Houston-based Sam Zavary came of age just 15 days before he made his first definitive mark as an entrepreneur. Eager, impatient, energetic, Sam was (and is) full of ideas, ready to build his own stairway to the stars.
Entrepreneurs, well represented in the furniture industry, are defined as people with the ability to take risks, to tolerate ambiguity, to act on exciting opportunities, to be wide open to new experiences. But Sam had discovered that some banking institutions tend to regard youth as an uncomfortable disadvantage. They had short-sighted concepts about chronological lines of demarcation. “No one would let me sign a lease on my own.” So he spoke with his father and sold him on the promise of his dream. For Sam the exciting concept had fallen into place in the springtime of 1998 when he’d visited his uncle, the owner of a furniture store in Southern California. Sam knew then, absolutely, that furniture was his destiny. Exclusive Furniture’s official opening occurred June 18, 1998.
Convinced by Sam’s logic and enthusiasm, his father left his job a month later and actively started working at Exclusive, then just 2,000 square feet in Houston’s Almeda Mall. Sam noted that they had, “zero furniture experience!” Their initial inventory, “five living room sets, five living room sets and five dinettes” was augmented by “lamps, jewelry armoires, cheval mirrors, and limited wall art and curio cabinets”.
Sam’s brother, Fawad, co-owner of the business, joined them in December of that year.
“Demographic considerations are always a vital part (of your planning) when you open a business at a certain location. I chose inside the Mall because I had no money for advertising and I was hoping to catch the inside traffic and get them interested in buying furniture. Exclusive was started with hardly any cash and working capital, so working capital was always a challenge. And then keeping it going and expanding is hard when you don’t have a lot of those.
“I believe that furniture does NOT sell itself. If it did we would have had automatic checkouts and people would bring up codes and check out themselves at the checkout stations. Furniture needs to be sold to people, and salespeople should always be with customers to assist them, communicate with them, build a rapport with them and close them. I also feel that Managers should be involved in the selling process.”
Exclusive’s home environment, the City of Houston, named after General Sam Houston, had come to life in 1836 when two New York real estate entrepreneurs, Augustus and John Chapman, bought a large tract of land on the Gulf coastal plain by Buffalo Bayou. Now the largest city in the State of Texas, fourth largest in the U.S., Houston’s industries are as diversified as is its population, from its high-ranking deep water port and railroad holdings to massive oil interests, renowned healthcare research communities, a large collection of Fortune 500 companies and, of course NASA’s mission control centre. Legendary Red Adair, cosmetics queen Mary Kay Ash and multi-talented eccentric Howard Hughes, not to forget both Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower were native to the City, amongst many other justly famous names.
So Houston’s electric atmosphere was just right for growth in 1998 and, in the heat of August, 1999, the family was ready to “open up our second location” on the City’s “southwest side. It was 7,000 square feet at the time. In 2000 we expanded the store to 18,500 square feet, separated into 13,000 for showroom space and 5,500 for warehouse. Soon after that in 2001, we opened our third location in the northwest side of Houston, 22,500 square feet at that time.”
But there were challenges. “After September 11, 2001, and a brand new store we had just opened, we found ourselves in a vulnerable place,” said Sam, “with limited working capital and strained cash flow. We decided to close our original location inside Almeda Mall and have a liquidation sale for the other two stores.
“After struggling in the business for several years, things were finally starting to look up. In 2005, we bought a warehouse building in southwest Houston which currently holds our corporate offices.
“In 2006, we expanded the Northwest Freeway store and opened up an additional store outside Almeda Mall in the fall of 2006.” He added, “Business was going very well for us. Until the recession hit in 2007!”
Pause for both deep thought and family sadness. During the recession “business was very difficult”. And Sam’s father died suddenly in 2009, on Father’s Day. “After some soul searching, I decided to take my business to the next level. I started adding televisions (as a giveaway) to my room packages. The packages were structured as a houseful of furniture, affordable for the working man.
“In addition, I began catering to shoppers with little or no credit. We offered several different financing options so that our customers could get their furniture in their homes right away.” A new expertise for Sam, leader and chief negotiator.
“Hard work, dedication, good planning, prayers and believing can turn anything upside down.”
Sam is a selective, forceful marketer. “We advertise a lot in Houston and promote our slogan. It’s known well by every kid, youngster and adult, ‘Where Low Prices Live!’. We advertise TV packages, and promote heavy credit programs, credit check and no credit check.
“We also offer companies who provide second chance financing which has become our niche and separates us from our competitors. We advertise and promote the saying, ‘If we can’t approve you for credit, no one can.’ Even though we may promote credit heavily, that is only 40 per cent of our business.
“Exclusive Furniture is the fastest growing, locally owned and operated furniture store in Houston and, in my eyes, that is what separates us from our competitors as well. The atmosphere in our stores is different from other stores in the city. We don’t hover over customers and force them into purchasing something. We create a relaxed and friendly environment for our customers which is why our repeat customer and referral base is high. We wouldn’t be at the state we are now without our customers, and we appreciate them for shopping with us for their furniture needs. We train our sales associates how to become their friends, to take an interest in them and their needs. Our workshops are vigorous, both sales and financing, every week and a full day once a month.
“We negotiate some of our prices at the stores, but over 50 per cent are always tagged with specials and we don’t negotiate on sale items.
“In our new stores, we plan to locate ‘comfort corners’, places for our customers to relax with a cup of coffee and think about what they’ve seen and heard and make decisions about purchases.”
Staff is recruited “by placing ads on the Internet, on Monster (Worldwide Inc.), Craigslist and on Facebook. And I lead our training program with assistance sometimes from my brother, Fawad. A lot of our staff has been with us for seven to 10 years.”
Sam is “also involved in media buying and media placement and I’m still very hands on although we just recently hired a media agency to take over that responsibility.” It should be mentioned that Sam is a star of Exclusive’s videos on the store’s website; look for Super Sam!
A lot of the family’s design inspiration comes from attendance at Furniture Markets and from their reading.
One day in the future they contemplate offering interactive room planning and selling product on the Internet. Sam believes that “Internet is gaining a lot of market share.”
Some of Exclusive’s largest vendors are Ashley, Franklin, Serta, HTL, Southern Motion, Sandberg, New Classic, Cramco, Lifestyle, Dickson and Coaster. “And we also partner with smaller manufacturers who build upholstery for us.”
Exclusive has been a member of Nationwide for some time, but they plan “on joining (purchasing cooperative) Furniture First real soon.”
The company’s favourite community outreach is the Furniture Bank, a respected international group that receives donations of gently used furniture from generous retailers and others for redistribution to those in need.
Sam reflected, we were doing a little over $9 million in business at the end of 2009, and I had made a goal of doing $30 million by 2014. Together with the hard work of my two brothers and sister, luck and God on our side, we hope to end this year with a little over $33 million. We opened our fourth location in the west side of Houston in May 2013; it’s currently our smallest store with 12,000 square feet. It serves as our satellite store.
“We’re happy to announce a land deal that we will close on at the end of September where we’re planning on building our Mega Store, 52,000 square feet located between Katy and Sugarland, the suburban area of Houston located on Highway 99.
“My siblings involved in the business are Fauzia, Fawad and Sheroo. Fawad overlooks the stores and sales, the merchandising and warehouse operations. He is Exclusive’s co-owner.
“Fauzia, my younger sister, overlooks all the logistics, buying and operations of the company. She also is in charge of customer service and accounts receivables from our finance companies.” A big job!
“My youngest brother, Sheroo Zavary, at age 21, is involved in day-to-day operations of the warehouse, incoming and outgoing merchandise. And Sheroo is continuing his education at the University of Houston, where he plans to graduate in the spring of 2015. He is learning all aspects of the business from warehousing to selling.
“We have really been blessed with great sales managers at our stores. And a great controller too, Kinjal Chhedda, all a vital part of our success and growth over the years.
“Our short term goal is to have our sales up to $60 million by the end of 2015, and over $100 million by the end of 2020. We plan to become the premier furniture destination for Houston residents and its surrounding cities. We want Exclusive Furniture to be the first place customers think of when they are looking to furnish their homes.”
The first law of entrepreneurialism is “Do what you enjoy”. Sam would undoubtedly add, “You need commitment, flexibility... and belief.” Steve Jobs was once heard to quip, “It takes a developed distortion reality field!”
Steve Tobak, Invisor Consulting, says about entrepreneurs, “They don’t do what everyone else is doing. They don’t follow the status quo, conventional wisdom or popular fads. They carve their own unique path. They’re leaders of their own destiny. That’s what drives them. And that’s why they succeed.”
That sounds just like Sam Zavary, doesn’t it?!
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.