“Brother by a different mother”

Rob Burnette might not be a Badcock by blood, but members of the furniture empire think of him as family. The feeling’s mutual.

Four years ago, Badcock Home Furniture & More had a problem, one that any freshman business major could spot, but a little harder to fix: Same-store sales for the company, one of the nation’s largest furniture chains, were on a steady increase, a trend that continues today. But in its quest to expand the Badcock footprint across the Southeast, the company was experiencing growing pains. For every three stores it opened through its dealer program, Badcock was losing roughly two additional stores to attrition.

Badcock president Rob Burnette remembers the problem well. Burnette was Badcock’s senior vice president at the time he was asked to be part of a task force charged with reversing the hemorrhaging dealerships. Rather than hang out in a corporate boardroom staring at spreadsheets and pie charts, Burnette took a different approach: He grabbed a set of company car keys and hit the road.

Over the course of 2014, Burnette visited Badcock dealers in cities big and small. Charlotte one day, Sumter the next. In between were stops in towns like Abbeville, Newberry and Wadesboro. “I didn’t have any expectations of what I’d learn,” Burnette recalls. “There was no magic agenda. I just wanted to sit and really listen.”

By the time he was finished, Burnette had visited more than 250 stores in eight states, amassing a lot of points on his hotel loyalty card, and, most important, gleaning even more insight into Badcock’s well-intentioned but flawed dealership program.

This issue of RetailerNOW is dedicated to showing how furniture retailers, with a little help from the Home Furnishings Association, have grown their businesses in 2018 and how retailers grow in 2019 and beyond. Call it fitting, then, that Burnette and Badcock are the HFA’s 2018 Retailer of the Year for sales over $10 million because few other furniture retailers have learned, adapted and changed with the times quite like Badcock.

By the time Burnette completed his tour of Badcock stores, he saw and heard enough to know the company’s dealer program needed overhauling. For years, Badcock established a reputation of carrying the financing papers on its customers. It was convenient for customers and profitable for Badcock. But tending to that side of the business—specifically the collections—was a hassle for dealers who increasingly were overwhelmed by the process.

[Badcock celebrates 2 new corporate stores]

“They were almost becoming full-time collectors with little time to do what they needed to be doing in the first place—sell furniture,” says Burnette. “Time after time, every store I walked into I heard the same thing from our dealers. “The paper was just too much for them to handle. Something had to give.”

Credit sales account for roughly 75 percent of Badcock’s business in both corporate and dealer stores. The paperwork on in-house financing—not to mention the collecting—was consuming Badcock dealers’ time during the workweek, sometimes by as much as 40 percent.
Burnette proposed a dramatic change to the dealers’ model, one that not only changed the way they get paid, but also took all the credit headaches off the table for dealers. Burnette met with other top leaders in the company and came up with the idea of funneling all the credit granting and collection to Badcock’s Mulberry, Fla., headquarters.

It was no easy task, nor was it cheap. Wogie Badcock, Badcock’s executive vice president of public affairs, estimates new hires, software and creating space for the new department cost more than $1 million just to get the program off the ground.
But Badcock says the investment was a no-brainer for the company. “That saying time is money?” Badcock asks not waiting for an answer. “We had so many dealers spending their time collecting and following up and pushing all that paper they had little time for making money. That’s no way to treat someone who you’ve decided to partner up with.”

The result? Free to sell furniture, arrange their stores to highlight best-sellers and hire the best sales associates, entrepreneurs are lining up to open Badcock dealerships. The company has opened 12 stores since October 2017 and is anticipating adding anywhere from 16 to 20 stores in the coming 12 months, says Badcock. Many of those new stores are being opened by current Badcock dealers who welcome the change and see the upside of the new arrangement.

A lot of Badcock’s success in 2018 is due to Burnette. Make no mistake: Ever since Henry Stanhope Badcock founded the first Badcock store in 1904 in Mulberry, Fla., Badcock has been a family store—five generations and counting, to be exact. But family leaders have never been shy about looking beyond the family tree for top talent. When Mike Price, an outsider himself, announced he was stepping down as company president in 2016, Badcock leaders interviewed three candidates before naming Burnette, the company’s chief operating officer, its next president.
Burnette came to Badcock in 1985 after a brief stint in sales with NCR. He started in human resources and was constantly on the road hiring for Badcock, from custodians to managers.

Badcock | Retailer of the Year ImageThirty years later, Burnette found himself on the road again, this time trying to invigorate Badcock’s struggling dealership program. Burnette said he learned within the first week that store owners wanted more than a perfunctory visit from a corporate suit.
“You could sense the frustration in the first few stores I visited,” he says. “They wanted to be heard, not just seen. It had been a long time since they saw someone from corporate and they had a lot on their minds.”

Burnette is by nature a modest man, someone who seems more at ease when the spotlight is on others. He says his recommendation to Badcock’s leaders to take the paper burden off the dealers and put it on the backs of the corporate office “was just common sense.”

“I mean, when you think about it, who agrees to invest their hard-earned money in a furniture store because they really, really want to spend most of their time dealing with credit and tracking down payments and all the paperwork that goes into that? How many retailers, Badcock or elswhere, go into business to push paper?”

Here, it should be noted, that the usually mild-mannered Burnette is on a roll.

“Nobody!” he says. “Nobody wants to push paper! These people want to sell furniture! They got into the business because they want to sell! They got into the business because when a customer comes into their store they have a need and if you’re a natural-born salesman or saleswoman there’s nothing you want more than to fill that need!”

That’s the side of Burnette most people outside of Badcock don’t often see, the fiery, tent revival preacher who might be running one of the nation’s top furniture companies but still gets excited when a teacher or newlyweds or family of six walk out of a Badcock Furniture & More with their needs fulfilled.

“The stories I hear from our dealers? They never get old,” Burnette says.

That passion was a big reason the Badcock family hired Burnette all those years ago and why they love him even more today, Wogie Badcock says.

“We’re a fifth-generation furniture store and a lot of us have family members who want to make this store a sixth-generation business,” says Badcock. “I think we’ve got the right person in place to get us there. Rob is like a brother from another mother. He may not be a Badcock by blood, but everyone around here thinks of him as family.”

Burnette hears this and smiles. “Well, they certainly treat me as one of their own,” he says. “But really, I’m no different than anyone else here. Everyone is treated like family. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful over the years. We treat our employees well and they pass that care and attention on to our customers. It’s not something new. It’s just making everything about the customer.”

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