quality of a really good company and now all I have to do is help make that happen.

It sounds like it all comes back to business. Does that make you happy?

I’m a total workaholic. You learn as you get older to get joy in other ways. I have two grandchildren that give me great joy. And my gardens; a party next week.

What's your holiday wish for your grandchildren?

All I want for them is that they survive fabulously in this very complicated world. And survive happily.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Bloomberg Reserve. Click for full issue and to subscribe.

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