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Gary Ecoff, President, Carls Patio

Surviving tough challenges, president of Carls Patio

Gary Ecoff

Just weeks before the financial markets went into a tailspin last year, Carls Patio completed a leveraged buyout with a private equity company to purchase majority ownership of the business from Carls Furniture.

While it's true that becoming a leveraged company on the cusp of a recession isn't ideal, the new partnership spurred an internal transformation that just might be why the company is still alive despite its 16 locations in some of the most hard-hit areas of the country. But it hasn't been easy.

"This has been the most challenging, stressful, frustrating period I've ever experienced in my business career," said Gary Ecoff, president of Carls Patio. He also was appointed last year as one of the two retail members of the International Casual Furnishings Associations' executive committee.

Over the last several months, Ecoff has had to make the kinds of tough decisions no good leader takes lightly, including laying off people who have been with the company for years.

His ability to make those hard decisions comes from his deep passion for and commitment to the company he created from the ground up. Just as important is his tenacious spirit, which has driven the success of Carls Patio from its very concept.

In 1993, Ecoff was part of the executive team at Porch & Patio, a multi-store specialty retailer in southern Florida, when his brother, Lyle, told him of a possible opportunity with Carls Furniture. The company owned a strip mall in Palm Beach and was looking for a tenant to take over a 10,000-sq.-ft. showroom with a business that wouldn't compete with the furniture company.

casual furnishings displays inside Carls Patio
An example of the complementary accessories and casual furnishings displays inside Carls Patio

At the time, Carls kept a single sling set on its floors, and there was little interest among its leadership for going further into the outdoor furniture business. In fact, when Ecoff called Fred Friedman, then president of Carls, to discuss the possibility of opening a Carls outdoor furniture store in the mall, he had a hard time getting Friedman to even give him 15 minutes.

"I told him, 'You don't understand what an amazing opportunity this was. It's a great business, totally complementary to what you are already doing; you are already advertising to get people to the shopping center; and with your name on the marquee, I think you could do a million bucks by accident,'" Ecoff said.

He got his 15 minutes and more. Ultimately, Friedman and his executive team were convinced a Carls Patio was worth a try, but only if Ecoff would come in as president and take full responsibility for the new venture.

"I said, 'Let me think about it. OK,'" Ecoff said.

Although they thought the outdoor furniture business might do all right, Friedman's team was still primarily concerned with having a paying tenant that wouldn't compete with its furniture location.

"But they forgot to tell me that, and I went in with the idea that I was going to build a chain of stores," Ecoff said with a laugh.

Lean to the bone

Ecoff built his chain of stores, adding on average a new store a year until the recession hit. In recent months, the focus has been on getting the company as lean and efficient at it can possibly be. Every aspect of the business has been examined, and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been cut from organizational expenses.

While it has been gut-wrenching, it has also brought about improvements that would have eventually been made.

"It's really been about bringing the financial end of the business into the 21st century, as opposed to where we were, which was a very large mom-and-pop organization," Ecoff said.

One of his biggest frustrations has been that the company can't take full advantage of its new efficiencies.

"My staff is working harder than they've ever worked, unfortunately for less," Ecoff said. "We're all on about the sixth notch of our belts, and we'll have to keep tightening as long as the market continues to be tight. But with everything we do, our whole goal and focus is that when the world rights itself, we'll be here. We'll be among the survivors."

In times like these, Ecoff often thinks about Friedman, who was his business partner, mentor and friend for more than 12 years. Friedman, who passed away a few years ago, made an indelible mark on Ecoff both in the way he approached his life and his business.

"One of Fred's favorite lines was, 'You do the right thing because it's the right thing to do,'" said Ecoff, who still wears a memorial bracelet in Friedman's honor. "His sense of ethics and being aboveboard in everything you do really shaped my early career and gave me the foundation of what I do today bar none."

He points to Friedman's ability to build relationships and stand by them in tough times when praising Carls Patios' vendors. "The majority of them have been so supportive, acknowledging that we are all in this together," he said.

Ecoff believes the worst is over and that his customer base will begin spending as consumer confidence continues to improve. In the meantime, he empathizes with other outdoor furniture retailers in this tough season.

"It's not easy," he said. "I'm experiencing it first-hand, and my heart goes out to everyone out there who is fighting to stay alive. Godspeed to them."

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