Yard Art Patio & Fireplace: Never underestimate the power of kindness
Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, March 15, 2005
When Butch Wallace opened his first Yard Art store in 1994, he did it all — from selling fountains, statuary and furniture during the day to delivering product in the evening. As the name implied, his product mix was initially more outdoor art than outdoor furniture. But not for long.
"I found out pretty fast that it was easier to deliver aluminum furniture than it was to deliver concrete," he said with a laugh.
Kidding aside, Wallace quickly increased his outdoor furniture offerings and decreased the amount of yard art for sale because he's a good businessman. His customers were buying more furniture than fountains and statuary. Because Wallace was committed to giving them what they wanted, Yard Art soon evolved into Yard Art Patio & Fireplace.
Eleven years later, Wallace is still giving his customers what they want. People come in because they know that their expectations for quality product and exceptional service will be met at Yard Art's three showrooms — in Colleyville, outside of Fort Worth, and Plano and Allen, outside of Dallas.
"We set a pretty high standard when we opened for how we would take care of our customers," Wallace said. "They are very demanding, but we can live up to it."
Today, the product mix is about 80% outdoor furniture. Fireplace logs and hearth accessories account for 10%, while accessories and everything else make up the other 10%. The 2004 Apollo Award winner in the multi-store category, Yard Art has created a name for itself in terms of merchandising. Furniture displays are based on style rather than category or brand, while silk plants, screens and accessories set off vignettes.
The fashion sense evident in Yard Art showrooms stems in part from Wallace's long experience in retail clothing. Over his 19-year career with a clothing chain, he supervised the sales staffs in up to 100 stores. Then another company bought out his employer.
"I was given the opportunity to stay as a regional sales manager or take the money and do something else, so I took the money," Wallace said.
It wasn't just an impulse. Wallace had been researching the outdoor industry for a couple of years, knowing he was in need of a change. By the time he left the clothing company, he knew industry opportunities, area demographics and land values.
"I'm a planner, so I planned everything well in advance," he said. "I'm also a big believer in budgeting, goal setting and watching your money. If you don't do that, you can easily get into trouble."
Although his business plan called for multiple locations, Wallace was surprised by how long it took to become profitable enough to warrant opening a second showroom. "It took us a lot longer to grow than I thought it would," he said. "The learning curve in this industry is higher than it would seem."
The second Yard Art store opened in 2002, in Plano. Like Colleyville, the Dallas suburb is affluent with good demographics for a mid- to high-end specialty dealer.
The third store, just a few miles up the road from Plano in Allen, opened a year later. Wallace was approached by the owner of a furnishings mall who was interested in opening a second location. The owner's first location houses not only his traditional furniture store but a carpet store, gift store, appliance store, restaurant and day care. He planned a similar venture in Allen in an old Kmart location.
"We are in what was the Kmart garden department, so we have inside and outside display areas," Wallace said. "It is a different venue than our other locations, but the traffic is very good."
While the showrooms vary in appearance, merchandising and product are the same. Yard Art's biggest categories are sling and cast aluminum. Earth tones dominate with browns and bronze finishes, but the growing popularity of deep seating is driving an expansion in cushion color. Maroons, reds and tropical patterns all add spice to the mix.
In addition to knowing he wanted multiple locations, Wallace entered the outdoor industry knowing that success would come down to the people he hired.
"I worked very hard at surrounding myself with people who are dedicated to the work ethic and focused on a team commitment to our customers," he said. He believes the best characteristic of the company is what he calls its "morals." If we break something, it isn't claimed as a manufacturing defect. If a customer's umbrella is broken in the wind, chances are Yard Art will replace it and eat the cost.
"Our commitment is to doing the right thing," Wallace said.
Yard Art's biggest challenge, he believes, is the same as the industry's: maintaining margins in the face of the Internet, the big box stores and all other competitors for consumers' disposable income. Although Wallace praises his vendors for their support and quality designs, he's very concerned about those that sell on the Internet.
"This is still a major issue. People come in and shop our stores, then order off the Internet," he said. "The manufacturers that continue to allow this to happen will find that retailers will abandon them. Why should we put up with that when there are vendors that will take a hard stand and back away from Internet sales?"
Those manufacturers who sell to both mass and specialty dealers are another thorny issue. "The manufacturers that sell to both need to maintain a strong separation between what they provide us and what they provide the big box stores," Wallace said. "We stress to our customers that our furniture is made to last and that at the big box stores is focused on price. To maintain the price, they take every aspect of quality out that they can and still make a chair that stands up."
Since Yard Art has expanded to three locations, Wallace works out of the company's headquarters located in a Colleyville facility that also includes a warehouse. While the store managers handle the day-to-day responsibilities, Wallace makes sure to visit each location at least once a week.
There are no current plans for another expansion, but Wallace doesn't rule out the possibility. In the meantime, he focuses on creating a family atmosphere at the existing locations, in both the immediate and extended sense of the word. In addition to Butch and Deborah, their children, Garrett and Geneva, work at Yard Art. Turnover among the rest of the staff is low, resulting in a strong feeling of connection among all.
"Never underestimate the power of kindness," Wallace stressed. "Our attitude is that if we are kind to each other, treat each other with respect and take care of each other as a work family, good things will happen. We'll enjoy ourselves and grow and prosper."