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Operating Southern Casual holds family together

The Shank familyThe Shank family, from left, back row: Emerson, Keith, Toby and Scott; front row: Danielle and Joan.
Joan Shank just laughs when friends ask when she's going to join her husband in retirement. Joan co-owns Southern Casual with her son, Keith, and isn't at all ready to trade the outdoor furniture industry for a life of leisure.
The northern Florida specialty business grew out of a mobile outdoor furniture repair company Keith established in the early 1990s.

His father, Emerson, had worked in the aluminum industry for more than 50 years, selling aluminum to all of the major outdoor furniture manufacturers. Emerson's good relationships with the manufacturers gave Keith a doorway into the industry, leading to the launch of his business.

By 1992, more and more of Keith's customers were wanting him to supply new outdoor furniture as well as repair their existing pieces. Seeing an opportunity to expand, he asked his mother to partner with him and they opened a 1,000-sq.-ft. showroom in St. Augustine.

In the early days, Joan's parents, Dorothy and Fred Artz, were on hand to help Keith. Joan joined the business full-time in 1995 when Keith decided to open a second Southern Casual location, this one in Jacksonville Beach.

Over the next few years, Joan and Keith opened and closed locations a handful of times to take advantage of successive new opportunities. Today, they have three locations - a 12,000-sq.-ft. freestanding location in Jacksonville and two smaller satellite stores, each about 5,000 square feet, in Ponte Vedra Beach and St. Augustine.
They're a tight team.

"It's been a good relationship ever since it started," Keith said.
"I couldn't have a better partner," Joan said. "Keith and I see eye-to-eye probably 90 percent of the time, and we never have a discussion in anger. He's wonderful."

Constant communication
Over time, Keith and Joan brought other family members into the business. Keith's wife, Danielle, works part time in the office with Joan. Keith's older brother, Scott, runs the warehouse; and Scott's son, Toby, works with his dad in the warehouse.

"Obviously, there are challenges in working with family, but it has been pretty good," Keith said. "There are small issues, but nothing that isn't resolved 30 minutes after it starts."
Both Keith and Joan cite good communication as the key factor in their successful shared leadership.
"We share an office and talk all day long," she said.

That constant communication extends to their staff, which is small. They have three full-time employees at the Jacksonville store. Trusted managers run each of the satellite stores.

"They are all just fabulous, and we really appreciate them," she said, adding that the fun they have together helps create Southern Casual's warm inviting atmosphere.

That inviting family aura has been particularly important in the last several months as Southern Casual has worked to withstand the brutal knocks of the recession.

"Our economy is still rough," Joan said. "Northern Florida has yet to see a huge comeback, but our family continues to hold together."

Already operating close to the bone in terms of staff, the Shanks cut where they could, including their early buy which was down about a third last year.

"We also cut down on containers," Keith said. "We used to bring in several but we brought in just two last year."
Like many other retailers, they found that an upside of buying smaller amounts of inventory more often is the opportunity to test new vendors and new looks, helping to keep their showrooms fresh.

They also change up their vignettes and accessories often to keep giving their customers reasons to come in and see what's new.

"It's amazing what happens when you do that," Joan said. "A dining group that's had little attention in months will suddenly sell in a few days."

Despite the challenging conditions, there have been some good signs in recent months. Whereas people mostly browsed last year, they are now actively buying.

"And they are not just buying what's on sale," Keith said. "They are looking for what they want and what suits their needs."

Always hot for Southern Casual is sling, while deep seating sales have tripled in recent years. Having less inventory hasn't been an issue.

"We still carry a lot, and if we don't have exactly what they want we can do special orders," Joan said. "We just can't carry everything, nor can our manufacturers for that matter."

Looking ahead
Southern Casual has built a reputation for going out of its way for its customers as well as providing quality product in well-merchandised showrooms. It was both the 2008 Summer Classics Dealer of the Year and the winner of Casual Living's 2008 Merchandising Award for Best Use of Accessories.

When it comes to merchandising, Joan is generous with her praise of Judy Howell, manager of the Ponte Vedra store and an eight-year employee.

"She is absolutely fabulous. Our showrooms look like they do because of her design expertise," Joan said.

Although Joan admits she might need to delegate more, she doesn't foresee cutting back in the near future.

"I would like to work less, but to get out of the business 100 percent? I don't think so," she said. "I'm the type of person who needs to stay busy. Even when I'm at home, I can't just sit and read a book."

For his part, Keith, who has just turned 40, sees many working years ahead. Succession planning is something he knows he will need to think about in the future, but for now he's more concerned about the present.

"We're just focusing on staying in business in the current economy," Keith concluded.

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