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Percy Guidry Hearth & Patio: Cajun hospitality sets the tone

Some people spend half a lifetime learning where they fit in the world, others are born right into it. Such is the case with Keith Guidry.

Retail manager of Percy Guidry Hearth & Patio, in Lafayette, La., Guidry grew up working in the family business along with his brothers and, later, his sister. Like his grandfather and father before him, Guidry is a natural born sales person.

"I'll go talk to a customer and within five minutes I know where they're from, what their husband does for a living, how many kids they have and if the kids play soccer, baseball or football, and whether they're expecting to have any more," he said. "I love talking to people."

Guidry laughs and says he has a "B.S. in sales," but he is completely serious about taking care of his customers. "I have a genuine interest in getting to know their needs, not just in selling them something," he said.

Doing right by their customers has been the family philosophy since Guidry's grandfather, Percy, opened his blacksmith and welding shop in downtown Lafayette in 1945. Keith Guidry's dad Ray carried on the tradition when he opened a patio showroom right across the street in 1967.

By then, the family welding business was producing primarily ornamental ironwork along with the occasional niche product such as burglar bars. Ray kept broadening the custom product line in response to customer inquiries, adding mail boxes, fireplace accessories and a wrought iron swing that the company still makes today in 4, 5 and 6-foot lengths.

While they carried some aluminum furniture, most of the patio offering in the early years was wrought iron from Woodard, Salterini and Meadowcraft. Guidry remembers those days fondly, sort of. "The furniture would come in on rail cars, and during summer vacations when all of my friends were at the swimming pool, I was unloading rail cars," he said. "The detached cars would be parked behind a concrete business a couple of miles from the shop. We'd go down there with trucks and trailers, unload the boxcars and then take the furniture to the warehouse and the store."

An even better memory is that of his grandfather holding court on the swings displayed outside the showroom. Although he had little formal education and spoke his own mixture of Cajun, French and English, Percy was well respected by all who knew him. It wasn't uncommon for a local professor or engineer to bring their designs around to get his feedback, or for anyone who had a little time on their hands just to drop by for a visit.

"He always had stories. Most of them were fabricated, but he could tell a story that would just rivet you," Guidry said. "He was a likeable guy — a good ole Cajun man who liked people and loved to talk."

Plenty to browse

Thanks to Percy the man, Percy Guidry the brand is the company's biggest asset today. Consumers trust it implicitly. "They might say we are expensive, but they will add, 'but you get what you pay for and they take care of you,'" Guidry said.

The showroom mix these days is 40% outdoor furniture, 30% fireplace and accessories, 15% grills and 15% spas. When they moved into the present location a few years ago, the plan was furniture, hearth and grills would each be a separate department and that salespeople would specialize in their assigned areas. But grill sales began to shrink, and it soon became obvious that everyone needed to be cross-trained to sell everything,

Given they went from a 5,000-sq.-ft. showroom to more than 19,000 square feet, the sales have changed as well.

"At the old store, we had about 30% of what we brought in on display and 70% would be in the warehouse," Guidry said. "Now it is probably just the opposite. People love to come in and walk around now. The average shopping experience is about an hour."

While there is plenty to browse, Guidry makes sure his salespeople are assertively present. "I tell them to let the customer wander for about five minutes, and then go give them a reason to talk to you," he said. "Straighten a pillow near them, or walk by and talk about what they are looking at. There is too much that needs to be explained to let customers spend the hour just looking."

Wrought iron continues to be a strong seller, but it is joined now by teak, wicker and cast aluminum. More often than not, dining is the add-on sale, while deep seating is what brings the customers into the store.

Since moving to the new location, Guidry has expanded his mix to include some entry-level collections knowing that he's walking a fine line. The sale of a less-than-quality set from Percy Guidry carries with it the same customer expectations of being taken care of should something go wrong. "I'd rather justify my price than apologize for the quality," Guidry said.

Thanks to the longevity of the business, Guidry carries the brands he wants. "We've had first pick of the best brands on the market because we've been here so long," Guidry said. "I feel like we have the best in every category available today, and we're real proud to bring that to our customers."

With its location on the outskirts of Lafayette, the showroom draws customers from the surrounding area both as a destination and as a place to stop on the way to a large mall less than two miles away. Initially the location was "way out there" but Lafayette is growing closer all of the time. And Guidry recently heard that a residential golf community is being developed nearby as well.

Plenty to enjoy

On the manufacturing side of the business, Percy's welding shop now specializes in the Cajun Grill. The original prototype was built by Ray in 1963 as a present for his dad. Percy, however, was less than impressed at first.

"My dad figured out how to make a barbecue pit out of one 4 by 8-foot sheet of metal," Guidry said. "Before that they were making them out of 55-gallon drums. They could buy the drums cheap, make the pits cheap and sell them cheap. My granddaddy freaked out when he saw him making a pit out of flat carbon steel. He just could not understand how my daddy could spend $50 on a piece of metal to make a barbecue pit."

Ray persevered, however, and he soon he was taking orders. He figured if he liked something, probably other people would, too. That belief led the company into hearth products as well. After watching a contractor add a fireplace to his own home, Ray figured the Guidrys could do that, too.

Ray has now retired from the business, but it continues to be a family affair. Keith's older brother, Gregg, oversees the grill business, while their sister, Suzanne, takes care of the financial end of things. "I run the showroom, Gregg runs the shop and Suzanne runs us," Guidry said with a laugh, adding she does a fantastic job of keeping everything organized.

In the showroom, Guidry has a staff of 11, including a core team that has been with him for years. He calls Larry Hayes, for instance, his co-manager, and Travis Peltier, the co-co-manager. Both have their specialties — Hayes, hearth, and Travis, grills — but both do whatever needs to be done.

"At times we don't have enough people and at times we have too many, so we just make do with what we've got," he said. "We all have to wear many hats."

Some of the times they probably could do with a little more help are during their frequent promotional events. The biggest is the annual Father's Day Bash. The first year in the new location, Guidry went all out, renting a huge tent to display product close to the main road, hauling in sand and palm trees, and hiring a steel drum calypso band.

"It was the single biggest sales day in the history of the company, and every year it's been as good or better," he said.

Guidry also has a tailgate team that attends local sports events such as collage football games and golf tournaments. Patio furniture and grills are all on display, but the big draw is the food. For one college game that they knew would be televised, Guidry's team had 26 different items on their menu. An ESPN sports writer stopped at their booth and never left. The next day, their Cajun hospitality was enthusiastically featured on espn.com.

"We get out there to salvage as much of the grill business as we can. If we weren't doing these events, I know that we would feel it," Guidry said. "Plus, I love to cook."

And there it is. Guidry loves to grill, he loves to sell and he loves to talk. That passion can't be beat when it comes to running a successful specialty store.

The product mix at Percy Guidry's is 40 percent outdoor furniture, 30% hearth and hearth accessories, 15% grills and 15% spas.

photos / Jeff Nemetz

Greg, Keith and Percy Guidry

Outdoor rugs, serveware and accent furniture complete vignettes at the store.

The average time spent by shoppers at Percy Guidry's is an hour.

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