From Home Furnishing Business
Welcome to our inaugural 40 Under 40 list of retail executives who are making a difference in our industry and their communities. The foundation for the list was created in part by our readers, who took the time to make thoughtful and enthusiastic nominations.
The constant ping of my e-mail during the nomination period last month told me that we’d struck a nerve with our community in celebrating and spotlighting the bright young faces in furniture.
To those skeptics out there who continued with their snide comments about the furniture industry having no young people in it ... well, that’s just not so.
As the nomination deadline approached, we had more than 60 names on the list. That’s quite the slate to winnow down, and trust me, if 60 Under 40 carried the same sing-song word play, we would have been all over that!
Just so you’ll know — we had a number of young execs from the supply side of the furniture industry to be nominated. Those, however, will have to wait on the sidelines for a bit while we go about honoring RETAILERS.
As we were compiling the final slate, a few things jumped out at us that I think are worth mentioning.
When you break down the list, more than half of the 40 Under 40 are working in their family business. Some are the fourth or even the fifth generation to follow in their forefathers’ footsteps.
If those great-great grandparents could only see how their legacies are working now, they may be shocked to find the new tools being put to work in the business. Tools like social media, the Internet and retail technology that allows for easy sales tracking, payroll and other retail back-shop operations. I’m sure the generations before would be in complete wonder of it all. Can you imagine the great, greats with an iPhone? That would be a super picture to Tweet or post via Instagram!
Men make up the bulk of the list with women holding 25 percent of the slots on our 40 Under 40 list.
I’m pretty certain the number isn’t skewed because of some huge conspiracy to prevent young women into the retail environment. Instead, I think it’s more likely the nature of the beast. Furniture retail requires long hours that often include nights and weekends and aren’t the most family friendly.
Our slate is filled with strong, smart, creative, intuitive, savvy retailers who are shaping the future of our industry. They continue to push themselves, their peers and their co-workers to adapt to the ever-changing retail environment.
The furniture industry is much better off with them being part of it.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”
This under-40 set is definitely built for the future and is well on its way to shaping the industry for the next generation of leaders.
Enjoy the list.
Jerome’s Furniture Looks to Expand Its Customer Reach While Keeping Firm Hold of Its Base.
A family company that looked outside the fold is making waves in Southern California’s furniture retail scene.
Jerome’s Furniture in San Diego had built a thriving business, and while the Navarra family behind the company remains firmly in place, some new blood has added some pop.
CEO Lee Goodman joined the company six years ago, bringing in a fresh face with furniture retailing chops developed at Bob’s Discount Furniture to bear on a promotional institution in the San Diego area.
Jerome’s is expanding into the Los Angeles market and bringing new retail concepts to bear in its efforts.
“Jerome’s has been in business in Southern California for 59 years,” Goodman said. “We are family owned and have a genuine relationship with the community. San Diego has seen Jerry Navarra (our chairman) on TV for the last 40 years, and now his sons Mark and Jim Navarra have begun to show up in some branding ads. “People know us and trust us. We honor our relationship with them by not participating in phony promotions and gimmicks. We have every day low prices. It’s a much more respectful approach to the furniture buying process and our industry. As we expand into the L.A. market, where people are not as familiar with our brand, it presents a wealth of opportunity.”
IT STARTS WITH PEOPLE
What makes Jerome’s different from other home furnishings retailers in the markets it serves?
“To sum it up, it’s our people,” Goodman said. “We have built a team here that is nothing short of phenomenal. Nothing works without the right people, their ability to execute our strategies at the level they do is extraordinary.
“It all starts with the Navarre family. Their warmth and generosity, coupled with their trust has created a relationship that allowed us to make the kinds of decisions we have to make to be successful.”
Those changes included a reorganization of management, but the biggest was a move away from running promotions and sales to working with the “Jerry’s everyday low price” that Goodman mentioned above.
A combination of an established retail brand and avoidance of gimmicky sales paid dividends during the recession.
“It was hard on us, just like it was on the rest of the world,” Goodman said. “We focused on doing the right things and staying disciplined to our model. During tough times, the trust our brand created through the years is seen as a real plus.”
IMPROVING THE EXPERIENCE
Jerome’s has stepped up the shopping experience in its stores. In-store signage allows is helping customer to engage with the brand in an informative, fresh way.
“In-store signage is now more design- and creative-oriented,” Goodman said. “It’s all under the umbrella of improving the customer experience, and we do serve a wide range of customers.
“You can’t be all things to all people, but with our large selection, we’re able to approach a lot of them.”
Finding that “right” selection of product so the consumer can find what she’s looking for is easier said than done, Goodman said.
“After that, it becomes all about value. We pack a lot of features into our product for the dollar,” he said. “We have decades of relationships with vendors, where it makes sense we go direct, and we negotiate great prices on behalf of our customers. We work diligently with our partners to ensure value.
“Merchandising is dependent on what sells best in each individual market. We do notice style preferences shift from market to market, so it’s constantly reviewed.”
THE RIGHT TOOLS
Jerome’s also gives sales associates the tools they need, such as tablets, to create relationships with customers and ensure they are making the right decisions for their home. The store also shares numbers to keep associates on track.
“We get closing rates at not only the store level but at the individual salesperson level—and we find out where they lost the sale, based on questions sales managers are trained to ask,” Goodman said. “We create a dashboard for people so they gain understanding and a perspective of where they stand.”
Metrics “are a big part of who we are,” he added. “We use them to help guide us in finding issues in our company. What products are (customers) coming in for? What’s the impact of our advertising?
“It allows us to make changes based on real information. (For example) We’re a little light on bedding compared to where we want to be. We’ll look at the numbers to see where we should be changing our product offerings.”
SENDING THE MESSAGE
How does Jerome’s express its retail vision in marketing and advertising efforts?
“We run several different messages at one time—branding, services, product focused—whatever we feel is most important for us to communicate at the moment,” Goodman said. “Our target customer covers such a wide range of the American public, we want to be relevant to what they are looking for.”
In addition to television, radio testimonial ads and the occasional print ad, the retailer is exploring digital more and more, and it publishes an upscale custom magazine twice a year.
“As far as digital goes, we’re on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Houzz.com,” Goodman said. “We are constantly revamping our Web site. We’re learning like everyone else, but I know those aspects of our business are only going to continue to get more and more important.”
The aim is to build a big tent that serves as wide a base of consumers as possible.
“No matter how much people make or how much they want to spend, we’re going to have something for most of them in our model,” Goodman said. “We can send out different types of messages to different people without losing who we are. It’s not class-based. All those different ingredients, all those different prices, reach a lot of people.”
Moving forward, Goodman pointed to strategic partnerships with suppliers “and a little thing called the World Wide Web” as keys to future growth.
“We look at e-commerce as a tool to, first, engage customers; and then drive them into our stores,” he said. “The Internet is our focus. We’re going to expand our customer base but not lose our existing customers.” HFB
What do you do to get away from it all?
If I have 10 days or more, I’m going to a seaside village in Northern Tuscany. If it’s less than a week, it’s the beach in Hawaii.
What do you get from what you do that recharge your batteries?
The first stage is taking the time to unwind. That can take to or three days. After that I can really dig into relaxation and disconnect my prejudice to always be honing in on a solution to something. When I do reconnect, I can really approach the tasks I deal with using a fresh approach.
I tell everyone on my team to always have a vacation planned. It gives you something to look forward to and helps you do your job better.
Lee Corson, chairman and CEO
Corson Furniture International
Pompano Beach, Fla.
What I do: For the last 65 years, my primary summer relaxation has consisted of “messing around in small boats.” Having sailed and raced well over 100,000 miles to date on a variety of my own and other’s boats, I’ve found they all have different personalities and I’ve enjoyed everyone of them—even the slow ones!
On a few occasions, Poseidon, The Mover of the Seas, has rebelled against some unknown transgression by me or one of my crew members, resulting in less than a desired smooth passage. Giving him the respect he deserves seems to mitigate the problem, and over the years he has generally been reasonable.
What I get: The experience of an offshore passage or the close competition of a around the buoy’s race is totally exhilarating and few experiences can compare. Those of us that have been captured by the lure of the sea share a very strong bond and will likely concur.
(The photo is of one of Corson’s prior boats, all of which have been named “Jilly,” after his bride of 50 years.)
Debbie Suter, co-owner
Owen Suter’s Fine Furniture
What I do: My husband, Owen Suter III, is a sixth generation furniture manufacturer. He loves to unwind and relax by shooting skeet and sporting clays.
What I get: He always says to me it doesn’t take as much time as golf. We have a beautiful outdoor shooting club, Conservation Park, in Charles City Va., that uses the profits from the shooting sports to fund quail preservation. So he relaxes, has fun with friends and helps the environment!
What’s in a name? Sometimes, everything.
That’s what the store now known as Heavenly Bedrooms found out, to its benefit. Previously known as Waterbed Heaven—and later, Waterbed Heaven Bedrooms—the Quakertown, Pa.-based retailer found that, as the bottom dropped out of the waterbed market, the store was probably losing business due to consumer perceptions.
“People didn’t realize we had more than waterbeds, and our conventional (bedding) sales were very slow,” recalled Linda Duell , who co-owns the store with her husband Brian. When the store opened in 1995, it was an all-waterbed business. By around 2005, it was half waterbeds and half conventional mattresses.
“We talked and prayed about what to do, and thought maybe a name change was in order. The very next day, we had 20 clients come in and they said, ‘You need to change your name. I never knew you had all this.’ So in 2007, we changed it to Heavenly Bedrooms. We then added Tempur-Pedic, and a year later, added Serta.”
The rest was history. Heavenly Bedrooms is now a leading bedding retailer in its area—not just because of the new name, but because of the Duells’ philosophy of treating customers right.
Turning Up the ‘HEAT’
“We follow these steps,” Duell said, “We call it HEAT. H is for Hear. E is for Empathize. A is for Apologize. T is for Take Action. … Our big saying for handling customer service is ‘the customer is always right and go from there.’ We always like to ask, ‘What would you like us to do for you?’ We never argue with them, just try and narrow it down to what it is they want to do, and then do it. You’ll find the client is never asking for anything unreasonable—they just want you to sympathize with them and correct it.”
This consideration for customers also impacts the Duells’ sales strategy as well. “We approach everyone with a smile and just a simple greeting,” Duell stated, “telling them our name and then welcoming them to our showroom. We like to tell the client upfront that we don’t work on commission, so we are just here to help select the right product. We are never pushy. It’s all about the client. We don’t follow close behind, but close enough that they know we are here. They really like this approach … they know we are here to help.
“We ask questions pertaining to the bed you have now and why you are replacing it,” she continued. “Is it too soft, too firm or just downright old? This helps us to narrow the search and direct you to a line of mattresses that will work best for your needs. We find most clients shopping today have pre-shopped online and already have an idea what they may be looking for—and now it’s time to try it.”
Show and Explain
Taking care of customers is a top priority for the Duells, and this begins the moment they enter the store. “They are why the sale even exist, so we don’t just talk—we show and explain everything,” Duell said. “We find the more the client is involved with the presentation, the more likely they are to understand the product and make a more-educated purchase. You can talk all you want, but until they see it or touch it, they just don’t get it.
“We feel it is really important to involve the client every step of the way through the purchase,” she continued. “That can be as simple as handing them the remote to a bed and (having) them play around with it (so) they can see how easy it is to use. … Get them involved—get them interested!”
Just Like At Home
While bedding stores often take a simple approach to merchandising, displaying plain mattresses with little else, leave it to Heavenly Bedrooms to do things a little differently.
“We like to display all our sets in an ‘at-home’ atmosphere—tastefully decorated and homey,” Duell said. “We want the client to feel at home and get a true idea on what it can look like at home. Too many stores are so sterile and don’t give the client any idea on what it’ll look like at home. Simple things like accessories, table lamps and pillows can really spruce up a display. We also make sure our store is clean and smells inviting (using a fragrant hot wax burner). We also make certain everything on display is properly set up—we’ve been to so many stores where the display is falling apart or is broken or even set up wrong—not good.”
A Heavenly Future
Looking forward, the Duells are more focused on growing their current location than expanding into new ones. “We don’t want to thin ourselves out, especially in this economy,” Linda Duell said. So to strengthen the Quakertown store, the business is looking to expand its online presence. “We are working on a new Web site—one with more search options, comparison options and product detail,” she stated. “We’re also working with an SEO (specialist) to get our site up to a higher ranking. Even though most of our business is local people, they are searching the Net first for what they are looking to purchase, so we feel it is very important to have a great Web presence.”
Long-term, the Duells, who took over the business from Brian’s parents, have a wish for the future: “We have two older sons—Lake, who is going into collision repair, and hopefully the youngest, Nathan, will want to be the start the third generation of Heavenly Bedrooms.”
By Powell Slaughter
Ask most furniture retailers for their best sales day week in and week out, and a lot will answer Sunday.
While most furniture stores depend on a full weekend to meet their goals, most people out there in the world take Sunday as a day to be with their families and worship as they see fit (or maybe even shop for furniture).
If you work at De Young Interiors in St. John, Ind., you can enjoy that day as well.
Though it shuts the doors on Sundays, De Young is still thriving after 87 years in business.
“We are a faith-based company, and we are closed on Sundays,” said Co-Owner John De Young. “We’ve been able to thrive and survive.”
It also helps make for happier employees.
“A very large store in our area closed, and I knew the sales manager,” De Young said. “I was talking to her about a job, and I told her, ‘You won’t be able to make that kind of money here because we’re closed on Sundays.’ That’s our church and family day.”
While the woman had children and would have liked the time with them, she still wasn’t sure about the money issue. She ended up giving it a shot at De Young Interiors.
“Three months later I asked her how she was liking her Sundays off, and she said she loved it,” De Young said. “In our industry, we push and push and push, and we get burned out. My grandparents set these standards and we carried them on. … We have a sign at the front of the store, and one of the things on there is “Closed Sundays, See You in Church.
“People tell me they appreciate those values. I’m not going to push religion on anyone, but this does serve as our ‘silent’ witness.”
Customers seem to like the store as well—it won the region’s “Best of” in the furniture store category this year.
4 GENERATIONS—SO FAR
Nick and Cora De Young started the business when they opened a joint furniture store and funeral home in South Holland, Ill., in 1928—a common business pairing at the time, when the makers of fine furniture also made caskets.
The store’s emphasis on building relationships in the community it serves dates back to the Great Depression years, when the De Youngs would let people pay their bills when they were able to, a little at a time. That built a spirit of trust and friendship with their customers.
The De Youngs opened a second location in nearby Lansing, Ill., in 1939; and soon committed to the furniture only, bringing their customers more brands and a larger variety of products.
Upon retirement, Nick and Cora De Young turned the business over to their three sons: Gerry, Arnold and Sidney. The brothers ran De Young’s until their retirement in 1993, when the stores passed to their sons and sons-in-law; Jerry and John De Young, Bob Scheuneman and Tom McGehee.
De Youngs closed their South Holland and Lansing locations and, in 2005, the company opened De Young Interiors in St. John, Ind. De Young’s had made a decision to put all its efforts into a single, strong location.
“The demographics were good, and it’s a growth area,” said John De Young of St. John, located along interstates 30 miles south of Chicago in northwest Indiana. “Our town just got rated by CNN as the best place in Indiana to raise a family. The store is right across the street from Lakes Central High School, with 4,000 students. They’ve had a $140 million expansion.
“We’re on a very busy highway, U.S. 41, and that school is a landmark, with parents going to events there. It put us in a highly visible area.”
AN EAR TO THE GROUND
The four partners in De Young Interiors each have 40 years of experience in the business.
“An owner is always on site,” De Young said. “Any time we have to make a call on something to get a customer satisfied, it’s coming from the highest authority—one advantage of a family business.
“My office is right by our counter. I have two open doors, and I can hear the interaction. It’s going back to what we were doing in 1928, with third, fourth and fifth generations of customers.”
Some family owned retailers have closed up shop because they couldn’t get the next generation interested in continuing on or family squabbles.
“The foundation of priorities and how we treat each other is huge, because some families don’t get along,” De Young said. “We disagree sometimes, but we all are committed to the business and each other.”
CARVING A NICHE
De Young Interiors positions itself firmly in medium to upper-middle price points.
“We don’t deal with low-end product, but we have some price-conscious items, and we don’t go crazy at the high end,” De Young said. “That’s where we hang our hat. Customers have come to know us and trust us because of the good brands we carry and the service we offer.”
In May, De Young Interiors was voted “Best in Region” for furniture stores by readers of the local paper.
“We’d won that award in the past, but hadn’t last year,” De Young said. “We won again because we’ve worked a little harder.”
De Young Interiors’ floor staff is a mix of interior designers and sales consultants who have no design background per se, but all are highly trained on the products they sell. The store develops skills through mentoring; and relies more on selling value versus price alone.
“Take Smith Bros.’ construction—our sales consultants know how to say, ‘You may see the same fabric on a less expensive model, but the quality underneath this is better,” De Young said. “Our industry made a mistake by going cheap, cheap, cheap all the time instead of selling value. We have flourished because we’re selling better product and explaining the difference to customers.”
PRESENTATION ON THE FLOOR
Time was, De Young tended to buy the sorts of products he wanted, but that’s changing. There’s more designer input involved now.
In addition to the designers on staff, De Young’s son Kyle, who is sales manager, has a degree from Savannah College of Art and Design. His new bride as of this month has a degree from Harrington College of Design in Chicago.
“Since we have more designers on staff, we’ve gone to more of a committee approach to buying decisions,” De Young said. “Kyle helped bring that to the table. We’re combining the experience of management with the input of designers and sales managers.
“We’re very heavily accessorized—presentation is everything if you’re going to help people visualize how it will look in the home.”
A knowledgeable staff combined with a new emphasis on direct mail and e-mail blasts to give De Young Interiors what De Young “the best first quarter we ever had.”
“We’re continually trying to improve how we communicate to the customers,” he said. “We’ve done television and local cable, and radio in the past, but what we hang our hat on now is our mailing list—direct mail and e-mail.
“I don’t really understand social media, but Kyle does. We’re trying to market more on the social media side along with direct mail pieces. I’m convinced a lot of people aren’t reading newspapers.”
Direct mail and e-mail are especially effective because of the relationships De Young Interiors has built after 87 years in business.
De Young shared an anecdote.
“In 1928, my grandfather started the business, and in the early ‘30s he bought a hardware repair shop,” he said. “A local roofer bought nails from my grandfather.
“In 2004, I was moving records and came across a ledger with this roofer. When I moved to northern Indiana, the man at the end of the block turned out to be the owner of that roofing company.”
De Young shared the ledger with his neighbor, and in addition to getting his business, “he sends his kids to me. You can’t buy that kind of word of mouth.”
GETTING OVER THE HUMP
Like most retailers, De Young Interiors faced a lot of challenges during the recession and the economy’s slow recovery.
“I think the economy in general has made everyone do a self-check,” De Young said. “We had to do cut-backs, but we’re adding people again.
“We had built a new store and were on a real roll when the economy tanked. We keep talking about it on a daily basis.”
While De Young Interiors isn’t resting easy, the immediate future does look promising.
“We had the best first quarter we ever had, and my warehouse is jammed with sold merchandise,” De Young noted. “I think the rest of the year will be good, but I don’t know if it will be great.”
Since De Young Interiors moved to St. Johns, 15 other furniture stores serving the market are no longer in business. The key to the store’s prosperity is Business 101, but apparently not everyone can pass that course.
“The amount of business you can get on the front end, you can lose on the back end,” De Young said. “We watch the doors on both ends, pay attention to detail and minimize expense.”
And despite a lot of multi-generational customer relationships—maybe even because of those relationships—service and satisfaction remain paramount.
“Ours is not a guaranteed approach,” De Young noted. “You have to keep earning that business.” HFB
De Young Furniture Is Setting up for Another Generation of Family Management
Kyle De Young, sales manager at De Young Interiors and son of co-owner John De Young, represents the furniture retailer’s fourth generation of management.
He brings a fine eye and a competitive personality—Kyle went to Savannah College of Art and Design on a baseball scholarship where he graduated in 2010 with a degree in visual communications with a concentration in design.
He’s getting married this month, and his bride Carolyn has a design degree, hers from Harrington College of Design in Chicago.
It’s not where he visualized being, but the family business has provided an outlet to match his skills. A poor job market made working in his field a tough prospect; and after attracting the attention of a number of professional baseball scouts for his middle-infield and outfield play, a shoulder injury left Kyle unable to throw.
“My whole life, I’ve been able to draw and paint,” he said. “I also had played baseball my whole life. … My dad had always said (furniture retailing) is hard, you don’t want to work here,” he said.
Still, Kyle had worked in the store’s back end as he grew up, and he was determined to get a job.
“I’m very competitive by nature,” he said. “I asked if I could work in the business, and (my father) said ‘no’ at first. Suddenly, my cousin moved from a customer service position.”
Kyle finally talked his dad into letting him give it a try.
“I took it as a challenge to solve problems,” he said. “When people call in and they’re upset, it’s like they’re saying your family’s doing them wrong. I take that personally.
“People often feel they’re being taken advantage of, and with a lot of the retail experiences they have, I can understand why.”
Proving that he could take care of some of retail’s trickiest and most emotional situations, Kyle got a shot at sales.
John De Young challenged his son that he wasn’t up to sales.
“My competitive nature came out in sales,” Kyle said. “My goal is that our family is going to take care of the customer better than the next person. We’re going to inform you more than the next person, and give you the best price and the best value.
“My goal is to be better each day with whatever we’re doing, and we have to do a lot of different things in a day—selling on the floor, creating settings, backing up the warehouse.”
John De Young said Kyle brought the passion that won him a scholarship to the store, especially in terms of reaching out to a new generation of customers.
“In the father-son relationship, it’s always been my goal to challenge my boys,” the elder De Young said. “Sports taught good communications skills, good people skills, and how to work with a team to make it all work.”
In addition to his work at De Young, Kyle puts his design background to work on vendor Whittier Wood Furniture’s design committee.
“He helped make some changes in their youth line, suggestions he brought to the table,” John said. “You don’t see many people his age in the business doing that. Kyle has the passion for it—that furniture fever people get.
“I worked side-by-side with my dad, and it makes me very proud to have Kyle by my side. On a daily basis, we bounce ideas around about product, and Kyle brings his age group’s perspective. That’s helped our business. There are some things I don’t agree with, but he’s made the right call on many occasions.”