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Family affair

Universal Patio Furniture founder inspires second generation to stay flexible

Universal Furniture StoreThe only known photo of the original Universal Furniture Store in Studio City, Calif., shows a landscape that is much different today. The hill in the background is gone, and now a skyscraper towers over the original site.
JUST INSIDE THE FRONT DOOR OF UNIVERSAL PATIO FURNITURE IN Studio City, Calif., hangs an old black-and-white photo of the original store just after it opened in 1939. Its teenage owner, Jack Rediger, can barely be made out in the lower left-hand corner. Like so many old photos, it tells a story.
     Rediger was just 19 then, and the outdoor furniture industry was just as young and full of potential. He had worked at his father's business, making and selling unfi nished furniture, and noticed a largely unmet demand for outdoor chairs and tables.
     "He knew the furniture business but wanted to do something diff erent," said his son, Gary, who now runs the business with his sister, Janet Zitt rer, and her husband Ken. "His dad loaned him $500, and that's how he got started. He rented that store for $25 a month."
     Universal Patio Furniture started fast but soon faced hurdles with the onset of World War II. Companies producing tubular aluminum patio furniture shift ed production to military goods, and demand for Rediger's wood patio furniture skyrocketed.
     "Before dad left for the war around 1941, he would get a truckload of furniture in and sell it before he could unload it," Rediger said.
     The elder Rediger scrambled to find other sources to meet the demand. When his time came to fi ght in the war, he enlisted a cousin to run the store until he returned. More challenges awaited him when he did. The expansion of the Hollywood Freeway forced him to move in 1947.
     "The point of making it through those times was that he improvised and made things work," Rediger said. "He made things happen."
     His father's resourcefulness has had added poignancy now. Over the last few years, the economic climate in Southern California has been unlike any other Rediger has seen.

Flexible and fast
     Universal is in its third location now. After 48 years at its second home, urban growth forced the store to move a block and a half down Ventura Boulevard in 1995. Rediger and the Zittrers had taken over by then. They have their own niches, which helps them run things smoothly. He handles ordering and buying, Janet does the books and Ken oversees sales. They all agreed that they wanted to stay in Studio City in 1995.
     "People come in now and buy furniture who are my age and say they remember driving by with their parents and seeing umbrellas out in front of the store," Rediger said. "We're known as the patio shop down the street."
     Given its proximity to Universal Studios, celebrities also know the store. The wall behind the back counter is covered in head shots of stars who have shopped there from the 1950s to the present. The tradition started when Rock Hudson walked in at the height of his stardom. When the salesperson who helped him didn't recognize the actor, an indignant Hudson dispatched a courier with an autographed photo the next day.
     "I can't say having stars in here is a reason for our success," Rediger said. "We can't use their names in our advertising or anything. They're just our customers."

Brant J. ColeSales associate Brant J. Cole says the store’s display of celebrity head shots started with Rock Hudson, who was offended when the associate helping him didn’t recognize the star. Hudson had a head shot sent over the next day.
     What has made a big difference is general consistency with its customer service.
     "You don't stay around forever if customers have a bad experience," Rediger said.
     "That's why profits aren't number one with us, the customers are. People who buy higher-end furniture need to have that trust that they're being taken care of."
     Universal has four full-time salespeople who Rediger said are made to feel like part of the family. Rediger said he knows their hands-on service works because the store gets plenty of word-of-mouth advertising. He said it's common to get new residents who were referred by a neighbor.
     "All our employees are invested in their customers from the day they walk into the store to the day they get their furniture," Rediger said. "Each customer is dealing with one person. Our people make sure the furniture that comes in is right, and they arrange for the delivery. At the end, they send thank-you cards."
     Having mid-range price points also helps keep the store going, Rediger added, especially now that many customers come in armed with research from the Internet.
      But lately, the three owners have had to do more to make it. They've had to emulate the founder's resiliency and ingenuity.
     "The thing is to be able to be flexible in a fast way," Rediger said. "When you see things, you have to act on them. For bigger companies, that's hard to do." Not for Universal Furniture. Inventory has been the key part of the business the current ownership swiftly addressed when business dropped in 2009.
     "Our inventory controls are much more detailed," Rediger said. "We know more about what people are buying and what they aren't. Sometimes, when things are good, you bring things in, and without really knowing for sure say, ‘Oh, it'll sell.' We don't do that anymore. We want to commit to something we're confident we can handle."
     That ties into a core business principal instilled by the founder at the dawn of World War II. Jack Rediger could have built up his staff and grown overnight when he had more demand than he could handle himself. Given he left for the war shortly thereafter, it's a good thing he didn't.
Universal FurnitureUniversal Furniture currently occupies a prime corner spot along bustling Ventura Boulevard. Because the store has stayed in Studio City for its entire history, it has built up a strong loyalty among residents there.
     "I think there's the whole correlation with not overextending yourself," said Rediger. "We just didn't allow ourselves to get in debt over the last few years. We cut expenses quickly. We didn't load up our warehouse with furniture at all. It was almost empty, even in the summer. We went to special orders more. We had a full showroom floor, but we didn't have backup. We didn't need it, and we guessed right."
     Staying small and nimble have always been the rules for success at Universal. The retailer is poised now for the economic rebound - whenever it comes.
     "I feel there is an optimism now," Rediger said. "I can't say there's been a turnaround in sales. We do still have foreclosures in the real estate market, and housing prices are going down for sure. All we can do is stick with the basics of running a business."
     It sounds simple, but Rediger knows the formula works. That photograph of his 19- year-old father reminds him every day.

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