Inspiration on the Plains

From the Nex-Tech Connections, June 2013

He finds beauty and inspiration gazing on a northwest Kansas landscape of barns, bins and elevators. He’s equally comfortable traveling the European continent in search of old world artisans capable of turning his textile designs into bolts of luxurious fabric that will adorn high-end, custom-made furniture. His company, Dessin Fournir, is world renown, with offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But this CEO is most at home in Plainville, Kansas. He’s Chuck Comeau, designer, entrepreneur, historic preservationist; Renaissance man.

After earning a degree in geology from Fort Hays State University, Comeau enjoyed a successful 15-year career in oil, gas, and ranching in his hometown community of Plainville. Despite the success, Comeau in 1993 followed his heart and passion for design to Los Angeles, where he and business partner, Len Larson, founded Dessin Fournir.

The design business was flourishing, however, staffing issues in L.A. and the dreaded commute from his hometown in Kansas to the west coast prompted Comeau to consider a radical idea. What if he moved the headquarters from California to his hometown? With some outside-the-box thinking, and high-speed Internet service from Nex-Tech, that idea in 1996 became reality.

“What really made it possible for us to have it here in Plainville is technology,” Comeau said. “Having high-speed Internet, we have the best of everything here. Our ability to transact business is far more efficient here than it is in Los Angeles, or for that matter in Chicago or New York, where you would think they would have the best technology, and in fact, they don’t. As a result of that, we’ve just continued to grow the business, except for those parts that we really can’t facilitate here,” said Comeau.

Comeau remarked that the move has had a great impact on northwest Kansas employment, as well as the vitality of the Plainville business district.

“Over the years, we went from two people here in Plainville to 78,” said Comeau. “As a result of that, we’ve also been able to remodel old buildings for offices and create environments for work that are a little bit different than what you’d see even in cities. Most people come here and say, ‘I didn’t expect to find this in Plainville, Kansas.'”

Over the past 15 years, Dessin Fournir has refurbished five vacant buildings in downtown Plainville, and repurposed them into vibrant office space, taking advantage of their unique characteristics, and creating environments that people love, while also putting some energy back into the downtown area.

“Legal, accounting, customer service, design—anything associated with the business administratively gets done here,” stated Comeau. “Warehousing also gets done here. We import from all over the world back here to Plainville. Likewise, we manufacture lighting here, as we moved that business back here in 2005.”

While Comeau travels to and works in major cities around the world, he ranks the technology available locally from Nex-Tech at the top.

“In New York, we have lots of trouble with our Internet service. And here, we run circles around them. They don’t have anything,” said Comeau. “L.A. is just as problematic. You can’t believe how bad the Internet service is. Of course, here we are in Plainville, Kansas, and we can do ten times what they can do.”

Comeau marvels at how the design business has evolved over the past 20 years because of communication technology.

“This morning, I was emailing a gentleman in China, whom we have a joint venture with. He’s actually from the U.K., but he’s traveling in China right now,” said Comeau. “It’s kind of amazing to sit here and think that while first of all, there’s this huge time difference, but likewise, I’m able to communicate with him right then, about a very specific topic that needed to be dealt with right then, and I could do that just as quickly with him from Plainville, Kansas, as I could from any major city.”

Comeau’s passion for history, architecture and the region have also fueled his foray into community redevelopment that started in 1997 when he and his wife, Shirley, opened their unique retail store, C.S. Post & Co. in Hays. Since then, Comeau founded the Liberty Group, Inc., which is the primary developer involved with the renovation of more than 20 buildings in Hays’ historic downtown. The renovated spaces have attracted a host of new retail and service businesses into the district.

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Pulling out architectural renderings, Comeau’s eyes light up as he discusses his plans for a boutique hotel on the corner of 12th & Main.

“The concept has come full circle in terms of development. We have the ideas of what it will look like, and now we’re in the process of putting together funding,” said Comeau. “We’re very excited!”

As CEO of Dessin Fournir, Comeau hosts visitors from all over the world who have discovered the appeal of northwest Kansas.

“We deal with textile mills in 10 European countries, and we have two English companies that relocated four years ago, one to Thailand, and one to Bangalore. So they fly into here, and they no longer look at Kansas in the same light,” said Comeau. “They come here thinking we’re in the hinterland, and leave thinking, ‘my God, now I know why they live there.'”