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Cinde W. Ingram

The Bruce Company marries landscape, gardening and outdoor living

A tractor surrounded by flowers and a pergola area complete with outdoor furniture, fire pit and a Weber grill are among the first impressions customers have as they visit The Bruce Company in Middleton, Wis. Its attached greenhouse, garden center and flower shop lead into a casual furniture store filled with stylish vignettes.


Tractor surrounded by colorful flowers attracts attention to the garden center, greenhouse and patio furniture shop beyond.

Tractor surrounded by colorful flowers attracts attention to the garden center, greenhouse and patio furniture shop beyond.

Outdoor conversation area with fire pit and grill gives customers ideas as they enter The Bruce Company.

Outdoor conversation area with fire pit and grill gives customers ideas as they enter The Bruce Company.

Displays of indoor wicker and rattan as well as outdoor woven sofas like this one attract customers, who visit from surrounding states.

Displays of indoor wicker and rattan as well as outdoor woven sofas like this one attract customers, who visit from surrounding states.

Founder and majority owner Lee Bruce started like many boys by mowing lawns locally, but branched out into landscaping and garden services. Since its beginning in 1953, The Bruce Company has grown into a business with more than 600 employees that provides landscaping services in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois and builds golf courses nationwide. Landscaping offices also are located in nearby Milwaukee and Rancine.

Bruce’s brother-in-law, M.J. Moseng, oversaw sales of furniture for indoor and outdoor use after the category was added in the 1960s. Duane Salzwedel, casual furniture manager, joined The Bruce Company a little over a year ago, bringing about 25 years of experience in sales of spas and furniture.

Heavier cast aluminum and wrought iron furniture tends to sell best at The Bruce Company, Salzwedel said. The store’s three best-selling outdoor furniture manufacturers are Winston, Meadowcraft and Hanamint. In the fall and spring, indoor wicker and rattan bring strong sales, especially to customers with second homes. Sling furniture is still popular, but much of the outdoor wicker and deep seating groups wind up indoors or on screened porches.

The store specializes in Weber grills, but also brought in Fire Stone’s electric grills in response to a burgeoning condominium market.

“We were real happy to see Winston come out with their vertical living program because we’ll be able to do quite a bit of business with that for condo areas,” Salzwedel said. “This next year, we’re actually going to push that and do a mailing to condo associations and owners. We’re excited to include that in our casual niche.

“The furniture has become such a large scale recently that most people come in and see a set of a table and four chairs and say, 'My patio isn’t going to hold this.’ So they’re looking for a smaller table; sometimes they want four chairs but many times they only want two. We’re also getting a lot of requests for counter-height table sets.”

The Bruce Company delivers to Iowa and Illinois, but its primary market is within an 80-mile radius of Madison. Including the Middleton suburb, the market area is close to 300,000 to 325,000 in population. There are many lake homes in the area around Madison, but not many are decorated with lodge looks because of its metropolitan nature. However, a large demographic of second homes in northern Wisconsin often request lodge home furnishings and Salzwedel expects the recent addition of a lodge vignette will address that segment.

“For The Bruce Company, from the figures I’ve seen, there’s been growth every year,” Salzwedel said. This past season presented challenges because of a combination of fuel prices, low consumer confidence and the economy itself. “It’s really tough for me to tell because in the grill area, they’re having their best year ever,” he said.

One focus now is to cross-sell between divisions. For example if the landscape design division works on a large project, homeowners involved can be referred to the casual furniture store and offered a 20% discount on their patio furniture purchases.

Salzwedel worked with interior designers in his previous jobs, and plans to develop a program soon at The Bruce Company in response to requests from designers.

Until the end of December, the company will stay busy selling holiday.

“We do a huge business in Christmas (products),” Salzwedel said. “We’re fairly well-known and we have people come from several states to see our Christmas display. We start working on that in September and we have an open house the first week in November. It represents a substantial portion of the business for those two or three months.

“Because we have so much Christmas traffic coming in, we try to utilize that traffic with the indoor wicker and rattan but we also try to sell some gift-type products,” Salzwedel said. He said the store sells a lot of the anti-gravity chairs from Lafuma or Faulkner at Christmas time as well as Telescope’s director chairs.

In the part of the showroom retained for casual furniture during the holiday season, the focus is on indoor wicker and rattan. Woven products from Braxton Culler, Classic Rattan and Whitecraft are featured. “Many people come from Illinois and Iowa because there’s nobody who really has the wicker and rattan display that we do,” Salzwedel said.

The store’s outdoor furniture season is kicked off with a preseason sale around President’s Day in February. “We offer substantial discounts to move through what we have in stock and we also offer that discount on special orders,” Salzwedel said. “That’s the only time of year we do that. Over the years, The Bruce Company has had a substantial following of customers who know they can special order the furniture at that time of year. They look for it, actually. We have a strong business based upon that.”

A sliding scale is used for most products, he said, typically starting at 20% in February, moving to 15% in March and 10% in April, when the season actually gets going.

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