Nineteen years ago, Gene DeMeerleer graduated from college with a degree in business finance and a financial job lined up in San Diego, CA. Little did he know at that time that he would turn down his job in the finance industry to start his own home furnishings business.
Having grown up in a small Idaho town, Gene was familiar with the family business. His dad, Jim DeMeerleer still owns and operates two furniture stores, Furniture Center in Moscow, ID and Furniture West in Moses Lake, WA. During Gene’s college years, Jim was buying and liquidating other furniture stores and occasionally asked Gene to help him run liquidation sales. Once Gene graduated college, he was given an opportunity to open a new store and if he successfully ran the store for a year, he could purchase it from his dad. Gene was intrigued by the opportunity for sole ownership of the store and decided to stay in the family business.
Together, Gene and Jim opened Furniture West in La Grande, OR in 1990, and since 1991, Gene has been the sole owner of the store. “My dad mentored me a little bit, but really it was a trial and error process when I began,” he said. “I mirrored his image as far as running a financially conservative business.”
Today, Furniture West is a successful furniture store that has grown and evolved as much as Gene. With nine employees, including Gene and his wife Velma, Furniture West has become a well-run and successful home furnishings business. This has been accomplished by creating a welcoming environment for customers, listening to great advice, finding new ways to motivate and train employees and keeping family first.
A Welcoming Experience
When customers enter the newly remodeled Furniture West showroom, they are greeted by fresh colors on the wall and consumer friendly displays. “We pride ourselves on keeping our showroom easy to shop and maximizing our selling opportunities,” Gene said.
One way of making the customer feel welcomed and comfortable in the store is by inviting them to visit the Welcome Center, which offers fresh baked Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, coffee, bottled water and balloons for customers’ children. “We want to become their friend and earn the right to sell them furniture before we ask. You want to make them feel welcomed,” said Gene. “We want the customer’s experience to be an excellent one, from the time you walk in and are welcomed to our store, to when our delivery service delivers your furniture and gives you their card and thanks you for doing business with us.”
Another way of creating a welcoming, no pressure environment is by paying salespeople a salary instead of commission. “Our no pressure environment is fueled by a salary paid sales force. We do have an UP system, and my sales personnel are expected to meet close-ratios and add-on sales minimum standards, but it is more of a team environment and less of a cut-throat, high pressure environment. We get comments all the time on how nice it is to shop in our environment! It is relaxing to the customer,” Gene said.
While Gene doesn’t pay employees a commission, he still uses sales incentives to keep them motivated to sell and improve their performance. The combination of a comfortable salary coupled with incentives, spiffs and bonuses has helped Gene have a low employee turnover.
Pick Gene’s Pockets
This year, Gene started a new program to motivate his employees called Pick Gene’s Pockets. Gene puts an assortment of money — $1, $5, and $10 bills — into a box and when an employee exceeds certain expectations or does something well, they get to pick something out of the box. “Brad Huisken suggested the idea during the last WHFA conference and I thought it was great,” Gene said. “It is a great reward for promoting the efficiency of your employees. Recognition and immediate gratification are powerful motivators.”
Over the years, Gene’s received a lot of great advice, but the advice that has and continues to pay steady dividends came from his dad, “Dad always preached that in the long haul the best course of action was to stay financially conservative. Do not extend yourself further than your comfort level. You’ll live longer! In today’s market, that advice is priceless.”
Even during this current economic downturn, staying conservative has helped Furniture West remain profitable. “We are not in a financial vice, we have the freedom to breath and ride through these tough economical times,” he said.
Gene considers his entire business and community a part of his family and has always stressed the importance of it. “You get one family in a lifetime — embrace it for what it is,” he said. “Everyone’s family is different as well as the relationships within.”
Gene has always welcomed and encouraged his employees to take time off for family functions. “Never get between an employee and their family. You will lose every time! A happy employee is a productive employee,” Gene said.
He uses this rule with his own family as well. While Gene is very active in the local community and with his business, he remembers that his family is first. “My philosophy is to always give back to the community you do business in,” he said. “But I have to keep it in check, because family is first and spending time with my family is the No. 1 priority. I give as much time as I can to the business community without jeopardizing my quality of life with my family and store.”
One way he is able to do both is by coaching his son’s sports teams. Gene is currently coaching his son’s soccer team, which allows him to spend more time with him. When Gene isn’t in his store or coaching soccer, he finds time to be an active member of the local chamber of commerce, the Rotary, the local search and rescue team, Boy Scouts Eagle Board, hospital foundation board and a lifetime booster of the Eastern Oregon University and La Grande High School.
In the future, Gene would like to see his company continue to grow and be progressive. He feels that the next hurdle for Furniture West is to be more proficient on the Internet. “This electronic super highway has changed the way we communicate and do business. I’ve been slow at adapting to this change. My website, my communication with my customers through email and my advertisements need to be improved. I’m putting forth a lot of time and money to catch up,” he said.
Gene sees Furniture West being present for many years to come, “Our future looks good. I’d like to say we’re on track for continued success. I’ve got to stay optimistic, this store is ultimately responsible for support eight families and in my world, my son and daughter will be attending college soon,” Gene said.
By staying financially conservative and being progressive to change, Gene is sure to be taking care of the Furniture West family for generations to come.
By Melissa Dressler, Western Retailer Managing Editor
Originally published in 2007.