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Clint Engel

Hometown heroes weigh in with success stories

NAPLES, Fla. - The four retailers on this year's Hometown Heroes panel at Furniture/Today's Leadership Conference kept coming back to a common theme while discussing their secrets to success.
     It all comes down to people.
     Link Melley of Freedom Furniture and Jeff Frank of Simplicity Sofas honed in on the people who use their products - the end consumer - while Tom Phillips of Weekends Only Furniture Outlet and Chad Spencer of Dufresne Spencer Group focused on the vital role of people within their organizations.
     Phillips, president and CEO of the five-store, St. Louis-based Weekends Only, launched the first new format store in 1997, but said the seed of the concept was sown years before while visiting his grandfather's downtown store - three floors of bare-bones displays of merchandise bought for pennies on the dollar.
     It wasn't pretty and there were no options, but it was a treasure hunt and customers knew they were getting a deal. Weekends Only opened in a 20,000-square-foot store and Phillips eventually switched to a 50,000-square-foot format.
     The retailer grew quickly through 2003, opening six stores with annual sales topping $30 million. But business stalled in 2004.
     "I had made some critical hiring mistakes that were having devastating effects on the business," which lacked the right systems and talent, he said.
     It resulted, he said, in a stressful and unhealthy culture that led Weekends Only to reinvent itself, starting with Phillips.
     "I sought to become a more authentic, transparent, collaborative and humble leader who was finally willing to listen," he said.

     The retailer hired a consultant to perform data-driven assessments on Phillips and senior management. He ended up letting a couple of managers go, bringing back one and promoting another. It took four years to build the new team.
     Weekends Only also began creating a healthy culture that focused on its mission - saving customers money - and core values of responsibility, teamwork, performance, growth, honesty and commitment.
     "I want (employees) to know I desire for them a more meaningful life," he said. "I want them to know they matter - they actually matter - and how they do their jobs matters."
     As a result, the retailer posted sales increases from 2004 to 2012, up a cumulative 78%, he said.
     Spencer, president of Saltillo, Miss.-based Dufresne Spencer Group, with 15 stores in six Southern states, had a similar message. His father, Jim Spencer, opened his first furniture store in 2002 and since then, the organization has grown into a Top 100 company with 12 Ashley Furniture HomeStores, two HomeStore outlets and two multi-line Stash stores.
     "We didn't have a clue about furniture retailing, but one thing my father (would say) is, ‘You win life with people.'
     "Any success we have had in the last few years goes to one thing and that is we believe in finding a dream team of sorts in the retail business, people that are absolutely the best at what they do," Chad Spenc
er said.
     And the team shares in Spencer's mission: "to achieve excellence as we provide products and services in a way that honors God and blesses our customer and employees."
     Spencer said that if the company can fulfill employees' needs, "They're happy and in our workplace, they turn around and fulfill guests' dreams and make happy customers."
     Every year, Dufresne Spencer takes everyone in its organization with at least one direct report to a three-day leadership summit, where the group focuses on its vision, strategies and communication in order to create passionate followers.
     A goal of providing good service also drives Link Melley's Norfolk, Va.-based Freedom Furniture and Electronics, which has 15 stores and an e-commerce site serving military personnel and their families.
     "With our customers, because they are young and in need of everything, there's a special responsibility that goes with that," Melley said. "You need to make sure you're paying attention to the customer's budget and not overextending them so they can continue to be a good customer."
     He said the credit-oriented Freedom also is involved in the military community, sponsoring charity events in the military-base markets where its stores are located and giving to national charities, including The Patriot Foundation and the USO.
     "One of our driving observations early on was that with these spectacular men and women who work hard everyday defending our country, we'd go see their homes and apartments and found that they were living in pretty rough circumstances," he said.
     A big part of the company's mission is help its customers create nice places to live with goods from sources such as Ashley, Serta and Coaster, "and make it affordable," he said.

     Jeff Frank, owner of High Point-based Simplicity Sofas, which makes midpriced to high-end ready-to-assemble upholstery that it sells online, practices what he called "extreme customer service."
     When Frank started his business in 2007, he faced some challenges. Simplicity Sofas was selling an expensive product that customers couldn't sit on before buying and were expected to put together, and it was all coming from an unknown, unproven source.
     But he met the challenges with a service model that includes a "total satisfaction warranty." Should customers not like their furniture for any reason, they could return it for a full refund - including shipping charges - up to a year after purchase.
     The company also vowed to keep its customers "fully informed throughout every part of the sales, production and shipping transactions," he said.
     Most importantly, Frank added, every customer is contacted within 24 hours of delivery and asked how they liked the furniture, what they thought of the customer service, and, "Are there any problems that need to be fixed right now?"
     Frank said the company has had its share of problems, but its prompt bend-over backwards solutions end up creating big fans.
     "After five years and over 3,000 customers, Simplicity Sofas has never received a single bad customer review," he told conference attendees here. "That is not because our customers never have problems, but because of the way we react when those problems occur."

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