Originally created 05/03/04

Badcock celebrates centennial of furniture sales



MULBERRY, Fla. -- Furniture mogul Wogie Badcock's wood-paneled office is lined with mounted game trophies in a style some might liken to a gentleman's hunting lodge.

But that's not a problem at Badcock Furniture, where being down-home isn't just part of the decor. It's what makes the business.

Drive through almost any small Southern downtown or along the commercial business loops, and there's a Badcock furniture store. It's so Southern, they don't sell bedroom and dining room suites. Here it's pronounced "suit."

But for all that is steeped in history and tradition here, the company that marks its 100th anniversary this year is pushing ahead with a new look and strategy in the competitive world of furniture retailing.

It is expanding into markets on the northern edges of its southeastern U.S. stronghold, into states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. It's updating existing stores in an effort to attract upscale retirees heading south and to keep the customers who are looking for the perfect recliner for their doublewide.

It has managed to fend off bigger furniture chains in part because of relationships with customers that stretch back for generations and transcend marketing gimmicks, company officials and industry analysts said.

"It's been real fun and business is good - real good," said Badcock, the great-grandson of founder Henry Badcock Sr. and chairman of the board of the 330-store chain. "We're just busting at the seams."

The privately held company did more than $500 million in sales last year and employs more than 1,200 people in the chain that stretches through seven Southeastern states. That's compared with the South's largest furniture chain, Rooms to Go, which does about $1.3 billion in sales a year.

Badcock ranks 14 out of the nation's top 100 furniture stores in Furniture Today's most recent annual ranking, a list that is also topped by Rooms To Go.

Ray Allegrezza, editor of Furniture Today, said the company's personality makes it unique.

"They do things with a handshake. They are fair. If they agree to go into a partnership with you, they are in," he said. "On the other side of the coin, they expect you to live up to each of your promises to them as they do to you."

At the company's headquarters in Mulberry, a phosphate mining town about 50 miles east of Tampa, the fifth generation of Badcocks now works in the shadow of where the original store was opened by Henry S. Badcock in 1904. Wogie Badcock is the company's chairman, but his brothers Ben and Henry are vice presidents and at one time the three rotated in service as the company's president.

While some have urged the company to move its headquarters closer to a major interstate, Badcock said he'd never leave the spot that's just down the street from the white-picket fenced home where his grandfather lived. The company hasn't even changed its slogan - "Badcock Will Treat You Right" - since it graced the first store here.

"We have always been in here. We've always gone to church in Mulberry," said Badcock, who started out working in the warehouse. "Why leave your roots?"

It was during the darkest days of the Great Depression that the company developed its formula to succeed.

In 1930, Wogan Badcock - the grandfather of the current company head - began expanding sales in Florida by consigning merchandise to traveling merchants who would sell the furniture off their trucks. When some of those businessmen began acquiring buildings, they continued to sell Badcock furniture and split the profits with the company.

Today, three-quarters of the Badcock stores are owned by dealers who pay for the stores and the employees, and are provided merchandise, training and financing through the company.

"I've told everybody, my great-grandfather founded the business, my grandfather came up with the association dealer model, my dad put it on computer and my generation's claim to fame is we didn't screw it up," Badcock said.

Mike Whitten, the company's director of dealer development, said sophisticated computer software helps determine if a proposed location is a good one, but ultimately the company relies on dealers who get to know their markets and their customers to make stores profitable.

Take, for example, Marie Evers, the owner and operator of the Badcock Home Furnishing Center in tiny Palatka. She is the second generation in her family to own a Badcock store, and when she retires at the end of the summer she will sell the business - which is consistently among the top earners in the Badcock chain - to her son-in-law.

"They are just real fair people and they do treat you right," Evers said. "It's more like family. That means a lot."

Her store is such a fixture in downtown Palatka that when they considered moving near a local mall, the stores' customers protested.

"We started out with so many young couples with no credit and we extended them credit and they have always appreciated it," Evers said.

But for all it's Southern charm, Badcock officials said they realized a few years ago they needed to keep pace with changing demographics in their marketplace. That's why they started redesigning stores to be brighter, more contemporary and carry more name-brand and upscale furniture.

They also started looking outside the company for leadership. In 1998 the company brought in the first non-Badcock to be the company's president. Don Marks came to the company after more than 20 years in management of companies such as McDonald's, Pepsico, and British electronics company Thorn-EMI.

"I think we'd have a hard time mixing it up in Boston or New Jersey, just because people are used to that 'Crazy Eddie' style of advertising," Marks said. "That's not what we do."

The timing of its makeover coincided with the demise of Heilig-Meyers Co., the Richmond, Va.-based retailer which was the nation's top furniture retailer when it declared bankruptcy in 2000 and closed hundreds of stores.

Last month, Badcock announced it will build a 200,000-square-foot distribution center in Mebane, N.C., to supply stores in Virginia, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and eastern North Carolina.

The growth plan is ambitious, but not reckless. Even the transition to more fashionable stores is taking years and plenty of stores have not made the change.

"They always said in the South, things move slow - it's our stigma," Badcock said. "Well, it's proven profitable for us to not have chased some shooting stars."

On the Net:

Badcock & More: http://www.badcock.com

Furniture Today: http://www.furnituretoday.com