The Chair King stays profitible despite crisis
Gary Evans -- Casual Living, September 1, 2009
The Chair King has 18 stores sprinkled across Texas, but the Houston market will always be the one President David Barish has the greatest feel for, even when hurricanes hit or the local economy spins out of control.
Leaning back in his chair at the company's headquarters along Sam Houston Parkway, just north of downtown Houston, Barish pondered what might have been last year. As the nerve center of the nation's energy industry, Houston was thriving as gas prices approached $5.
Last summer was one of the best the business had enjoyed in its 59-year history, Barish said. Then came September 2008, when Hurricane Ike struck and knocked out the power grid for two weeks.
"It's been very slow for the city to come back," Barish said. "Galveston is still having a very difficult time, but other parts of Houston are back to normal, minus the economic crisis. Three weeks after Ike, the economic collapse occurred. We went from one crisis to another."
Barish was determined to keep his Houston stores open and viable, and a lot of that had to do with the Barish family's business philosophy.
"We have one purpose to be in business and that is to be profitable," he said. "We are profitable in order to provide incomes to 120 families. We are also profitable in order to give back to our communities in which we all live and do business. We make a practice of tithing and donate approximately 10% of our profits to charitable organizations. In the past five years we have given back to our communities almost seven figures in charitable giving."
Last fall, the most generous thing Barish did was keep his stores running without making massive personnel cuts. One could say Barish had been preparing to deal with such a crisis for decades. As the family-owned and -operated business added stores in San Antonio, Austin and Dallas/Fort Worth, Barish also gradually changed the business model to gain more control over distribution and merchandise.
It all began with an invitation from a wicker vendor in 1983. At that time, Barish was relatively new to the industry. In 1980, he left an academic career to help his father, Marvin, who bought The Chair King in 1973. A certified CPA, at age 83 the elder Barish still works six days a week and handles the company's books. His son, however, has a doctorate in Jewish history and late antiquity.
"That's probably unusual for the president of an outdoor furniture company," Barish said with a laugh. "I was in academia for 10 years, but eventually I decided I didn't want to live as a pauper and came back into the family business."
Early on, one of his primary responsibilities was creating the right merchandise mix, and the company was doing extremely well with wicker furniture it bought from a company called Typhoon International. At first, Barish bought from its warehouse in California.
"Then we said, 'Why can't we buy this direct? You're not making it. You're importing it from Hong Kong,'" Barish said. "So, we started doing direct containers with them. I found another guy who offered us virtually the same product for considerably less money. I became friends with him and he took me to China."
It was a strange, but fateful trip for Barish.
"At that time, the border had just opened up and the factory was across the way from Hong Kong," he recalled. "We went in via train. There was a car there to take you to the factory, but it was the only car on the road. Everyone was riding bicycles."
Barish discovered he could work with Chinese manufacturers as well as anyone else, and within a year The Chair King was importing wicker furniture under its own proprietary brand. Now, it has several, including Solaris Designs, Royal Terrace, Grand Estate and Teak Garden Classics. Solaris, which has been out now for at least 10 years, is the top-selling line for The Chair King and features sling, resin wicker and deep-seating furniture.
"We started [working directly with Chinese vendors] very slowly, but I have some of those original vendors today," Barish said. "We develop relationships with our vendors as if they're family."
The Chair King is big enough now that Barish can work with a few of those vendors to carry a number of exclusively branded furniture lines — yet another way the retailer sets itself apart from competition in Houston and everywhere else it has stores. All the merchandise is stocked and ready to go in the company's 85,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, the second major move the business made to control own its destiny.
Located in the same building as The Chair King headquarters, the warehouse is state-of-the-art with computerized inventory systems and forklifts that zip around on rechargeable batteries. Peeking outside one of the docks, Barish pointed to a barren field that could, one day, allow either him or the next generation of the family to expand the warehouse further.
Barish and his sister, Jackie, the company's vice president of design and development, are generation number two. Her son, Joe Weisman, is already being groomed for the top job. Barish is coy about the company's future plans, but it seems likely Weisman will be piloting a larger business when he takes over.
"We're always looking for opportunities," Barish said. "In this economic environment, opportunities will arise. Our real estate people are out there looking. We have meetings once a month to talk about what's available. When you have Circuit City and Linens & Things go under, there are a lot of big boxes out there that are available. We get calls, but we're selective."