“It’s a wise man that carries his coat when the sun shines,” said Lester Wittwer, Founder of Boulevard Home Furnishings.
This is a story guaranteed to motivate, inspire and, without any doubt, make you smile!
The Wittwer family left the picturesque alpine pastures, orchards and forests of Schangnau, Switzerland, in 1860, their destination, Salt Lake City, Utah. Two years later, Brigham Young, both the first Territorial Governor of the State and first President of the Mormon Church, sent the Wittwers, farmers in the old country, to help colonize the community of Santa Clara, just west of St. George, Utah.
It was their religious devotion that brought the family to America. Kindness and service to one another and their communities has been part of their family values and heritage. Settling a new town required sacrifice, hard work and ingenuity. All of these values have been passed down through the generations, and have been reflected in all their family ventures.
Entrepreneurialism is part and parcel of survival in a new environment. The Wittwers were successful farmers and, in 1948, their descendant, Lester, always the innovator, introduced the very first tractor to the Santa Clara community. Twenty years earlier, Lester had already expanded his energies into trucking homegrown fruits and vegetables throughout Southern Utah and into Nevada, before getting into the motel and home furnishings business. (If vintage vehicles intrigue you, you can see that 1928 Model A truck on display at the St. George store, representing the roots of the family business.)
Sheldon Wittwer, Lester’s son and now Boulevard Home Furnishing’s CEO, shares what’s become the famous “story of the ice bucket” with all newly-hired Boulevard Team Members. He tells about working as a young boy in their motel business, and his father would have him take a bucket of ice to guests when they first arrived in their rooms. Even though their guests didn’t ask for the ice, Lester explained that following a long hot journey across the desert from California or Las Vegas, they would appreciate the gesture and, hopefully, would remember their motel experience and want to return. And maybe even tell their friends!
All of the children helped in a variety of ways, older sister Joyce and brothers, Royden, Tony, Mel, and of course, Sheldon.
It was in 1974, that Tony “started Boulevard Home Furnishings, along with one other employee, Kent Hammond. Tony was the visionary and driving force. He saw a great need in the small, yet growing community. Over time, he expanded and surrounded himself with many other visionaries who, along with younger brother Sheldon and other family members, helped shape and mold the company into what it is today.”
Lester’s original concept evolved from that first small, 8,000 square foot furniture showroom on St. George Boulevard, the central and very important traditional thoroughfare in the town of St. George. And in their design, they took the Boulevard itself inside the building, carving a center aisle, a “walk through the various departments of the store”, a concept perpetuated in each of their stores. “Anyone who has traveled along old Highway 91 through rural Southern Utah on their way to Las Vegas or California knows that St. George Boulevard was a true oasis in the desert. Shops, restaurants and malt shops, lodging, gas stations and many more businesses lined the Boulevard. It was where many locals spent summer nights cruising for fun!
“Over the following years the store was added to, expanded and remodeled. In June of 2000, the store relocated to its present site on Mall Drive. In February, 2003, our Mesquite, Nevada store opened. In September, 2006, we built our 170,000 foot distribution center. Since then, we have remodeled both the Mesquite and St. George stores, the latter concluding in June 2013, and including the introduction of Crazy Tony’s Bargain Barn. And we also relocated the Mesquite store in February 2014. Finally, in May 2014, we opened our beautiful new store in Cedar City, Utah.” (Our informant is Boulevard’s scribe, Steve Manwaring, a Team Member for 22 years, the creative head of their in-house, full-service advertising agency.)
Now with three locations plus the distribution center, Boulevard’s square footage totals more than 115,000 at St. George, 15,000 at Mesquite, 30,000 at Cedar City and, of course, the center at 170,000.
Steve described St. George and Cedar City as “destination communities”; both are “family cities/towns”. As the crow flies, they sit about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City and 200 miles north of Las Vegas. The railway made the towns vital hubs, it was essential to both communities and a strong connection with the rest of the country.
Year round warm weather (warmer than the rest of Utah) at St. George’s elevation of less than 3000 feet, a desert valley, on the Utah/Arizona border, contrasts with cooler temperatures at Cedar City’s elevation of almost 6000 feet. In the Mojave Desert historically St. George was “Utah’s Dixie” or “Cotton Mission” during the Civil War and Brigham Young, fearing wartime scarcities, initiated the growing of cotton.
Cedar City is a mountain town, once the site of Utah’s iron industry, (the “Iron Mission”), now the tourism “gateway” to many National Parks, Bryce Canyon, Zion and the Grand Canyon, and a mecca for the area’s holiday home owners. And it’s the site of the annual Utah Shakespearean Festival. “The community’s heritage is also deeply embedded with education (Southern Utah University) and the arts, which resulted in the development and growth of the Festival.
“Cedar City is rural, the residents are tied to the land, and they enjoy trips to the mountains and resorts. There, the store’s design reflects their love of nature and the outdoors with cabin and lodge-style furnishings displayed around a series of fireplaces. Which come in handy for store shoppers during the cold, snowy winters!
“The departments in the Cedar City store are bright, open and refreshing. It was designed to appeal to all ages of shoppers and is ‘kid friendly’ to help young families enjoy their shopping experience. There is a centrally located ‘Kids’ Corral’ play area. The ‘Hide Out’ children’s furniture area has a chalk wall to doodle on, and even a few small basketball hoops to keep kids (and some of the dads!) happy and occupied during the shopping process!”
In 2008, the Wittwers called upon yet another visionary to add her enthusiasm, creativity and extraordinary imagination to their already heady mix for the dramatic recreation of the St. George store. Retail Design Strategist Connie Post, CEO of Affordable Design Solutions, is herself a world traveler but she is well acquainted with “family towns” and their values. “I grew up,” she told us, “in Tyler Mountain, West Virginia, granddaughter of a coal miner. Self-taught in architecture, I attended Harvard Graduate School of Design and I’ve designed for the ‘top 100’ during the past 25 years, over 20 million square feet of space globally.
“The original 150,000 square foot St. George existing store was my first project with the Wittwers. It needed an update. Since the footprint and the brand identity had already been created, it was my job to refresh it and give it a more modern face. The Boulevard was a fun walk down Main Street, with store fronts for each product category. It was originally like visiting Disney, the luster had simply dulled. The challenge is always to create entertainment and excitement without breaking the bank!
“The Boulevard family group is an admirable strong Mormon family, with robust wholesome values. I wanted to celebrate this, and magnify their core DNA through the design.
“The updating began with the entry, huge 4’ x 8’ photos of families in the home, laughing, celebrating and eating together, because that’s what families do! I tore down many of the walls to open up the store without losing the original experiential store concept but with a new modern approach. We also created large lifestyle vignettes in the front which included live fireplaces for an authentic vibrant feeling. There were several themes, a mountain lodge, modern transitional home and casual elegance; these were created to allow guests to see themselves living in each environment.
“I always preach/create legitimate fun wherever I can, and the best place to do this is in the kids’ department, so we devised an entry around the ‘Our Gang’ concept to introduce youth furniture. We used painted fences as background, a club house feel, astro-turf for grass, live TVs running with the TV show as the entry. This show, ‘Our Gang’, is the epitome of Americana, purity and wholesomeness. The entry leads to a very brightly painted showroom with equally brightly painted doors hanging from the ceiling with colorful Chinese lanterns, leading with multi-color flooring . . . customers love it!
“In front of the store, we designed the area for kids to be entertained while parents shop close by. Steve loves it, too! It feels like an ‘OK Corral’ with fences and saddles thrown over them, fake horses on big springs that are often found on a playground, bales of hay with TV for kids to watch movies. It has a recycled rubber floor and it’s a regional theme that’s fun for kids to play.
“In fact, the entire store was redesigned and developed to enhance the family experience.”
The Cedar City store was a whole new challenge. “It is a ‘mini-me’ of St. George, but entirely different, mostly due to size and commitment to department areas. It was a ‘ground-up’ build, unusual for the market. And it was a market the family had been eying for several years, waiting for the right piece of land to be available. Here is where I was able to ‘wave my magic wand’ of retail entertainment, and celebrate the cultural interests. The Wittwers were enthusiastic about directing us to what was considered important to this smaller community, and they wanted a WOW! A fresh, regional twist.”
The Cedar City store lacks windows, and Connie is passionate about bringing natural light into spaces she designs. She integrated a clearstory that runs the length of and above the central “boulevard” that allows indirect daylight to filter down onto the pedestrian walkway that leads shoppers into the heart of the store.
That St. George, once an iron ore mining center, is well-recognized as a railroad town, inspired the custom mock-up of an historic locomotive and, there it sits, emerging from a rock wall as if it’s about to speed through the store! “It has a real bell for people to ring, and everyone loves having their pictures taken with it!”
“The main entrance is three stories tall, modeled like a train terminal,” continued Steve. “Once you enter the store, the guest service desk to the left resembles a ticket booth.”
Connie added, “There is a small café located by the ticket booth that celebrates the local fishing, hunting and the mountains, trying to bring alive the small town tendency, you get off the train and look for a café! Who doesn’t love trains! It breaks through all gender barriers, young and old.”
The designation of Cedar City as “The Festival City”, provoked the introduction of the proscenium bearing the legend “Shakespeare Theatre” that Connie positioned at the entrance to the recliner and home theatre departments. Justifiably proud of the recognized annual four month event (June 25 through October 31), Boulevard’s guests enjoy displays of elaborate Elizabethan costumes the actors wear during performances. “We borrowed from the design of the entrance to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. I love Shakespeare, theatre, music and creativity... where else can one become someone else for a while... and dream.”
The Wittwers wholeheartedly concur. Said Steve, “We have fun with the people who come into the store. We have ‘events’ rather than ‘sales’ for example. One of the happenings had a Wizard of Oz theme. We all dressed up, with Sheldon as the Tinman! Then there was the Pirates-of-the-Caribbean theme. Prizes, too, of course... a Caribbean cruise at our Pirate party and another cruise to complement our Hawaiian event.”
As creative director, Steve also has a handle on conceptualizing accompanying promotional outreach to all media as well as to Boulevard’s guests and potential guests. To celebrate Boulevard’s 40th Anniversary, he put together an engaging series of vignettes defining the company’s history, vision and mission. Boulevard uses print, both newspapers and magazines, television, radio, direct mail, billboards and in-store signage to communicate the message. And the Boulevard Team’s belief in self-sufficiency. “We do all of our own graphic design work, building ads, writing our radio and TV scripts and overseeing production.”
Boulevard’s website is a joy to behold! Not only is it a complete, colorful and detailed representation of product and service offerings, but it has its own appealing person and personality, not just an “online” figurehead, but a real live contact with the customer and potential customer. “We are selling on-line now, although we only deliver within our designated delivery areas. And Keelee is our On-line Web Support Agent. She takes care of on-line questions through her chats and e-mails, and she also processes our online sales. A Team Member for sure. She also takes care of our social media posts and blogs.”
Another “event”, packed with information and delivered with warmth and conviction, is presented by Boulevard’s HR Department when newcomers join the family enterprise. “The ‘Boulevard Experience’ involves training for all newly hired Team Members. It is usually a three-day event with workshops, field trips to our main store and the distribution center, interactive team-building games and quizzes. Many of our key Team Leaders and Executive Team (including the CEO) take part in giving engaging presentations to teach about the various duties and responsibilities we oversee,” said Steve.
“The most important part of the ‘Experience Program’ is to communicate the company culture through emphasizing our Core Purpose: ‘To Create an Unforgettable Experience’ – and our Core Values: ‘Honesty & Integrity, Respect for the Individual, Old Fashioned Work Ethic, Strive for Excellence, and Community Contribution’.
“Our Mission Statement is: ‘With honesty and integrity we are dedicated to finding and providing the greatest selection and best values for your home at the Guaranteed Best Price. As a Team, we are committed to Complete Customer Satisfaction’.
“Team Members are expected to fully understand and live by and exemplify all these principles and values.”
Boulevard’s more than 170 Team Members are an outstandingly low-turnover group! With their foundation of strong fellowship established, their hard-working days are enlivened with plenty of levity generally orchestrated by Wendy Wittwer (Accessory and Occasional Furniture Buyer). Said Connie, “Wendy is the one who manages the upkeep of the stores, and sets up all their fabulous promotions... the staff likes to have fun and dress up for these!” There would appear to be a constant element of joy pervading the pioneer work ambiance of the Boulevard stores.
And this is probably what provoked Webmaster, Nate Kinzie, to quote a phrase popular amongst the Members, “It’s always impossible until it’s done!” (Originally attributed to Nelson Mandela.) You’ll find these wise words on Boulevard’s website, it’s a wry, informal expression of happy corporate unity!
“We offer occasional design workshops to our customers presented by our in-store design staff... who also make house calls!”
Design inspiration is gained at both the Las Vegas and High Point Furniture Markets.
“There are over 25 Team Leaders at the Boulevard, overseeing all aspects of the furniture store businesses.”
Boulevard offers staffers a profit-sharing plan, educational reimbursement benefits, rewards and recognition, medical and retirement plans but also much treasured Sundays off!
Wendy is not only Boulevard’s instigator of fun, she has spent her career life involved with interior design and decorating within the group. She is Tony’s daughter, and a member of the Board. “Wendy has also helped with numerous construction, remodeling and design projects at the Boulevard enterprises, the motels and other family projects and businesses.
“Sheldon is CEO, Marc is COO, and Tyler, Director of Marketing. Tony and the other two brothers are now retired, but still help out in various supportive ways.”
An overview of Wittwer family growth in the business is helpful in realizing the benefits of sharing talents, a practical but also an important cultural and spiritual issue. “Marc worked in the warehouse as a teenager. His education includes an undergraduate degree in accounting, an MBA , and he is also a CPA. The family has always been involved at some point with construction (motels, stores, warehouses, etc.) so helping oversee construction projects is almost second nature for Marc and other family members. He also was the General Contractor on the construction of his own home. Marc’s wife, Andrea, and their five children have all helped at various times with Boulevard promotions, giving out free hot dogs, pizza, cookies, pancake breakfasts, etc. Andrea was a member of Boulevard’s sales staff before family life became too demanding.
“Sheldon and his wife have six children, all grown up and most are married with children. Their oldest son, Tyler, as well as directing marketing, serves too on the Executive Team. He and his wife are the parents of four young children.
“Boulevard management has attended many types of training relative to their responsibilities. We are actively involved in NARDA, are present at FMG Symposiums and are a member of the Brand Source buying group.”
Customer service is a vital element in Boulevard’s “guest connection” and, Steve says, “Our approach is simple. We believe ‘the key to success is to take care of our guest’! Our Customer Service managers have the autonomy to make critical decisions on the spot. They have the trust and support of the Executive Team. We are dedicated to taking care of our guests at all costs and have instituted the policy that when we are aware of any guest with a problem, they will be called by one of our Team Leaders within 24 hours to resolve the issue. We hold regular meetings to review guest issues and determine proper actions or changes in policy if needed.
“Our delivery team receives positive comments always rating in the 95 per cent plus range. They are usually described by our guests as ‘professional, prompt and polite’. Other comments include how ‘helpful, friendly, courteous and kind’ they are... just like the Scout Law of the Boy Scouts of America!”
That there’s a history of whole-hearted giving back to the community is certainly not surprising. In one of Boulevard’s story-telling vignettes, the presentation of VCRs to local schools is described. Back in 1989, after the Labor Day sale, a portion of the profits was shared with schools in the form of learning equipment. Fourteen VCRs were donated to the Washington, Iron and Kane County districts. As Boulevard has grown, so has their interaction to more than $800,000 worth of electronics and other needed items provided to the schools. “Giving to the schools helps build and strengthen the future of our community through increasing the educational prospects of our youth.
“We support and donate to the annual ‘Coins for Kids’ Christmas gift drive in St. George and the ‘Festival of Trees’ in Cedar City, as well as the Community Food Bank in Mesquite from a percentage of sales from our Black Friday sales event. We have a large fountain in our St. George store and give the coins from the fountain to a variety of charities including Breast Cancer Awareness, Coins for Kids and other local charities. During the year, we process and approve numerous requests for donations to groups and individuals in need. Our guiding principle is that we try to ‘help those who need help helping themselves”.
The Wittwer family’s view of years to come is clear and optimistic. “We see the Boulevard’s future as very positive, progressive and proactive. We are fortunate to be located in a beautiful ‘destination’ area of the United States within communities that value quality of life and provide not only respectful and loyal customers but also employees that reflect the core values and heritage that are so important to our companies’ future and growth.
“We are always building for the future, looking towards managing growth and expansion. And, most importantly, ‘taking care of what we have’.
“It is important to keep a fixed eye on the new twists in marketing (digital/online/social). Keep up with technology, be prepared, flexible and remain competitive.”
And have fun all the way. While remembering “to carry your coat”!
Are you smiling? It’s 2016 and there’s a lot to smile about!
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.