‘This business is bigger than you’

Photo of Sam Zavary

Sam Zavary learned the furniture business on his own.

But life’s biggest lesson came from his father. It’s a lesson he’s still learning.

“Start from the beginning,” someone says. “Tell me about your father.”
A smile fills Sam Zavary’s face. He takes a deep breath and releases it slowly. “I can tell you a lot of things,” he says. “There are so many good things about him.”

“Pick one.”

Sam Zavary pauses for an awkward amount of time, sifting through the years for just the right memory but still nothing. Only a question.

“How can you pick just one memory?” he asks, not waiting for an answer.

“My father means everything to me.”

“Is it hard to put into words?”

Another pause. This time the smile is gone, replaced with tears. “It’s not hard,” Zavary says, composing himself. “There’s just so many, so many good memories. My dad is my greatest fan. He’s also my best teacher. I learned so much from him – heck, I’m still learning a lot from him.”

What does it say about Sam Zavary’s relationship with his father that Abdul Zavary is still teaching his son, still imparting lessons nearly 10 years after dying?

They say everything is bigger in Texas, and Home Furnishings Association member Sam Zavary’s rags-to-riches story is no exception. In Houston, he is a metaphor, a beacon — for, of, about America and opportunity. The oldest of four children whose family immigrated from Pakistan in 1992, Zavary opened his first Exclusive Furniture store when he was 21 and a part-time college student.

Zavary is 41 today and married with four children. Safe to say Exclusive has grown up, too: Seven stores, a clearance center and gross sales of $52 million anticipated this year. Sam Zavary will visit elementary schools and high schools two or three times a year and share his success story with the students.

The script never changes. Why should it? If they work hard, he tells the students, if they put in the hours, sacrifice the weekends, put all their energies and beliefs into what they want and stay close to their faith, his story can be their story, too.

But that’s not the entire story. Zavary doesn’t always discuss his relationship with his father. He apologizes for getting so emotional. “I guess it’s been a few years since I talked about him,” Zavary says. “I think about him a lot, but I don’t always talk about him with other people.”

It’s not for a lack of appreciation or respect. Abdul Zavary is never far from his son’s thoughts. But sharing those thoughts out loud to a stranger? Sam Zavary wonders if words could ever do his father justice. “How do you describe his impact on my family? How do you measure his support, his guidance?” Zavary asks. “When I wanted to get out of the business, just walk away from furniture, my father was the one who kept me going.”

Abdul Zavary did a little bit of everything back in Pakistan. He was, at turns, a farmer, a merchant selling drapes and, at one time, furniture. But he saw a better opportunity for his family in America. The tradeoff for this country was to give up his business and success. In Houston, Abdul Zavary worked as a grocery store clerk and later at a gas station. His father was fine with this, Sam says, because he knew his children would benefit from a better education. Abdul Zavary had plans for sending them to the University of Houston, even mapping out careers for each. In Abdul Zavary’s mind, Sam, the oldest of his children, would become a lawyer.

Funny, then, that before Sam Zavary could open his first furniture store, he had to ignore his father’s lifelong wish. Sam Zavary took a job at a grocery store to help pay bills at home. He was 16 and making $4.50 an hour. One day during his lunch break, Zavary noticed some AT&T employees selling long-distance calling plans in front of the store. When the AT&T manager offered him a job that paid $7 an hour, Zavary jumped.

That eventually led to a sales-commission position, and Zavary was just getting started. By the time he was 19, Zavary says he was one of the phone company’s top salesmen in residential long-distance sales, juggling college with a $90,000 salary.

In 1998, Abdul Zavary told his son to do something over spring break. Hang out with friends, go to the beach – anything but sell long-distance contracts.

“He wanted me to relax and take a break – be like a normal college kid,” Sam Zavary said.

Zavary compromised. He went to visit his uncle in California. For 10 days, Zavary hung out in his uncle’s furniture store. He helped unpack furniture, sold a few sofas, delivered bedroom sets – a little bit of everything.

You can see where this is going.

“When I got home,” Zavary says, “I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I told my father, ‘Dad, furniture is the business I want to go in.’ ”

Abdul Zavary pushed back, but his son pushed harder. Every day after his college classes ended, Sam Zavary drove around Houston with a map by his side dropping in on all the furniture stores he could find. He visited high-end stores, mom-and-pop stores and everything in between, pretending to shop for furniture.

“I asked every salesperson how financing worked, how in-store credit worked, how they set up a sales promotion, who handled deliveries, special orders – everything. I must have asked them hundreds of questions.”

After every furniture store he visited, Sam Zavary walked out empty-handed. At least where furniture was concerned. When he got to his car, he wrote down everything he learned on a notebook pad so he wouldn’t forget in on the trip to the next store. “I had a 60-day crash course in how to run a furniture store,” he said.

Zavary’s first store was in an aging shopping mall in a neglected Houston neighborhood. He bought five bedroom sets, five living room sets, four dining room sets and some smaller accessory tables and vanities. In his first two weeks, he made $8,000 in sales.

Abdul Zavary still clung to the hope his son would become a lawyer so he offered to open and work the store while Sam went to college in the mornings. But he also saw his son’s knack for selling furniture, particularly when it came to marketing.

Sundays were usually slow at Exclusive. One reason was that a larger furniture store across the street opened its warehouse on Sunday mornings to move clearance items. For weeks, Sam Zavary watched customers line up more than an hour before the store opened just to get first crack at the inventory.

One Sunday, Sam Zavary printed flyers and distributed them to people waiting in line. The flyers advertised Exclusive’s own sale. He sold $8,500 in furniture that day – and about that much every Sunday for the next nine months. His crude but effective marketing campaign ended abruptly one Sunday morning when the competing furniture store told him he couldn’t come onto its property anymore.

Sam Zavary is smiling again. “Man, those were good times,” he says. “Working all those hours and seeing it pay off the way it was. I think having my dad there with me made it even more special. He was never a partner in the business, but he always had good advice, always kept me going.”

As Exclusive Furniture grew from one store to two and then three, so did Abdul Zavary’s wisdom. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Exclusive Furniture’s bank froze more than $80,000 in the company’s credit card funds without giving any reason. By now, Abdul Zavary and Sam’s brother Fawad were working in the store. His sister, Fauzia, eventually joined the business, too.

Looking back, Sam Zavary wonders if the bank froze his assets because of his family’s Muslim heritage. While fighting with the bank to unlock the money, Sam turned to a new merchant services company. A few months later, the second bank, too, froze his company’s earnings – another $40,000.

Zavary eventually got access to his frozen accounts, but it took a toll on him both professionally and personally.

“Do you know what it’s like for a small business not to be able to touch $120,000?” Sam Zavary says, not waiting for an answer. “I was in a bad place. I had a lot of self-doubt about the business. I wanted to walk away from it all.”

Abdul Zavary wouldn’t let him.

“You can’t do that,” he said, Sam Zavary recalls. “Maybe a few years ago when it was just you and I, but now you’ve got employees and those employees have families. Whether you like it or not, this business is bigger than you, Sam.”

This business is bigger than you.

Even now, all these years later, Sam Zavary isn’t entirely sure what his father meant by that statement. But with every new venture, he’s finding a new meaning.

When Hurricane Harvey slammed into Houston in 2017, Zavary was glued to his television as the flood waters covered Houston overnight. Then he watched in person as those same waters slowly crept up to his house on the northwest side of the city.

Sam Zavary_store-web
Exclusive Furniture opened a 51,000-square-foot, two-level store last month in Webster, Texas.

Rather than shore up his own home, Zavary called a neighbor who picked him up in a boat and took him to dry land. From there, Zavary and his brother, Fawad, hit every big-box store they could find buying up socks, diapers, cases of water and towels. They delivered them to churches that would soon be taking in flood victims. When those churches told Zavary they had supplies that churches and organizations needed in other parts of the city, he deployed his delivery trucks to transport them.

Throughout the process, Zavary remembered the words of his father. This business is bigger than you.

It’s the same reason Zavary and Exclusive host their annual 12 Days of Christmas Furniture, finding 12 needy families in the Houston area every December and furnishing their homes. It’s the same reason Exclusive Furniture offered $50 to employees in Houston who were furloughed during the government shutdown this year. And why Exclusive hosts a company party every year – not just for employees but for their families, too. It’s the same reason Zavary visits area schools, encouraging students to keep moving forward, telling them there’s a future waiting for them if they want it badly enough.

Sam Zavary and brother
Sam Zavary, right, eventually brought his brother, Fawad, into the business as well as his sister Fauzia.

Students aren’t the only one inspired by Zavary. Chris Diaz remembers his first day as a sales associate at Exclusive and Zavary walking into the store. “He knew everybody by name,” recalls Diaz. “And then he comes up to me and starts talking to me asking me what I thought about the business and furniture and asking me if there was anything I needed.”

At the end of their conversation, Zavary gave Diaz his cell phone number. “He told me to call him if there was ever a problem or I had a question. That’s when I knew I had come somewhere special and that I was part of a family,” says Diaz, who now runs the company’s newest store in Webster, Texas.

Zavary says he’s trying to learn the first names of his employees – all 252 of them. “I want them to know I care about them and that they’re part of something bigger than themselves, too,” he says.

Zavary doesn’t have to work as hard these days. Fawad, his brother, has been with the company for 19 years, and his sister Fauzia has been a part of the business the last 12. The two of them help Sam Zavary spread their father’s gospel that Exclusive Furniture is more than just a furniture store. It’s a family.

“It took me a while to figure out what he meant by the business being bigger than I’ll ever be,” Sam Zavary says. “But I see it now – and not in just one way. I’ll be driving down the road and I’ll hear what he meant in a completely different way. That’s what keeps me going. I’m excited about what we’re doing and how we’re impacting our community. We’re more than a furniture store. I see that now.”

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