Howard Lorton Galleries
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, May 6, 2013
If you see William Lorton cook sr. This month at the High Point Market, you will notice that he is one of those rare retailers who is both happy and at ease. After more than 50 years as a furniture dealer, he has put himself and the family business exactly where he wants both to be.
He has gradually ceded control of the store to his son, William Lorton Cook Jr., the fourth generation of the family to take control of the store after Howard Lorton launched it in 1927. That wasn't always a lock. Cook Jr. graduated with a finance degree from the University of Northern Colorado in the '90s, right around the time several long-established family-owned Denver retailers went under because they had no succession plan.
Cook Sr. wondered if he'd follow suit. Luckily, the economy lent him a hand.
"[Cook Jr.] got out of school when the marketplace wasn't strong, and he decided I had a pretty good deal going here," Cook Sr. said.
Now, Cook Sr. focuses on the part of the business he really enjoys - the buying.
"I just love beautiful stuff ," Cook Sr. said. "I'm a product freak. I've been to High Point more than 100 times, and every market is like Christmas morning."
Part of what makes Cook Sr.'s current arrangement so sweet is that Howard Lorton Galleries has staked out a niche no big box retailer can handle. Because of that, the store is a destination for consumers and designers who know they can get just about anything they want, even if they don't see it in the gallery.
"What distinguishes us from the rest of the world is we chase special orders," Cook Sr. said. "We have a design staff , we make house calls, we know our fabrics and color and scale and all the other things you deal with in a design business. We're the design trade dealer."
All 15 of the store's salespeople, including the four who work in the patio shop, have design backgrounds.
"It's part of our heritage," Cook Sr. said. "When my grandfather started the firm in 1927, he had a designer on his staff ."
Cook Sr. joined the business after graduating from Stanford in 1960. At the time, the only outdoor lines it offered were Woodard and Brown Jordan, both of which it still carries. Cook Sr. has since added lines from Tropitone, Gloster, Jensen Leisure, Lloyd Flanders, Outdoor Lifestyle, Summer Classics, Galtech and Treasure Garden.
Cook Sr. took over the day to- day operations a year later and quickly recognized the challenge of finding floor space for patio furniture in the spring and summer. So in 1974, he bought a building two blocks from the furniture gallery to serve as his patio shop. It would be closed half the year - the outdoor selling season runs from President's Day to Labor Day - but at least owning the real estate gave him cost certainty.
In 1978, he sold both locations and bought a set of four buildings gathered together along Broadway, the main drag in downtown Denver, where the business remains today. Before moving in 1982, he replaced one building with a parking lot, established one as his warehouse, put the patio shop in another and remodeled the fourth building for the main furniture gallery. In all, the new spot gave him 92,000 square feet of warehouse, office and showroom space.
While the move was pivotal to the long-term success of the business, at the time it contrasted with the suburban expansion around the city, first to the south and then to the north and west, near the Rockies. Cook Sr. said he has tried to maintain satellite stores closer to these customers.
"But because we have this vast array of resources, you can't replicate that in satellite locations gracefully," he said.
That hasn't really mattered. Customers make the trip downtown anyway.
"We're pretty easy to get to if you stay out of rush hour," he said. "And if we're working with out-of-town clients staying in one of the downtown hotels, it's easy to tell them that we're just two blocks from the state capitol."
Meanwhile, Cook Sr. and his patio shop staff have worked hard to stay on top of all the new materials, fabrics and styles that continue to push the outdoor furniture market forward.
"If you go back a number of years ago, all the outdoor furniture fabric was one shade of beige," he said. "Now, because we're involved with designer fabric companies that also have outdoor fabrics in their lines, we see a phenomenal array of possibilities. It's mind blowing, and some of those fabrics have moved indoors."
Color trends used to be a lot easier to grasp, he said. For instance, consumers and designers gravitated to all white, then to pastels. Green became the next big thing, then pewter and brown.
"Today, it's tough to find the right pattern because there is more color out there," he said. "But one of the joys of being in this business is you don't know what the next customer will ask for. If I knew that, I'd probably be bored and wouldn't be here anymore."
Staying on top of all the trends is one thing. Interpreting them for the local market is another. Cook Sr. said he has learned that not every hot national and global trend works for him.
Regardless of the colors and styles his customers want, Cook Sr. said they want it relatively fast. He said that is why he has tried to stick with domestic manufacturers.
"They can change the size and the color and deliver a special order in six to eight weeks," he said. "If you're off - shore, you're looking at four to six months. Our season is short enough here. People don't want to wait 90 days to get what they want."
William Lorton Cook Sr. (left), says his business, Howard Lorton Galleries, has what many other family-owned businesses in Denver haven’t. A successor at the top. Cook Jr. (right) now runs the day-to-day operations.
Howard Lorton Galleries has set itself apart in the Denver area by going after special order sales. All of its sales staff also have design backgrounds.
Cook said he has seen a sea change in outdoor furniture when it comes to color, which is why his staff stays in constant contact with outdoor fabric makers. The color boom has accompanied a shift in customer demand from outdoor dining to seating.
|Cook reasons that if his customers have
swimming pools for the 100 days of the
year when it’s warm enough, an outdoor
room complete with picture frames
makes just as much sense. Of course,
Cook can’t just stock basic black picture
frames. After all, he never knows what
his customers will ask for next.|
Cook Sr. admitted that, despite the store's sterling reputation, the recent economic downturn affected them as it did every other retailer in the country.
"The market didn't shrink here like it did in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Miami, but it shrank," he said. "We just kind of hunkered down. If people aren't buying, it's tough to sell."
Through it all, Cook Sr. knew the business was strong enough to handle it. And it did.
"We've just found a niche we're comfortable with," he said. "Plus, we get to meet some of the neatest people in the world. We don't chase the celebrity market particularly, but we're dealing with people of some means, and most of them have talents that are fun to talk to them about."
With his son at the helm, a job he loves and clients who intrigue him, Cook Sr. couldn't be in a better place in his professional life. No wonder he looks like he's having fun. He really is.