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Thomas Russell

Flexibility & persistence

keeps The Fire House Casual Living Store growing

The only thing that seems to be constant is change," said Pedigo, owner of four Fire House Casual Living stores in the Carolinas. "IWhenever Debs Pedigo starts wandering around a showroom with a tape measure, his sales staff goes on the alert. What's he thinking about now? An expansion? A remodel? An entirely new location? The staff at The Fire House Casual Living Stores has seen it all.

"The only thing that seems to be constant is change," said Pedigo, owner of four Fire House Casual Living stores in the Carolinas. "I'm always pushing myself to go on to the next adventure, so it seems that every year there has been something new."

 President Debs Pedigo, standing, with Jonathan Ogden, store manager, and Bud Corley, sales manager.

 President Debs Pedigo, standing, with Jonathan Ogden, store manager, and Bud Corley, sales manager.

Since opening his first retail store in 1980, Pedigo has moved into outdoor furniture, added locations, started a franchise business and, most recently, opened a traditional furniture store. In the works are plans for a "super store" and developing new ideas for expanding and adding value to the franchise operation.

Driving all of that activity is Pedigo's entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to take chances.

"The keys to our success have been persistence and flexibility," he said. "Anybody who has been in business for an extended period of time knows it takes both of those things to survive. You have to be able to adjust to different circumstances and to be on the lookout to see what is the next thing on the horizon that can fit into your business. That's also what keeps the creative juices going."

Natural evolution

Pedigo started pushing toward the next adventure soon after he opened The Fire House, a full-service fireplace business, in 1980, in Charlotte, N.C. Within two years, he'd added patio furniture as well as indoor casual wicker, moved into a larger location and changed the name of his business to The Fire House Casual Living Store.

By 1990, Pedigo had two locations, the second in Raleigh, N.C., and was contemplating franchising.

"I didn't know a thing about franchising, but I saw it as an opportunity to help other people get into the business," he said.

 The Fire House Casual Living Stores

 Each location offers a full selection of all outdoor furniture categories and accessories, as well as fireplaces and accessories, from more than 30 major vendors.

 The Fire House Casual Living Stores

 Pedigo is known for making changes frequently at the store, including mixing up vignettes of grill and hearth products.
 The Fire House Casual Living Stores

After spending many months reading everything he could about it, Pedigo knew enough to believe he could make a go of it. Time proved him correct, despite a couple of bumps. There were five franchised Fire House Casual Living stores at one time. Pedigo ended up buying back one of them, giving him a second Charlotte location. Another franchise store was closed after the original franchisee sold what was a healthy business to someone who tried to operate it as an absentee owner. The three remaining franchise locations, all thriving, are in Asheville, N.C., Mt. Pleasant, N.C., and Columbia, S.C.

With the franchise operation stable, Pedigo turned his energy closer to home. The newest Fire House Casual Living location opened in December 2005, in Greenville, S.C. In addition to the 12,000-sq.-ft. showroom, the location has a 4,000-sq.-ft. outdoor patio area.

Also new is the Furniture Marketplace, a 12,000-sq.-ft., traditional furniture store located in Charlotte.

"We have a very good profile of our customers, and we know that they are the same customers who are buying middle- and upper-end indoor furniture," Pedigo said. "So we feel [opening the new store] gives us a chance to expand our offerings from the outside to the inside and take care of somebody from start to finish."

Next on the list is remodeling the first Fire House Casual Living location in Charlotte to transform it into a 38,000-sq.-ft. super store. Once completed, the super store will carry wicker bedroom furniture in addition to the outdoor furniture lines. Pedigo may also test other indoor products at this location, but at least for now, he has no plans on adding indoor furniture to his other Fire House Casual Living locations.

Although he wants the Furniture Marketplace to have its separate identity, Pedigo is also using the Fire House brand name to build the new business. Advertising positions the new store as a natural evolution, stressing the Furniture Marketplace is owned by the same locally owned company that customers have shopped for more than 25 years and that it answers their stated desire for indoor furniture.

The next frontier

As "the largest outdoor furniture retailer in North Carolina," the Fire House Casual Living stores offer a comprehensive selection of outdoor furniture. Although quantity varies depending on store size, each location offers a full selection of all outdoor furniture categories and accessories, as well as fireplaces and accessories, from more than 30 major vendors. The mix follows national trends, with cast and extruded aluminum as the largest category, and outdoor wicker deep seating as one of the fastest-growing category.

With the exception of the Raleigh store, which is the largest of five retail tenants of a small strip mall, the showrooms are standalone buildings owned by the company. All are located in high-traffic, retail destination areas with easy access.

The company has 40,000 square feet of warehouse space, 30,000 square feet of which is an off-site building that distributes to each of the five stores. Given the number of stores, warehouse operations are by necessity sophisticated. Everything is bar-coded on arrival, with product codes as well as bin and rack numbers, and stored on racks that reach up to the 24-foot ceilings. Each store has real-time access to product availability.

"It's kind of like checking out a book at the library. By checking inventory online, you know within 10 feet where each piece is," Pedigo said. "Every store can also look at every other store's inventory. If we sell a chair in one location, that information is available in real time to every other site."

A good chunk of that inventory is direct imports.

"I stuck my toe into importing about four years ago, and each year it has grown," Pedigo said. "We're at the level of sales where it makes sense. For a single store, importing may not make sense because you end up bringing in too much inventory and your lead times are too great to replenish. But we are getting to the level of sales where we can program out containers through an entire season and keep having inventory coming in."

Leveraging that buying power is just one of the ideas Pedigo is now considering as he looks to his next adventure — adding value for his franchisees.

"We're seeing the growth that I'd planned with our personal stores, and I really want to devote my time going forward to the franchise end of the business," he said.

He is working on ways to both help people get into the business and to continue to thrive.

"One of the challenges is helping them down the road," he said. "I'm a great help to them when they first start because they don't know the industry; but the challenge is how to help them later on."

One idea is to offer them the advantage of his buying power via a full line of imported outdoor furniture. While that is still on the drawing board, what is definite is his desire to build value into the franchise operation.

Basic needs

Pedigo's determination to provide more value extends to his customers as well. A critical piece of this in his mind is continual education differentiating between mass merchant and specialty product. To that end, the Fire House Casual Living stores have a self-published handout for customers that details the differences.

"I think that many specialty retailers are still naive about discounting the mass merchant as a competitor and don't pay enough attention to them," Pedigo said. "One of the surveys done a few years back was a real eye-opener for me. It said that over 50 percent of people with incomes of $100,000 or higher were buying their outdoor furniture from mass merchants. Those are our customers.

"What that tells me is we aren't doing a good enough job of showing the customer the difference," he said. "We are playing into the hands of the mass merchants if we don't explain the difference to our customers. The mass merchants aren't going to tell them anything but price, and we will always lose the price war."

Making that distinction requires knowledgeable salespeople. Pedigo's sales staff is highly trained and experienced. Many of the 55 employees have worked with the company for a number of years. "We have very little turnover," Pedigo said. "I think it is a combination of people feeling like they have an interesting job, fair compensation and opportunities for advancement."

Working for a change artist like Pedigo is bound to be interesting. But just as importantly in keeping people around is recognition. Here, too, Pedigo doesn't hold back. "It is a team effort, and every person from the people who work in the warehouse to the store managers is important," he said. "Every one of them."


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