Retail Stories: The RoomPlace
Volume 142 NO.5 September/October
Furniture World Magazine
After 100 years of inspired strategic conceptualization, eureka moments, plain hard work, remarkably effective management/employee relationships, and intense personal interaction with the citizens of Chicago and environs, third generation Bruce Berman, Chairman of The RoomPlace, reflects, “Knowing that you make a difference in people’s lives is what has been most rewarding.”
By Janet Holt-Johnstone
There’s no question that The RoomPlace is unique in the home furnishings industry. Voted one of the top 100 retailers in the United States in 2011, an outstanding “difference” is that many of their 21 stores can boast two or three members of the same family on staff. And that’s generational, too. It’s been going on for a good long while. Not only two or three members, but two or three generations are represented, a total of 22 familial connections. And many of the families have 10 to 20 year histories.
In 1912 Sam Berman opened a store front (near left) where he doggedly stayed put throughout the twenties. Sign in Polish reads, “Great Sale On Furniture”.
Harlem Furniture pioneered the total room package model in the 1950s Customers saved on each piece of furniture, but even more when they invested in a complete room. They also enjoyed immediate delivery.
The RoomPlace’s employees make their careers with the company. There are 12 who’ve been tenured for more than 20 years, 29 for 15 to 19 years, and an amazing 53 for 10 to 14 years. Amongst them is Cathy Vetter. She is Bruce’s Special Project Analyst, and is a 25 year veteran. For 23 years, Christine Bobak, Store Manager, has been with The RoomPlace, Linda Steffens, Vice President of Finance, 16 years and, Bruce himself, 35 years.
Max, Stephen and Kim Gulias are proud members of one of Bruce Berman’s esteemed “generational families”. Said Max, “I have always felt that The RoomPlace was a family company that cared about their employees and we all belonged. The Gulias family had the honour of joining the Bermans at several family gatherings, and they attended our daughter, Kim’s, wedding. I can remember Leo Berman coming to the Cicero Avenue store many times to see how things were and to talk to the employees.”
Max’s son, Stephen Gulias added, “The feeling of a family atmosphere at The RoomPlace really stands out. To look back and remember when there were just two stores and now we are in multiple states, and yet you still get the family atmosphere. I have made many relationships throughout the years with fellow employees and still talk to those people today. I have so much pride wearing the 100 year pin, remembering all the years knowing that my family is a part of it.
“A side note,” Stephen continued, “I have had customers come in to the store and say that their parents bought from my father, Max, when he managed the Cicero location. It was nice to have customers ask if I was related to Max and proud to be part of a company where we both still work and are part of.”
And Kim’s thoughts: “Meeting Marilyn and Bruce for the first time was inspiring and, within time through the many years and positions that I have held, I grew more respect and admiration.
“The Berman family has always, and will always be considered part of my family, not only for how they treat their employees as people, but also for how giving, generous and sincere a family it is. They have so much to be proud of with what they have accomplished in business, and how involved they have been with the community and giving back. How blessed I am to know them.”
Management hosts weekly seminars for employees throughout the stores to discuss the essentials, product quality, materials, new products, customer service and other vital topics. Periodically, manufacturer’s reps visit the seminars to work with staff, introducing new pieces and explaining their quality and style features. But actually, training “is a 365 day thing” to keep everyone properly informed and motivated.
“How did the Berman legend evolve? The action began at the turn of the last century when Sam Berman and his family arrived in Chicago, fresh from a Russia then in turmoil. Sam stayed with a cousin, slept on the floor, in an area of the city known as West Town. It was a warm, bustling, lively neighbourhood, where new entrepreneurial immigrants looked for opportunity, motivated by the promised American dream, planned and worked long hours at whatever they could find, each seeking his own destiny.
One day, Sam’s mind undoubtedly teeming with ideas, he spotted a broken chair on the sidewalk, discarded by its former owner. He examined it, decided it could be fixed, took it home and repaired it. He gave it a touch of pizazz with a couple of coats of shoe polish. The next day he carried it from door to door, then, magic! he sold that chair! It became not just a chair, but the proverbial start of something big.
Sam sought and found more orphaned furnishings, brought them back to life, and persuaded others to hand over their cash. He saved and bought a wagon and expanded his inventory and his reach. And in 1912 he opened a store front where he doggedly stayed put throughout the twenties that really roared in Chicago, and the decade of the thirties and the subsequent darkness of the Great Depression, somehow managing to not only survive, but prosper.
It was in 1940 that Sam took the decision to shut up shop for a while. As alway perspicacious, he sensed that War was on the way and that furniture factories would need to change direction for the foreseeable future. And his son, Leo, joined the Army.
Bruce Berman, now Chairman of The RoomPlace.
100th anniversary signage has been used throughout the 21 stores.
When hostilities ceased and the women and men of the armed forces returned home, housing starts nationwide soared as never before. And all those new homes were crying out for new furniture, appliances and accessories. The Bermans went back into business.
Veteran Leo with his father, Sam, and wife Marilyn, spearheaded a dynasty in the making. Melvin Luckman (brother of Sid, Chicago’s football star) was part of the action. They founded Harlem Furniture Company at 2525 North Harlem Avenue, bordering West Town and in the middle of what was then Chicago’s “Number Two” shopping district. And the city was rapidly expanding with the construction of expressways and the briskly developing population, the baby boomer generation. The 50 x 125 foot showroom then boasted five employees, with Frank Ellis as store manager.
It was in the ‘50s that Leo farsightedly conjured up a radical restructuring. His brainwave was room packaging, a vision that ultimately led to the millennial name change, The RoomPlace. The inspiration made furniture buying easy for his customers. Then, as today, showrooms featured completely furnished, coordinated rooms, a total room model that permitted customers the excitement of discovering their individual tastes and needs. Customers saved on each piece of furniture, but even more when they invested in a complete room. They also enjoyed immediate delivery. A touch of Berman creativity, still golden in the company’s 100th year.
In the early ‘60s, after the construction of several major additions including a complete second floor, Harlem Furniture had mushroomed to 37,500 square feet, at that time one of Chicago’s largest furniture stores. Pictured above is what the store looks like today.
In the early ‘60s, after the construction of several major additions including a complete second floor, Harlem Furniture had mushroomed to 37,500 square feet, at that time one of Chicago’s largest furniture stores. Part of that second floor was used as a warehousing area for a short period of time, but demand soon made it necessary to convert it to selling space. The inventory encompassed a diversity of styles, Modern, Contemporary, early American and French and Italian Provincial.
In 1977, Bruce Berman officially joined the team as a salesman, although it wasn’t his first exposure to the business. When he was a baby, his mother, Marilyn, had occasionally brought him to the store when the sitter was unavailable. Something about the atmosphere was inspirational.
Said Bruce, “At a time when women didn’t usually work outside the home, she was a working mother, a huge influence on me and to the business. She transmitted her drive to us all, and had the talent to make people feel a part of something. She was very determined, and was always striving for perfection. She could make anything work!”
Marilyn was well recognized by the industry and the community at large. In the early ‘90s, she received the Retailer of the Year Award from the Manufacturing Agents Club of Chicago and, close on its heels, Entrepreneur of the Year from Ernst & Young, Merrill Lynch and Inc. Magazine. Later in the decade she was honoured again by Chicago’s Manufacturing Agents Club as Pillar of the Industry. Much loved and valued, always remembered, Marilyn retired from active business in 2003, and passed away in 2007.
But back in 1977, Harlem was staffed with six salespersons and a total of 15 employees, including Leo, Marilyn and Bruce. And it was just four years later that one of Harlem Furniture’s “eureka” moments occurred, a dynamic period! It was the year the family began to advertise on television, taking leading roles in many of the commercials. A memorable jingle was developed, “Harlem Furniture... you’ll like our style!” and it’s still used as an upbeat tag in advertising and public relations communications. It created a marked surge in business which the Bermans, of course, nurtured and maintained. It was in the decade of the ‘80s when two career households became more common and, with higher family incomes, sales of home furnishings increased exponentially.
It was in 1982 that Leo had decided to retire, and Marilyn moved into the role of CEO. 1985 marked the opening of Harlem Furniture’s second store located at 79th Street and Cicero Avenue in Chicago, rapidly followed by Hoffman Estates in 1987, Homewood in 1988 and Vernon Hills in 1989. It had been necessary to establish a new distribution centre at Hillside to accommodate the growth of business in 1988.
Name Change: The RoomPlace
Good fortune struck again with a population and housing boom in the 1990s, home offices were growing by leaps and bounds and more customers were entertaining at home. Harlem opened additional stores to accommodate increased demand, Fox Valley in 1991, Arlington Heights and Downers Grove in 1993, in 1995 Bloomingdale followed by Lombard in 1996 and Elston/Diversey in 1998. To quote a 2004 newspaper supplement,” Harlem began the decade with 200 employees and ended it with more than 600”.
1997 was also a banner year with the inauguration of Harlem’s state-of-the-art Distribution Centre at Woodridge. Its 145,000 square feet expanded to 200,000 plus by the year 2000.
Harlem’s change of name to The RoomPlace at all its locations seemed a natural turn of events coincident with the Millennium. It reflected the company’s strength in Leo’s iconoclastic room packaging, a concept embraced by consumers back in the ‘50s and just as enthusiastically today.
A new store came on board, Orland Park in 2002, and the next year work began to further enlarge the Distribution Centre by another 100,000 square feet to a total of 307,000 square feet.
But in 2004, the Bermans hit a high note with the construction of their exciting 25,000 square foot flagship store, just north of the original location on North Harlem Avenue. Says Bruce Berman, “It was important to keep the store on Harlem Avenue. We’ve been there for so many years, and we want to keep our relationship with the community”.
100 Years Strong
Today, The RoomPlace’s great website tells us that, with headquarters in Lombard, Illinois, there are 21 stores in operation in Chicagoland. This includes three showrooms in metro Chicago, 14 in the suburbs and single showrooms in Rockford, Illinois and Merriville, Indiana. The newest showrooms are in Indianapolis, Indiana. And there are presently more than 650 employees serving customers’ needs.
Promotions devised to celebrate their centennial are very much integrated into the stores’ various communities, much to Bruce’s liking. Several forms of charitable outreach are involved. A major project is the “100 Acts of Kindness” initiative. To mark the past century, management and employees will engage in just that, 100 acts of kindness honouring Chicagoland’s charities over the next few months. One such “act” is giving a very generous 100 hours of personal time to a deserving community group or organization.
All year long (and this will continue!) VIP events have been hosted on a store-by-store basis, inviting valued customers to the stores to receive a complimentary gift, no purchases involved. When the guests arrive they will find they are walking on the proverbial red carpet, and they’re gifted with Italian crystal wine glasses and a red flower. The entire staff is formally dressed, there is live music, and guests will be offered refreshments. And, during their visit, they can enjoy a 15 per cent discount on anything in the store. This has proved to be a very positive and successful chain of events!
Well aware of the present value and enormous future of the Internet and social marketing, management has developed an accessible website that is sensitively and cleverly structured, and on line sales have been excellent. Terms are carefully defined and easily understood. Styling information is timely, interesting and demographically on target, and the room planner is one of the best in the industry. This year 100th anniversary promotions are featured, “100 weeks of special financing”, “queen mattresses for $100”. See for yourself at www.theroomplace.com.
Marilyn said, many years ago, “We have a customer focus. We make it our business to know the sort of things our customers like.” And she endorsed wholeheartedly the “family concept”. “I am very happy to say that I feel that much of the success of the company was due to the loyalty of a lot of people who were part of the business... I feel every job is important.”
CEO Paul Adams, and Vice President Marketing, Brian Wiborg, both relative newcomers to the RoomPlace, subscribe to her philosophy. And look to the future with confidence.
The next 100 years? Look for the opening of The RoomPlace on planet Mars!
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.
Read other articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone