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Retail groups eye merger

ROSEVILLE, Calif. - Board members of the three largest industry retailer associations - the National Home Furnishings Assn., the Western Home Furnishings Assn. and the Home Furnishings Independents Assn. - have agreed to merge the groups.
     The proposal will go to a vote of the groups' members, who will have until Feb. 19 to cast ballots on whether to approve or reject the merger, said Sharron Bradley, executive director of the WHFA.
     A transition team would determine an effective launch date, but she said it's likely to be at the June 2 opening of the Home Furnishings Industry Conference in New Orleans.
     If approved, the new group will be named the North American Home Furnishings Assn. Its membership will include more than 2,000 corporate entities representing more than 10,000 storefronts, officials said.
In a joint press release, the retailer associations said that uniting the three will lead to a stronger, more efficient service organization.
     The new group would be headquartered at what are now the WHFA offices in Roseville, Calif., and Bradley would be the chief executive. It would maintain offices in High Point and Dallas, where NHFA and HFIA currently are based, respectively. NHFA affiliates - the Southeastern Home Furnishings Assn. and Southern Home Furnishings Assn. - would maintain their separate corporate identities, but would become affiliates of the new NAHFA.
     Other staffing plans or changes have not been determined. However, Steve De- Haan, NHFA executive director, told Furniture/Today that if the merger is approved, he would be looking for a job, and is hoping to stay in the industry with his experience in both the retail and nonprofit sectors.
     HFIA President Mary Frye said she is hopeful she will be working for the new association from her Dallas base on "regional outreach," helping to keep "members plugged in and informed."
     All three leaders expressed support for the plan, despite the changes in store for some. De- Haan said the NHFA has always wanted the industry to come together and added, "I think it will be great for the industry."
     Board officials said the merger - in the works for more than a year - will bring industry professionals together under one umbrella to create a new resource for furniture retailers. They said it will provide a unified voice, allowing those in the industry to work more cohesively and increase negotiating power and cost efficiency.
     "This move eliminates confusion, competition and duplication of resources. It's a total win for our industry and particularly retailers," said current NHFA President Marc Schewel of Schewel Furniture in Lynchburg, Va.
     Howard Haimsohn, president of Lawrance Furniture in San Diego and past president of both NHFA and WHFA, added that a unified organization will be able to pool the strengths of each, making the whole much better than the sum of its parts.
     Plans for the group include a new website, a publication launched last spring, enhanced regional interaction, fresh educational offerings, and innovative best practices resources and data.
     Bradley added that should members approve the merger, she hopes a new board would approve "a lot more regional interaction and new leadership and participation opportunities for more members, not just board members.
     "Whether it's the Next Generation Now or a regional group, they will have more say so and more opportunity. It won't just be the board," she said. "We're really just trying to bring the industry together under one umbrella so that we can support our retailers, our members and the manufacturers and the sponsors and the industry as a whole."
     A nine-member transition team, with three members from each association, took the lead in negotiating the merger and will continue to manage the merger effort, Bradley said.
     The transition team members are Haimsohn, Chris Sanders of Everton Mattress Factory, Filer, Idaho, and Marty Cramer of Cramer's Home Furnishings, Ellensburg, Wash., for WHFA; Schewel, Cherie Rose of The Rose Collection, Los Gatos, Calif., and Joe Quintal of Rotmans, Worcester, Mass., for NHFA; and Steve Kidder of Vermont Furniture Galleries, Wilson, Vt., Stan Pickett of Quality Furniture and Appliance, Mesquite, Texas, and David Lively of The Lively Merchant, Lancaster, Ohio, for HFIA.
     HFIA's Frye said the merger "just makes sense for us, to not have a business owner wondering which organization (to join)."
     "The Internet has made our world both smaller and larger," she added. "All three of the organizations are focused on their members and how can we make sure we're offering the very best that can be offered, and I believe that this was the right time for a coming together."
     It struck Frye that, if approved, the merger would come during HFIA's 90th anniversary year.
     "Longevity is important in some things," she said, "but staying fresh and relevant is also a good thing."

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