Furniture Retailers Share Their Stories - Part 9
Furniture World Magazine
By Janet Holt-Johnstone
Furniture retailers share interesting stories of growth, hardship and their strategies for success.
Connecticut, a state renowned for enterprise and forward-thinking, adopted its first constitution in 1639, fifth of the original 13 states. And citizens appear to come by their reputations for optimism honestly, based perhaps on the 1662 grant from Connecticut’s original Charter, its boundaries stated to extend to “all the land to the South Sea”, otherwise known as the Pacific Ocean!
Similarly buoyant hopes could have motivated the Lodato family 57 years ago when they saw that Interstate I 95 was under construction and many distinguished old houses were slated for demolition. Opportunity beckoned!
United House Wrecking
Third generation Ross Lodato shared the family story. “In 1954, our Dad, Ross Senior, along with two brothers, Phil and John and his brother-in-law, Ray, established United House Wrecking, Inc. As they earned a living demolishing homes, they learned there was interest in the salvage from their projects. Lumber, windows, old brick, doors, old fireplace mantles and architectural features were just some of the items which they began to salvage at their ‘yard’.
“As time passed, their business created great interest for all sorts of potential customers. Homeowners doing renovations, builders, as well as decorators, all came to this place nicknamed the ‘junkyard with a personality’, this unusual place where hundreds of people came each week to see what was new. They’d heard so much about United House Wrecking and had to see it for themselves.
“We have fond memories of the original location. All our cousins were allowed to work there as kids. There were many of us, each with different job responsibilities. Whether it was cleaning the five acre parking lot, or helping in assembling old Yankee Stadium seats, sorting the porcelain street signs from New York City, burnishing strap hangers from NYC subway cars, or just making coffee for the customers, there was always work to be done. We saw some of the same customers every weekend. They made it their Saturday morning adventure, to come for free coffee and rummage through what we’d salvaged that week. It was a real special place.
“In 1969, the brothers decided to stop wrecking and concentrate on selling items salvaged from demolition jobs. Other wreckers were not interested in having a retail site, so we purchased from all of them and became the purveyors of everyone’s salvage. The place became so popular I can remember two policemen came on Saturdays, just to direct traffic. If you didn’t arrive before 1:00 p.m., there’d be no place to park. People came from everywhere to see such an unusual business, it was a tourist destination! It was a special time in our lives. We were so proud to be associated with our family business. We were living the ‘American Dream’!
“The business grew to include reproduction items as well. We branched out to concrete planters, statues, baker’s racks, furniture, lighting and so much more, a place where one could come to find unusual items, both old and new. Years passed with great success.
“In the late ‘80s, Dad’s brothers planned to retire and sell the land. But Dad wanted to keep the business going. He found a two acre parcel, still in Stamford, Connecticut. His dream stayed alive. He was proud of his new location. It gave the company a chance to start fresh. But, of course, it meant more work, establishing recognition.
“Our cousin, Andy, who grew up in the business, became his general manager, and my brother, Mario, a Loyola graduate, was part of the everyday operation of the business. My degree from Villanova was in civil engineering and I had been employed since college in my uncle’s construction/development business, so I assisted in the planning and renovation of the new location. In the passing months, I felt a need to help Dad in this new venture, so I came aboard in the fall of 1988.
“All was well until 1993, when Dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. We had great hopes that he would beat this dreadful disease. It was difficult to imagine this business and our world without this wonderful man as part of it. He battled his illness without ever a complaint or question ‘why’ until August of 1994 when he passed away. We had already been running the business, but life just wasn’t going to be the same ever again. There was a void in our hearts that would never be filled. At this point, I think my mission to keep the business alive was driven by the anger inside me; why was such a good man taken so early in our lives. He was just 67. I knew how important the business was to him. Now it was our turn to carry the torch in honour of Dad and our uncles who had started this company.
“Over the years, House Wrecking had built such a great reputation. It was featured many times on TV and often in newspapers. The walls of our office today proudly display many of the articles. As we enter, we are reminded every day of the great legacy left in our hands. The responsibility is sometimes overwhelming with challenges.
“A large photo of our Dad, Ross Senior, is also on the wall. He’s no longer with us physically, but is in spirit every day. His memory helps in all our daily decisions. Dad taught us well. A man of few words, he was a person everyone loved and trusted. A man of his word, a handshake was all you needed, as strong as a contract. So loyal and humble. We still hear kind words about him from many customers.
“Dad taught us to work hard. ‘DO YOUR BEST! was his advice to us. A man who led by example, he’d say, ‘Don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.’ Our Mom and Dad prepared us well. We were part of a true family business, where sometimes family was just as important as the business itself. Maybe that’s where our Italian roots began to show!
“In late October, 1994, I began to travel in search of new imported products. My first trip involved 13 flights in 14 days. I was in the Philippines, Indonesia and a bunch of places in between. I travelled and purchased items all over Europe, buying old as well as new products. In Asia, I found items never seen in the U.S.A., and every trip was more successful than the last. Over the next 10 years, we became serious importers from 13 different countries. We had so much stuff coming in every month and, thank God, so much going out! Our network around the world was very strong. I kept this up until the economy fell, and the formula didn’t work anymore.
“In 1998, Philip Lodato, Mario’s son, came aboard with us full time. He represents the third generation in the business. With his computer savvy, Phil took the role of Director of Communications. His responsibilities include maintenance of our website, weekly e-mail blasts, press releases, social media, advertising, etc.
“In 2005, we built a 13,000 square foot addition to house our new Design Centre. It gave us both the opportunity to hire designers, and a new location to showcase our wares in a different way. Now we could compete with traditional furniture stores, a location where customers could buy interior and exterior furnishings, both antique and reproduction, in one location, antiques as well as Oriental rugs, sofas, window treatments, etc.
“Our outdoor display areas feature statuary, fountains, patio furniture, planters, even seasonal flowers and plants. We recently built a new indoor patio showroom as well, so our customers can shop in comfort rain or shine.
“Our product diversity became a strength for us and a challenge as well! We found that it takes hard work to be everything to everyone. We had to be really focused. You must always have on hand what you are known for supplying, yet always search for unusual things. It’s what is expected of us.
“Today, as the next generation, we carry the great responsibility of continuing the business. Being true to our business and evolving with the needs of today’s customers has been the greatest challenge, not to be taken lightly. Recognizing the fact that our company must change is important. However, more important is the decision of ‘how’ it should change. Our history was and is of great importance to us. I believe it has created our passion for what we do, and drives us all to work so hard to make our business the best it can be!
“Although we no longer demolish houses, our family business has evolved into one of the most unique shopping destinations for home décor. A customer will discover everything here for their home, the 43,000 square foot showroom store, the additional 20,000 square foot display of outdoor product on the exterior of the building where old items are displayed with new, and our full service design centre, staffed with qualified designers to assist in beautifying and stylizing homes. It’s a relaxed family-friendly setting where the entire staff is non-commissioned and the inventory changes literally every day.
“Famous people have and do shop here; the staff recognizes them best. To mention a few: Ron Howard, Gayle King, Geraldo Rivera, Bobby Valentine, Kathy Lee Gifford, Charles Grodin, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Bill Evans, Richard Gere, Cyndi Lauper, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Bolton, Barbra Streisand, Bill Paxton, Paul Newman, Joy Philbin... and so many more!”
We asked about House Wrecking’s “eureka moment”. Said Ross, “Ours occurred on the day when, as a leader of this company, I realized we might not survive unless we made the difficult decisions to effect changes in our business model that would be effective in the long term. I understood that even though we’d been around for so long, it didn’t insulate us from market conditions that were changing rapidly. I felt in my heart that things might never be the same again.
“Humans are creatures of habit. So asking staff to do things differently is never easy. I just knew it was time for us in retail sales to stop feeling sorry for ourselves, stop waiting for things to get better and do something about it. Once I explained to my staff the reasoning behind the changes, they were understood and well received.
“My next mission was to analyze our entire business model. I had to consider what we sold, how we sold, how we purchased, where we purchased, how much was being purchased, how much we stocked, how we operated (procedures from how we answer the phone to how we loaded cars and everything we do in between) , so much more. Everything we did was up for review.
“Most important was asking ourselves the vital question, ‘Why do customers need to come to us??’ Each time I asked this uncomfortable question, which I did often because I realized its magnitude, I was given the same response. People come to us in the hope of ‘finding something different’! This was it! This was significant! This was the ‘eureka moment’! Our motto became ‘furnishDIFFERENT’. It heads up every page of our website. This is what we had to strive for and still strive for today. Not a day passes without thoughts of how we can be a better company.”
We asked about a “special time” in House Wrecking’s history from which the industry might learn, or find interesting. Ross answered, “I believe the last five years or so have been pretty special. I say that, not forgetting that they’ve definitely been the most challenging years for all of us. We all know how the marketplace has changed. I think our abilities have been tested. It has been a time period that has separated the weak from the strong. We’ve decided to stop waiting for things to get better. We’ve made tough decisions and tough changes which we hope strengthen our positions in our industry. We constantly look to improve what we do. Never do we take for granted the blessings we have. The opportunities and ideas, some good, some not, all blessings. We realize now that doing nothing is giving up. We don’t look for ‘home runs’ anymore. We look for hits which add to ‘runs’. We believe that we create our own destiny. Hard work has never killed anyone... I think?! If an idea doesn’t work, try something else. It’s all about trying new things today. Not everything will work and no ‘one thing’ will be the answer.
“I always laugh when I say that as a small business owner I never have a day off, and this crazy business is on my mind 24-7. However, there’s no better satisfaction knowing that I carry on the legend of such a special small family business with pride and devotion to those who began it in 1954. When asked if this is my business, my favourite answer is that it was my Dad and his family’s business. They planted such good seeds for us. My responsibility is taking care of them. I must admit at times I find myself giving it ‘Miracle Gro’! To be successful today, an owner has to have real passion for his business. Without it, who knows how long he’ll last.”
We asked Ross if there were any issues that stand out amongst all others that ensured the success of House Wrecking, benefiting both customers and the community at large. He answered, “Our realization that our company had to be at its best (every day) in regards to customer service is one of the most important commitments we make today. We always felt we had good customer service. However, we needed to feel we’d made every effort to serve above the expectations of our customers and consistently give that level of service. We strive to be better than the rest. We stressed the importance of each person in our company’s role to overall success. From the way we answer the phones to the way we assist loading customers’ cars, it’s all important to the overall experience of shopping at our store. It’s all about consistently doing the small things other firms don’t want to bother doing. Our motto is simple. Put yourself in the shoes of the customer. Ask yourself, how would you like to be treated? Our actions should follow this simple rule. Treat them like family. When this is accomplished, the result is something to be proud of.”
It’s a natural that House Wrecking would have heavy involvement in community activities. Their outreach includes the Bennett Cancer Centre, Bravo Police Dogs, Junior Achievement, the Red Cross, Stamford Hospital’s Mobile Mammography Programme, the Sexual Assault Crisis and Education Centre, and a poker night and silent auction for Hadassah’s neo-natal incubators for Israel. Close to home, Home Wrecking is now making their Design Centre available to “put a new spin on venues for charitable events”. If any sales should occur during these gatherings, the company donates 10 per cent of all revenues.
If you should find yourself anywhere near Stamford, there’s an open invitation to come visit. If that’s impossible in the near future, get acquainted on their truly intriguing website, www.unitedhousewrecking.com. Look particularly at “Meet the Family”. You’ll see Ross, Mario and Andy, plus their incredible, dedicated staff, each with her or his own interesting stories. United House Wrecking... “furnishDIFFERENT!”
Sleep Country USA
The entrepreneurial spirit was and is just as strong on the west coast. Seattle, Washington, is the Northwest’s major sea port, the scenic gateway to trade with Asia, and only 110 miles south of Vancouver, Canada. Seattle was founded in 1853, and experienced the boom and bust of the lumber industry, the Klondike Gold Rush, and the shipbuilding surge that reached its peak in World War I. Jim Hendrix and grunge made the Seattle scene and, in recent years, Boeing, many technology firms, Amazon.com, Starbuck’s, and UPS, amongst many others, settled in Seattle. Interestingly, the city claims the highest percentage of university graduates in the U.S.
Undoubtedly influenced by this multi-faceted corporate effervescence, Sunny Kobe Cook and Bob Cook founded Sleep Country USA two decades ago. They opened with eight stores and 25 employees. This year, Sleep Country marks its 20th anniversary with an amazing 75 stores and a team of 350 employees. The “number one mattress store in the Pacific Northwest” spans the region, north from Bellingham, Washington, to the southern part of Oregon in Eugene.
In the fall of 2010, the company’s steadfast commitment to employee satisfaction led to the commendable implementation of its Employee Stock Ownership Plan, becoming one of the very few employee-owned companies in the nation.
Beginning with the forward-thinking Cooks, Sleep Country has operated under various ownership structures. The Cooks sold to a venture capital firm, afterwards to a corporation, then to a single owner who sold a portion of the firm back to its employees through the ESOP. “During these various ownership structures, our company experienced the two most common management styles,” said CEO Dale Carlsen, “bottom-up, meaning employees up to the management team and top-down, when employees received orders from executives without consideration for their input and interest.
“During periods of top-down management, team morale suffered. We found that the people we hired to sell and deliver our product, connect with our customers and be responsible for sales success, had become too far removed from the corporate decision making process. Having this understanding or ‘eureka moment’ demonstrated the importance of the company being run from the bottom up with the employees playing an integral role in the strategy and decision making process.
“Complementary to our ‘eureka moment’, we recognized the influence our employees had on the overall success of our business. To further incentivize employee feedback, participation and input, we determined that creating an opportunity for employee ownership in the company was the next step. Undergoing the rigorous process of setting up an ESOP, we transferred 25 per cent of the company ownership to the employees in September of 2010.
“Accompanying this transfer, we increased our employee engagement, creating new opportunities to interact with our team and to a large extent, establishing a demand for employee input as the new owners of our company. This included annual retreats with the strategic leadership team, annual roundtables in each market where all employees are present, deep-dive brainstorm sessions, flash polls, checkpoints during the year, and a reiteration of our open door policy. Creating an ESOP cements our commitment to our employees to remain a bottom-up company and affirms to them that their ideas and input are so important to us that we’ve made them an owner.
“We are very proud of our history of fulfilling a need for quality sleep products in a growing market and successfully engaging the community. We’ve created a brand that has become a household name with a jingle that nearly everyone can recite.” (“Why buy a mattress anywhere else!”)
Sleep Country USA inventories top quality, brand name mattresses from Serta, Sealy, Posturepedic, Simmons Beautyrest, Stearns & Foster and Tempur Pedic, as well as premium adjustable beds, futons and wood and metal accent beds. The company emphasizes customer service and satisfaction with a Money Back Comfort Guarantee and Free Same Day Red Carpet Delivery Service.
Part of the corporate philosophy involves the obligation to properly educate the consumer. Sleep Country’s website is an excellent tool, www.sleepcountry.com. The “Learning Centre” offers answers to questions about construction and terminology. It expands the knowledge opportunity to include “Sweet Dreams Podcasts and Articles”, like “Mattress Myths”, “Big Kid Bed” (just when your toddler should graduate from her/his crib to the next level!) and “What to expect from your new mattress”. They even enlighten you about mattress sizes, back pain, the dreaded snoring partner and bed bugs!
The 20th anniversary marks 2 decades of giving back” to Sleep Country’s various communities. In the early years, gently used mattresses were donated to St. Vincent DePaul. “We created the new programme to focus our charitable efforts on one very important social cause, foster children. By doing this we significantly increased the impact of our charitable efforts, providing organizations that support foster children and foster families in our region with donations of important items like clothing, coats, shoes, school supplies, pajamas and holiday gifts, as well as tickets to fun events and theme parks, and more than $500,000 in cash for summer camps, music lessons, tutoring and counseling.
“For our community, the Sleep Country Foster Kids programme has become the voice for the more than 20,000 foster children in Washington and Oregon, telling their story and relaying their needs. The programme has been instrumental in transforming how our community thinks about foster children and provides them with a way they can help these kids, positively impacting their lives and giving them a chance for a better future.”
Janis Avery, of Treehouse for Kids, a non-profit organization dedicated to foster children advocacy, said, “Sleep Country USA has become incredibly important to the cause, creating a long-term marketing commitment to raise awareness about the needs of foster children and urge action. The company’s approach and emphasis on positive, action-oriented messages is inviting and attainable for everyone, making the general public feel they can really make a difference. For us, the Sleep Country Foster Kids programme has translated into growth for our organization and has a powerful impact on the lives of these children and their families.”
For customers, it offers another way for them to engage with the Sleep Country brand and the opportunity to do so more often than they might during the mattress purchase lifecycle. It’s also made easy for them to give back to the community through the program by “hosting their own drive” and donating collected items to a store or making a donation online.
Said Carlsen, “The Sleep Country Foster Kids program has received acclaim for its results, including the National Daily Point of Light Presidential Award and regional recognition. Creating this award-winning program and experiencing its profound effect on individuals and the cause as a whole has also been beneficial to our team, fostering a sense of team building and community involvement.”
With an eye toward the next 20 years, he said, “We’re excited for the future of Sleep Country USA, as we plan to expand throughout the Pacific Northwest and other regions. As an employee-owned company, we are focused on employee satisfaction, providing customers with the best selection of innovative sleep products currently on the market, offering remarkable customer service, and increasing our impact on the community through our Foster Kids program.”
Next issue Belfort Furniture
Another firm with its own unique approach to the community in which it flourishes is Belfort Furniture of Dulles, Virginia, founded in 1982. Belfort’s CEO, Michael Huber, will recount its absorbing history and discuss outreach involving the American Cancer Society, Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter, Embry Rucker Shelter, ECHO (Every Citizen Has Opportunities), YMCA Loudon County, Be Green, Education Foundations and City of Hope, Washington, DC.. Part 10 of Retail Furniture Stories. Don’t miss it.
Do you have a story to tell about an important home furnishings retail operations? If so, FURNITURE WORLD Magazine would like to document your history and your success. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Russell Bienenstock at 914-235-3095.
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.
Read other articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone