Retailers share interesting stories of growth, hardship and their strategies for success.
The people of the home furnishings industry have evolved a deservedly enviable reputation over the years. Integrity, respect and empathy for cultures, ethnicities and our environment, recognition and understanding of style, quality and service are hallmarks of successful entrepreneurs.
Add to these qualities determination, focus and the warm family belief that home is ”where the heart is”. And that’s not just a tired cliché for furniture folk, it’s a certifiable truism. Especially if one examines the many imaginative methods of reaching out to the communities around us.
One such story began when two paths converged in the early 1950s at a Washington D.C. restaurant when Peggy, a beautiful dining room manager met George, a handsome waiter.
Peggy was one of eleven children from Sutton, an historic town with a population of around a thousand, known as the geographic centre of West Virginia, noteworthy for its Civil War heritage and rumored UFO visitation! Peggy left home at 17, worked along the way as a telephone operator, eventually travelling east to the Nation’s capital and the hospitality industry.
George was born in Switzerland, the land of legendary innovation, neutrality and economic stability. He sailed west, seasick for two weeks, on the Cunard Cruise Line, seeking greater potential for a better life in the United States. The Korean War was in progress, and George Huber joined the army and ultimately became an American citizen. He was stationed, luckily, in the vicinity of Washington.
After the cessation of hostilities, he attended the University of Maryland, targeting a degree in Electrical Engineering, supporting himself, soon his wife Peggy and their first three children as an overqualified waiter. The children were all boys, Michael who made his appearance in 1958, then Jeffery and Rodney.
George graduated, and then took a civilian job as an engineer for the U. S. Navy, as luck would have it, back across the Atlantic at Wiesbaden, Germany. Then a U.S. military base, now home to the U. S. Army Europe Command, Wiesbaden is one of the oldest spa towns in Europe, surrounded by spectacular countryside. Extraverted George loved to play poker in the evening, and his friends joined him in long and frequent sessions at the family dining table. As it happened, his friends very much liked the furniture that George had acquired in Belgium, the birthplace of Art Nouveau and a justly famous furniture centre. His many connections extended to Belgium; his father had worked in textiles there before George left for the States. George began commuting, buying dining sets to sell to his friends on the base. And that’s when he began to conceptualize the future. If his poker friends were so enamored of the furniture, why not sell it to other eager customers?
Peggy borrowed a typewriter and, on the kitchen table, completed the paper work necessary to apply for a furniture concession on the base through the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. Permission was granted and they opened their first store in 1969, the year young Mike Huber celebrated his eleventh birthday.
The Huber’s venture flourished and rapidly snowballed to 13 stores across Germany, one in England and one in Spain. To this day, several family members live and work in Europe, selling under the brand name “United Furniture”.
And Mike? He always had a talent for sales and, growing up in and around the business, began selling candles and rugs at age 12. He says now that he always worked for a commission, not an allowance!
In 1982, George and Peggy stretched their reach to Fair Oaks Mall, Fairfax County, Virginia, selling European furniture to the U. S. Market. They had name recognition back in the States since so many American servicemen and women had been their good customers over the years. Mike, now age 24, returned to the United States to run the store. But, after a few years, his parents decided to focus on their European chain and close the Virginia store, their only U. S. location.
Mike chose to “see what he could do with the small amount of leftover stock in an obscure warehouse in Herndon, Virginia”, rather than move back to Europe to work in the family business. Mike’s energetic wife, Kristi, was a driving force behind the decision. She wanted to raise their children in Virginia. Mike met the challenge and, in 1987, started his own company. He bought the remaining inventory from the family business, along with the name, for $10,000. He had grown up with the name, “Belfort Furniture”, and liked it. In French, “belle” is “beautiful”, and “fort” means “strong”, both qualities important for furniture. And it was a neat touch of romance.
But life was by no means easy. The warehouse, with no heating and no air-conditioning, became their 3,000 square foot showroom. When customers came through the door in the humid summer heat, Mike would quickly shed his dripping apparel and don his crisp white “selling shirt”. In winter, the only heat came from a large kerosene space heater strategically positioned in the middle of the showroom. Everyone knew that when the heater began to make a sputtering sound, they should stand clear. Sputtering was the warning signal that the heater was about to shoot flames and smoke into the air, one last dramatic display before running out of fuel!
The cold cement floor was another hazard that could freeze unwary feet. Mike often attempted to thaw his feet by taking off his shoes and putting them by the heater. More than once the heat dissolved his socks, but his feet were so cold he wasn’t aware of the meltdown!
With only three people on staff, Mike, Kristi and Mike Parry wore many hats. When a truck arrived to deliver furniture at the dock, boxes would just be stacked, one on top of another by hand, no forklifts, no racking.
And their advertising budget was exceedingly slim. Belfort’s first ads were 1” x 1” listings in the classified section of The Washington Post. Mike was shocked when customers actually showed up!
Once customers had visited for the first time, they were well aware they should bring flashlights from home since warehouse lighting was less than desirable. The threesome not only sold furniture, they delivered it, too.
In Belfort’s first year of business, the company sold “about as much as it now sells on an average Saturday”!
But expansion occurred rapidly at the Herndon warehouse showroom. As sales flourished and more money for rent became available in the budget, so Belfort grew, one loading bay at a time. Everyone took turns with the corporate sledgehammer, knocking out doorways in the cinderblock wall, then hauling the debris away in a wheelbarrow. Tough times. But the Huber’s vision stayed firmly focused on the dream of becoming a Top 100 Furniture Store.
Mike was very proud of the first American furniture sold at Belfort, a $799 three piece sofa, loveseat and chair set that “sat like a rock but was called ‘Super Soft Set’. We wouldn’t use a name like that anymore”, he noted. He purchased the monumental piece at the Furniture Show in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
A little further down the road, they “were very fortunate, as a new growing business, when Crawford of Jamestown, quality solid wood furniture, sold merchandise to us. They were the first manufacturer willing to work with us. Carl Cappa, then President of Crawford, believed in Belfort, and he extended our credit line when needed. Many other manufacturers wouldn’t do that. We worked really hard to build our business ‘one customer’ at a time.”
Eventually, Belfort expanded to take over the entire original warehouse building, about 20,000 square feet, a real mark of success. Their vision remained strong and, during Belfort’s first few years, it just happened that Mike drove home each night past an alluring empty shopping centre in Loudoun County, Virginia. He couldn’t help thinking what a great location it would be. It was actually possible to see the stores from the road! Wasn’t that great?! But funding stood in the way of this tantalizing new location.
“We worked with the Small Business Bureau, tirelessly trying to borrow large sums of money. After real, continued persistence, our efforts finally paid off. We got the loans needed to buy the building!”
In 1993, Belfort opened its first 35,000 square foot showroom where it still stands today in the Dulles Square complex. It consisted of three buildings with two 35,000 square foot and one 10,000 square foot showrooms. Over the years, two of the buildings were leased out to other businesses. “But as Belfort grew we took over occupancy of the buildings, expanding our merchandise line up.
“In 2003, we experienced dramatic growth with the opening of our Belfort Basics showroom, and the new warehouse facility located directly across the street from the flagship store. Basics offered an additional 20,000 square feet of lifestyle furniture at specially priced values. We coordinated room settings for customers, taking the guesswork out of decorating for them. This unprecedented expansion fulfilled part of our vision to build on a single store philosophy, and allowed us to offer consumers a more complete shopping experience by creating a full-featured furniture complex. Then, in 2005, we opened an additional 35,000 square foot showroom featuring American casual styles.
“As we grew, our knowledge of our customers’ needs broadened. We identified new ways to improve their overall shopping experience, and that translated into moving furniture categories into new showrooms. In 2008, we transferred youth furniture from the original showroom to the 10,000 square foot store that originally housed motion furniture. Then motion furniture was moved to the Interiors showroom to create a gallery focused on destination categories such as home entertainment, leather, motion, entertainment units, home office and casual dining. In addition, it’s home to the area’s largest Nourison Rug Gallery.”
Belfort was expanding at a phenomenally rapid pace, setting record sales, and warehouse space became stretched from an operational and capacity standpoint. “We bought land at Ocean Court in Sterling, Virginia, about five miles from the retail showrooms and offices. In 2006, we opened our new 83,000 square foot state-of-the-art distribution centre. Today, it features the most advanced technology including radio frequency inventory control systems that have increased productivity and ensured inventory accuracy, and also de-mountable trucking systems.
It was in 2008 that an “open book” management format was created for managers, establishing goals, reviewing results and forecasting together once each month. The group uses the opportunity to brainstorm to help everyone achieve their goals.
“When it was tough to get store traffic in 2009, we decided to train our sales staff to do in-home sales calls. They were able to raise their average ticket, and the company had its best year ever in 2010.
“We’ve always empowered our people to make their decisions based on fairness. Is it fair to the customer, is it fair to the employee, is it fair to the company, in that order. The philosophy of fairness, combined with the belief that ‘satisfied customers sign our pay checks’, has been the fuel to drive us forward.
“All our stores are situated at one convenient location, making Belfort Washington’s largest furniture store. By creating this campus-like environment, we provide customers with a unique furniture shopping experience. The showrooms are within walking distance of each other and feature over 100,000 square feet of retail space with over 500 room settings. Our latest services include in-home design appointments, custom window treatments and custom closets. Belfort has become a one-stop destination for all decorating needs.” A vision realized!
“At Belfort Furniture, we earn our customers’ loyalty by creating beautiful homes at a price they can afford. But the driving force behind our growth centers is our talented staff. Our doors first opened in 1987 with one employee. Today we employ more than 160 diverse individuals dedicated to outstanding customer service at all levels, sales, merchandising, customer service, accounting, information technology and delivery. Our employees are the heart and energy of Belfort, the secret of our success. As a result of our efforts, we have now earned the coveted rank of ‘Top 100 Furniture Retailer’, setting trends in home furnishings and retail marketing in the Washington, D.C. area.”
The warmth and close family values that helped build Belfort are shared every day with the community that supports their philosophy. As corporate sponsor for the annual YMCA Loudoun County Charity Golf Tournament, dedicated to raising funds to send less fortunate children to camp, Belfort helped raise over $300,000 for the YMCA’s Building Bridges campaign.
In April, 2011, Belfort was local sponsor of the “Walk for Hope”, the City of Hope’s first Washington, D.C. walk. Mike Huber matched funds, dollar for dollar, for “Walk for Hope”. Staff and friends raised $25,000, and Mike matched funds for a total of over $50,000.
Also generously supported targets are the American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Doctors Without Borders, and Future Leaders of Loudoun County. Throughout the year, donations are made to local schools, the Loudoun Education Foundation, ECHO (Every Citizen Has Opportunities), Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter and many others.
Belfort’s commitment to the environment is truly outstanding with their “Be Green” programme. “Simply stated, ‘Be Green’ means that we plant a tree for every delivery we make. Our efforts help to restore our forests in our local communities and beautify our landscape. Most importantly, ‘Be Green’ plays an important role in offsetting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Since 2008, over 1,000,000 tree seedlings have been planted in Virginia.”
And, in turn, Belfort has received widespread recognition: “Best Furniture Store” in Loudoun County since 1995, 17 straight years! voted by Leesburg Today readers; “Best Furniture Store in Northern Virginia, 2009”. voted by Northern Virginia Magazine readers; 2008 Corporate Sponsor of the Year, YMCA Loudoun County, and the 2010 YMCA of Metropolitan Washington’s Corporate Partnership Award.
Industry awards include “1994 Retailer of the Year”, recognition from the Maryland-DC-Virginia Home Furnishings Representatives’ Association; “1995 Retailer of the Year”; the Lane Diamond Award, 2006, 2007 and 2008; and, in 2011, Mike Huber was honored with the “Spirit of Life Award” by the City of Hope’s National Home Furnishings Industry Group.
And, predictably, there’s a new venture in Mike’s world. As an entrepreneur and visionary, he’s set his sights on fresh business opportunities. In 2010 he took on the winemaking world. Stone Tower Winery is situated on more than 100 acres in picturesque Leesburg, Virginia. With over 20 acres of grapes planted, he will produce approximately 150 cases of wine this year, his ultimate target 10,000 cases of premium wine annually. By 2013, his plans include wine tastings at Belfort Furniture events!
Dream no small dreams. Peace Pilgrim said, “If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought”. That’s one of Mike Huber’s favourite quotes!
Back in the ‘50s in the City of Toronto, Harry Michaels was thinking his own positive thoughts. Toronto, provincial capital of Ontario and now the largest city in Canada, is at the heart of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). And it’s part of the densely populated area known as the Golden Horseshoe, home to more than 8.1 million people, approximately 25 per cent of Canada’s population. Of these citizens, about 49 per cent were born outside Canada, making Toronto one of the world’s most diverse cities by percentage of non-native born residents. International, cosmopolitan and exciting!
Two of Harry’s grandsons, Jeff and Jason, and grandson-in-law, Israel Adud, the Millennium generation, run the business now. They all acknowledge Harry’s and their father, Albert’s, foresight, integrity, hard work and all-encompassing philosophy. Harry did very well over the years with his store, Times Furniture. Well enough that he attracted the attention of Leon’s, another family business, now, in 2011, a chain of more than 70 home furnishings stores and franchises in every one of Canada’s 10 provinces. In fact, Harry became very close friends with one of the Leon brothers and was made a partner in the business. But in 1969, Leon’s went public and the company bought Harry out.
Harry was not deterred. It was not in his nature to be deterred. Bought out, he founded another business, Arrow Furniture. Why Arrow? Because the building was on Arrow Road, Albert explained, laughing. “Actually, we only had half the building. It was in the late 1970s that they took over the whole building, 64,000 square feet. It combines both showroom and warehouse space and now, in 2011, it provides central warehousing for all four Arrow stores.”
Four stores? “Well, we felt compelled in the industry to have more buying power and, with the City of Toronto growing so rapidly, we needed multiple outlets. And money is always a motive.
“The second business was established in 1972, on Kennedy Road in Scarborough, to the near east of the City. The third store’s opening was based on increasing success, and that occurred in the late ‘70s in Mississauga, to the near west of Toronto.”
Harry believed in the power of focusing on value and service, so he wasn’t alarmed when, 25 years ago, a company called The Brick became part of the retail mix. The Brick had built their company “out west” in Edmonton, Alberta. They concentrated on small showrooms and aggressive price points and, said Albert, “They almost wiped out the furniture industry in Alberta. Then they decided to move in the direction of Toronto, and that made me very nervous. They planned to open four stores all at once, they were advertising voluminously and were coming in like a powerhouse! I was really very concerned, afraid, because of their previous reputation, and what might happen in this City.
“But my dad, Harry, said, ‘We have been in business in Toronto for many years. I have seen them come, and I have seen them go, and we’re still here. Don’t worry what The Brick is doing; focus on what we should do!’” Of course that’s exactly what the Michaels family did. They survived, thrived, and they opened their fourth store in Brampton in 1996.
Jeff said, “We did have a tough period in the early ‘90s, and we worked at keeping our overheads down. What kept us going was the great customer base we had built since 1969, our loyal repeat customers. We believe that you go out and find the best value for your customers, and then give them the best value you can.
“We were one of the few independents that had a real service department. We discovered that many people appreciated that, and they would call us to say thank you for the good and prompt service. Repeat business is key. Satisfied customers give references to extended families and friends over the years. We have concentrated on not just getting customers in, but keeping them!”
There’s a pervasive geniality and warmth, a sense of whimsy, in the Michaels family. It permeates their business lives, too, and has reached on occasion into advertising and promotions. “We’ve dabbled in humor once in a while. In the late ‘90s, for example, we created a television commercial centered in a car wash. We went right into a car wash and came out the other end smiling, wearing a tux, sitting on a nice leather sofa. I don’t really know if it helped sales or not, but it was fun!” he grinned.
Albert added, “The one issue that stands out that remains a constant and helps to build success, is giving the customer the best value we can and then servicing them. The consumer is much more educated today with the Internet, the design shows on television, lifestyle publications, etc. So, we buy the best we can, service the best we can. Value, quality, service. Maintain those factors and it will make your success a much easier climb.”
The Michaels are heavily involved in community work. They are particularly devoted to the DCMF, the David Cornfield Melanoma Foundation, and the Reena Foundation that supports the Reena Community Residence, a home that helps to deal with developmental disabilities. Then there’s Mount Sinai Cancer Research, and the Shabta Levi, a home in Israel for children two to seven years of age, who have been mentally or physically abused, and their mothers. And Baycrest, Canada’s leader in developing and providing innovations in aging and brain health.
“Grandfather Harry always taught us that in good times it’s easy to do business, but in the tough times, make sure you have control of your expenses, save!
“The future? My dad is very content now. He’s worked extremely hard for many decades and doesn’t need the headache of the business any more. He is satisfied the business will grow in the care of his children.
“We will capture more market share. We will continue to provide value, quality and service.” Harry would be proud.
Meanwhile, deep in the heart of Texas, Hermann Furniture is celebrating its 135th anniversary! It’s the oldest family owned and operated furniture store in the State, and we’ll bring you their inspiring story in Part Eleven of our series.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.