By Powell Slaughter, Contributing Editor
DIETERICH, Ill. — When it comes to leadership in the company and in the market Wright’s Furniture & Flooring serves, Chairman Tom Wright says that for the family owners, it’s all about leading from the front.
Founded in Dieterich back in 1889, the fifth-generation store’s near-50 employees serve a largely rural swath of central Illinois. After opening a design-oriented store in Effingham, recent years have seen the addition of locations in Robinson (2017) and Taylorville (2019).
“We’re in the delivery trucks; we’re out there sweeping floors,” he noted. “We hopefully lead by example.”
Marketing Manager Alex Wright pointed to Vice President Karen Brumleve, who has been with the company 28 years, as a case in point.
“I think our highest example is Karen. She’s our vice president, our top salesperson, and she manages the whole sales team,” he said. “She sets that bar of leadership, performance and what we want our team to aspire to be like.”
The leadership-by-example philosophy, Brumleve noted, was key to her own development in the business, recalling her first home visit with a client, accompanied by Tom Wright and watching the tone of the interaction. Brumleve’s example also reveals another key to Wright’s leadership philosophy: freedom to let employees show initiative.
“Everything I ever wanted to do or try for the client was approved with excitement,” Brumleve said. “Staging new homes, for example, got our name out there in the marketplace.”
Tom Wright agreed.
“Our philosophy has always been to hire the best people we can find, train them and then get out of their way,” he said. “We’ve been blessed with great employees, some of which have been with us more than 30 years, and the worst thing we can do is get in their way.”
“A great team truly is the key to our success,” added President John Wright. “For more than 130 years, we have employed local friends and family, and we are blown away by their dedication and willingness to put in the work. That’s what has carried us through today and will carry us for hopefully another 130 years.”
Wright’s also leads by example in the communities it serves.
“We’ve been here since 1889, and we’re going to stay here,” Tom Wright said. “We’ve been blessed by this area’s support, and we strive to give back.”
Most recently, Tom and John Wright were the largest single contributor to a new community center in Dieterich that includes everything from day care facilities, a 24-hour fitness club, and meeting rooms to basketball courts. The brothers’ contribution earned them naming rights for what’s now the Wright Family Center.
Working through challenges
Wright’s Furniture’s all-hands-onboard leadership approach created employee buy-in when the coronavirus pandemic disrupted business.
“Under the careful direction of Tom and John, we were closed for about two months, and re-opened the weekend before Memorial Day,” said Alex Wright, marketing manager. “During that time, we thoroughly cleaned and remodeled the showroom.”
Improvements included remerchandising projects such as a new fabric wall for the Dieterich showroom’s design center and fresh painting. Wright’s also gave employees the option of coming in to work on the store or staying home; either way, they got paid.
“Most did choose to come in,” said Tom Wright. “And kudos to our employees; they were in here cleaning and painting to get ready for reopening.”
Wright’s also worked to keep business going and maintain contact with customers and the marketplace during its shutdown.
“We relied on social media to stay in touch with the community,” noted Alex Wright. “We used that for things like rug auctions, and we closed out dead inventory.”
Chekkit, an SMS texting and reputation management platform, he added, was particularly important in ongoing customer contact during the closure. Staff could use it on their phone or desktop to have text conversations with customers.
Store improvements and strong communications plus a strong inventory position set Wright’s up to hit the ground running when stores re-opened.
“We sell off the floor, so we traditionally carry really heavy inventory,” Tom Wright said. “When that big rush hit, we were pretty well established (for product). We took advantage when everyone seemed out of inventory.”
Wright’s also keyed in on several flagship vendors to structure deliveries so that goods flowed as well as possible when a flood of pandemic business severely stressed the industry’s supply chain.
“Flexsteel was instrumental throughout all this,” Tom Wright said. “We’d make pickups from them every other week. La-Z-Boy was very helpful during that time. With Max Divani we made a schedule on containers, and they stayed pretty true to that even if there were some delays. Bernhardt did as well delivering throughout all this as well as anybody.
Moving forward, Wright’s will continue to buy heavily into those flagship brands to ensure priority position.
Setting a course
Beyond tactical responses to immediate challenges, Wright’s is making moves to set the company up for success down the road.
A major project underway is a construction of a new distribution center. Wright’s had found itself with inventory spread across four different warehousing locations as the company worked to maintain adequate inventory during booming demand in the pandemic’s wake.
To increase efficiency and set the business up for the future, Wright’s purchased four acres for construction of a new high-cube warehouse that will encompass a 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot footprint when it opens next year.
“We wanted to get everything under one roof, and only one of the four original locations was racked,” Alex Wright said. “The new warehouse will have 32-foot walls to accommodate racking. We feel we’re over-inventoried right now, so we’re running a projection every month to make sure it’s the right size.”
He credited fellow retailers Chris Gamble of Jonesboro, Ark.-based Gamble Home, and Paul Sherman of Sherman’s in Peoria, Ill., for letting the Wright’s management team tour their facilities in preparation for the new distribution center. Warehousing and systems expert John McCloskey was instrumental in designing Wright’s new facility.
Wright’s also revamped its delivery fleet.
“We bought Ford F-600 trucks and put on 22-foot beds, and power lifts on the backs to help our delivery people,” said John Wright. “We service a rural area with miles between stops, and we wanted bigger trucks to get as many stops as possible on a load.”
Wright’s also has established itself in the commercial realm with the launch of a division catering to that market segment.
Vice President Karen Brumleve had been juggling a huge list of local interior design clients who also wanted her to develop commercial projects. President John Wright’s daughter Taylor, an architectural interior designer, came on board with the formalized commercial division to provide more specific service to that clientele.
The company’s expertise in flooring as well as furniture has been a boon there.
“With Taylor and Karen working together, that’s really taken off,” John Wright said.
With a third-party marketing agency to ensure quality advertising placements and pricing, Wright’s utilizes television, radio, social media and digital channels for advertising, plus direct mail for major promotions.
Another key move: Building upon its 130-year-old reputation, Wright’s began exploring private-label opportunities to give its clients a truly unique experience. Wright’s worked with several key vendors to develop private-label merchandise for furniture and bedding with separate approaches for those respective categories.
“On the furniture side, we took existing product and labeled it,” said Tom Wright. “We’ve been around since 1889, and we felt that for a lot of this product, the Wright brand carried more weight. It seems a lot of customers don’t recognize brands anymore, and with that (Wright’s) brand name, they recognize the service and guarantees behind the product.”
The Wright’s bedding brand, which launched last year, is different.
“It’s not something we simply changed the name on,” Tom Wright said. “It’s made just for us, and it’s constructed to our specs.
The Wright Sleep Mattresses are produced in central Illinois and are currently being sold in stores in Taylorville, Robinson and the original location in Dieterich. Wright’s continues to carry other bedding brands, including Serta, Simmons, Sealy, Spring Air, Bemco and Tempur-Pedic.
See also: Wright’s Furniture & Flooring develops private-label mattress lineup