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Family Matters Case Study: Dunk & Bright Furniture

A Bright Future

Salesman helping a couple select furniture fabric.

Preparing for the next leadership transfer, from third to fourth generation, Jim and Joe Bright are solidifying a healthy future for their 91-year old family business. Through hard work, discipline and a lot of heart, the Bright family continues to shine and credits success to their desire to stay nimble. The world continues to change and how a company reacts, or fails to react, may have a lasting impact for future generations.

LIKE FATHER LIKE SON

To talk to Jim and Joe Bright is to understand how history repeats itself. Both father and son — the third and fourth generation owners, respectively, of Syracuse, New York-based furniture retailer Dunk & Bright — have the same early memories of helping out at the family store. Both unloaded furniture (lots of work) and both manned the store’s annual Irish Bargain Party sale (much more fun). But most critically, both hadthe freedom as young men to choose whether or not to take the reins of the company, which today operates in the same location on Syracuse’s South Side as it did when it opened nearly 91 years ago. “My dad [Pat Bright, Sr.] always discouraged me from thinking too much about the business,” Jim Bright, current owner of Dunk & Bright, recalls. Jim wanted Joe to grow up with the same freedom he did. “I felt that if Joe was expected to join the family business it might compromise his ambition or the self-satisfaction he’d feel getting a job, moving up in a company, and being independent.”

HISTORY

Dunk & Bright opened in 1927 on Salina Street and Brighton Avenue as a small local store. Today, the big white store with the bright blue lettering is a 100,000 square-foot showroom containing everything from window blinds to carpet, from mattresses to room vignettes. Throughout it all, each Bright generation has put their own stamp on the business.

Company founder Bill Bright, Jim’s grandfather, was a furniture salesman who moved from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Syracuse with dreams of having his own store one day. He found his backer in an impressed customer, William Dunk Sr., who agreed to provide capital to open Dunk & Bright. The store opened on November 14, 1927, with an illustrated

advertising notice promoting the store as the answer to every homeowner’s dream — free unlimited parking, design services and great deals. Although the deals have changed through time, originally offering a walnut bedroom set for $95, now starting at $959, the company’s underlying message remains the same — wide selection, convenience, and local roots.

In the early 1930s, the Bright family decided to buy out William Dunk Sr., making the Brights sole owners of the company. After the passing of Bill Bright, his widow, Catherine Bright, and their son-in-law kept the store afloat until the second-generation owner, Pat Bright [Bill’s son], inherited the business in 1952. Jim calls his father a “merchandising genius” who oversaw a period of rapid growth for the company and pioneered many of the innovations that distinguish Dunk & Bright today. Pat dramatically expanded the store’s footprint to make Dunk & Bright a destination where customers could see a huge variety of furniture displayed at once. He also recruited certified interior designers as salespeople and incentivized them to visit customers’ homes to create floorplans with complete decorating suggestions, a practice unusual for the furniture industry at the time. This one-on-one, customized service for customers remains a major revenue stream for the company and is currently the source of their largest-dollar transactions. Pat also inaugurated the infamous Dunk & Bright Irish Bargain Party sale, an annual event that invites customers to celebrate Irish heritage while taking advantage of promotional deals throughout the store.

Jim Bright purchased the family business in the early 1990s and modernized the rambling structure he had inherited through the diversification of product offerings, reflecting the proliferation of Asian imported furniture. He also launched the company’s e-commerce operation. “I’m proud that we have over a thousand items in stock in our store and that they are also online, with accurate inventory counts, that show up highly ranked in search,” Jim notes. His son, Joe Bright, is currently focused on expanding their e-commerce operations and expanding their digital marketing efforts. Although Dunk & Bright’s web traffic is strong, online sales currently account for only five percent of the company’s total sales.

In the last year, digital marketing efforts include product retargeting through Facebook and selling their products through Google, resulting in strong initial results. Dunk & Bright’s next goal is to expand their presence on Amazon where they currently offer 3,500 products to consumers.

BUILDING ON OUTSIDE EXPERIENCES

For Jim Bright, the key to successfully passing down a business through a family is to not presume that it will happen. He recalls that his father, Pat Bright, did not present the idea to Jim until he was nearly 30 years old, married and living in New York City where he had worked for GE Capital and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

“My experience was in analyzing other businesses, other models. I knew nothing about the nuts and bolts of retail or furniture,” he says. One day, his father called him to review the store’s performance, and asked Jim to provide a value estimate of the business. Jim recalls that when he stated his estimate, his father asked if he would like to buy him out of the company! “Then it’s worth less than I said,” Jim joked in response to his father’s question. Banter aside, the idea appealed to Jim and remained present in his mind. Jim recalls, “I was envious of people running their own businesses, no matter what size. I wanted to make the decisions.”

As Jim contemplated his own retirement from Dunk & Bright, he decided not to divide the business among his children. He remembered that his father and uncle suffered a falling out over the store and as a result, he believed that

trying to “share” a business among several family owners would ultimately tear a family apart.

After a three year transitionary period, Pat decided to sell the business to his son, Jim Bright. “He made the decision to offer only me the chance to buy the business and to sell it to me all at once,” Jim says. “It left me somewhat leveraged, but I had 100 percent control.”

Jim’s early years as sole owner of the business proved difficult. He was faced with the challenges of needing to implement a costly new computer system while using his cash flow to pay down debt. The years he spent in the Manhattan banking industry gave Jim the discipline he needed to focus on Dunk & Bright’s big picture and to empower his team members to own their responsibilities. “There are so many components to a retail business that it would be overwhelming if you tried to do too much,” Jim observes. “Get too focused on certain details and you’ll miss another important aspect of the business.” He focused on improving the vital components of the business first, providing a strong foundation for the business to grow towards the future.

FIRST STEPS TO LEADERSHIP

Beginning in his early years, Jim’s oldest son, Joe, was actively exposed to the business. Although it was never assumed that Joe would inherit the business, Jim made it a priority to give Joe substantial projects within the business throughout his childhood to help develop his leadership skills and see how he could fit into the business.

Throughout his childhood Joe worked on delivery trucks, bought media and even worked in the store during sales promotions.

When the company moved to a new, modern warehouse space, Joe coordinated the transportation of the inventory out of the old 12-story building in downtown Syracuse and into the more modern facility 15 minutes away. Despite being a teenager in high school, Joe successfully recruited a team of his classmates to work overnight shifts moving the inventory into the new warehouse. “We had to move $2 million worth of inventory without damaging things or disrupting deliveries,” he says. The team completed the project in just three weeks, beating his father’s standard two-month estimated timeline.

Joe went on to work as a district manager for Aldi, a low-price grocery store chain, managing four stores in Northern New York. “Aldi taught me the importance of face-to-face interactions in retail, constantly being in the stores and not trying to drive the business through email,” says Joe.

After attending business school, Joe moved to California to work for Danaher, a Fortune 500 science and technology conglomerate, as a pricing manager in finance. “Probably my most important takeaway was to be aggressive about sales. Grow the top line and things will be okay.” The lessons Joe learned from these experiences directly impacted how he leads Dunk & Bright today.

Having recently moved back to Syracuse from California, Joe is committed to actively learning all he can about the family business. Today, Joe is overseeing all aspects of the business and puts in the long hours it requires. As a leader, he is willing to do any task that is needed, including manning the store’s web site’s LiveChat and working on Saturday’s. He truly loves the all hands on deck energy of the business. “I think almost everyone at our company prefers a crazy busy Saturday to a slow Wednesday morning,” he says.

Through past and future ownership transitions at Dunk & Bright, the goal of taking care of the family and its members first remains constant.

Although timing on transitioning ownership has not been determined, Jim says that Joe will have the opportunity for 100 percent ownership of the company in the future. He is conscientious of how the transition will take place to avoid Joe having to take on as much leverage as he did in his initial years of owning the company. “I would also be open to a different transaction that, for example, might allow the company’s capital to be used to reinvest in the business for growth opportunities,” says Jim.

Jim considers his role in the company to be a consultant and an advisor. “If I think I can add something to his [Joe’s] decision-making, I will. I’ll share some history — why we did it this way, the pros and cons, the history of someone’s compensation,” Jim says. He exercises this advisory role with an occasional note to self that it is Joe’s turn to call the shots at Dunk & Bright.

CONSTANT CHANGE INCHANGING TIMES

Joe recalls that his father taught him to “Change your business often and quickly if it is not performing to expectations.” He says, “If the weekend’s sales are poor, don’t passively accept it. Come Monday, change advertising, store policies, delivery policies, whatever it takes to get business humming again.” As a result, the Bright family experiments constantly. “We’re always trying lots of things, using the store as a lab, seeing what works and moving on quickly if it doesn’t” Jim says.

A benefit of keeping a business within the family is the privilege to learn from family members that have come before you.

The company currently does not have a specific procedure for funding innovation. Instead, every three or four years, they allocate between $300,000 and $500,000 for major capital expenditures. Jim says that most of the funding for innovation comes from their large advertising budget. “The business is highly promotional, so we spend a lot of money on advertising, shifting those dollars around, trying new ideas and new things,” says Jim. Dunk & Bright currently advertises heavily with television ads and Google ad words, and also has a smaller radio presence. Recently, Joe pushed for the company to try “edgier” campaigns aimed at reaching younger audiences. In addition to innovative advertising, he is focused on figuring out ways to successfully offer free two-day shipping on sofas to their customers.

Joe is also a vocal member of the Syracuse business community, and presented at a city council meeting to oppose a highway project that would eliminate a stretch of the highway closest to Dunk & Bright, a decision debated by father and son. Jim worried about the potential consequences of getting involved in a controversial community issue while Joe felt it was imperative to represent the best interests of the business.

As Dunk & Bright transitions through generations of Bright family leadership, it remains focused on innovation and constant change, allowing it to be successful through changing times.

Although sometimes on opposite sides of a decision, Jim says it is a pleasure to have these business discussions with his son, whether it is in the office or at home. “We can discuss what worked or didn’t, implement or discard changes,” Jim says. “This is what I love about this business—decisions aren’t deadly. You can react and do a lot of things.” At the end of the day, Jim emphasizes that everything is changeable—and needs to be in order to be successful. “I’m not worried about Joe preserving a legacy, and, to be honest, I shudder when our business is referred to as ‘long time running’, or ‘old’, or ‘historic’,” Jim says. “I worry that we might get stuck in place and don’t change with the times. I’d rather be known as a brand new, fresh business if that were possible.”

Today, Dunk & Bright Furniture’s Syracuse showroom is considered to be New York state’s largest furniture showroom, at 100,000 square feet, while also maintaining a separate distribution center in Liverpool, New York. The store currently employs 77 full- and parttime employees, while having employed nearly 6,000 people since the store first opened their doors in 1927. With Jim Bright serving as President, and his son, Joe Bright, leading by his side as Vice President, Dunk & Bright is poised to innovate and excel.

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