Behind every dramatically winning concept you can be sure to find fixation on focus, an all too rare discipline. Add to that a border-line obsession for thinking/acting both inside and outside of the proverbial box.
In September 2004, right at the pinnacle of founder and General Manager Ron Becker’s major concerns was the erratic business climate, the distinct chance “that manufacturing would eventually go completely off shore”. It was “the right time” to focus on the formation of the Mid-South’s Great American Home Store, “a truly exquisite One-Stop Home Furnishings” experience, located at Southaven, Mississippi. And, by November 2007, with a secure foundation of success, GAHS also became positive reality at Memphis, Tennessee. Ron was convinced that enormous opportunity was waiting for “generations to come” if and when it was judiciously, strategically approached. “We knew that in order to serve the community and distribute costs effectively, we would need two locations.” Now there are three, “Two full line stores, and one new sleep shop at Memphis Cordova, with more sleep shops in the works”. Future plans include development at Little Rock, and possibly markets like Louisville, Lexington, Kentucky or Nashville. “We are always looking for the right opportunity for expansion.”
“There have been changes” over the intervening years, said Ron, flexing to that ever-shifting economic scene. Again a pivotal focus, Ron believes in finding, keeping and nurturing partners and co-workers whose talents add important elements to the corporate mix.* “Jack Wells came on board in 2011 to create and steer our in-house advertising department,” and with his multi-media credentials, Jack was and is the right man at the right time.
“Matt Klinger has been with the company since the beginning and has become a key player in our merchandise department with his 20 years of experience in the industry. Briana Spence was very instrumental in defining the personality of the store with her merchandise and buying skills, and we have brought on Allison Ocampo to help take us into the next generation of merchandise level with her department store merchandising and visual background.
“And there is continued progression with the training and education of our sales staff.” With 100,000 square feet of retailing space and 155,000 square feet of warehousing, GAHS now has 90 employees.
Ron’s philosophy of business and principles of governance have strong roots. His early inspiration, Abraham Lincoln’s approach to leadership. Ten qualities have been identified.
- His capacity to listen to different points of view
- His ability to learn on the job
- His willingness to share credit for success
- And his willingness to share blame for failure
- He was aware of his own weaknesses
- He developed the ability to control his emotions
- He knew how to relax and replenish
- He frequently went out into the field and managed directly
- He had the strength to adhere to fundamental goals
- And the ability to communicate goals and vision
Ron’s modern mentor is James C. Collins, business consultant, author and lecturer on company sustainability and growth. An award-winning Stanford MBA, his five books are immensely popular, more than four million copies sold in 32 languages. “Good to Great”, is one of Ron’s special resources, useful to add to your personal library. Collins defines “greatness” as “financial performance several multiples better than the market average over a sustained period”. He finds the main factor for achieving the transition to be “a narrow focusing of the company’s resources on their field of competence”.
Collins lists some characteristics of companies that went from “good to great”: “They have leaders who are humble but are driven to do what is best for their companies; they find the right people and try them out in different positions; they confront the brutal truth of situations but never give up hope; with colleagues they seek to discover their passion, what in the world they would be best at and what is their driving resource; they develop a culture of discipline; they use technology to accelerate growth and employ the additive effect of many small initiatives and act on each other like compound interest”.
GAHS has invested in The Trax system and “certification program” with The Furniture Training Group and with the guidance of Mark Lacy and his staff. Said Jack, “The Trax system is our up system and video door counter that lets us monitor traffic. We analyze traffic and bore down to actual close ratio, cost per visitor as well as cost per sale.
“The certification program enables us to test every sales person on every product category in our showroom. They must be able to pass tests to demonstrate they know enough about each product category to properly inform the consumer about the product. We met Mark Lacy several years ago when I attended a seminar about education specifically designed for the furniture industry. The seminar was held at the Resource Center during the High Point Market. Through Mark’s programs, we train all new employees in every aspect of our industry from sales techniques and product knowledge, ending with how to perform customer service.
“Also, every new employee is required to work through every department within our organization, in the warehouse and on the delivery trucks, even the women.
“The Furniture Training Group certifies that all new employees have been trained and tested for certification. They carry the certification with them even if they leave our company. Yes, even if they choose to work for our competitor!”
Months before GAHS opened to the public, Ron conceptualized a strategy of checks and balances. “As we started the process of building our company I decided we would structure the business model around customer service, the consumers’ wants and desires. Usually furniture companies are built around sales and they worry about service later. I decided that our sales volume would be controlled by our service people. We would increase advertising only after meetings with the service people and it was confirmed that we could successfully handle more sales volume.
“Bill Gill, operations manager, would have to send me notification and approval that he and his staff were ready.
“Mark Carson also would send me notification that his staff was ready for delivery.
“I would then notify the advertising department to spend more money on advertising and our sales volume would grow with controls in place.
“During this process, our sales department and merchandise department were notified to start their process of preparing their staffs for the increases in volume.
“All deliveries go through three phases of preparation before the merchandise is ready to be loaded onto the trucks. Each driving team is held responsible for their load. Once they accept the merchandise, all charge-backs for damages are the driver teams’ to pay. Each driving team is paid a commission on delivered merchandise that meets the customers’ approval. Every customer communicates with the service department that they are either completely satisfied or they are not completely satisfied. This delivery completion process is done with I-pads and cell ‘phone apps with every delivery. We pay all sales people and delivery people on a weekly commission on delivered sales.
“The same process is in place for our service techs who are assigned out for customer service calls. All service calls are in an open status and are followed closely by service reps until we receive the words, ‘Yes, I am completely satisfied’. Service orders must be closed out within seven working days unless parts are needed. If indeed parts are needed and the parts must come from overseas, the max a service ticket can remain open is 30 days. If we have the items of purchase in inventory, we will take parts from our inventory and satisfy the customer immediately. It is everyone’s goal within the company to strive hard for perfection and complete customer satisfaction. We are very, very serious about customer happiness within our company. Sometimes we will allow the customer to return the merchandise after several years of use if we cannot make them happy. Excuses are not allowed. If you are a person with excuses you will not work for The Great American Home Store.
“We have daily meetings regarding customer service issues, and every manager receives daily reports on delivery completion percentages. All issues are reviewed by the managers and consultation is held with every employee who was involved in the transaction and delivery process. In customer service, all calls are recorded for managers to review. If there are questions or concerns, we go back to the incoming calls which are recorded to see if our people did everything correctly. If mistakes were made, we retrain immediately with the employee involved in the transaction.
“Service and damage reports are kept on every SKU by every vendor in our system. We know by SKU which items are a potential problem for us. The manufacturers’ reps are made aware of these issues and are given an opportunity to correct their issues. If the factory refuses to correct the issue, we will drop that SKU from our inventory. In the past, the SKU in several cases was our best seller in that category. The factory could not believe that we would drop the item. In several instances, we required the merchandising team to stop buying from certain vendors with high service issues. This sometimes becomes a battle amongst our team! We are never hard on our vendors, we just quit doing business with those we feel do not have the same mission as we do, COMPLETE CUSTOMER SATISFACTION.
“Our goal for 2015 is a 98 per cent completion rate.”
High on the GAHS focus list is marketing, both concept and product line. When Jack Wells joined the team in 2011 “to facilitate advertising through an out of town agency Ron had just hired” he was asked to “come on full time. I had convinced Ron the company could save money by bringing advertising and marketing in house. We started with print and moved toward doing all of our TV ads recently. Last year we spent a good deal of time researching and developing our on-line marketing strategy. Building the team was top of the list. It currently consists of three and one-half people including myself, all either cross-trained or in the process of on-going training to make sure everyone can do everything in my department, print, television and the ever-increasing use of Internet marketing. And the first step in this process is to ensure they understand the furniture business!
“We do not currently sell on line but should go live in the first quarter of 2015.
“We have added new tools in our on-line development to help us advance to a sales funnel approach of moving customers from our web presence to our showroom to a sale and, in the future, on-line sales. We feel that about 85 per cent of our current floor traffic has visited our website prior to coming to the store. We currently use FurnitureDealer.net for our web presence, and have found Andy Bernstein and his team to be an invaluable asset to helping us foster our future vision for our web presence.
“Social media is included in our marketing efforts including use of Facebook, YouTube, Yelp, Pinterest and others. We are in the early stages of developing a new e-magazine with embedded video as a marketing tool, coming in 2015. We would like to create our own video show for the Internet now tablets and ‘phones are used so much for video, something that is more infotainment than just an advertisement.
“We currently advertise on television primarily, then radio, print and ever-growing web advertising.”
The GAHS supplier list is long and impressive. A sampling, Bernhardt, Flexsteel, Corinthian, Klaussner, Jaipur, Austin Group, Fusion, Hammary, La-Z-Boy, Magnussen, Pulaski, TempurPedic, Universal, Sealy, Vaughan Bassett, Catnapper and many more quality, up-market names.
Early in GAHS’s history, May 2007, and much to Ron’s surprise, they gained recognition in the 61-350 employee category of the Memphis Business Journal’s Small Business Awards. In response, “It was nice just to be a finalist, and I thought we were too young for the award. To live up to the honor, I believe we need to continue to be good stewards of our business.”
Also in 2007, GAHS was named Mississippi Retailer of the Year. From 2005 to 2010, GAHS was the Best Independent Sealy Retailer in the Mid-South. There were several different awards for participation in two Vesta Home Shows. In 2005, GAHS won “Best of Homes”, in 2009, Excellence in Residential Construction, Best Interior Design, Best Master Suite, Best Foyer, People’s Choice (first and second place) as well as Best of Show. And the company placed second in the Shelby County Commercial Appeal category for Best Furniture Store to Shop in Memphis in 2010.
And there’s a gentle side to GAHS, their reinvestment in the communities that surround their stores. They like to support entities that make a difference locally and have sponsored many events, given money and donated items to schools, research hospitals, homes for children, community foundations, Little Leagues, hurricane victims and many, many more. The company usually favors charitable organizations that have little or no funding. “We, as small businesses, are really nothing more than groups of people living in the community,” said Ron. “If the small businesses and citizens of our community don’t take it as their own responsibility to provide for themselves and others, I don’t think it will ever get done. We like to support things where it makes a difference locally. If we give something to the local high school, we know it matters.
“We also give a great deal of attention to the Mid-South Food Bank, The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the Blood Bank and Coats for Kids.”
And the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a non-profit organization that arranges experiences for children between the ages of three and 17 with life-threatening medical conditions, also attracted GAHS’s attention, and they are proud supporters. The “wish” of a little boy named Justin who wanted to go to Disney World was fulfilled this past year. GAHS has also furnished many children’s rooms.
“We believe it’s true, the more we can give and support those less fortunate, the more we are blessed as stewards of our business!”
The future of Great American Home Stores? “Earlier this year we opened our first sleep shop in Memphis with leases signed on two more locations to open next year in Memphis and Southaven. We are currently looking at other markets for both full service and sleep stores.
“We will continue to grow our business out of our profits and not by borrowing money. We are always looking for opportunities to grow our business, especially with the sleep shops. We will look at other markets if we think the conditions and market are correct for our business model.”
Have you ever experienced a magical moment, suspended in space, total unbelief that a miracle has come to pass? Ron told us about the GAHS epiphany. “After two years of intense planning and building the first store, we were all very anxious to get started. The building was completed, all systems were in place, all the staff had been hired.
“Oh, boy, we were ready!
“The first tractor/trailer pulled up to the dock for unloading into our beautiful new facility . . . and everyone just froze! No one moving, everyone just staring at the back end of the truck. Absolute silence! Completely frozen in time.
“Until Richard Rickman, our IT person, came to life. Said Richard, “Well, I guess we should maybe unload this thing.
“And GAHS came to life!”
Ron Becker writes about some of the outstanding people of GAHS
“Jack Wells. I have known him for 35 years. He and I have the same value beliefs in life. ‘Always do what is right and just even when nobody is watching or even when nobody cares.’ Jack started out in the bedding manufacturing industry 40 years ago and eventually moved over into the furniture retail industry with his family in the mid-1980s. There I think he found his passion for advertising and marketing. Jack loves what he does and is a GREAT mentor for a lot of young people who are coming into our industry. He always finds time to help those who want to learn and grow in the advertising industry. I cannot have a conversation with anyone within the media industry who does not tell me how much they respect Jack and how much they enjoy working with him. Jack has helped grow our business double digits each year, and cut our advertising cost by 50 per cent since coming to work with us. When we started the company I was spending 11.25 per cent in advertising to revenues. This year, we will finish with five per cent advertising cost to revenues!
“Matt Klinger I came to know when he started working for me 28 years ago; he had just come out of college. Matt literally started at the bottom of our industry, and worked his way through every department. There is hardly anything in our business he cannot do! If he doesn’t know it he will, in a very short time, learn it. He has that type of intelligence. Matt is very analytical. And he has a great opportunity in this industry. He is a tremendous help in inventory control when it comes to closing out slow moving merchandise, and is great with profit margins on all inventory. At year end of 2014, we will come in with a 49 per cent margin after close outs and clearance items are moved through our system.
“Briana Spence came to work for me when she was 17 years old. At such a young age there was nothing this young lady wouldn’t do, even down to driving a truck. She naturally knew how to manage people and get production out of everyone she came in contact with. She fell in love with merchandising. It was her vision in merchandising that created the look for The Great American Home Store. It is her never ending determination to make this the GREATEST FURNITURE STORE in the Mid-South that helped us capture such a market share in the Mid-South area. She is always striving for perfection when it comes to merchandise and showroom display.”
“Allison Ocampo began to work for us as we opened our second location in late 2007. Allison came to us from the high-end department store industry. She brought with her the experience we needed in visual displays. She has a tremendous talent in color and fashion which helped take us to another level of merchandising and display in our showrooms. With this added touch, shoppers come in frequently just to get ideas for color and fashions. Even our sales people get excited about her displays as she adds her final touches. Allison is now moving into merchandising to help take our showrooms to a new look with some higher end merchandise and looks.”
“Bill Gill came to work for us as we opened for business in September 2004. He brought with him the expertise and knowledge needed to receive, ship and manage the operations as we went from zero to $14,000,000 in sales the first year of business. He put systems and procedures in place that help us reach the goals we set for ourselves pertaining to customer satisfaction after the delivery. It is his relentless approach to operations that makes us the GREATEST logistically furniture stores in this country. I will put our operations up against anyone else in the country.”
“Diane Harper and I have worked together for 35 years. Diane is in charge of our accounting department. No company can operate without a good money manager. Diane is our person for this task. She helps me keep an eye on all our expenses. She is quick to bring it to my attention when we get out of budget for any expenditure. She is very instrumental in controlling our expenses which leads to healthy profits. And, with healthy profits, we are able to help our employees and also help the people in our community.”
“Mike Carson owns the delivery company (Carson Delivery Service) that we use for all our furniture deliveries. Mike and I have a very clear understanding of what our company requirements are when it comes to customer satisfaction. There are no excuses or acceptance of failure when it comes to our deliveries. Mike grew up in furniture warehousing and he understands what it takes to be excellent in customer service. He has never told me he can’t or won’t make a delivery, no matter what the circumstances. Since we started together in 2004, I can count on one hand the complaints we have received on deliveries, and those were in our early stages of development. The calls we do receive are calls of compliments and praise for our delivery teams.”
(Modestly, Ron asked Jack to pen his bio!) Jack writes:
“Ron started in the furniture business at the early age of 25, and now has 40 years of experience. He spent 13 years on the floor at Fleming Furniture, moving into management after that. He helped take the local company from five million in sales to 30 million before leaving to pursue other interests. In 2002, Ron met his partner and they decided to open a full service furniture store unlike any in the Mid-South. The first store in Southaven, Mississippi, just outside Memphis, was designed after spending a full year looking for just the right location at a cost of eight million dollars. The first full year after opening, GAHS generated 14 million in sales. The second store was opened inside Memphis with slight tweeks to the design bringing us to a total of 110,000 square feet of showroom space and 150,000 square feet of warehouse space. Both locations have on site warehousing for customer convenience for pickup. Sales this year will top 28 million and maintain high margins and profitability.
“Ron’s passion for the industry and attention to detail as well as his uncanny talent for selecting and building the right team is the cornerstone to our success! He understands and appreciates the value of our sales force being in position for so many years, and has worked hard for this to be a customer and employee focused company. Ron is very loyal to his employees, and our vendors not only respect him but many have become close friends through the years.”
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.