This series, commemorating Furniture World’s 142nd year of publishing, continues with the interesting history of iconic Massachusetts based retailer Bernie & Phyl’s.
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There are very few people in New England who are not acquainted with Bernie and Phyl’s. The largest privately owned furniture retailer in the region, Bernie and Phyl’s, has been described as iconic. Consider the rationale. The family-run business, based in Norton, Massachusetts, owns and operates eight stores: Braintree, Hyannis, Raynham, Saugus, Westboro and Natick, Massachusetts, Nashua, New Hampshire and Warwick, Rhode Island. Bernie and Phyl’s Furniture received the prestigious Better Business Bureau Local Torch Award for Excellence in 2011, 2009, 2007 and 2004, given to companies that embody the highest ethical standards. In 2002, the company was named “Retailer of the Year” by the National Home Furnishings Association, the highest honour in the retail home furnishings industry. And the company ranks among the Top 100 furniture stores in the country! Iconic, indeed.
Pictured along with the Natick store are Rubin family members: Larry, Phyl, Bernie, Michelle (Pepe), and Rob.
Bernie and Phyl Rubin have come a long way. And the road was not always smooth. Their story could truly be described as a realization of the American Dream.
The vision began to take shape when Bernie was very young. His father was a milkman and Bernie used to help him make deliveries to customers around Boston. Bernie carried the milk to the top floor of Boston’s three-decker tenements so his dad wouldn’t have to walk up all those stairs. It taught him the value of hard work at an early age.
A few years later, Bernie’s father started driving a truck for a local furniture company; that’s how Bernie got his first job in a furniture store. He was 13 years old and every day after school he would go to the store, wash floors, polish furniture and run errands. Bernie loved it. And he dreamed that one day he would open a furniture store of his own.
At 18, then a senior at High School, Bernie met and soon fell in love with beautiful 16 year old Phyllis Segal. Bernie attended Northeastern University as a commuter student, so he was able to see Phyl every day. They married when he was 20 and she 18, and the relationship appears to have worked well. That was more than 50 years ago, and the couple has three children and 10 grandchildren.
Married when he was 20 and she 18, Bernie and Phyl’s relationship appears to have worked well. At right Phyl Rubin and daughter Michelle Pepe at a blood drive.
After university, Bernie went back to work with his father, helping him run his furniture trucking business. It was when Bernie and Phyl were in their forties that they made the decision to pursue Bernie’s life-long dream. They took their small savings, borrowed a bit more from relatives and opened a very small sleep sofa store at Quincy, Massachusetts. It was 1983, almost 30 years ago.
The first few years were difficult. Bernie and Phyl worked side by side in their little sleeper store, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to make it a success. With three children at home and a mortgage to pay, there were many times they thought of giving up. But, of course, they didn’t.
They took a huge financial risk in late 1984. They bought their company’s first building, a 12,000 square foot former shoe factory in Weymouth, and left their cramped leased space at Quincy. With the move they were able to expand into a fully-fledged furniture store. During the next few years more leased stores followed. In 1993, they bought a warehouse in Brockton.
Two years later, they took another big financial leap and bought their current headquarters, warehouse and land in Norton. The Brockton facility was just not big enough for the company’s future growth plans.
In 1997, Bernie and Phyl purchased a 42,000 square foot building, and 26,000 square feet of warehouse space on Route 9 at Westboro; this became their first large store. And it was a spectacular success!
At their annual toy donation event, pictured from left to right are: the Bruins Bear, two cheerleaders from the New England Patriot's flank Michelle Pepe on either side, and behind is the Boston Celtics mascot "Lucky."
Pictured above: Boston Red Sox pitcher Alfredo Aceves joined Bernie Rubin, co-founder of Bernie & Phyl’s Furniture, to sign balls for kids from The Home for Little Wanderers as part of the twelfth annual Bernie’s Baseball Buddies outing at Fenway Park. Mr. Rubin brought a group of children from The Home to watch batting practice, meet players, eat ballpark food, and see their first game.
Pictured above are Bernie and Phyl with representatives of the Boston Celtics’ organization.
Then a prominent 50,000 square foot building on Route 1 in the town of Saugus went up for sale. They bought it and opened their second major store in January, 1999.
They purchased another building in August, 2001, 41,000 square feet with a 1.87 acre parcel of land on the Daniel Webster Highway in Nashua, New Hampshire. In September they opened the new Bernie and Phyl’s in the existing building. Meanwhile they constructed a new three-story 86,000 square foot store in two phases, so the company never had to close for business. Nashua is now the biggest store in their chain, and one of the largest in that market.
In June 2003, they bought a 55,000 square foot store on Route 44 in Raynham, Massachusetts, and opened for business two months later. And in October 2004, yet another store, 50,000 square feet in Braintree, Massachusetts, which they opened in February 2005.
Three years later, March 2008, Bernie and Phyl found a store just waiting to be purchased at Hyannis; that store was open for business by May 2008. By October 2010, they opened their first Rhode Island store in Warwick.
Two buildings located on a high profile, high traffic stretch of Route 9 in Natick, Massachusetts, attracted their attention in October 2011, a new market area for the company. And, in February 2012, they opened a 34,000 square foot showroom in the larger of the buildings, along with their first ever “Metro Living” concept store in the adjacent 5,000 square foot building.
The Metro Living store features a whole new line of higher styled and finer quality upholstery and leather living room furniture, ranging from transitional to contemporary to urban looks, only available at Natick Metro Living.
Today, Bernie and Phyl’s is one of the largest furniture retailers in New England, and one of the most successful retailers in the country, eight stores and more than 400 employees.
It was also Bernie’s dream that his children would fall in love with the business just as he had, and that they would eventually become partners in the endeavor. He has always believed that working side-by-side with his father for over 30 years was the greatest gift of his life.
Bernie and Phyl’s second son, Robert, joined the company in 1985 after graduation from Syracuse University. Their eldest son, Larry, joined them in 1989 after he graduated from Northeastern University, his father’s alma mater, and worked as an electrical engineering professional for 10 years. Daughter Michelle worked in the company for several years, and married a fellow Bernie and Phyl employee. Michelle spent several years as a full-time mom and came back to work five years ago.
Below, ribbon cutting ceremony at the Bernie & Phyl’s Warwick, RI store. In the front row left to right: Michelle Pepe (Bernie and Phyl's daughter), Phyl Rubin, Bernie Rubin, and the Mayor of Warwick, Scott Avedisian. In the back row left to right: Bob Pepe (B&P employee and son-in-law), Larry Rubin (son), and Robert Rubin (son).
Pictured at above is Bernie and Phyl’s first store at Quincy, Massachusetts in 1983.
As a result of starring in their own advertising commercials, the members of the Rubin family have become television personalities over the years. Bernie and Phyl’s is one of the most recognizable brands in New England, and the company’s catchy jingle, “Quality, Comfort & Price, That’s Nice”, has become part of the popular culture.
Each family member has a very clear role within the company’s structure, and really “owns” that area without oversight from other family members. Larry is President and CEO. Robert is President of Merchandising and Marketing and Michelle, Director of Community Relations. Everything they do is highly collaborative; they work together to achieve the common goal of making the company successful.
And everyone shares the same ethos: family relationships are the most valued part of life. After working together day in and day out, they still enjoy dinner together after work, going to sporting events with one another, spending holidays together, and taking vacations as a family. Working together and being a family unit is simply part of their lives, indicative of the strong bonds they have with each other.
As a corporate family, every facet of the company is infused with Bernie and Phyl’s personal philosophy each learned as children, “be honest, work hard, treat people the way you would want to be treated and take care of your family”. And this includes employees, vendors, customers and the greater community.
Pictured from left to right above left is: Robert Rubin, Paula Flemming from the Better Business Bureau, Larry Rubin, and Bernie Rubin accepting a Torch Award.
One of Bernie and Phyl’s most heartfelt and continuous efforts is their alignment with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and their local chapter. At right an MS event (lower right).
Bernie & Phyl’s Furniture was recognized recently as a Local Torch Award for Excellence finalist by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Central New England. Photo below shows three generations of the Rubin family accepting the award. Bernie Rubin (far right) is joined by his grandson, Alex Rubin (far left), and son, Rob Rubin, in accepting the award from Nancy Cahalen, BBB President and CEO (top right).
Treated as “family”, Bernie and Phyl’s 400-plus employees are an “amazing team” of loyal and dedicated people who care passionately about the company. “Treating team members well and empowering them to solve problems on their own, inspires each individual to serve customers and vendors with the highest levels of professionalism and ethics. “The true foundation of Bernie and Phyl’s ongoing success” is the founders’ expectation that they will act honorably in every dealing with customers, vendors, suppliers and the community, working hard to go above and beyond what is expected.
The number one priority is “to keep customers happy, even when things go wrong! Customers won’t find high pressure sales tactics or a high stress retail environment at Bernie and Phyl’s. What they will find is beautiful, quality furniture at a price they can afford every day. And a company that is always willing to go that extra mile to make their shopping experience 100 per cent positive every step of the way”.
The company also values its strong relationship with vendors. “The mutual respect and trust that Bernie and Phyl’s has with all of its partners is essential to the company’s past and current success.”
There is another dimension to Bernie and Phyl’s philosophy, belief in their obligation to give back to those less fortunate. Through their “Friends in Need” programme, donations of furniture are made regularly to charitable organizations across the region. One particularly outstanding project was Pine Street Inn’s Home for Veterans. Sixteen homeless veterans moved into a renovated Hartford Street house in Dorchester, Massachusetts. There they have the opportunity to rebuild or stabilize their lives within a structured and supportive home environment. Each veteran has an individual room with shared bathrooms, and a shared living room and kitchen. Case managers help them connect with community services, secure employment, further their education and independence and maintain stability.
The renovation was completed by Pine Street Inn which is a non-profit organization based in Boston, a national leader in the fight to end homelessness. Federal grant funds cover the cost of ongoing operations and support services, but the group reaches out to the community at large. Bernie and Phyl’s contribution was 16 Sealy beds, dressers, nightstands and headboards, and furniture for the common living room.
But one of Bernie and Phyl’s most heartfelt and continuous efforts is their alignment with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and their local chapter. The Rubin family serves on the board, is a major monetary sponsor for the many events they promote throughout the year, and conduct extensive fundraising promotions, the largest an annual event in the month of May. They have helped raise over $500,000 in the past two years to support the MS Society’s groundbreaking work and will continue these efforts. It is a personal crusade. Phyllis Rubin has suffered from MS for nearly 40 years, so the disease has touched the whole family.
A couple of years ago, Phyl starred in a series of MS public service announcements for national MS Awareness Week. She made the decision to go public with her own story in the hope that others would be helped and to increase awareness of MS. Of course, the target of finding a cure for the disease is critical. Multiple sclerosis affects more than 2.1 million people worldwide, including over 400,000 Americans and 16,000 in New England.
Phyl received the national MS Hope Award from the Society’s New England Chapter, honored for the “inspirational life she has led as an entrepreneur, businesswoman, community benefactor, wife, mother and grandmother, despite living with MS for so many years”. She had her first attack in 1971, but was not diagnosed until two years later when she lost permanent sight in her left eye. In those days, MS was a very difficult diagnosis to make, and there were no treatments for the disease.
Said Phyllis, “There are times when it’s been frustrating, like when I couldn’t do even the simplest task like brushing my own hair. But I’ve always had the philosophy that you make the best of what you have. Getting MS was something I couldn’t control, so I decided early on I wouldn’t let it stop me from living a full life.”
MS is an unpredictable and often disabling disease of the central nervous system that interrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and the body. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but with advances in research and treatment it may be possible in the future to eradicate the disease.
“While I’ve had many tough years with MS, I have been fortunate that some of the new medications developed in the past decade to treat MS have helped me control my symptoms,” said Phyl. “But more needs to be done. I hope that by sharing my story, others will be motivated to donate to the National MS Society at http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/PhylFund, and join me, Bernie and my family in our quest to create a world free of MS.”
This spring, Bernie and Phyl again sponsored the well-organized and very popular Annual Walk for MS.
And there are other community initiatives. For example, holding annual Red Cross blood drives in the company’s stores, sponsoring annual toy and food drives, hosting car seat safety-checks, sponsoring youth sports teams locally. And organizing Bernie’s Baseball Buddies program. He takes underprivileged kids to see a Red Sox game and tour Fenway Park. And there are many public service television sponsorships with media partners.
Another notable event was the giveaway of a thousand free tickets to a Boston performance of comedian Jay Leno, his stand-up show at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater. Anyone who took a Sealy Posturpedic sleep test at Bernie and Phyl’s received two free tickets to the show. Larry Rubin said, “We have the best customers in the world and we wanted to give something back to them that was extra special. Jay Leno is an icon here in Massachusetts where he grew up and it’s really an honor to participate in filling the house for this special live performance.”
Back in time for the 2010 Olympics, Bernie and Phyl’s sponsored an Olympic Contest with one lucky Gold Medal winner receiving a $5,000 shopping spree at any of its stores. The Silver Medalist won a 55 inch LCD HDTV and the Bronze Medal winners, three of them, won a “Family of Four Ski and Stay”, a Loon Mountain weekend getaway. Again the Sealy Posturpedic sleep test provided the magic. “Anyone age 21 or older was automatically entered to win, no purchase necessary. This popular contest was mounted in conjunction with Channel 7/WHDH-TV, which broadcast the 2010 Winter Olympic Games”.
As recognition for New England’s veterans, a military discount is offered to all active duty, reserve, and retired and disabled service members. The company provides discounts from 10 to 20 per cent, depending on purchase price, and zero financing for two years.
As you might expect, Bernie and Phyl’s has attracted much recognition over the years. As well as the prestigious Better Business Bureau Torch Award, four times, they were grateful to receive, in 2008, the Massachusetts Family Business Award in the large company category.
In 2005, for their good work in fostering mentoring of children, they won the Champions of Mentoring Award from the Mass Mentoring Partnership. It is the only state-wide organization solely dedicated to strategically expanding quality youth mentoring in Massachusetts, and the umbrella organization for more than 190 mentoring organizations supporting 23,000 youth. Services include training and technical assistance, networking and professional development, mentor recruitment campaigns, advocacy, resource development and recognition and mentor-mentee match activities.
Back in 2003, the company was honored with the Executive Technology Retail Community Service Award, which recognizes businesses that are building a better world for people through their community service efforts.
In 2002, as well as receiving the National Home Furnishings Association’s Retailer of the Year Award, they were also chosen as the recipient of the Home Furnishings Association of New England’s notable Robert E. Richmond Award of Eminence, given to companies that exemplify strong ethics and professionalism. And two years earlier, a Millennium Award, the company was named 2000 Retailer of the Year by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
Bernie and Phyl Rubin’s dream is a shining reality.
Note about the National Multiple Sclerosis Society: MS can stop people from moving forward with their lives. The National MS Society exists to make sure it doesn’t. The organization helps each person address the challenges of living with MS. Through the home office and the 50-state network of chapters, the Society has devoted more than $126 million to programs that enhanced more than one million lives. To move us closer to a world free of MS, the Society also invested over $45 million to support 440 research projects around the world. You can join this worthwhile movement at www.nationalMSsociety.org. It’s a fascinating website.
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.
View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone