After his father died, John Keyes took over Naturwood Furniture. He was 18. Lisa Keyes knows about following in a father’s shoes.
The first call came in the morning. It was from Stickley. Ever since he learned the manufacturer was looking for a new store in the Sacramento area to sell its line, John Keyes made it his mission to make that store his store, Naturwood Furniture. He’d spent the past year courting the company—even buying a new suit and flying to High Point to meet with Stickley officials at market. On the morning Stickley called the store, Keyes was away on a fishing trip in Canada so his daughter, Lisa Keyes, took the call.
“When I heard they had chosen us, I couldn’t believe it,” Lisa Keyes recalled of that morning 10 years ago. “We opened our second store a few months earlier and all I could think about was how everything was coming together, and how excited Dad would be when he called and I told him the news. That day was going to change everything.”
The second call to Lisa Keyes came three hours later. It was from someone who accompanied her father on the fishing trip. While reeling in a massive King Salmon that morning, John Keyes suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Looking back, it’s a wonder Naturwood Furniture, the third-generation store in Rancho Cordova, Calif., survived the loss of its leader. It was 2006. Just a few months before his death, John Keyes had opened a second store in nearby Roseville. Sales were sluggish as the store tried to gain footing in a California economy that was already starting to crumble. Within weeks of John Keyes’ death, the bank raised the interest rate on the store’s loan by five points because the loan guarantor was now dead. “It was like they were kicking us when we were down, when we needed them most,” Lisa Keyes says.
Lisa Keyes didn’t think it could possibly get any worse until the store was sued because one of its bathrooms did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. On and on it went. One setback following another.There were days when Lisa and her mother Virginia Keyes spent many a lunch break in their warehouse office wondering if it was all worth it. But every time Lisa and Virginia thought about giving up, they thought about their father and husband.
John Allen Keyes was well known in the industry, and was named Retailer of the Year by his peers posthumously. “He was always willing to help somebody out with advice or suggestions,” Lisa Keyes says. “It didn’t matter if your store was in Southern California or across town. He wanted to help others.”
Lisa Keyes remembers the time and energy her father invested in making his store a success. She remembers falling asleep late at night with her brother in the bunk beds the store sold while her parents worked in the back of the store staining unfinished furniture to make a little extra money. She remembers the late-night truck rides made together as a family to deliver furniture after hours.
“Dad never stopped working,” she says. “So whenever I let (quitting) enter my mind it was easy to push it out because he and my mom put their blood into this business. I couldn’t see it fold.”
Bringing Naturwood Furniture back from the brink required tough decisions from mother and daughter. The Roseville store closed after never generating enough business, reducing what was once a 170-employee payroll to about 70. The company sold off one of its two warehouses and used every square foot of the remaining building for product. It meant 60-hour weeks were now 70-hour weeks and vacations were put on hold.
“The only thing I can compare it to is you’re at the edge of drowning and you just keep on treading water,” Lisa Keyes says. “You’re not swimming to safety. You’re treading water just to keep from drowning.”
It wasn’t until two years ago—when California’s dreary housing market started its own resurgence—that the Keyes felt like they could stop treading and start swimming. Today Naturwood Furniture is not only strong, it’s growing. Sales and design services are increasing at a near double-digit pace annually.
Keyes attributes that to her father and her grandfather, the founder of the store. Treat a customer right, and you’ve made a customer for life, she says.
“They taught us to stand behind our product no matter what,” Lisa Keyes says. “Dad told me if there was an issue with something someone bought, we needed to go out and fix it. That’s the only way we know how to run things around here. We must be doing things right because we’re seeing older customers’ children coming in here to buy furniture. They tell us this is where their parents came when they went shopping. I really believe we’ve built up a trust level, a level of comfort with families in the area, because of how we treated their parents years ago.”
In many ways, Lisa Keyes and her father had a fiery baptism into the family business. In 1957, John Keyes had left to train for the Coast Guard when his family called. His father, Walter Keyes, was ill and the family needed John to come home. Walter Keyes died soon after, leaving John to run the family store for his mother. He was barely 18.
“I know it had to be hard on him, but he really grew to love the business,” Lisa says. “You could see that in him every day. He enjoyed coming to work and being around his family and the people who work here. He loved working with customers. Everything about the business he loved.”
Like father, like daughter. Lisa Keyes grew to the love the business, too. Once, when her mother went out of town for the weekend, Lisa Keyes was tasked with writing out the week’s payroll checks. She added up the employees’ hours, used a state tax chart to calculate withholdings and gave the checks to her dad to sign.
She was 13.
“That’s a family business,” she shrugged. “Everybody pitches in. Everybody does a little of everything.”
Today the same could be said about Naturwood Furniture, which does a little bit of everything for its customers in Northern California. In addition to Stickley, Naturwood—nobody’s sure why Lisa’s grandfather dropped the “e” when he started the company—carries a large line of American-made product such as Robert Michael, Flexsteel, Simply Amish, Whittier Wood and Omnia. The store does a brisk business in home design and special orders as well.
The store is still very much a family business. On any given day you might find Lisa and her mother, 78-year-old Virginia, in the warehouse office. Lisa’s grandmother, Rose Skamnes, worked in the business for more than 30 years until she retired at 88 after a bad fall in the warehouse. She’s 96 now and still shows up for big events. Even Lisa’s daughters, Kimberly and Jessica, have put in time at the store. Kim Chord, 23, and Jessica Thompson 26, have assigned roles within the family business and also started working at the store when they were children.
“I guess it’s hard to get us out of this place,” Lisa Keyes says. “Dad taught us what it’s like to commit to doing something and doing it right. We’re just following his lead.”
What HFA Means to Me
The best thing about the HFA is the networking—not just with other retailers but within the Association. There are so many government regulations, especially in California, and the Association helps me stay ahead and on top of things. When we know we can go the Association with our questions about a regulation or piece of legislation and get a quick answer, that’s one less thing we have to worry about.
—Lisa Keyes, Naturwood Furniture