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Confessions Of A Family Furniture Store Owner

Furniture World Magazine


If you have similar story, you have just four options: motionless planning, mayhem planning, methodical planning or moral planning.

The Family Business Series by David Lively

I got started in this crazy, wonderful industry quite by accident: My roommate’s parents owned a store and I was a young guy looking for a job.

In fact, when I started back in the 1980’s, the industry had recently completed a generational transition similar to the one happening now. Today I make my living as a consultant to retail family businesses, but in my prior life I owned three different retail furniture companies – all of which were family owned and operated before and after my family was involved.

Over the years, I have learned that many of us have a story similar to mine. While names have been changed to protect the innocent, you will undoubtedly recognize many of the characters in this fictional drama about the life of a typical family business owner Robert Sr.

Robert Sr.’s story

“It seems with every newfangled software introduction, internet invention and exotic FOB point I move deeper into a world of confusion and frustration. This isn’t any one person’s fault.

It is simply the result of time. In the quiet of my own mind I look around the upcoming bends of life and wonder, “What could possibly be next? How do the skills from the past decades of my life apply to the future of my family business?” Before you ask what planet or what padded room I came from, let me explain.

“Following WWII, the business came easy. Our town was filled with guys and their buddies returning from around the world, starting families, and using their VA loan money to buy their first homes – which I gladly filled with furniture. I was an entrepreneurial, adventuresome and esteemed “Business Owner.”

My wife, Mary, and I worked the business together for the first five years. We had a manufacturing crew, she did the books, and I went out on the road for sales calls when I wasn’t designing the products (it was the design side that I liked the most). Mary quit to raise our four kids, Robert Jr., Barbara, Katherine and Sarah. Our oldest went to med school, but the other three all work for me now. When the nest was empty I tried to convince Mary to come back and do the accounting, but she wanted a chance to succeed or fail on her own. She went into catering, and I hardly see her anymore what with parties on the weekends as well as evenings. She’s busy from dawn to dusk.

The three kids in the business have taken on more important roles over the last few years while I’ve tried to spend more of my time on my passion – the marketing and merchandising side of things. Everyone is pushing me into new roles these days– the kids, Mary, my grandkids, even the hotshot we hired from the university to develop a new management system. I haven’t decided whether I like it or not. One morning I asked myself, “Who am I now? Who do I want to be?” Pretty heavy stuff, I know – but unless you know the destination, it’s pretty hard to create a map. So I’ve been doing some thinking. What do I want to do with the rest of my life? Who am I after all these years?

“I wonder if I should discard the President title. I’m not sure yet whether Robert Jr. or Barbara should have it, but I know I shouldn’t. I’m tired of negotiating with customers and disciplining employees. But the kids aren’t really ready; they don’t have the commitment I had when I was their age. Think I’ll wear this hat until one of them really proves they are ready, willing, and able.

“Chief Marketing and Merchandising Officer fits what I think I want to do, what I really enjoy, but I’m not up to speed on all the new software requirements for tracking merchandise sales. Knowing how people use furniture and having a feel for what makes their homes more enjoyable used to be enough; now it’s not. Could I succeed? It’s a big risk to give up what I know I can do – even though it’s become tiresome – for something I may not do all that well. Is the pleasure worth the pain?

“My mind is a whirlwind of ideas and “woe is me” thoughts. How about Lender Extraordinaire for my new title? The business needs funds to grow, especially if we want to expand the operation. But Mary and I don’t want to sign our name to any more lines-of-credit. The kids keep asking how they can go to the bank on their own, especially when Mary and I still hold all the stock and I have the final decision making power. Well, why don’t the kids give me a proposal that will let me walk away? I bankrolled them through college and med school. If it’s going to be their business, they have to take some of the financial risk instead of waiting for dad to open his wallet. Good grief, we hope to give them a viable business and future prosperity. Why should I bankroll my own gift?

“I’m way past the age that people usually join, but I keep receiving flyers to join the AARP. Maybe I’ll break down and become a “Retired Person.” This thought certainly doesn’t have the same sex appeal as hanging around the store as CEO Emeritus. What would I do all day if I were retired? I just don’t like the sound of “retirement.” No one would be knocking on the door wanting my advice. I might die in my recliner, and no one would know for years.

“Maybe I should become a “Former Business Owner.” I can't tell a soul I’m thinking this. The kids say they want to run the business, but, as I said before, I don’t think they have the drive. If they drop the ball, Mary and I would be broke and friendless. You know the old proverb, “An empty purse frightens away friends.” We need the business to throw off some money for us or we need to sell it. Some of the big-box guys have been sniffing around our doors, they’d probably pay a pretty penny for our location and customer list. Trouble is, that would put the kids on the street. It also takes my life’s work away from the family. I’m just not sure.

“Then a real curveball popped into my head. I just love being with my grandkids. I can’t seem to get enough of their energy, their questions, and their hugs. I have to admit I didn’t have enough time for my kids. Half the time I was at the store or working a problem customer during teacher conferences or ballet recitals. Mary was there for the kids, and she protected my work time. But the grandkids don’t understand that message, and, quite honestly, I’m glad. If I could keep a firm hold on my tendency to go into the store to review every sales order or customer situation, maybe I could be a full time Grandpa.”

Organizational Change Decisions

Do you recognize any of the voices echoing in Robert Sr.’s head? Many of us have played the role of Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, Janitor, Jack of All Trades, Counselor and Mentor.

Helen Keller said, “I long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” Honest workers abound in our industry.

They have formed companies that have earned billions, employing thousands of people and adorning millions of homes in the process.
Many of them confront the same decisions our fictional Robert Sr. faces with regard to handling organizational change. Perhaps you are pondering these decisions yourself today. You have four options:

  • Motionless planning
  • Mayhem planning
  • Methodical planning
  • Moral planning.

Motionless planning: Motionless planning happens when leaders place themselves at the mercy of the current situation rather than steering, directing, or focusing the organization. This kind of non-planning eventually leaves you unprepared to face difficulty down the road. Pressure builds, feelings are hurt, talented people move on, and often you end up stuck with a company that you no longer have a passion to run.

Mayhem planning: Mayhem planning happens only after the trouble is upon you. At this point, all of the organization's resources are scrambled and reactionary. Allowing mayhem to infiltrate puts you in danger. You may or may not come out alive and well, but you are guaranteed some bumps and bruises.

Methodical planning: Methodical planning is viable, but it is backbreaking, mechanical, and often ends up abandoned in the process. In family owned and operated business, leaders often have to respond to change in an instant. There's no time to collect scientific data on all of the variables before deciding which course of action is best.

Moral planning: Moral planning is the key to effectiveness. It is the artistic leadership approach. This principle-centered planning recognizes that life in general (and people in particular) can't be graphed on a chart, but recognizes that planning is essential.


At one time or another, Robert Sr. probably read Philip Crosby’s quote, “If anything is certain, it is that change is certain. The world we are planning for today will not exist in this form tomorrow.” Knowing this makes change no easier. The one thing that does make change easier is to create a planning template. You can do this on your own or with professional help, but it must to be done.

Pick your hat and wear it well. As a leader of the organization, regardless of the title you choose, you have a responsibility to choose a plan and chart a course to achieve your business dreams.

David Lively, partner at The Lively Merchant, has over 20 years hands-on experience in the home furnishings industry, from the warehouse to the sales floor to the boardroom. He has walked the walk and talked the talk from the family-owned, single-site store to the multi-state, multi-million dollar operation; from sales training to computer programming; from warehouse construction and operations to financial management; from new store construction to complete renovation. Twice named to the "Beyond the Top 100" list of independent retailers and 1997 "Ohio Retailer of the Year," David's wisdom was won on the front lines of a furniture store and his battle scars have given him compassion for counseling today's retail warrior. David’s experience has led him to address the issues of the transfer of authority, responsibility and wealth from one furniture store generation to the next. Four out of five family-owned furniture stores are still led by their founder, and 40% of them will change hands in the next five years. The surviving legacy of your family business depends on your plan for transition, and David has developed a system for helping to identify goals, strengths and opportunities during this crucial time.
Read more of David Lively’s articles for family furniture businesses on the furninfo.com website. You can email him at davidL@furninfo.com.