Meet the Waco wunderkinds: Chip and Joanna Gaines build a media, retail empire

December 11, 2015

Amy Holloway, President of Avalanche Consulting, is featured in this Austin Business Journal article.

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Three years ago Chip and Joanna Gaines of Waco emerged from the television screen on the new HGTV show “Fixer Upper.” Who knew whether the gambit would pay off? After all, TV shows come and go at an alarming pace.

But today Chip and Joanna are one of the small screen’s most popular couples — Chip as the lovable, goofy beast and Joanna as the stunning beauty with a knack for design and putting up with Chip’s hilarious antics.

Together they help homebuyers select unremarkable, even dumpy homes, in great neighborhoods and convert them into fashionable and highly livable abodes.

The engaging couple, their four super cute young children and large menagerie of pets and farm animals have warmed the hearts of millions of viewers. They’ve become bonafide superstars in the do-it-yourself world.

Though the TV gig — now in its third season — would be success enough for most, behind the scenes the couple also own a construction company, manage a residential real estate brokerage firm and operate Joanne’s design and décor retail store called Magnolia Market at the Silos, the new flagship store opened in October.

Humble beginnings have multiplied into a workforce approaching 100 and an economic impact on Waco — about 100 miles north of Austin on I-35 — that is hard to quantify other than to say, “It’s big.”

“The Gaineses and their businesses have been transformative to Waco,” said Amy Holloway of Austin-based Avalanche Consulting, which provides economic development consulting to the Waco Chamber of Commerce. “They are an economic engine. People are moving to Waco because of their show.”

It’s all a bit ironic to Chip Gaines, who spoke with me recently even though his publicist had said he wasn’t doing interviews because “they’re so busy with the new store opening and filming season three.”

But time was indeed made for a phone conversation, which revealed some unexpected details.

Bitten by the love and building bug

Chip came to Waco reluctantly from his hometown near Dallas. College was the expectation for a kid growing up in suburbia, though studying and bookwork were not in his blood. Sitting still was downright awful. Bayor University wasn’t an easy transition.

“I really dreamed of going back to the big city — Dallas or Houston or even Phoenix,” Gaines said.

His father worked in Corporate America and his grandfather was a rancher in North Texas.

“We all had hard work in common,” Gaines said, though he wasn’t sure where he would apply all that pent-up energy.

To maintain sanity during his college years, Gaines started a lawn care company and built up a thriving clientele. He also flipped his first house and made some serious cash.

“In one flip I made more than I made in the whole previous year,” he said. “The construction bug really got a hold of me.”

As graduation neared, Gaines continued to struggle with his career direction. His father encouraged him to pursue his entrepreneurial instincts.

“He said, ‘You can always go do the corporate thing,’” Gaines recalled.

Soon after, a visit to a Waco tire shop changed everything forever. He met Joanna, who was working in her father’s Firestone Tire store. Dating followed and love quickly thereafter.

“She always wanted to stay in Waco. Her family is there and she feels grounded,” Gaines said. “She told me she wanted a guy who was willing to stay here. I got lucky and said the right thing.”

Waco went from being the place Chip Gaines could take or leave to becoming a focus of his passion to build a better community.

Blossoming empire

The Gaineses are no overnight success as some might presume from watching “FixerUpper.” They labored long and hard building up their real estate and design businesses. Failure also knocked at the door during the recession that began in 2008.

“The banks really stepped back and we were in a pickle,” Gaines said. “We did some horse trades to keep the boat afloat.”

Their renovation business eventually picked up. They’ve built an infill residential development with 36 units and their real estate agents are among the most successful in town. Some of them moved to Waco for the sheer joy of working for the Gaineses.

The feather in their cap is the new Magnolia Market complex, which includes restored grain silos in downtown Waco. It was a complicated and pivotal project for their company and the city as a whole.

Gaines won’t quote specific numbers, preferring to just say they’ve spent millions of dollars investing in Waco. Magnolia Market is packed most days with locals and visitors who’ve traveled across the world to see it.

“When you drive down I-35 you can see that it’s really a part of Waco’s skyline. It’s really exciting to put our stamp on it and preserve it,” Gaines said.

Another busy year is on the horizon in 2016. Magnolia Home Furnishing by Joanna Gaines is set to debut in retail stores across the country. A line of paint, also named after Joanna, will also roll out.

As the Gaines’ fortunes have taken off, Waco has been caught up in the fervor.

“Community pride is sky high now in Waco,” consultant Holloway said. “I can’t think of another community that’s experienced anything like this.”