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Positive energy permeates Miami retailer

Talk to Debbie Brooks for any length of time and pretty soon you'll find yourself smiling. Her contagious enthusiasm for life bubbles up whether she's talking about her family, surviving cancer or serving as president of Brooks Patio Furniture, Miami.

The North Miami location of Brooks Patio Furniture opened 10 years ago."Life is short, and there is so much out there to do," she said. "I just love to give 100 percent to everything I do."

That's evident in how she runs her company. Her resiliency and passion has kept Brooks Patio Furniture successful despite some significant challenges along the way.

The Brooks family has been in the outdoor furniture industry in Miami for more than 40 years. Debbie's father, Murray, started in the industry with her two maternal uncles in New York and then moved his family to Florida in 1965. Over the years, the family opened and closed several locations, including a cast aluminum manufacturing business, but they always had a retail location in south Miami. In 1987, that store became Brooks Patio Furniture.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew blew through and destroyed the showroom and the families' homes. Several weeks later, Murray passed away from cancer. Despite having lost so much, with the help of her mother, Rhoda, Brooks rebuilt the business into an operation that has earned multiple Apollo Award nominations.

"I was lucky. My dad was an amazing man and he laid some amazing groundwork for me," Brooks said. "The longevity and name recognition helps, but I still continue in the footprints he laid for me."

Only in Miami

Last October, Debbie Brooks and her mother Rhonda took part in the Race for the Cure. Here, they captured the moment mother and daughter crossed the finish line together. Both are cancer-free today.

Last October, Debbie Brooks and her mother Rhonda took part in the Race for the Cure. Here, they captured the moment mother and daughter crossed the finish line together. Both are cancer-free today.

Today Brooks Patio Furniture has two locations 25 miles apart — the original site in south Miami, which was renovated in 2001, and one in north Miami, which opened 10 years ago. The showrooms serve a diverse customer base, reflecting Miami's diverse culture.

"When we first moved here, it was just a little town," Brooks said. "Now it seems like the demographics change every decade ... but the flavor of Miami is still unique."

The south Miami showroom, located just a mile from Dadeland Mall, one of the biggest shopping centers in the Southeast, draws from an upscale suburban area with large homes and growing families. In contrast, the northern location, also near a major high-end shopping mall, is surrounded by condos and apartments housing older residents.

Both areas are growing, but Brooks sees more growth in vertical living. As a result, she is seeing a growing demand for smaller-scale quality outdoor furniture.

"Vertical living is huge and I don't think just here in Miami," Brooks said. "When I was in Chicago in September, I couldn't believe all of the condos being built downtown, and they all have balconies. A couple of vendors have addressed this issue, but I don't think in a big enough way. People spending $1 million or more on their apartment or condo want to have something nice on their balcony and still have room to walk around."

Cast and wrought aluminum make up 50% of the mix at Brooks Patio Furniture, outdoor wicker and accessories 20% each, and wood 5%.

Green and teal accents complement Winston's Metropolitan deep seating group with white frames.

Customers expect designer styles in more traditional pieces at Brooks Patio Furniture.

Double chaises, like this one, sell better than daybeds.

Accent pillows add bursts of color, although earth tones make up most of the inventory stock.

While special orders are on the increase, Brooks carries a healthy inventory both for the customers who don't plan ahead and for the many international customers who shop her stores.

"We do a lot of exporting to other countries, especially in Central and South America and the Islands," she said. "People will walk in and say 'I have a container leaving on a boat tomorrow. What do you have?' It's a very nice business for us."

Nearly 60% of her customers are Hispanic. As a result, her advertising must be in both English and Spanish.

"There are so many advertising venues out there, and only 2% of my sales goes to advertising," Brooks said. "It isn't a lot of money, so I have to be very smart about what I do with it."

Overall, her customers' tastes are eclectic. They expect designer styles but in more traditional pieces of outdoor furniture. For example, double chaises are strong sellers, daybeds are not. Although there is plenty of color on the floor, inventory stock is primarily rusts and other earth tones, allowing those who want more color to special order their preferences.

Brooks would like to have more products available in white, believing it will always be a big seller in the Miami market given the intensity of Miami's sun. In fact, going against her rep's advice, this season she is displaying Winston's Metropolitan deep seating group in white with green and teal accents. "It looks amazing," she said.

In general, Brooks is very pleased with trends in the industry. Her biggest concern going forward is the economy. Florida has been hit hard by the collapse of the housing market.

"We've weathered economic downturns before," she said. "As a business, you have to hold on tight and be really careful. This season I am only doing the tried and true, things I know will sell, and being really mean and lean on my inventory."

More than surviving

Brooks doesn't rule out a third Brooks Patio Furniture location, but as yet it isn't on the horizon. In mulling over the idea, her natural optimism quickly comes up with a situation in which a third store might be a good idea. For one thing, her son Matthew is studying business at college and has already been involved in all facets of the family business.

That said, Brooks likes the size of her business today. A hands-on leader, she enjoys being able to be involved day-to-day at both locations interacting with her 12 employees.

Employee turnover is not an issue. One gentleman started working for her father 37 years ago, retired, then returned to work because he was bored. Over half the employees who work at Brooks have been here at least 10 years. What's more, the family atmosphere hasn't been created merely by the owners. Some of the employees are related to each other as well.

"Customers often assume that everyone is part of the family, which is great," Brooks said. "I'm glad the employees feel that sense of ownership."

That atmosphere along with Brooks' innate optimism was in her favor in 2003 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It would get worse. As Debbie was finishing her chemotherapy, her mother Rhoda was diagnosed with the exact breast cancer pathology. Today both women are cancer-free. They celebrated together last October when they both took part in the Race for the Cure.

"It was so exciting to push my mom in her wheelchair across the finish line," Brooks said. "I have run the race in the past, but this was the first time Mom participated."

For many cancer survivors, the experience gives them a new lease on life. That wasn't the case for Debbie.

"I was always passionate about life and what I do, even before I went through treatment," she said. "I have always believed that embracing life and maintaining a positive attitude makes life's challenges so much easier to face."

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