Chip and Joanna Gaines Are Ready to Risk It All
Chip Gaines sits on the rustic front porch of the farmhouse he shares with his wife, Joanna, and their four kids. On the crisp, green lawn are two abandoned scooters, a hoverboard and a football, all waiting for the kids to finish their schoolwork.
Chip is talking about his partnership in life and in business with Joanna, whom he affectionately calls Jo. The family lives in a fixed-up farmhouse that is more than 100 years old and which sits on 40 sprawling acres in the Central Texas city of Waco.
Joanna sits a few chairs away while Chip talks. She’s peeling back the husk on a long raw bean pod from a mesquite tree and munching on the beans inside.
Chip leans forward in his rocking chair, his shaggy, reddish gold hair slipping over one eye. “There are so many places where she’s refined me as a man, as a husband,” he says of Joanna. “I’m a better person because of the experiences we’ve had together.”
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Watching him speak, Joanna puts her hand to the side of her face to create a little privacy for the soft smile that forms just for him.
Between their top-rated home renovation show, their heavily trafficked local businesses and millions of followers on social media, privacy isn’t something Chip and Joanna have had much of lately. But that is about to change.
Chip got his start as an entrepreneur mowing lawns in North Texas—a far cry from the fame he and Joanna have seen with their renovation business spotlighted on HGTV’s Fixer Upper.
Now in its fifth season, the show is set in Waco and has become the most successful series in HGTV history. It premiered to 1.3 million viewers in 2013, with the Season 4 premiere last year pulling in 3.4 million viewers—the largest cable audience that night.
Each episode showcases the couple as they guide a Waco-area resident in the purchase of a home, followed by a total renovation by Chip and a redesign by Joanna. Chip’s construction industry experience and Joanna’s eye for a clean, country take on shabby-chic design have made the renovation projects a formula for success. But their likability is the key to the show’s success. His goofiness and her comedic timing pair well with the authenticity they present.
Most people aren’t shocked by the show’s wild success. They’re not surprised by how Chip and Joanna have become so popular for their down-to-earth, playful personalities and made-for-TV looks—Chip with his rugged, tall frame and Joanna with her thick, long dark hair and big, dazzling eyes. The real surprise is that they’ve decided to step away and end the show after its fifth season.
“The idea of leaving the show at the height of its popularity is probably pretty risky, almost irrational-sounding,” says Chip, 43. He remembers a time in early 2017 when he and Joanna talked about what their lives would look like one day when the show finally ended. The more they talked about their vision, the more they felt it was the right time to pursue it.
“Our oldest, who’s 12, is becoming a teenager,” Chip says, “and Jo and I just realized in our hearts that as much as we love Fixer Upper, as much as we love the honor that we have felt with this show basically introducing us to the country, if not the world, we want to make sure that we’re here for our family during really crucial, pivotal points in its journey.”
Chip also says they don’t want to burn out when their family needs them most. “Obviously Jo and I as a couple, we just don’t want to redline. You know, we don’t want to run so hard after some dream or some goal only to find out that we’ve neglected the thing that means the very most to us, which is our marriage and our relationship.”
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So they made the bold decision to end their show at the peak of its popularity, announcing the decision in September. The choice doesn’t just affect their family. With somewhere between 15,000 and 35,000 visitors—about half of them from out of state—flocking to the couple’s Magnolia Market shop, bakery and fixed-up houses in Waco each week, this decision could have a major impact on the city’s economy.
“Despite the fact that this is extremely risky and maybe even a little bit irresponsible, I feel like it’s going to be the right decision for our family moving forward.”
“We’ve prayed about it, and we’ve thought about it,” Chip says. “This did not come lightly. Obviously we’ve got this beautiful business here in Waco, and people come from all over to visit our store here. And big picture, this is a risky play.”
But Chip says he feels more at peace knowing they’re making the right decision for their family. And Chip, known for his risk-taking personality and tendency to listen to his gut, is comfortable stepping into the unknown.
“People are like, ‘You’re crazy. You would be crazy to leave this thing at the height like this. Give it another year. Let it run out of gas,’ ” he says. “And we kind of laugh, and we’re like, ‘You know what? That’s not who we are. We don’t want to run this thing off a cliff and into a culvert.’ ”
From Lawn Mower to Land Owner
The idyllic Gaines farm includes a small garden, pool, outdoor eating area, fireplace, chicken coop, barn and stables. The family keeps goats, longhorn cattle, chickens and other animals on the farm, but Chip calls the place an “all-pet ranch.”
On this hot summer day, Chip walks out through the chicken coop and into the goat pen to scatter feed. A half-mile away, a large herd of goats trots over, bleating and waggling their floppy ears. His face lights up as a few of his favorites come near.
“I’ve lived a real charmed life,” he says. “I’m just one of those knuckleheads who literally can’t remember a season of his life that he didn’t enjoy. I was a happy kid.”
Chip was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but his family moved to the suburbs between Dallas and Fort Worth when he was young. He says his parents—who both came from small towns—were hardworking and provided stability, but were not well-off financially. If something went wrong, “there was no Plan B,” he says.
As a kid, Chip was popular and a strong athlete. His adventurous side would get him into scrapes now and then, but he always talked his way out of trouble. His daring personality drew him to entrepreneurship early on. “In my junior high and high school days, I would just pick up a mower and go mow the neighbor’s grass and make an extra 30 bucks.”
In his new book, Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff, Chip says there’s a big difference between launching a few small businesses and building something sustainable. He admits it took him a while to gain the maturity necessary for building something that would last.
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Chip helmed several small ventures early in his 20s, including a wash-and-fold laundry business he ran with friends. He says this felt the most like “an actual business.” His previous lawn-mowing side gig had turned into a landscape company by that point, so he was also managing it. His management style was what he calls “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants.”
“I wasn’t diligent,” he says. “I wasn’t responsible. All I knew to do was work hard. So the work-hard part kind of masked a lot of the shortcomings of those businesses because of my immaturity.”
When his landscaping company required more to get to the next level, Chip had to walk into a bank and ask for a loan for the first time in his life.
“I was a junior in college,” he recalls. “I looked like an idiot. I probably had sweatpants on and a tank top…. I said, ‘I go to Baylor University. I’m working on a lawn-care company. Can I borrow $5,000?’ I think he said no twice.”
But over the course of that first 30-minute meeting with a banker, Chip discovered they had something in common: They both had sold books door-to-door. They laughed and talked, and by the end of the meeting, the banker was charmed enough to help kick Chip’s business up a notch.
“He gave me the money,” Chip says, “and I literally walked across the street from that bank and spent every bit of the $5,000 on equipment for this lawn company.”
The company did well, as did the laundry service, so he started making what he calls “real money.”
“I found myself like a little kid is with money,” he says with a laugh. “If I made a lot of money, I spent a lot of money. If I made a little money, I lived on a little money.”
Eventually, the same banker who helped him get his first business loan also helped him see the benefits of a savings account. A couple of years later, Chip used his savings to buy and renovate his first house for about $50,000. After renovating it, he sold it for a profit.
“Joanna and I both, it’s in our DNA. It’s who we are. As people, we love to work.”
“I almost netted $30,000 on that project,” he says. “I remember going, ‘Holy smokes. I’ve been working for the last two years to get $30,000 in this business account and now I’ve got $60,000 in that savings account. This is awesome.”
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It was then Chip decided he would go to work fixing up houses for a living.
“People might think Chip is just this goofy guy, and he is a goofy guy,” Joanna says. “But he’s also the bravest person I know.”
The Power of a Couple
They met in 2001.
Also a student at Baylor University, Joanna Stevens, now 39, had spent her childhood in Witchita, Kansas. Her family moved to Austin, Texas and then Waco, where she helped out in her father’s Firestone auto care store. Chip visited the shop one day, and saw a photograph of Joanna with her family behind the counter. He visited often in hopes of meeting her. After many brake job visits, he finally met her. It wasn’t love at first sight, he says, but the beginning of a fun courtship. Joanna was guarded at first, but Chip eventually won her over.
The couple married in the garden of a historic Waco mansion in 2003. A few months later, she opened Magnolia Market boutique, a home décor store, while Chip flipped houses.
After the birth of their second child, Joanna closed her boutique to help Chip with the renovation business and be more present with the kids at home. Chip closed the landscaping and laundry-service companies, and for 10 years, the couple worked together flipping houses and made ends meet as their family grew. But sometimes their financial situation was touch-and-go.
Joanna was especially stressed and scared. As a small-business owner, her father had a stable income and approached his business with a low-risk, long-term growth attitude. Her father’s approach was very different from Chip’s entrepreneurial approach, which focused much more on high-risk moves and innovation. That unpredictability was tough for Joanna to handle, and she cried often during the first year of their marriage.
“Chip is the risk-taker,” Joanna says. “He’s all about the big picture, but with a get-it-done attitude, and sometimes I’d rather play it safe and really focus my energy on the details.”
Slowly, Chip improved his processes, expertise and financial know-how. At the same time, Joanna improved her design skills and started what would become a popular home design and crafting blog, At Home.
That’s when the call came. A production company had noticed Joanna’s blog and was impressed with her design work. The company asked the Gaineses if they’d be interested in doing a TV show. The couple discussed it. They wanted to make sure the show reflected the work they did as a team, complementing each other’s strengths. When they pitched the idea of working with a new Waco homeowner each episode, the executives were sold. “A TV show was never our goal,” Chip says. But they saw it as an opportunity to help more people and build their company for the sake of their family.
At the end of each episode, Chip and Joanna place a large image of the old home’s façade in front of the renovated home, and then pull it back in one big reveal.
“It never gets old,” Joanna says in their book, The Magnolia Story, “that moment when we pull back that picture and we see our clients’ faces as they experience their fixed-up new home for the very first time. We’ve spent weeks, sometimes months, getting to know these people, and it’s just very moving to us to make them happy. Chip and I both know how important home is, and we love sharing that feeling with them.”
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Their fortunes soared with their ratings. The couple used their burgeoning income to purchase more property, and Joanna reopened her store in 2014. This time, her vision was bigger, and she and Chip created what’s known as the Magnolia Silos, a square block of shops, a bakery, food trucks and family green space in the former location of a cotton mill, old rusty silos and all.
“We want to make sure that we’re here for our family during really crucial, pivotal points in its journey.”
It’s a family-and-friends kind of business. Her father stepped down from his Firestone store to be the chief operating officer. On a typical Saturday, visitors begin lining up before the store opens, and the line gets longer as the day goes by, winding around the front when the weather is nice. As you approach the arched entryway, you can see families picnicking on the lawn, their food truck treats spread in front of them. All around, people carry shopping bags full of throw pillows, hand-painted signs and fresh-baked muffins. Joanna’s mother can often be found greeting visitors.
The couple also owns Magnolia Realty, operating in five cities. They developed and sold a residential subdivision in Waco called Magnolia Villas, and their Magnolia Home collections include textiles, paint, wall coverings, furniture, accessories and décor. The Gaineses also produce a highly successful quarterly lifestyle magazine called The Magnolia Journal. In 2017 they announced a partnership with Target to launch an exclusive home design line, Hearth & Hand.
Together, the duo seems to work nonstop. It’s one reason fans might have hope that their TV absence will be short-lived, that the two will soon enough pop up on another network. HGTV has already announced a spinoff series, set for May, that will profile the creative work that has gone into many of the Gaines’ remodels.
“Joanna and I both, it’s in our DNA,” Chip says. “It’s who we are. As people, we love to work. Some people love to golf. Some people love to go on vacation…. When we’re on vacation, we enjoy it. But, you know, Week Two of vacation and we start really feeling homesick.” Not just for their home and family, he says. “But wanting to get back to work.”
In Capital Gaines, Chip explores the business philosophies that have helped him succeed, as well as his life as a married father of four. “The idea of writing my own book has always been a fantasy of mine,” he says.
Balancing the life of a husband and father with the heavy demands of the couple’s successful entrepreneurial ventures is tough. They even refer to the Magnolia company as their “fifth baby.” Though balancing work and family life is a constant struggle for so many people, Chip thinks it’s possible to do both.
“I believe we are built to have thriving personal lives, and I think we’re built to have thriving professional lives,” he says. “Where the error occurs is when one becomes secondary to the other. In Jo and I’s life… we will always choose our family. We will always choose our marriage no matter what the opportunity, and the Fixer Upper conclusion is a decent example [of that].”
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LARSEN AND TALBERT/CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
LARSEN AND TALBERT/CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
Over the past few years, Chip and Joanna have had to travel a lot without their kids, so they instituted a family tradition before each trip. They look each of their children in the eyes and say, “ ‘No matter what, we choose you. You’re the most important thing in the world to your mom and your dad. Right now, we have to go and do this particular thing or that particular thing, but we want you to know if you need us, if there’s something that comes up in your life, you tell us and we will leave whatever it is that we’re doing in a heartbeat,’ ” Chip says.
He believes their kids, two boys and two girls ages 7 to 12, are incredibly resilient and have weathered the ups and downs of the business and the accompanying fame with a level of understanding he appreciates.
“But I will concede that it is very challenging, and my heart goes out to everybody who deals with a life where they have to choose one or the other,” he says.
The Gaineses believe they can have both. “We’ve always been on the same page when it comes to the things that matter most: our family and our values and how we want to raise our children,” Joanna says.
“I feel like a little bit of a load has been lifted, under the realization that tomorrow’s going to be a different chapter.”
Their marriage has been the topic of envious conversation and even the occasional false tabloid rumor since the show began. But the Gaines’ flirtatious banter and obvious affection for one another seems authentic and sincere. They support each other. After putting in a full day of filming for television, a tired Joanna feels herself starting to drag through yet another shoot, this one with the SUCCESS crew, then tells herself aloud, “this is for Chip,” and snaps back to her big smile. Posing for the cover shots, she rests her head on his chest as naturally as a new bride.
“People ask all the time, ‘How do y’all have such a great marriage, and what’s the secret?’ ” Chip says. “There’s no secret. It’s hard work,” Chip says. “Jo and I have struggles and fighting and arguments just like anybody else. This isn’t like we got lucky and hit the lottery and the two perfect people fell in love.”
LARSEN AND TALBERT/CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
But You Gotta Have Faith
Although the Gaineses never talk about their Christian faith on Fixer Upper, Chip says it’s an integral part of their roles as parents, partners and business owners.
“It’s just us living according to the philosophies and the faith that we hold dear in our hearts,” Chip says. “That’s all we did on the show was live it out. All we know is that we want to be kind to each other. And so our faith has a role in that. It’s who we are. We can’t separate ourselves from it.”
As excited and proud as Chip and Joanna are about all they’ve accomplished with Fixer Upper, they’re ready to see what the future holds.
“I feel like a little bit of a load has been lifted, under the realization that tomorrow’s going to be a different chapter,” Chip says. “Despite the fact that this is extremely risky and maybe even a little bit irresponsible, I feel like it’s going to be the right decision for our family moving forward, and we’re really optimistic about that.”
It’s not the first time the Gaineses have stuck out their necks in trying to create the future they want.
“Chip always talks about how life isn’t about arriving at the farm, it’s about what happens on the way there,” Joanna says. “For us, the farm is our home, so it’s our favorite place in the world. But we didn’t all of a sudden become the people we were always meant to be once we got there—those things happened along the way.”
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This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at AmyKAnderson.com and on Facebook.
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