British model and documentary producer followed her heart to Montreal, and built a world famous design and television production company

Debbie Travis is a person a tremendous energy. She encourages those surrounding her to elevate their performance level and give the extra effort that differentiates the exceptional from the ordinary. In conversation she is forthright; and has a refreshing common sense approach to her own career development and to issues that confront parents, teachers, and employers. Her hit television series, From the Ground Up, has just completed its first season on Global Television during the important Sunday night prime time schedule. You’ll also see and hear Debbie as a spokesperson for Canadian Tire in all of the company’s advertising for a complete line of home products, including paint her own brand of paint.

Debbie’s career has been a case of evolution, where one job evolved into the next, and most recently, where one television program evolved into its successor. It’s been a long and rewarding journey from Lancashire in Northern England to her Montreal-based interior design studio and television production enterprises.

As a young woman, Debbie had a successful modelling career which included performing in television commercials. “I was attracted to the business when I was filming TV commercials. I remember being fascinated by what was going on behind the camera. The producer told me that the best way to get started was to go out and start making videos” Debbie has a reputation for going straight to the top when she is making a business presentation. It’s a rumour based on fact. “We made instructional videos and then a series of documentaries on self-made millionaires. We talked to people who through pure gall had done it with talent and will-power.” Asked how she gained access to these highly successful people Debbie replied; “I just called them up, told them what I was doing, and they invited me over!” This early exercise would prove to be prophetic.

Debbie attended the Cannes Film Festival in 1985 to see about securing television distribution rights for her documentaries. While drumming up business, she met Hans Rosenstein, originally from Germany but then working in the television distribution business in Montreal. After a whirlwind courtship, she left everything behind in England to marry Hans and move to Montreal.

The couple purchased an old Victorian home, and Debbie redecorated it using paint effects based on historical finishes that were then popular in England. Friends were impressed, and began asking Debbie to do their houses. “I started painting houses for something to do. Soon I was being asked to do decorative painting for restaurants and stores, including Ogilvy’s.”

“A friend had a design school, and asked me to do a couple of classes on Decorative Painting issues. It was packed.” Debbie was being noticed by television chat shows, which need a steady stream of guest personalities. Already accustomed to working in front of a television camera, Debbie was comfortable communicating and demonstrating her decorative paint techniques to the studio audiences. “I could see that I was connecting with the audiences – they were all leaning forward in their seats.” Seeing another business opportunity, Debbie went into action. “I opened my own studio, and began teaching workshops to homeowners and professional decorators.”

The next step was to produce an instructional video. “Rich people had designers…the rest of us went to paint stores.” Her first video; Decorative Paint Finishes Made Easy, was a huge success. This provided sufficient funding to produce three more advanced videos. All four are still big sellers throughout North America. Her message is that with some imagination, instruction and a little work, anyone can decorate their living space without spending a fortune.

You can see the pattern of evolution; from house painter, to teacher of paint techniques, to producer of instructional videos on decorative painting, while drawing on her previous experience in television commercials. Each activity is building on the lessons learned form the previous one. The stage is now set for Debbie Travis to make a big step forward into television on the speciality networks on cable TV.

“The Life Channel had purchased Martha Stewart’s program. There was a market for home decorating programs. We pitched The Painted House to TWTN, (The Women’s Television Network), and won a contract to produce 13 shows. We did a house in Laval, and were able to produce all 13 shows from this one location.”

Debbie had hit the market right on. “It’s what people wanted at the time.” The show was syndicated and sold in 14 different countries. “We were asked to do another 26 shows. We put the money we made back into these shows, and the production values improved. PBS took on the show for the national network in the Unites States. We were the first design show in North America.”

The show grew, and grew…and then grew some more. “By the seventh season, I began to see that it was getting too big. The people whose homes we were doing were horrified when they saw how many people it took to do the show – all camped on their front lawn, driveway – anywhere where there was space.”

“We evolved to Facelift in 2002, with minimal production, using hand held cameras and a lot less people. We even had secret cameras installed so that we’d get to really know the people whose home we were doing.”

The hit primetime series on Global evolved from Facelift. “We had started to employ interns from film schools. I saw a real problem. The students got bored…they were not using the television production experience as a learning opportunity.” Debbie continues;” If they made a mistake, they’d simply walk away and go home.

There was a real lack of passion and ability to take instruction.” Debbie spoke with suppliers and found that this was going on in all businesses. “These are not teenagers who are going through growing pains…we’re talking about 29 year-olds without any kind of work ethic!”

“We don’t value trades in North America. A perfect example is the Vancouver Olympics. We’ve had to go to Italy to bring in craftsmen and skilled trades. We all want our children to go to university, when many of our kids would be happier and better off in a trade. You can do very well…my plumber drives a Ferrari! Unfortunately, we have reduced the status of the trades to labourers. You have so much more personal freedom and independence when you have a trade than when you work for a large corporation.”

“The purpose of From the Ground Up was to see if we could teach a work ethic, the value of getting the job done and doing it well. To learn to handle yourself and work situations – to ask ‘how’ when you don’t know (and also to admit when you don’t).” Debbie continues, “It was a tough message to say. I wish I had some magic formula.”

We thought that broadcasting the show would help other young people see themselves – instead they tended to ‘side’ with the kids on the program. On the other hand, we received very positive e-mails from trades people, teachers, and government representatives. One teacher was using the program as a basis for discussion in class.”

“You can’t start at the top in business. But you can build yourself up, learning as you go. I’m a house painter – and look what I’ve done. We have to put some backbone back into our children and what we teach them.”

“Our tradesmen on the set of From the Ground Up were on the job working at 7 am. We had a 58 year old stone mason who was really proud of his work.” Debbie’s crew completed the mansion in just seven weeks, from demolition of the original building to final completion. The project made a $250,000 profit on the sale of the completed house, and that was the prize for the person voted best intern.

The show was a huge ratings success, and plans are already underway for next season’s show.

In the meanwhile, Debbie has been very busy working as a spokesperson for Canadian Tire, one of Canada’s most successful retailers, although heretofore geared towards men. “They wanted me to encourage women to come into the store. We examine and have our imprint on every single item. We try to offer something a bit different.” Debbie adds with her customary enthusiasm: “There’s nothing in there that I wouldn’t want in my own home or to offer as a gift!”

Debbie has been a guest several times on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey says, “She can do things with paint that you’ve never seen before. Travis is the master of paint and plaster.” In turn, Debbie has great admiration and respect for Winfrey. “She’s done it from the ground up.” Ever the entrepreneur, she continues; “For book sales, an appearance on ‘Oprah’ is absolutely amazing. A few days after an appearance – you’re one of the best sellers on”

On a subject closer to home in Montreal, Debbie talks about her Montreal production offices. “I’m very proud of the work environment we’ve created here. Mothers with young children know that we have flexibility. When the school calls – you have to go. I know, because I’ve done that myself when our kids were younger. We’re almost all women here, with one very brave man!”

Debbie is an award-winning author with eight books published by Random House/Clarkson Porter. The titles include: Painted House (hardcover 1997 and paperback in 2002), Decorating Solutions (1999), Weekend Projects (2000), Living and Dining Rooms (2001), Kid’s Rooms (2002), Bedrooms (2002), Kitchens & Baths (2003) and Facelift (2005). She also writes an internationally syndicated weekly newspaper column, House-to-Home. For her television work, she has received 11 Gemini nominations and three Gemini awards in 2003 and 2005. This past spring, Debbie Travis received the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award from The McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women. A long way from painting houses for “something to do”.

Asked to comment on her success to date, awards and recognition, Debbie stated: “I was not by any means the cleverest in the class. You’ve got to want it – to want the challenge. I wanted the opportunity and went for it!”

For information about Debbie’s books, tapes, DVDs and television programs, please visit her website at: Bravo! Debbie.

Related Posts