"We don’t believe we sell anything; we place. Our designers place everything. They place for the customer.”
Imagine! Imagine observing an animated father and son driving from Naples to Boca Raton. Excitement’s in the air, laughter, the sun’s rising in the Florida sky. Something’s about to happen, something unique, meaningful, significant. It’s springtime, early April 2015.
Almost a year later, February 2016. Clive and Daniel Lubner, proprietors of Clive Daniel Home, reveal that their second store is “now open” with just a small ad in a local newspaper. High-end, 70,000 square feet, two levels, luxury. But the day before, they’d already “hit the ground running, soft but strong”. They’d welcomed 150 shopper groups. And that sensational next day, more than 1,000 shopper groups came to the store.
That engaging, tantalizing vehicular introduction had come to life in a clever whiteboard cartoon video on the company’s Facebook page! Said Dan, “We wanted to have fun with our announcement and make sure it was communicated in a creative way. We developed the storyboard and sound effects, and had an awesome company produce the whiteboard.
“We don’t believe in the archaic model of a phony call to action. Our clients seem to resonate with our creative direction that targets the brand and personalities of CDH. All of our ads are more focused on creating customer and brand awareness than a call-to-action or promoting fictional discounts surrounding holidays.
“And opening events? Months later we continue to have opening events. These will happen throughout the balance of the year and help to better engage a future customer. And allow the message of CDH to translate seamlessly. Unlike competitors who sell only furniture, we also provide total home services to include flooring, cabinetry, window treatments, home automation and custom art and framing. Another secret to our success is continuously switching out, revising and updating our assortments.” And smaller events involving local media, area shelter and design magazines, and community and charity groups, create more intimate environments for quests to really see the space.
The Lubners had opened the first Clive Daniel Home in 2011, 87,000 square feet, in Naples. Since then sales have grown, (totals in 2014 were up about 20 per cent from the previous year), to more than $25 million. Even during the tough winter storms of 2015, CDH experienced a 70 per cent increase in sales over the previous February. “Growth is both substantial and sustainable. We’ve adjusted to consumer demand and increased our staff on the floor on the sales and design side.”
But this is a story within a story, within a story.
Kris Kolar, Vice President of Merchandising and Design, a vital member of the team for many years, said that when “Clive originally secured the Naples store back in 1981, it was 14,000 square feet, a one-story building, now it’s 85,000 square feet with two stories. Naples has been added onto many times.”
And 1981 proved to be a Lubner landmark. Three years earlier, South African Clive, his wife Sonya, and two small children (one of them Daniel), emigrated to the United States. He had $70,000 to invest, the maximum amount of money he was allowed to take out of South Africa at that time. He also had infinite vision, marketing savvy and enormous hope. And lively imaginative powers. They’d left behind a complex personal and corporate history. Sonya’s parents, Hymie and Esther Barsel, were anti-apartheid activists, both imprisoned during Nelson Mandela’s tumultuous era and, like him, accused of treason. Esther was still under house arrest at the time of Clive and Sunny’s wedding.
They also left behind the family furniture business that Clive had helped to build, 116 stores. He planned to use his impressive experience to do something big, something extraordinary. Fate and foresight led him to Fort Myers, Florida. It really was no accident. It was a region, like the Lubners themselves, poised for growth.
Let’s go back more years in time to 1915 when the town’s population was 349. Two gentlemen, Virgil Robb and W. R. Lee, established a small furniture store there and were joined in the enterprise a couple of years later by Harry Stucky. Their rather amazing customer base included the renowned Ford, Edison and Firestone families. Lee left the company in 1925 and Robb & Stucky came into being, the name engraved into the store’s facade. It was purchased by Louis and William Bowles in 1958. They added a Naples outlet in 1967. Eleven years later, a keen, young Clive Lubner arrived on the scene. He partnered with the Mariner Group, developers of South Seas Plantation resort and Yacht Harbour on Captiva Island, and Clive became CEO in 1979.
Then annual sales were two million. The business evolved along with southwestern Florida. Clive’s energy, imagination and skills turned a relatively modest local home furnishings store into what became a “Sunbelt purveyor of luxury living with locations in Florida, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada and Costa Rica. At its peak there were 1,300 employees, four warehouses, 12 interior showrooms and seven patio stores”, all headquartered in Fort Myers. And, in 2005, with the explosion of population in the regions, “revenues were just shy of $275 million”. And, another stratospheric statistic, “while the industry’s average transaction was $875, Clive’s was $6,000!”
How had Clive achieved the miracle? He believed (and continues to believe) that he is selling much more than furniture, he is selling a way of life. And it’s a life that is more refined, more coordinated than customers might have conceptualized by themselves. The key, visual merchandising. He’d employed a group of artisans, carpenters, drapery makers, interior designers and upholsterers and together their magic wands created a virtual movie set for their clients. And the clients could, if they wished, take the mob home with them to personalize the concepts. “Lifestyles of the rich and famous”!
The experience for the visiting customer was unique. A multi-level welcome. One would be greeted at the door by a smiling staffer, then introduced to a salesperson whose job it was to gather information about tastes, fashion sense, personal preferences and, of course, budget. Then the salesperson, replete with useful data, would perform the next introduction, this to one of the staff interior designers. She/he would discuss/present various product lines, make arrangements for house calls, sit with the client and work up models, drawings and color boards.
Clive knew precise communication was essential, and he developed manuals for suppliers. He specified what was and was not acceptable in material and workmanship, hired artisans to inspect and correct any damaged merchandise. For customers who needed more customized service, spraying and dyeing facilities were installed.
Said Clive, “We don’t believe we sell anything, we place. Our designers place everything. They place for the customer.” His inspiration and insightful strategies remain intact.
But a hiatus in the evolving Robb & Stucky story occurred in 2011. Actually only a brief hiatus for the Lubners. It had begun when markets collapsed in 2008 and progressed insidiously as home prices dropped and affluent households diminished dramatically. Clive lowered costs, closed increasingly unprofitable stores, negotiated rents. But in February, 2011, he knew it was time to engage Chapter 11. Many wanted the Lubners to continue their success trajectory. But by May, 2011, when the family lost their bid to buy back the property, he knew the time had come to move forward to the era of Clive Daniel Home. The Lubners still endorsed the immutable “Plan to go forward, with a great story to tell!”
November, 2011. Six, roller-coaster-ride months later. They had been able to keep together their core team. Kris Kolar was one of that essential pivotal group. Said Dan, a strong participant in the action since the late ‘90s, “Our management, logistics and merchandising were all from the old company.” The façade carving was quickly changed to Clive Daniel. All speed ahead.
Since that November opening, CDH has won extraordinary Awards. In fact, by May this year, 125 of them from local, regional and national publications as well as building industry organizations for interior design and marketing excellence. Particularly from Gulfshore Life Magazine. Even an Emmy nomination for a television commercial. And “We’re proud of these honors because they provide a testament to our design and merchandising skills from both our customers and professionals from within our industry,” said Dan. CDH has been selected as one of the top 50 furniture businesses in the United States, one of only four from Florida.
Boca Raton hovered in the Lubner’s sights as the springboard for more expansion. “We had been scouring the East Coast for nearly three years for the perfect location. We built the store from the ground up.” They invested more than $16 million in the project, including the purchase of land, building and $4 million in inventory. There is a cross-over in styles and manufacturing between the two stores, but merchandising covers some specialty items geared toward the tastes of Florida’s east coast that are not shown in Naples. Kris and her team, guided by Clive and Dan, along with John Roos, Visual Manager at the Naples showroom, created “the overall feeling and design”. Said Kris, “The special challenge of laying out the Boca store is also one of the store’s best assets, all of the windows and that glorious natural light! We love light; it makes the store so fresh, alive and welcoming. It’s always wonderful to bring the outside in. Naples also has many windows.
“However, more windows mean less walls. Thereby less furniture that will fit within the four walls. And that is one of the biggest differentiators of the physical plants between CDH and the more traditional furniture stores that only have windows in the front of their buildings.
“Another challenging element, to figure out how to make the maximum use of that beautiful light in our conference rooms and business offices.
“The Boca and Naples stores are very distinctive in their physical plants. Naples is larger than Boca as it also holds many of our corporate staff. People like Clive, Daniel, myself plus all our buyers and assistants. And the majority of our Hospitality offices are also there.”
The amenities of Boca? A total home concept, a true full service destination for both interior designers and homeowners. Customers are able to work directly with certified design professionals to manage home remodeling or a décor project without having to “contract multiple entities”.
Boca’s staff includes 33 designers and 35 support staff including management, backroom, delivery and office employees.
In addition to the anticipated luxury home furnishings and a monumental accessory inventory, CDH offers area rugs, cabinetry, custom window treatments, flooring, re-upholstery, trendy home automation (smart homes!), a stunning gift boutique, an art shop, custom closets and kitchens and a lighting gallery.
“The rug collection is the best in the state, sourced from Feizy, Harounian, Bokara and Ariana.”
There’s a live demonstration kitchen in the showroom, too, as well as an accessory shop, a design studio and a resource room. Also The Chat Room, a community room which can hold up to 60 people.
“We wanted to create a hands-on environment, sort of like an Apple store. The demo kitchen is an example of that. Random wine tastings, a guest DJ, an opera singer, it’s all a part of the random excitement that can happen on any given day.”
Kris has made navigating the showroom easy. She has organized home furnishings by lifestyle concepts, showcasing individual pieces from various designers and arranging them to help make homeowners’ visions reality. “And while we welcome and enjoy the retail side of the business, we feel our strength is going to be in our designer-related services. And that tends to be a much higher ticket item.”
Kris explained, “The stores are very similar when it comes to the actual merchandising,”. The CDH trend-defying philosophy is to merchandise by lifestyles. She defined the deeply accessorized showroom areas. “The entry/atrium is our space for whatever we feel is fashion forward. Our dressiest area is ‘Elegant Home’. Our contemporary area, ‘Modern Home’. In between these two, ‘Today’s Home’. It’s relaxed, livable with deeper sofas and chairs to lounge in and cocktail tables to put your feet on. ‘Hampton’ is our most traditional area, lots of white, rough, distressed finishes and lots of linen and burlap fabrics. We maintain the same sense of visual disciplines in both stores.”
There is a gift boutique with a line of tabletop and other “gift-able” items, part of Michael Aram’s dynamic Indian and Oriental inspiration. In the same area, the Art Bar offers not only carefully chosen artwork but custom framing. And about 15,000 square feet is devoted to outdoor furniture.
Also named Corporate Vice President of Interior Design, Kris balances many roles, a dazzling list, her responsibilities and credentials almost as stunning as the lady herself. Interior Design Director, Merchandise Director, Home Fashion Director and TV-Online Expert, known in the industry as the “ultimate Style Maven”! Her work extends beyond the stores to model homes and condo interiors for prestigious builders and developers to complete interior design for the hotel industry for CD’s Hospitality Division. She and her energetic team have developed award-winning designs for many locations including the iconic Breakers of Palm Beach, Quail West and Treviso Bay, Naples and many more projects in Florida, the US and the Caribbean. Educated at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, she also earned an MBA from the University of Dayton, studied abroad in both Italy and Paris, and holds the coveted NCIDQ certificate of Professional Interior Design.
Dan said, “We have 36 designers in Naples and 33 in Boca. Although we have 150,000 square feet of combined showroom space, we consider ourselves a full service design firm. In terms of the store’s merchandising team, they are extremely talented and constantly evolving by defining industry trends, not following them. Their intention is to stimulate every sense each time a customer walks through the front door of our large but really warm and welcoming multiple-sectioned showrooms.
“We are very aggressive with our recruitment of designers and we believe in continuing education. This is done with in-house management, the trades and professional coaches. We believe our remuneration is among the best in the industry. To attract the talent, you need to be willing to give exceptional compensation.
“We do have full benefits and monthly and annual awards. Our designers attend Market. We regularly attend the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market, Dallas Total Home & Gift Market, High Point Market, Las Vegas Market and New York.”
He spoke of in-store design happenings. “Last month we had a wonderful event with Michael Aram. He was signing his fantastic ‘giftables’ and conversing and taking pictures with guests as he autographed his pieces.
“The following night, we had an event with Adriana Hoyos, the legendary retro-modernism designer and Good Will Ambassador for Latin America, to benefit UNICEF. These types of in-store ‘Meet the Designer’ events serve as another creative way to reach our customer, rather than the average ad/promotional campaign.
“Our Customer Service? Very easy! We give the clients what they want. And our delivery, bar-none, is the best in the industry.”
Kris talked again of “Hospitality”. An entity within an entity. The Lubner Group is a division of Clive Daniel Home/Hospitality, Daniel Lubner Principal, also award-winners. “A company of seasoned design professionals with lots of new ideas and over 100 years of on-site, on-time and right-on-budget experience in hospitality, commercial and residential interior design. “
Said Dan, “Our Hospitality Division has worked with scores of hoteliers and commercial clients in the renovation or revitalization of country clubs, community centers, banks and public spaces both domestically and internationally. Our heritage has allowed us to continue to grow this side of the business. Most of our projects are multi-phased and completed over several years. Lobbies, clubhouses and restaurants are my personal favorites. It’s creating something that will last . . . at least until we renovate it!”
And the novel Real Estate Rewards Program. “Always evolving,” said Dan. “It’s a great cornerstone to our marketing efforts and in engaging area interior designers. They receive points totaling two per cent of their clients’ purchase to be used towards furnishing their own homes.”
The welcoming, easy-to-access website is controlled “by a creative team internally, and both our website and our ads are crafted by this particular team”. A popular feature is the monthly well-designed e-newsletter with content that ranges from entertaining reports of CDH successes, to announcements of incentivized new properties available in the area. Recently highlighted, “Pointe 100, by Ascend Properties, a country club community in central Boca Raton” with an interesting kicker, “Purchase a WAVE model at Pointe 100 and receive a $10,000 shopping spree at CDH!” And there’s “Market Buzz”, an informative gossip column from the Markets about current trends, a fun soap box for the versatile Kris Kolar.
The Lubner family has always been a model of corporate citizenship, causes from the American Cancer Society to Habitat for Humanity, the Humane Society and Public Broadcasting, with Sonya always involved. “We like to say she is our moral center,” said Dan. “We have hosted scores of charitable events. Everyone has his or her passions.
“My personal passions include women’s empowerment and local food banks. Most recently we hosted a fundraiser for the Spirit of Giving Network and the Junior League of Boca Raton. The Spirit of Giving Network’s office neighbors our Boca Raton Showroom and they do remarkable work in the community, uniting 60 of southern Palm Beach County’s greatest non-profits and helping to share information and resources.
“The Chat Room also is another way for us to give back to the community. The space is made available to non-profits free of charge to hold meetings, luncheons and small scale speaking engagements.”
Dan’s background, not surprisingly, is in marketing and sales. “While I spent a few summers delivering furniture, I didn’t really get involved with the business until the late ‘90s. I’m married with three boys, 14, 11 and 4. My wife, Cathy, buys for our CDH boutique . . . when she is not being a taxi driver to our kids!
“We’ve been absolutely thrilled with the response to the Boca Raton showroom. We know what this market is able to do. Boca Raton is a much larger market than Naples and last year Naples did more than $35 million.
“Our future is very bright and we will continue to evolve our design offerings and client experience. I don’t feel great about the general future of retail. I think we are starting to enter the ice age of retail. Luckily, we do not count on retail to make or break our business.”
Danny Kaye must have met the Lubners along the way. He said, “Life is a great big canvas and you should throw all the paint on it you can!” And then let imagination take over.
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.