Larry Thomas -- Casual Living, August 6, 2012
Dan Gould was looking for a new direction when he joined the casual furnishings industry in 2001. In the process, he altered the course of two businesses he took over, establishing one of the most successful outdoor living businesses in Nebraska.
Gould and his wife, Mary Kay, bought Trouba's Patio Shop in Lincoln, Neb., in 2001. Duane and Paulett e Trouba opened the store in 1971 and had built a loyal customer base through the years. That alone made the business attractive, but that's not what sold the Goulds.
"I was looking for a business I could run myself where customers were buying things with their discretionary income," Gould said. "It was a matter of finding an industry that was fun to be in."
It took him about nine months to find it, and when he did he realized how different the casual furnishings industry was from the store fixture manufacturer that had employed him for the previous 25 years. As national sales manager for that company, most of the retailers he called on were large apparel retailers.
"When I got into this business in Lincoln, the only thing Mr. Trouba sold were three lines of furniture," Gould said. "I didn't even know what a sling was."
For the first few years, Gould kept the business the same and observed.
"Little by little, thanks to the reps working with us and me seeing what's out there, we settled into a workable pattern," he said.
While Mary Kay kept her day job as a diabetes educator, Dan became the new face of Trouba's.
"I had to be on the floor every day because that's what the customer expected," he said.
Several years later, Dean Kroeger, the owner of Outdoor Kitchen Distributors in Omaha, recognized him at the Casual Market in Chicago and made a proposal.
"He asked if I was interested in buying certain lines of furniture with him," Gould recalled. "We were competitors but were also 50 miles apart, so it worked. After a few years, we were buying five furniture lines together. It got to be where I was doing most of buying for him and he was rubber-stamping it."
Kroeger was occupied with his main business, serving as a distributor in four states for Ducane Grills. His health was also declining, and in 2005 he asked Gould if he'd like to buy Outdoor Kitchen Distributors. Gould said he saw a larger and more affluent market and jumped at the chance.
"There are a lot of major employers in Omaha, and the store turned out to have many more times the volume of the Lincoln store because of the different demographics there," he said.
Gould installed a trusted manager at Trouba's and went to work transforming his new place in Omaha. The most significant thing to change was the Ducane distributorship, which went away as manufacturers began dealing directly with retailers. He changed the name to Outdoor Kitchen and Patio then changed the dynamic of the sales staff.
"It was a little bit of the tail wagging the dog before I got there," Gould said. "The employees weren't very energetic, and I think that wore down the owners. There was a natural sorting out. I got new blood in and kept some of the existing staff. We just pushed the pedal a little more and things started to turn around."
Both stores have enjoyed steady annual growth ranging from 8% to 12% a year since Gould took them both over. Even the latest recession couldn't stop it.
Part of the reason was that Gould recognized his two stores had customers with different buying motives. In Lincoln, home of the University of Nebraska and the state capitol, customers like the local nature of the business.
"I had to be careful when I bought the store in Omaha, because I didn't want them to think Trouba's was suddenly an Omaha-based business," Gould said. "People there like to keep their dollars in Lincoln. Most of the folks there are even reluctant to drive to Omaha to buy things they can't get at home."
Trouba's, with 6,000-square feet of showroom space and four local full-time employees, fits the community like a well worn glove. Outdoor Kitchen and Patio, on the other hand, has a 12,000-sq.-ft. showroom that dominates a small shopping plaza. It is a destination for Omaha customers who enjoy the exclusivity of the product mix and high level of service from its 12 full-time employees.
"I'm the only dealer in Nebraska with an authorized service technician who goes to Weber training," Gould said. "And I have one full time employee who does nothing but grill repairs and installs gas fireplaces for us. He's extremely good at what he does and stays booked like a doctor."
Then there is Gene Marick, a retiree who came with Outdoor Kitchen and Patio when Gould bought it.
"He told me he'd continue to work here on one condition," Gould said. "I had to pay him the same thing [Kroeger] did. Nothing."
Gould said for that favorable salary, Marick assembles 25 grills a day and uses funds the store collects from recycling old grill parts to buy groceries for staff lunches he grills five times a week.
"He beats me to work every day and still won't take a penny," Gould said. "I never have to find something for him to do. He sets quite an example for the college kids who work part-time for us in the summers."
While the stores' ambiance suits their respective clienteles, the furniture mixes and merchandising strategies are the same for both stores. Top furniture lines among the 12 he carries include Telescope Casual, Tropitone and Homecrest. And while wicker and deep seating have been particularly strong sellers of late, one thing has been consistent. His customers in both cities like earth tones.
"I'll buy a few things with color just to liven up the store," he said. "People say they like it, but they don't buy it. And I couldn't give a set of white furniture away."
Gould's merchandising philosophy is simple. Pack the store full of merchandise.
"We try to have a strong offense here, and we're constantly reloading the floor," Gould said. "We have a joke that if you can walk through the floor, we don't have enough inventory out there."
The Omaha store, for instance, has 35 to 40 grills on display year round and about 60 furniture sets as early as December because Gould said many customers buy grills as Christmas gift s. When holiday customers come in and see all the new outdoor furniture already on the floor, Gould and his team use incentive programs to get customers to buy furniture early and then hold it in one of his three warehouses for spring delivery.
"We go to premarket in July and have most of our orders with major manufacturers put to bed before we get to the September market," Gould said. "In fact, most of our furniture is here before we go in September. I don't see any advantage bringing it in the first of the year."
Incentive programs for the furniture, holiday grill sales and the fireplace business keeps the stores relatively busy even through Gould's two slowest months, November and January.
"What I tell our people here is: It's never over," Gould said. "There is no finish line in this business. I think the key to our growth over the years is having the inventory."
The other key is Gould himself. He may have had to learn on the fly in his first few years in the industry, but his experience managing people prepared him to motivate those he works with now, whether customers, employees or even reps.
Outdoor Kitchen & Patio is the anchor tenant in a small Omaha mall, which has become a destination for outdoor furniture and grills in town.
Outdoor Kitchen & Patio customers in both Omaha and Lincoln prefer earth tones. Gould adds a colorful furniture set anyway to break up the browns.
The grill business at Outdoor Kitchen & Patio starts to build in December, when Gould says a surprising number of customers buy grills as holiday gifts.
Outdoor Kitchen & Patio owner Dan Gould says he “crams as much as we can” into his two stores to give customers plenty of furniture and grills to browse through.