Back when my brother, Eliot, and I took over the furniture business that our grandfather had founded in 1928, our father said something that I thought was wise. He said that he would always be there for us if we needed him, but that the business was ours to run and that we were in charge.
That was several decades ago – Eliot took over in the 1960s, when Jordan's Furniture was a single store with five employees and located in Waltham, Massachusetts. I joined in 1972 after graduating from college. But throughout the years, we have taken our father's words to heart and have tried to do things our way.
Early on, for example, we decided to focus on a segment of the market that was then largely being ignored: younger customers aged 18 to 34 who were acquiring homes and starting families, and who, therefore, very much needed furniture.
While we've since changed our focus to appeal to the broad spectrum of furniture buyers, the point is that in the course of taking matters into our own hands, we have tried to attend, not only to the strictly business matters of expanding the number of our stores and increasing revenue, but also to a less tangible but equally – if not more - important factor.
That intangible is simply the sum of a number of elements that, when combined, makes an enterprise unique. At Jordan's Furniture, in other words, we have created not only a business but also a "culture."
Culture is Critical
Just how important culture is can be illustrated with a landmark development for our company. Three years ago, a gentleman who was in town for a board of directors meeting at Boston-based Gillette Co. gave us a call and said he wanted to talk. The gentleman was legendary investor Warren E. Buffett, and what he wanted to talk about was buying Jordan's Furniture.
In fact, Eliot and I have indeed since sold the company to Berkshire Hathaway Inc., an entity controlled by Buffett. That the renowned investor had spotted us, however, was due to the fact that we were in the furniture business – and he is known to be partial to that industry. No doubt, it was also because of what we had accomplished on the business side.
By 1999, our company had expanded into a thriving chain of four stores, with 1,200 employees and annual revenue of $250 million. The revenue figure was key, as Buffett generally limits purchases to enterprises with at least a couple of million dollars on the top line.
But there is no doubt in my mind that this master investor was also attracted because of our company's distinctive culture. And that is where Eliot and I come in, because, as our father had intimated so wisely decades before, we had put that culture into place. And that is also where our employees - whom we call our "J-team" – come in, because it is they who have had to build upon what we set in motion
At Jordan's Furniture, the single most telling characteristic of our culture is that Eliot and I want to have fun, and we want our employees and customers to have fun as well. One way to do that is by injecting humor into our advertising. Since most of our hallmark television commercials feature Eliot and me, we use our personalities to amuse and attract customers.
In these commercials, the gigs are clever and appealing, such as one in which we poke gentle fun at a hip commercial aired by The Gap clothing chain. In our version, a handful of dancers dressed in Gap-like chinos are twirling on a stage, while Eliot and I stand behind a sofa in the background. A dancer flips over the sofa, and there we are sitting on it, with big smiles on our face as this tagline flashes: Jordan's Swings.
A fine line separates clever from schlock, of course, and we are careful not to cross it. Our commercials feature quality film and subtle lighting, and we don't ever mention prices. An aura of respect for the customer must underscore the humor.
As for our stores, we similarly inject fun by taking a cue from Disney. Our stores don't have a uniform "look and feel." Just as Fantasyland differs from Tomorrowland, and Frontierland from Adventureland, our four "attractions" likewise feature distinct personalities.
Our original store in Waltham evokes an early 20th Century downtown storefront, whereas, in nearby Natick, the building sports a towering glass entryway with the "Jordan's" name in bold and bright relief. In Nashua, New Hampshire, the look is slim, spare, and geometric; at our headquarters in Avon, Massachusetts, it is graceful, with round pillars and a curving façade.
The Disney inspiration extends to the stores' exteriors as well. We've chosen to inject entertainment - what we call "shoppertainment" - into the commercial theatre that is a furniture showroom. In the Natick store, customers walk into a re-creation of the famed Bourbon Street in New Orleans, complete with a nine-minute Mardi Gras. In Avon, the centerpiece is a ride on our Motion Odyssey Movie, which occurs in a 48-seat theatre with a four-story movie screen.
And don't, please, forget the food. In Avon, customers get free hotdogs; in Nashua, it's chocolate chip cookies. Natick features a Kelly's where customers can indulge in that eatery's famous Roast Beef Sandwich.
While Eliot and I conceived and set into motion the culture that is Jordan's Furniture, it is up to our employees to take it from there. And they do, serving the company with enthusiasm, hard work and dedication. I'm amazed at how often I hear comments such as, "What do you put into the water? Why are your people always smiling?"
If I were to answer that question, I would say that it is because a culture of respect has taken hold at Jordan's Furniture. And because of that, word gets around. When we opened our Natick store, during an extremely tight labor market, for instance, we were able to hire the number of workers that we needed.
Respect is a two-way street, as Eliot and I know only too well, and we try to show our appreciation to the people who have picked up where we leave off in sustaining our culture. In a step that recently grabbed press headlines, we flew our entire staff – all 1,200 employees – to Bermuda for a day off, filling four airplanes. There on the beach, amid music and good food, we were able to extend our personal gratitude.
In a more traditional vein, when we sold the company in 1999, we paid each of our employees a bonus of 50 cents for every hour he or she had worked for Jordan's Furniture.
And, oh yes, about that sale. Although our company is now a part of Berkshire Hathaway, Eliot and I are still here, and our J-team remains on board and as dedicated as ever. That is because we founders and employees alike are at the center of the culture that is Jordan's Furniture.
And culture is a wonderful thing. It becomes embedded in an enterprise. Warren Buffett notwithstanding, you can't take that away from us.
Barry Tatelman CEO, Jordan's Furniture Jordan's Furniture