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Mentoring Furniture Mavericks

Furniture World Magazine


There is no “People Magazine” or “Entertainment Weekly” for our furniture industry, but we do have a lot of people, and some of them are very entertaining! When publications like Furniture World and other trade journals feature articles about people in the Home Furnishings Industry, I always take time to read them and look for a name I know.

One term often used to describe our industry’s leaders is VETERAN. However after just completing four decades in our industry, I never want to be known as a 40-year veteran, instead, I plan to continue on as a 40-year MAVERICK! One of great honors I received lately is having several co-workers and industry contacts calling me their mentor. I suppose that my role of mentor includes sharing the wisdom to help them become successful by transferring my experiences of achievement and failure, and how to gain the first and avoid the latter.

I have been fortunate to have worked for some very entertaining people who helped me survive and succeed in our business. Let me share the knowledge they passed on to me.

Las Vegas in the early 1970s was a boom town. Just a stone’s throw from the World Market Center (assuming you can throw a stone a mile and a half) at the corner of West Charleston and Valley View was Jay’s Carpet and Furniture. My entry into retail was as a delivery helper, the guy on the other end of the sofa. The pay was two dollars an hour and the work week was six days long. The owner was Jim Talbert, who many people called Jay, based on the name of the store. Unbridled by any HR rules or law, and before the days of “coaching”, Jim’s directives often took shape in loud statements mixed with four-letter words surrounding various body parts.

Each morning after the trucks were loaded, and before the delivery team hit the road, Jim would remind us, “This is a full truck, come back when it’s empty”. I learned several things from that nine-word statement. First, we as the delivery team had the responsibility to make sure each customer received the right merchandise, and those items had to be delivered in good condition. Also, we had to work around the customer’s schedule-often returning to “not at home” customers after our route was done. We worked until the day’s job was done. Lastly, drivers were expected to be the second salesman and needed to have the ability to convince customers to accept less than perfect merchandise with the promise of service to make their purchase right. For those starting in our business in the 21st Century, there was NO even exchange policy in those prehistoric days.

Full and part time delivery jobs gave me spending money through college, also known as the best five years of my life. Having spent half of a decade working outside lifting sleeper sofas and armoires in the hot Nevada sun, it occurred to me that it might be easier to just lift a Bic pen inside an air conditioned building, and I landed a sales job in a Drexel-Heritage Showroom.

Part of my indoctrination into commission sales included the experience of high-end shoppers not always having confidence to invest large sums of money with a kid wearing a Montgomery Ward suit and a Bar Mitzvah tie. The discouragement and low earnings of my first 90 days was nearly devastating.

One of the salesmen (no one had ever heard of an RSA then) took pity on me and worked with me to improve my skills. Jay Merrick was a World War II veteran who had owned a chain of sewing machine stores. He sold them at age 45 realizing enough profit to live well for the rest of his life. He was 56 when I was 22. He asked me a simple question that changed the way I sold and worked all through my career.

Jay asked “How would you work with customers if you had $1,000,000 in the bank?” I thought about it for a while, and my answer covered several points. I would always:
  • Provide the customer with accurate information about the products I sell.
  • Provide the customer with accurate information about delivery time and process.
  • Work one-on-one with that customer and not think about the next or last “up”.
  • Build a relationship that would cause the customer to become a client for life.
  • Look at my next “up” as a person not as a paycheck.
  • Work to assess their total needs, and not just look for the quick sale.
  • Follow up to make sure that the company I work for lives up to my commitments.
Jay promised me that if I started to work that way, that I would never have to worry about earning enough money, and maybe someday have $1,000,000 in the bank.

I learned three other maxims that day:
  • People love to buy, but hate to be sold.
  • People will always buy from a friend, but will rarely be sold by a stranger.
  • Business goes where it’s invited, and returns where it’s appreciated.
Essentially, give your shopper the power to make a logical decision. Next, work to make a friend first, and then work to make a sale. Finally, invite business to your store by asking each customer to buy, and after they purchase, show them you appreciate them by doing exactly what you promised you would do.

I stayed with that Drexel-Heritage Showroom for seven years, becoming #2 in sales out of 80+ people in my first full year. Eventually I became a store manager, but that took some coaching and prodding! Louis Landro was the Store Manager and he helped me understand how to think of my sales job as my own business franchise.

Compensation for salespeople at D-H was strictly commission. In my early days when my pay was closer to minimum wage, I once commented to Louis that I worked so hard, and I deserved a pay raise. He offered me a raise saying, “If you want more money, go out and write yourself a raise!” I quickly understood that my employer provided me with a 25,000 square foot showroom, eight to ten shoppers a day, access to a phone and a desk, and a staff to process and deliver any orders I might create. I now had my own franchise, all at no cost to me. The business was my own and it was up to me to make it fail or succeed. Best of all, I realized that there was no ceiling to my earnings except the limits of my own efforts and talents.

Sales production picked up for me. With the knowledge and experience that two years employment gave me, I was ready to step up on the career ladder. I told Louis that I wanted to be a Sales Manager. His advice, “If you want to be a sales manager, act like a Sales Manager, and if you want to be a Store Manager someday, act like a Store Manager.” I learned that you don’t ask for a promotion. You assume the leadership role and earn that new position. Always think and act beyond the four walls of your job description.

This advice jump-started my career and has allowed me to be a maverick in our business. Since that early start, I have benefited from other mentors. Because of my travel schedule, my mentoring comes from a distance, most recently from Ron Wanek and Todd Wanek. They helped me re-learn the furniture business when I joined Ashley Furniture Industries at age 49 and transitioned from Retail to the Manufacturing side. And, they have helped me re-learn the business every year since joining their World-Class organization.

Another great mentor and maverick, my father, Leonard Hecht. Selling televisions in the 1950s, furniture in the 1960s, and new homes in the 1970s and on, he started when selling was a respected and desired profession, and not just a job until your “real” job comes around. He gave me advice on washing cars, low margins and volume, and how to handle difficult shoppers. I can’t share that advice in a printed column! But I can share his observation of business. “Nothing happens in this country until the sale is made”, was a saying I heard often. Everyone is selling something-products, ideas, even laws and taxes. But none of those go into production or effect until the deal is closed.

Thirty and forty-year veterans cannot be mentors, but mavericks can! Veterans tell war stories and talk about the old days. Mavericks buck the system, blaze a trail and burn with a healthy dissatisfaction for the status quo. Be more than a boss or manager. Take time to guide your young employees or even your co-workers. Show them the road to success and paint a picture using their colors. Share your knowledge and show them your passion. Chances are they will grow from your knowledge and pass it on to the next round of rookies!

Editor’s Note: If you have a story to tell about your “Maverick Mentor” or being one, please email it to Furniture World at russ@furninfo.com.

Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.