Willard Ford gets bored easily. He’s the type of person who is always busy and with a hand in twenty different activities happening at the same time. He’s a master at balancing various business projects and personal interests, clustering everything together into a collection of live/work pursuits.
The best example of this is his office home or home office or office-with-a-home-in-it: where he lives is also the home of his office which means that he is perpetually working. The space is quite remarkable and potentially even a place you’ve been to, too. Formerly the Kim Sing Theatre, Willard rehabbed the Chinatown building and converted it into his home, office, and rentable event venue. He even opened Strong Sports Gym in the front of the building and the space frequently hosts Los Angeles’ CreativeMornings.
We sit down at a long table, nearly as long as the building. It’s very sleek, modern, bright, and looks nothing like a theatre. His dogs wander the space like loyal watchmen and various employees and business partners pop in and out of doors and corridors to ask him questions. Their entries reveal more and more parts of the building that you had no idea existed.
“I bought the building in 1999,” he says. “It was four solid years before we actually got our permit to occupy. I came into the space at a time when I couldn’t really afford it so the area that is now offices was an apartment.”
The building is currently the where Willard’s latest enterprise is based: Flagship, a multi-interest fashion, design, and athletics marketing, public relations, wholesale representation, and brand development company. It’s a brand new combination of Willard’s previous work (and interests) and the old Kim Sing Theatre is just the office/showroom/gym hybrid for it. Moreover, it’s literally where he lives: the Southern most tip of the building is his skinny two story apartment.
Willard’s current patchwork of activity comes from an equally as varied background. It’s a reflection of a busy life. “I grew up in Los Angeles: I’m a native,” he explains. “We lived in an old ranger station my dad was always renovating in the Hollywood Hills. The foundation was so badly cracked that it should have been condemned. My dad was a carpenter, a cabinet maker and my mother was a school teacher. It was a pretty strange part of the East Hollywood Hills, up above Cahuenga Pass: there were a lot of artists there but also drug dealers, rapists, whack jobs, etc. It was the Hollywood Hills in the 1970s. It was crazy. The Manson Family happenings occurred not too far from there. There was a time when the SWAT Team was in our front yard, another time when a crazy guy chased my dad around the house with a screwdriver and everyone was dealing drugs to everybody.: it was this hangover from the sixties that left no social bottom line. There was a bit of anarchy.”
Despite a tense social landscape in Los Angeles, Willard had a somewhat normal upbringing. His mother made him and his brother’s clothes, they attended a private school that they volunteered for, and there was a hardworking, honesty to them.
He eventually moved to the Valley after his parents divorced and his mother remarried. “It was pretty cool and way calmer than living in the Hollywood Hills,” he says.
Around this time period, Willard also developed the initial foundation for his current interests and lifestyle. “I worked from a very young age because I liked to work. My parents didn’t demand it and I never really needed money because I didn’t spend money. I was into Dungeons and Dragons and bicycle racing, things no one really cared about.”
“I went to college in Santa Cruz. My whole life in [high] school was getting really good grades, really good test scores, and I totally conned my way through everything. I was Mr. Independent Study. I would tutor other kids instead of having to go to class. I was the kid who took all levels of Spanish and German when in fact I didn’t speak much of it at all: the teachers were just so bad that they never knew.”
“I just wanted to be a Valley Dude. I didn’t have any real plans,” he explains. “I moved to San Francisco to be with some friends, went nuts, and–like the brainiac that I am–got a girl pregnant and decided to start a family very young. At the time, I had started a company called VeloAsia that took people on adventure tours through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos by bicycle.”
Willard was an avid bike racer, which framed his career and was how he supported his family. “I started a sports marketing company in bicycle racing since I wasn’t getting anywhere with the bike racing myself. I started a team, managed a team, and was raising my son in the Bay Area the whole time.”
“We had to move to LA because I was tired of living up North,” he says, noting that he found the theatre completely by accident while he and his family lived with his grandmother. “I was on a bike ride and I called my wife, joking about it mostly. It was three hundred grand. I bought and sold two houses in Northern California so we had some extra money. We bought this place, moved out of my grandmother’s place, my wife and I split up, she went to Santa Monica, and I ended up here, rehabbing this space.”
This is when things picked up for Willard. Because his space was completely empty and he couldn’t afford furniture, he and a friend developed a business concept that could service his space. They went to Asia, purchased lots of well designed furniture at cheap prices, and then found markets and retailers for the goods.
“I devised this scheme with my friend John Brady to create FordBrady, which was a company that brought over stuff that was branded as FordBrady but was associated with the designers. Basically, we were getting container loads full of stuff and selling it. The money was easy because it was 2005.”
At the same time, Willard’s friend Angelique Groh opened her first office at Kim Sing Theatre, managing FordBrady’s PR as well as launching a specialty apparel showroom. Business was good in the early aughts but started to turn as the economy slumped in 2007. Thankfully, Willard had other projects in the works. “In the meantime, a friend had gotten me into the fashion side of the business. He argued that it’s really similar to what I was already doing so I might as well work on the fashion side doing PR and marketing, and he created a brand called Ludwig Clothing. FordBrady basically fell apart at the same time as the market was falling apart. We had nearly eight hospitality projects fold at the same time.”
Attempting to save the business(es), Willard had to get creative and look beyond selling goods himself. This is where the foundation for Flagship was laid. “Andrea Ching, who was an ex-girlfriend from high school, was working at Design Within Reach and I told her they had to buy [my] stuff. I needed to move into wholesale. She told me no and I thought she was being difficult but she was really protecting me from getting into a situation I was unprepared for with DWR.”
“John was going to bail out of the business since there wasn’t enough money to go around and I had to get out it, too. I asked Andrea to be my partner because we had to do wholesale: we can’t trade to the public. We launched Ford&Ching, which is essentially the same company but with a higher level of expertise and professionalism.”
“Parallel to this was the fashion thing. Ludwig tanked and was spending more money than it was taking in. I split up with that partner at roughly the same time. I took Chris Josol–who was working for me at Ludwig–on as a partner at 722. So, I had two partners at two separate businesses at two separate channels–essentially they are both wholesalers working within these cross-channels that provide sales, marketing, and PR.”
Willard was balancing two agencies in his space–design focused Ford&Ching, fashion focused 722–in addition to managing a still thriving interest in biking and athletics, which has grown beyond marketing and managing products. Having multiple companies all literally in his house, things got muddy and being in three businesses became overwhelming: there had to be a better way to work.
How do you make three companies work together more effortlessly? Combine them all together.
“We are in the midst of this merger to bring them all together because there was only one of me, the common thread through all these pieces,” he says. “I convinced Andrea and Chris to become partners in a new enterprise (Flagship) but also because we needed a compelling way to tell the agency story. If you look at it individually, there are a lot agencies that sell fashion, a lot of agencies that sell design, a lot of agencies that do outdoor–but very few people can do all of these channels, have a commitment to them, and have articulated this point of view. Maybe they do a little bit of it–but that’s not their foundation.”
Willard also finds that Los Angeles is the glue that makes the agency make sense: it’s their nucleus. “It’s interesting that this conversation isn’t happening or that no one is articulating this point of view. We’ve done just that: we’re Left coast, we’re American, and we’re not ashamed of that. We are doing all these things that are distinctly West coast and American which are brands themselves. We represent that. If we opened an office in England or China, we would still be that Left coast, American agency.”
The three have been working very hard over the past six months to get this new agency off of its feet. Last week’s PROJECT Las Vegas was a bit of a coming out for them and now they are beginning to start as this new design, fashion, and sports agency by taking on clients who are a mashing of lifestyles just like them. “This push we’re having right now is getting us clients who may not have been in our reach. Holden has signed with us, a next level company that’s doing real business. We’re not having to do be so desperate.”
Flagship also means that the Kim Sing Theatre will still be actively in use as it is a working showroom of all of the goods they now represent. It still will remain Willard’s home and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of him leaving. That said, he does have to leave the space once a day because he can get a little stir crazy. “Most of my time is spent either in the gym here, at work here, or going to dinner. Because I live here and work here, I go out to dinner nearly every night because I need to get out at some point.”
Willard also has no plans to leave Los Angeles because he is what he calls a “Valley Dude.” He may eventually leave the Kim Sing space he built up but he likely will never stray too far from Los Angeles. “No one has ever confused me for being some hipster dude from Brooklyn,” he comments. “I’m definitely a California identity derived person.”
“I really want to move to Burbank or Toluca Lake,” he adds. “That’s how valley I am.”
“I never thought anything I touched would ever be successful,” he mentions taking a look around his space. “I failed upwards: who is dumb enough to buy a three hundred thousand dollar abandoned movie theatre in Chinatown in 1999 in LA? Nobody is that stupid. Nobody.”