A few years ago, a medical emergency caused Tom Brzoski of Green Bay to reevaluate his life. He had spent decades in the foodservice industry and was the district manager for a large organization when he suffered a minor stroke.
'When that happened, I started to reflect and decided I wanted to try something on my own,' Brzoski said. 'The world I was in was very stressful; owning a business is a different kind of stress, and I wanted to reinvent myself.'
That led to a search for the right type of business. He decided that he would like to be in the retail industry but recognized the impact that internet sales were having on brick-and-mortar stores. He also wanted to be in close contact with people, and in an industry that still achieved most of its sales at a store.
'I always appreciated great furniture, and research showed that 80 to 90% of sales were at retail locations,' Brzoski said. 'That's what drove me - a passion for furniture and the opportunity to work with my customers. Furniture was surviving in a retail environment where so many others were not.'
That led to additional research. As part of his business plan, Brzoski did a competitive analysis, noting the location of stores and a variety of price points. He went to trade shows and talked to suppliers. To keep the process moving, he developed a timeline.
'I had deadlines for myself to get the business open, and it progressed as it should,' he said. 'At my prior job, I worked on my own and knew how to keep myself accountable.'
Step by step, he looked at financing, distribution, locations, design, and purchasing. To have greater buying power, he decided to join iDeal Furniture, a license that made him part of a buying group.
'iDeal Furniture isn't a franchise or chain,' he said. 'It is just a name and a group that allows you to pool resources so you can get larger discounts and items you couldn't get otherwise.'
There are no strict requirements for operating the store, and Brzoski has complete flexibility. Having made many contacts at trade shows, he estimated that about 60% of his inventory comes from vendors he has found on his own.
The array of vendors allows him to meet the requests of a diverse target market. Unlike many businesses where it is important to have a more defined niche, he noted that the furniture business appeals to a broader market and greater price and product ranges. His product lines vary from lower to higher price points. Culturally, he has a substantial Hispanic base, and that also figures into his buying.
'Determining what to buy is a calculation of a few things,' he said. 'The first is what people are buying because I know that's working, and also what isn't selling. I go to trade shows to see what the trends are but realize that Green Bay is a unique market.'
He also has found success in the past year and a half since opening in making most of his sales right off the floor rather than by special order. That results in constantly changing inventory and floor arrangements that are always fresh. In addition, since the pandemic and the resulting factory delays, customers don't have to wait for months to get furniture.
'The whole supply chain has been disrupted because of COVID-19,' he said. 'A lot of factories aren't working at full production because of social distancing, and now it faces kind of a trickle-down effect. Even though the factories are up and producing, they may have trouble getting supplies such as upholstery.'
That has made the ability to shop numerous vendors important as he has been able to keep his store fully stocked. It's just part of his day as a small business owner. He says that his day-to-day role is 'pretty much everything.' In addition to the ordering, there is bookkeeping, floor rearranging, hiring, deliveries, social media, and his favorite part; selling.
He said: 'My goal every day is to spend as much time as I can with the customers, meeting their needs. Customer service is what sets up apart. We have a welcoming environment and we believe in coaching, but never pressuring.'
That philosophy has resulted in a top Google rating, and Brzoski admits that despite long hours, he loves owning a business and wishes he had done it sooner.
'I wish I had known what it was like to own a business 20 years ago,' he said. 'That's how much I enjoy it. It's refreshing, it's rewarding, it's all of those things. I wish I would have known how much I enjoy working for myself.
'No day is the same as the day before. I enjoy meeting so many different people and doing different things with the business. It is constantly evolving.'
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.