Cathy Ahern, from Keller-Williams Realty, talks with Gloria Wade, an art consultant at Clive Daniel showroom in Naples. The furniture retail business is heating up. / Gary Jung, special to news-press.com
Smaller retailers hopeful
Even with new players coming into the Southwest Florida market or looking to expand, one small furniture store owner said he’s not worried.
The little guy in the industry will always have the advantage of lower markups because he doesn’t have to pay the steep costs of doing business in the high-profile but high-priced buildings that attract customers in large numbers, said Chuck Grillo, co-owner of Ambiance Fine Furniture at McGregor Boulevard and College Parkway.
Grillo said that after 44 years in the business, he’s learned to choose his suppliers carefully. He tends to buy from smaller, high-quality U.S. companies that may carry a larger price tag than imports but have the quality to justify it.
“You look for something doweled, glued and screwed” to ensure it’s solidly constructed, he said. “You look for solid wood versus pressed board.”
Suddenly, Southwest Florida’s furniture market is a crowded room.
Fort Myers-based upscale home furnishings chain Robb & Stucky vanished in June 2011 after 115 years as its inventory was liquidated in bankruptcy reorganization. Chinese furniture billionaire Samuel Kwo acquired the company’s name and its huge client database.
For six months after that, the chain’s Fort Myers and Naples stores sat vacant along with the company’s other former locations around the country.
“The loss of Robb & Stucky in Southwest Florida left such a huge void,” said Jerry Epperson, an analyst for furniture and manufacturing industries and managing director of Richmond, Va.-based Mann, Armistead and Epperson.
But then things started to happen:
• September: Fort Myers-based Norris Furniture opens a store in Naples. Norris had returned to the market in 2009 after selling to Hendricks Furniture in 1988. Norris reopened after Hendricks shut down in Fort Myers.
• December: Former Robb & Stucky CEO Clive Lubner and his son Dan, formerly president of the company’s hospitality division, open upscale furniture store Clive Daniel Home in Naples.
• January: Kwo opens Robb & Stucky International in the old Robb & Stucky’s Fort Myers store (which Kwo bought for $6.3 million in September).
• April: Clive Daniel Home announces plans to open a store in Boca Raton. Miami-based El Dorado Furniture announces plans to open a store in Fort Myers next year.
The market seems ready to keep everybody busy, furniture store executives say. That’s significant because the furniture business first got in trouble here when residential construction slowed to a crawl, decimating consumer demand and cutting off a major market for home furnishings.
Clive Daniel did $1 million worth of business in its first full month, Dan Lubner said. “That’s the lowest we’ll ever have. We tripled that in the month of March.”
Steve Lush, president of Robb & Stucky International, said he noticed the market picking up steam “all of a sudden, the last two or three months,” corresponding to a surge in activity both in commercial and residential real estate in the same period.
People in this market aren’t dialing back on quality, Lush said. “What we’ve learned, perhaps not surprisingly, is that it’s been the better products” that sell the best.
Throughout the furniture industry there’s been a tendency to think that because of the recession the market for expensive items had disappeared, he said. “That’s why everyone’s been in such a rush to move down. So now, for the person who wants outstanding quality, there are very few choices.”
Larry Norris, owner of Norris Furniture, said he’s already up to 87 employees since he came back to the business as it was hitting bottom three years ago.
He’d sold the store to Hendricks Furniture in 1988 but Hendricks closed the Fort Myers operation in 2009 and Norris got back in the game later that year.
Now, he said, “We’re up to 87 employees,” many of them added in the past year as business picked up.
Since returning to the business, Norris said, styles have changed but more important is the level of trust his staff designers — some from Norris’ first time around — have built up over the years with longtime customers.
In a twist on that dynamic, both Robb & Stucky International and Clive Daniel are brand-new operations but have a claim to some of that same loyalty.
“We wanted the name. We fought hard to buy the name ‘Robb & Stucky’ back, but ultimately it was not in the cards,” said Lubner of Clive Daniel Home.
Still, he said, “Although we’re not unhappy with our name now, a name means nothing. They (customers) know the service they’re going to get.”
Employees are key
Robb & Stucky filed in February 2011 for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with more than $57 million owed to creditors along with $1.6 million in unpaid wages and $118,913 in back taxes.
But customers and suppliers from the old Robb & Stucky days are working with Clive Daniel now, Dan Lubner said. “There have been people we haven’t spoken to for five and six years who had a project,” put it on hold, but now are moving forward again.
Clive Daniel also has many of the designers from the old Robb & Stucky, Lubner said, along with the attitude that success means staying one step ahead of the market.
But Lush also has “quite a few of the designers from the old days” and they have the same continuing relationship with the customers they worked with previously.
“I have a feeling a lot of people didn’t notice the difference” in the change in ownership, he said, and only about 5 percent of customers ask about that.
As the economy recovers, Southwest Florida’s furniture executives are considering expansion into new markets.
“In 2013 we’ll have Naples and Sarasota up and running” and “We’re looking very hard for locations on the east coast,” Lush said.
Lubner said Clive Daniel is looking for a permanent location in Boca Raton, where it now operates in temporary quarters.
“I love the Fort Myers market,” he said. “It would be nice to come back to Fort Myers sometime in the future although we’re getting a lot of Fort Myers customers (at Clive Daniel in Naples).”
Although there’s no goal of attaining a certain size, Lubner said, “We still have strong connections to the cities where we were” such as Sarasota and Scottsdale, Ariz.
Norris said that “We’re always looking for opportunities” to expand but that “I don’t have any interest in going to Boca or Sarasota. Southwest Florida is our market.”
It’s important to remember, he said, that “Just because you can be successful in one town doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in another. Every place is different.”