For Rick and Pat Howard, life after retirement seems a lot like work. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
Rick Howard enjoyed a rewarding career in the furniture manufacturing and packaging industries. Twenty-two years of deals and friendships, accomplishments and innovations. So when he sold his business and had a chance for he and his wife Pat to retire early, there were no regrets, no looking back. They sold their house in Toronto and moved to Key Largo, Fla., where they lived life large, traveling and playing around the world.
Antarctica one month, Asia the next. India and Europe, too. In between were trips to the Bahamas on their yacht. “When we weren’t hunting, we were golfing or snow skiing,” Rick says. “It was a pretty good life.”
There was just one problem: After a few years, the good life was proving not so good. “Retirement was relaxing,” Rick says, “but there’s a difference between relaxing and stimulating.”
Pat was more succinct: “We were bored.”
Not anymore. Not after scouring most of south Florida for the perfect location for their life after retirement. Not after opening Sklar Furnishings in 2002 in Boca Raton, Fla. Not after becoming an overnight hit with its high-end, eclectic pieces of contemporary furniture, art and accessories. There’s simply no room in Rick and Pat Howard’s day to allow boredom to slip in.
“We always have something going on, and that’s one of the great things about this store,” says Rick. “Every day is something new.”
Pat nods. “Every day is something new, something challenging,” she says. “That’s what retirement should be.”
Sklar Furnishings, the Home Furnishings Association’s 2018 Retailer of the Year for stores with under $10 million in sales, is everything Rick and Pat Howard wanted in a furniture store, which means Sklar is unlike most furniture stores in south Florida. The Howards had shopped for furniture in south Florida before. They liked what they saw and experienced, but the couple thought there was room for a different store. Not necessarily a better furniture store, just a different one.
“City Furniture and Baer’s do a great job,” says Pat, of two fellow HFA members who are big box chains in the state. “We just wanted to offer people something else.”
Walking into Sklar is like walking into Rick and Pat’s collective dreams. Curvy, customized furniture, eclectic lighting and accessories with massive contemporary art hanging from the walls. Rick has always harbored a creative side. He was constantly drawing pictures as a child and wanted to become an architect. The Howards are Canadian. When Ikea opened a store in Toronto in the early 1970s, they fell in love with the new look. “We had a cool home,” Pat recalls. “We took a lot of pride in it.” That pride morphed into a passion for Rick, who started his own contemporary furniture manufacturing company, Kinetics Furniture, in 1973.
Ever since, husband and wife have always enjoyed the clean lines of contemporary pieces, but furniture stores are like palm trees in south Florida. There’s one on every block.
“We thought there’s enough people selling off the shelf,” says Rick, who likes to think of Sklar as a “hybrid” furniture store. “We’re not a pure retailer, we’re not a design house,” says Rick. “We’re something in between.”
Actually “in between” implies boundaries. Where Sklar is concerned, the boundaries are limited by the Howards’ imaginations, which seem endless. Rick and Pat shop markets in High Point, Milan and throughout Europe in search of one-of-a-kind pieces. “When people come here and invest with us they know they’re going to be the only ones with a home like theirs,” says Pat. “That’s important to them.”
What makes Sklar so successful are the two different skills sets the Howards bring to work every day. “Rick’s the visionary,” says Pat. “He knows where we’re going and what we need to get there. I love that about him.”
Rick on Pat: “She’s the processing side of things. I may be forward facing, but Pat’s the one who has her feet on the ground every day getting things done. What good’s the vision if you’re not implementing it—even if in incremental steps—along the way? She’s the ying to my yang. Or maybe I’m the ying to her yang.”
Ying, yang. Yang, ying. Whatever. The point is, Team Howard has turned Sklar into a go-to destination for many upscale Floridians. But it’s not just those well-heeled consumers who feel Sklar’s impact. Pat Howard’s father planted a seed with her long ago. “He taught me that everyone should give their time or their money to others and if you are really lucky in life you can do both.”
The Howards and Sklar offer both in abundance starting with Habitat for Humanity, where Rick has been a board member the past 12 years. Sklar employees have helped build three houses in their community with a pledge to build three more in the coming years. They routinely donate furniture to Habitat’s Re-Store to help raise money for the program.
Sklar also makes its showroom available for hosting events and fundraisers for groups to kick off an event or thank donors after a successful capital campaign. It’s not uncommon for 200 guests to show up for an event, says Rick.
“When we opened the store 16 years ago, we made it one of our core values that we would be there for the community,” says Rick. “It’s part of our mission statement, actually. We want to be good neighbors to everyone in our community—not just the ones who shop with us.”
Last year, to celebrate turning 15, the Howards sponsored 15 charities for 15 months. In October, Sklar sponsored a store raffle for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The next month, Sklar opened its doors to the Florence Fuller Foundation to celebrate the organization, which helps children of underprivileged families, reaching its $500,000 fundraising goal. On and on it went. Along the way, the Howards said they saw a residual bonus to their philanthropy.
“It was never our plan to generate business from our celebration, but that’s what we were seeing,” Rick says. “People were coming into our store with an intent to shop with someone who is invested in their community. We by no means are the only ones who are trying to make our community a better place to live and work and play in, but I do think our efforts help set us apart from other stores.”
About that differentiation, the Howards have some advice for retailers trying to stand out from the sameness that is spreading across the retail furniture industry.
“You need to think about your passion—what’s your passion?” Rick asks. “How do you want to be perceived by your clients? The world has enough furniture stores. It’s easy to get overlooked. When you find your passion, your niche, that’s when you’ll start to stand apart from everyone else.
“Obviously this isn’t just a furniture store secret. If a guy flips burgers for a living he’ll be successful at it or whatever else he does next if he smiles and has a passion for it.”
It doesn’t appear that passion will be fading any time with the Howards. Just the opposite. They can’t wait to get to High Point this fall and find those one-of-a-kind pieces to inspire their clients. While some folks their age are already relaxing in retirement, Rick and Pat Howard are too busy back in the workforce.
Or are they? “This doesn’t seem like work,” says Pat. “Everyday is something new. There’s something wonderful about that. Isn’t that what retirement should be like?”
What HFA Means to Me
“When we first got into the retail business we knew nothing—zip. Don’t get me wrong. We were good at buying furniture, but selling it? The association gave us access to people and knowledge that would be impossible to get any other way. Here we were just starting out and all of a sudden we were learning from some of the best. (Fellow HFA members) Jerry Baer, Keith Koenig, Jeff Child. The networking is amazing. These are some of the biggest names in the business and they were there for us. They’re there for anyone in the HFA.”
—Rick Howard, Sklar Furniture, Boca Raton, Fla.