sTELLA & dARRELL hARRIS; FURNITURELAND SOUTH
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
WITH STELLA HARRIS AND DARRELL HARRIS
SEPTEMBER 22, 2011
JAMESTOWN, NORTH CAROLINA
Tony Bengel, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: This is Tony Bengel. It's September 22, 2011. I’m interviewing Stella Harris and Darrell Harris at their store, Furnitureland South, in Jamestown, North Carolina. Stella, we’ll start with you. Where and when were you born?
STELLA HARRIS: I was born in a little town in west Tennessee by the name of Trenton, on November 8, 1945.
INTERVIEWER: And Darrell?
DARRELL HARRIS: I was born on March 14, 1943, on Walnut Street in High Point, North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: Stella, were any of your family in furniture?
STELLA HARRIS: No, they weren’t. We didn’t have any family in the furniture business. As a matter of fact, we were in a rural area and my family was in the farming business. We grew a lot of cotton and corn and had farm animals.
INTERVIEWER: No tobacco?
STELLA HARRIS: No tobacco.
INTERVIEWER: Describe some of your experiences growing up.
STELLA HARRIS: We were in a rural area. I had one brother and two sisters and both my parents. I went to a little country school. I rode the school bus and knew practically everyone. It was a small school and there were two buildings on the campus, one building for grades one through six and the other building for grades seven through 12. I actually went to the same place to school for 12 years, and rode the school bus.
It was a different world back then, of course. We knew our neighbors and we didn’t lock our doors. Everything was centered around school and church, and it was just an easier time. We didn’t have a lot of the challenges that young people face today in school. Back then we thought the bad guys were the boys who sneaked behind the school buildings and smoked cigarettes. We never heard anything about illegal drugs or anything like that back then, so I suppose you'd have to say it was a pretty naive time compared to today.
INTERVIEWER: Were you expected to do some of the work on the farm as you got older?
STELLA HARRIS: We helped with farm chores, we surely did.
INTERVIEWER: As you were getting close to graduation, what did you have in mind next?
STELLA HARRIS: I was thinking about going to a junior college, a two-year college. But just as I graduated from high school, I met a young man from High Point, North Carolina, by the name of Andrew Darrell Harris, and we started dating. I took a job out there in Tennessee in a photography studio, and I worked there for a few months. In the next year, Darrell and I got married, so I got married at 18 pretty much right out of high school and moved to High Point. I never actually went to college.
INTERVIEWER: Darrell, bring us up to that point in your life. What about your family?
DARRELL HARRIS: I have two brothers and a sister; there are four of us. My mom was a school teacher and my dad was a laborer. And some of my family was in farming. Nowadays, Stella and I have two sons in our furniture retailing business, Jeff, 43, and Jason, 39.
Growing up, I was active at Green Street Baptist Church in High Point. I graduated from Central High School. I carried papers as a kid. I went to Gardner-Webb College in North Carolina, where I played basketball and majored in liberal arts. I was very responsible, involved, committed and determined. Traits that have marked my whole life. I learned the words sacrifice, responsibility and frugality through the years by going to high school and carrying papers and being active in church, then going to college and having to sacrifice.
INTERVIEWER: Your dad was a laborer. Did he ever work in a furniture factory or furniture store?
DARRELL HARRIS: No, he never worked in a furniture factory or a furniture store.
INTERVIEWER: And were your grandparents farmers?
DARRELL HARRIS: My grandparents were farmers. We learned the work ethic early on. We just worked hard.
INTERVIEWER: Stella mentioned that you met in Tennessee where she lived. How did that happen?
DARRELL HARRIS: I was selling books during the summer for a company called Southwestern Publishers out of Nashville, Tennessee, and they sent me to Trenton, Tennessee, for the summer to lead a six-man crew.
INTERVIEWER: This was during your college years?
DARRELL HARRIS: When I was in college, yes.
INTERVIEWER: How did this job come about?
DARRELL HARRIS: I got it through some friends who sold books and made a lot of money during the summers. I went out to Trenton the second year I sold books and led a six-man crew there.
INTERVIEWER: What kinds of books were you selling?
DARRELL HARRIS: They were encyclopedias, Bibles and dictionaries, and it was door-to-door selling. You either made a sale or you didn’t. You only won or lost; there wasn't any middle ground. And I learned real quickly that even if you were a good salesman but didn’t have a productive situation, you lost.
INTERVIEWER: How did you two actually meet? Did you call on her parent’s house?
STELLA HARRIS: No, we actually met at a town dance there in Trenton. Everybody was invited to come to the dance, and I went with three girlfriends. Darrell came over and asked me to dance, and so we danced a few times. Then, when I got ready to go home, he said, “Can I drive you home?” And I said, “No, I don’t know you.”
And so it was funny. One of my girlfriends was driving us home that night, and we kept noticing this car that seemed to be getting closer and closer to us, and when we’d slow down this other car would slow down, and when we’d speed up, the other car would speed up. And we were like, “Oh, my gosh, there’s somebody following us!” And we were scared to death. When we got to my house, which was out in the country, I jumped out of the car and this other car pulled in. And it happened to be Darrell, and I was so mad that he would follow us home and scare us that I ran in the house and closed the door and I wouldn’t even talk to him. He had to come back a few days later during the day before I’d talk to him.
DARRELL HARRIS: And I tried to sell them a book at that time!
INTERVIEWER: But that really wasn’t why you were there.
DARRELL HARRIS: That really wasn’t the reason I was there. This was way out in the country. It was so far back in the woods, they had to pump in the sunshine to get it back there.
STELLA HARRIS: He loves to say that, but it’s interesting how he made his way all the way from North Carolina out there to find it, isn’t it?
DARRELL HARRIS: I knew when I met Stella that I’d met somebody really special. And I loved her from the first time I met her.
INTERVIEWER: Was he a good dancer?
STELLA HARRIS: Pretty good.
DARRELL HARRIS: Well, I wasn’t as good as she was.
INTERVIEWER: And this would’ve been what year?
STELLA HARRIS: It would've been 1963.
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: And you were working your way through college, obviously.
DARRELL HARRIS: I was working my way through college. I had six men that summer. I taught them how to sell books and how to ask the right questions to get the right answers. We went for training at the publisher’s offices in Nashville, Tennessee for a week before we went to the territory.
INTERVIEWER: Was this your first sales job? You had delivered newspapers.
DARRELL HARRIS: I did carry papers and mow yards and that kind of stuff as a young man, and that was a little bit like a sales job. I’d developed work habits and just went on from there.
INTERVIEWER: You began courting Stella. How did that go that summer?
STELLA HARRIS: It went really well because by the end of the summer we were engaged, before Darrell went back to High Point in September. We planned a wedding for May of the next year, and we corresponded every couple of days by mail and talked on the phone some. Then he came back to Tennessee and we got married in May.
INTERVIEWER: This would’ve been May of what year?
STELLA HARRIS: ’64.
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes, ’64.
INTERVIEWER: And the wedding was in the local church that you went to?
STELLA HARRIS: Right.
INTERVIEWER: Well, if you were engaged by the end of the summer, you must have known that this was the right person for you pretty quickly after the initial scare.
STELLA HARRIS: After the initial scare, we started dating on a regular basis and dated all through that summer, so I would say so, yes. I was 18 and he was 21, so I thought he was a real man about town. I thought he really knew his way around, being the little country girl that I was.
INTERVIEWER: Were you still in college when you and Stella got married?
DARRELL HARRIS: I had finished college at that point.
INTERVIEWER: What did you do next?
DARRELL HARRIS: We came to High Point and I got a job in a furniture store for a year or so before I went into the Navy.
INTERVIEWER: You were connected with what furniture store?
DARRELL HARRIS: I worked at Annex Furniture Galleries in High Point, and learned a lot about furniture there. I also got connected with a man named Tony Liberatore in High Point. He had a small store of his own but also had access to most of the big furniture lines. I can't remember who owned Annex, but it wasn't Tony Liberatore. He had his own connections. He was an entrepreneur. He had his own company and I sold what he could get.
INTERVIEWER: You were selling on the floor at Annex Furniture Galleries?
DARRELL HARRIS: Right.
INTERVIEWER: How did you get that job?
DARRELL HARRIS: I just applied for the position. And I was very successful as a salesman there.
INTERVIEWER: What were you doing during this time, Stella?
STELLA HARRIS: I worked at Sears' downtown store in High Point, which was on Main Street at that time. I worked in the credit department.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you decide to go into the Navy, Darrell?
DARRELL HARRIS: I was going to be drafted into the Army and probably would have had to go to Vietnam. I joined the Navy and got stationed with the fleet admiral staff in Charleston, South Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: You had essentially a desk job in the Navy?
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes, and I was actually able to sell some furniture on the side while I was with the Navy in Charleston.
INTERVIEWER: How so?
DARRELL HARRIS: Since I was from High Point, some of the officers there just asked me if I knew anything about furniture. And I actually was able to bring my commanding officer, a Captain Zimmerman, up to High Point to buy a house full of furniture from Tony Liberatore. We sold him a house full of furniture and had it delivered to Charleston, South Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: How long were you in the Navy?
DARRELL HARRIS: I was in the Navy for six years total, but in the Navy reserve for four years.
INTERVIEWER: You spent two years on active duty?
DARRELL HARRIS: Right.
INTERVIEWER: When Darrell went into the Navy, Stella, you moved down to Charleston with him?
STELLA HARRIS: I did. We had bought a little house on Springfield Road in High Point and we were able to rent that house out while we were in Charleston. I was able to transfer with Sears, and I worked at Sears in Charleston during the two years that Darrell was on active duty in the Navy.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever go to a junior college or get any college education along the way?
STELLA HARRIS: No. My college was on-the-job training.
INTERVIEWER: Darrell, did anything happen during your active duty in the Navy that significantly influenced your future life?
DARRELL HARRIS: I was influenced by people who I had a lot of respect for when I was in the Navy, and I saw how thoroughly they did things and how they inspected the ships. I was a yeoman who helped the captain with the inspection of the ships – they were mostly mine sweepers. They would go down and go through the ships and check their records and see how clean they were and everything. I learned to be very explicit and detail-oriented during that time.
INTERVIEWER: When you were at Gardner-Webb, did you take any business or accounting courses that might have helped you in your later career?
DARRELL HARRIS: My major was liberal arts, but I took a lot of business and psychology courses when I was there. I had a very diverse background.
INTERVIEWER: After you ended your active duty in the Navy, what was the next step in your career?
DARRELL HARRIS: Our son Jeff was born two weeks before I got out of the Navy. And we came back to High Point, North Carolina.
STELLA HARRIS: Jeff was actually three weeks old when Darrell got discharged, and we moved back to High Point when Jeff was three weeks old. Can you imagine?
INTERVIEWER: You moved back into the house you had been renting in High Point?
STELLA HARRIS: We did.
INTERVIEWER: And then you did what?
DARRELL HARRIS: I worked at a furniture store here in High Point, for Bill and Doris Berge at Wayside Interiors. I managed that store for them for a couple of years, and then the store burned down. I then managed a furniture store in Winston-Salem, then left and started my own company.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s go into a little more detail, starting with your first sales job at Annex Furniture Galleries. What did you learn there? Did you have a good boss that helped teach you about furniture, about selling?
DARRELL HARRIS: I had a lot of really talented salespeople around me. You know, I never really felt like I had a boss as long as I was doing my job right. And I always led sales at Annex Furniture Galleries. Joe Grissett was there, and he was a great influence on me. He was a hard worker, always did what was expected of him and was very responsible, and I noticed that. I learned early on that you had to ask for the sale. I was very good at doing that. And I learned about furniture as I went along.
INTERVIEWER: Pretty much on the job?
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: Were any furniture factory sales reps helpful to you?
DARRELL HARRIS: That’s been so long ago I can’t even remember their names. But yes, they were very talented people back in those days.
INTERVIEWER: What were your sales techniques? How did you approach a customer?
DARRELL HARRIS: I always looked people straight in the eye and I tried to size them up pretty quickly, even though you can’t always tell much by someone's appearance. For example, I had a guy come in one time who was wearing blue jeans and didn’t look like he could buy much furniture. Turned out he bought over $20,000 worth of furniture and paid cash for it out of his pocket that day. And so I learned not to size up people too quickly, but to find out as soon as possible what they needed and were looking for.
INTERVIEWER: You tried to qualify them as soon as possible?
DARRELL HARRIS: Oh, yes. I’d try to find out what their needs were and what their desires were, what they were trying to accomplish when they came to the store. Of course, it’s been so long ago that I can hardly remember working on the floor. But we worked on the “up” system and you got whoever came in when it was your turn. I learned very quickly that you can’t size people up until you’ve talked to them for a few minutes.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever have a sales job at a furniture store or anything like that yourself, Stella?
STELLA HARRIS: No, I didn’t. As I've mentioned, I worked briefly in a photography studio and I learned how to develop pictures, and I did sell items that were in the store, like film and photo albums and picture frames. But that was secondary to printing the pictures and getting them packaged and ready for the customer. I only did that for a few months right out of high school until I got married.
Then after Darrell and I got married, I went to work at Sears, in the credit department, which was pretty interesting. They had some good benefits back then, and they were very good about working with you, especially if you were military. There was a large Sears store in Charleston, so I was able to just transfer and work in the credit department there. That worked out very nicely.
INTERVIEWER: Were you dealing with customers in the credit department, talking with people about their credit?
STELLA HARRIS: Oh, yes. We had different types of accounts, and I handled the merchants’ credit accounts. They were called MCR accounts back then. As a matter of fact, I dealt with some of the people at the naval yard, at the naval base, because they actually had accounts with Sears.
INTERVIEWER: You would take applications for credit and things like that?
STELLA HARRIS: Yes, and process credit accounts, that sort of thing.
INTERVIEWER: You were learning some of the back-office functions of a retail operation.
STELLA HARRIS: Exactly. I was learning things that I had never been exposed to before. It was interesting.
INTERVIEWER: And when you came back to High Point, what did you end up doing?
STELLA HARRIS: When we came back to High Point, we had a baby who was three weeks old, so I went about getting our household set up and taking care of the baby, and I did not take another job outside the home. About two-and-a-half years later, we were expecting again, and then we had our second son. I did not work a public job after my children were born. I raised our two little boys, Jeff and Jason.
When we started Furnitureland South, I helped Darrell out where I could. The post office was downtown in High Point and I would go down and pick the mail up at the post office and I would stop by the office and open the mail. I remember I always leafed through the mail real quickly. I could sniff out the checks right away, and we always made it a point to open the envelopes that had the checks from customers first, and I would then take them to the bank and make a deposit. I would do errands and things like that until the children got a little bit older, then I would work part time.
When Jeff, our oldest son, started preschool, I worked part time in the office and did payroll for the first few years until we started getting a lot more employees. So I did odds and ends. At that point, I had not gotten into sales; it was basically office work and that sort of thing.
INTERVIEWER: You started your own company after Darrell had been a store manager at a furniture store in High Point, then at one in Winston-Salem.
DARRELL HARRIS: Right. In Old Salem.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us what you learned as a young furniture store manager.
DARRELL HARRIS: Well, I learned that you had to be very responsible. You have to be there on time, day after day. The retail furniture business made demands on your schedule that you just had to be willing to meet. And if you opened at 8:30, you needed to open every day at 8:30. And I did that. I was very responsible, and I had good people – always hired good people. I always measured people by looking in their eyes. Always looked them straight in the eye, and they’d look me straight in the eye, and I would hire people with good character who really trusted in a being higher than themselves. And we were very successful at doing those things.
INTERVIEWER: Was it essentially a seven-day-a-week job?
DARRELL HARRIS: I only worked five days a week when I was a store manager, but when you go in business for yourself, its seven days a week. I can say that for sure. You never get it off your mind, and we’ve been in business for 43 or 44 years now for ourselves. It’s always on your mind wherever you go, even if you go on vacation or when you go to bed at night. It pops into your mind when you’re watching TV or doing something else like that. It’s always with you.
INTERVIEWER: When you were managing furniture stores for other folks, did it quickly become your objective to be a store owner yourself? Did you soon see that was what you really wanted to do?
DARRELL HARRIS: At the time, we were just going in business to try to make a living. We didn’t know that we were going to become the world’s largest furniture store. Even to this day, we don’t know if we're the largest because we were the best or we’re the best because we were the largest. It just all happened so fast. We just did what was right. If you have someone leading you, a greater power leading you, and you take it to Him and you try to do what’s right, I think you’ll reap the rewards for that.
We were under-capitalized at the beginning. As a matter of fact, I probably floated checks back in those days for pretty large amounts, not knowing where the money was coming from, just having faith that the money would be there when we needed it, and it was always there. Back in those days, you could float a check. Can’t do that now. You could write a check and not have the money in the bank to cover it until a little bit later. I’ve never had a bad check to come back on me.
STELLA HARRIS: We had faith that we were going to have enough deposits to cover the check before it hit the bank.
INTERVIEWER: In what year did you open your own store?
DARRELL HARRIS: We started in 1969 and incorporated in 1972.
INTERVIEWER: And where was your first store?
DARRELL HARRIS: We actually started in what had been a little automobile repair shop in High Point, but soon moved into a store on South Main Street that had been a furniture store but had gone out of business. It was at 2301 South Main Street. It was about 12,000 or 13,000 square feet. And we made it into a successful furniture store.
I remember I was at the store late one Sunday night and the phone rang about 11 o'clock. I thought it was Stella, so I answered it. It was a customer, and he said, “Well, you’ve either got to be the owner or you’re the janitor, one of the two, to be there so late at night.” Well, back in those days there wasn’t any difference between the two; the janitor was the owner, and the owner was the janitor.
We just grew from the very beginning. We always put the money we made back into the company. We just took out enough to live on and the rest went back into the business. We were just very blessed. We had people who believed in us and we always paid our bills and we always did what we said we would do. We didn’t expect to be the world’s largest furniture store, but we were just blessed and we worked hard. I can remember working Friday nights when everybody else was going to the football games. I wanted to go because I had children that wanted to go, family that wanted to go, and friends that were going. But I worked until 9 o'clock on Friday nights, and learned about sacrifice big time back in those days.
INTERVIEWER: Were you doing the books, Stella, when you opened your first store?
STELLA HARRIS: Actually, I did the payroll, and we hired a lady that did the books, the taxes and that sort of thing. I didn’t do all of the book work, no.
INTERVIEWER: Who were your first suppliers? How did you get the furniture and from what companies?
DARRELL HARRIS: It’s amazing because we got lines from suppliers who must somehow have believed in us, because they were willing to sell to us even though there were much more established furniture stores in High Point. I can remember when we were on South Main Street and another furniture store opened up down there. I said to myself, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t compete with what they’re doing.” We came to find out that we really didn’t have that much overhead, and the other store turned out to be a great blessing because it brought more customers to that end of High Point.
INTERVIEWER: What were some of the original furniture lines you sold?
DARRELL HARRIS: One of the biggest lines – we don’t carry them now – was Thomasville. In fact, we were Thomasville’s first gallery in North Carolina. And we always did what we said we would do with the suppliers. We’d pay them and we were honest in what we were doing, so it just worked out. We always did what we’d said we would do.
INTERVIEWER: You had established relationships with manufacturers when you were a store manager in your previous jobs?
DARRELL HARRIS: That’s exactly right.
INTERVIEWER: You just built on that. The Thomasville gallery must have come later on after you’d grown some.
DARRELL HARRIS: It did. Yes, we did grow, and in the last 25 years we’ve become a huge store. I mean, we did $185 million annually at our peak, and we're at about $130 million now. But we’ve always been on an upward spiral for the past 30-35 years; we grew every single year and put our money back into the business. I can remember when we first started I would make the sale, pay the bills, deliver the furniture to the customer, get their money and reset up the floor. I did it all back in those days. As a matter of fact, I can remember delivering furniture by myself to folks on the third floor of a building. That was a hard job.
INTERVIEWER: Were your customers mostly just everyday, middle-class people?
DARRELL HARRIS: Mainly, particularly at the beginning. Eventually, we drew customers from all over the East Coast, and now from all over the world. I had people from everywhere, from mailmen to school teachers, sending me customers who would come to High Point. We were like a magnet drawing people to High Point to buy their furniture. And we got some of the right people. The Lord just sent the right people to buy from us, and they would tell a friend or a neighbor or somebody else in their community about us, and the next thing we know, we’d be selling to them. Our business just kind of snowballed and grew.
INTERVIEWER: Were you turning a profit from the very beginning?
DARRELL HARRIS: We always have shown a profit. We were not necessarily selling at the lowest price possible and thus not making money, because we would buy it right. We’d go to the factories and we’d buy it right. We’d buy showroom samples and discontinued things from the factories. If you buy it right, you can make money. You can give the customer a good deal, and it works for us too.
INTERVIEWER: In those early days with your own store, did you offer credit?
STELLA HARRIS: We did not.
DARRELL HARRIS: No.
INTERVIEWER: What about advertising? Did you advertise from the very beginning?
DARRELL HARRIS: We never had much of an advertising program until our boys were finished with college and were coming into the business. Back in the early years, it was all pretty much word-of-mouth. One person would tell another person and they’d just come in when they needed to buy furniture. We never advertised big time by radio or TV or any other medium.
STELLA HARRIS: We did do some newspaper advertising, but you have to remember that back then, there was a lot of competition. There were a lot of furniture stores in High Point and a lot of furniture was made in this area. This basically was a destination for people interested in buying furniture. High Point really was the furniture capital of the world, so there were a lot of people coming to this area specifically to buy furniture, and so we got a lot of our business like that. And of course, after we began selling these customers, then they told other people and we got referrals and built our business basically back then on just purely word-of-mouth, which would be very hard to do today, probably impossible. We are spending some money on advertising now.
DARRELL HARRIS: I remember times back then during the furniture Markets that we’d have dealers come here to our store to buy furniture for their stores because they couldn’t necessarily get all the lines that we were getting, and I had to put some signs up on the door saying, “No dealers allowed in our showroom”. A lot of those dealers who came to our store to see what we were doing, would also buy furniture from us, lines that they couldn’t get. And so we were actually selling to other furniture retailers.
INTERVIEWER: You were selling at wholesale prices to these folks?
DARRELL HARRIS: A little bit above wholesale, but it worked.
INTERVIEWER: You were making money?
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember some of the numbers from the early days? How big was your first store? What kind of square footage are we talking about?
DARRELL HARRIS: We started very small. We started in probably 5,000 square feet in that former auto repair shop. Then we went to 12,000 or 13,000 square feet in our South Main Street store. Then we went to a big store, 60,000 square feet, and what we have here now is well over 2 million square feet in the whole operation.
INTERVIEWER: At the beginning, were you just selling off the floor? Did you have a warehouse?
DARRELL HARRIS: We would sell off the floor back in those days. That’s changed. We now have an outlet center that’s about 300,000 square feet, and those are tremendous values over there – what you see is what you get in that arena. So we do sell off the floor there. And in our main store, 95 percent of what we sell we show, but we don't sell off the floor. We stock most of it and order the rest. People come from all over the world to buy their furniture here. We just made a $700,000 sale to a customer from India, I believe.
INTERVIEWER: You were the delivery man back in the early days, right?
DARRELL HARRIS: That was a long time ago. I couldn’t do it now.
INTERVIEWER: You had your own truck?
DARRELL HARRIS: I had my own truck. We have over a hundred delivery trucks today. We have had incredible employees over the years, great truck drivers, great salesmen, great people who really know the furniture business. I’ve always been blessed with the right kind of help, and I try to lead by example. We try to do it right. I’ve found that life is a reflection of who you are. If you want somebody else to be successful, if you want yourself to be successful, you have to have the right character and the right leadership. We have had great people. Of the people that are in sales, I have had a hand in interviewing every single one of them. We’ve had people like Bob Jessee, who’s deceased now, and other people throughout the years who have been incredible employees, very loyal. Now, of course, my boys have graduated from college and are now involved in the business. They’re educated and they know the right things to do, so they bring a different aspect to our business. We have a legal department now and we have two CPAs on our staff.
INTERVIEWER: Who are some of the people you hired back in the early days who became key employees?
DARRELL HARRIS: I've already mentioned Bob Jessee, one of the salesmen who always stands out in my mind. I had a manager named Bob Wofford and a driver named Bob Moser that took responsibilities on their own shoulders as if this was their own company. They'd go the extra mile and do those special things, like taking the furniture through a window on the second floor, when most people would just give up on something like that. Those kinds of things really count for me. They mean a lot. We've done things for our customers that most places wouldn’t have even attempted.
INTERVIEWER: How did things develop for you, Stella? Did you eventually work in the store?
STELLA HARRIS: Yes, I did. After the children started school, I actually began buying for the showroom. As we grew, we had several different people making purchases for the store, and I realized that a lot of times the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. A sales rep would come in, and one of our sales managers, or someone Darrell had given the authority to make purchases, would buy some product that we didn’t need because we already had it in the warehouse, but that particular buyer didn't know that. I said, Darrell, I’d like to oversee the buying.
DARRELL HARRIS: Actually, I asked Stella to do that.
STELLA HARRIS: We came to a meeting of the minds that I would get involved in setting up the buying for the showroom stock. We had a computer by that time, and I decided I would work with sales reps only by appointment, because you need to be informed when you’re sitting down with a salesman. You need to know what you have on the floor and what you have in the warehouse and what you have on order. I had all that information on the computer, so I could make a wise, informed decision as to whether or not I needed a particular product at that time.
And I also started hiring designers. I would assign an interior designer to be responsible for a particular area of the store, so that only certain lines or styles would be displayed in that particular area, because that’s how we wanted the showroom to look. We set up the showroom in either manufacturer’s galleries or with particular styles of furniture in a particular area. I personally interviewed every designer that I hired and I checked their references.
I have a really good team. Some of the people that I hired originally are still here. As a matter of fact, the first showroom designer that I ever hired, right out of college, is still here. She took a short break and had a baby, and came back to work, and she’s been here for some 28 years. And I have some that have been here for 14, 15, 16 years. The way I set it up, it’s not rocket science, but people know what to expect and it works really well. When we track the inventory and we follow that process, it works well.
Of course, I could get everybody to follow that process pretty well, except Darrell. Darrell always reserved the right to buy anything he wanted at any time. One of the strangest things Darrell ever purchased was this whole Market showroom of life-sized people. They were called Softies by Anne, and were kind of like big dressed-up dolls. They delivered those things one Monday morning after the Market and put them in the lobby. One of the girls who worked for me came in and said, “Stella, have you seen what’s downstairs?” And I said, “No, what is it?” She said, “Well, you’ve got to see this. Come on.”
I walked across the showroom floor, which was on the upper level, and started walking down the stairs to the lobby, and when I saw what was there I said, “Oh, my goodness!” The lobby was full of these life-sized people. It was really strange, and the funny thing was that some of them were dressed like movie stars. One of what I call the artificial people was dressed like a police officer, and we put that police officer in the front window and everybody swore that we had a night watchman. He really did look quite real. That was one of the strangest buys I think that I’ve ever seen.
DARRELL HARRIS: Stella loves to tell that story. But the whole story is that we made money on those life-size dolls.
STELLA HARRIS: He’s made a lot of good buys just from gut instinct, knowing that it’s a good product at a good value, but that was one of the funnier ones.
INTERVIEWER: At what point did you get involved in the buying, Stella?
STELLA HARRIS: It would’ve been in the early '80s.
INTERVIEWER: Darrell, what was the first furniture Market you attended and what do you remember about it?
DARRELL HARRIS: I can remember attending the furniture Market in 1966, when they showed furniture in both the Hickory area and in High Point.
INTERVIEWER: What store were you with at that point?
DARRELL HARRIS: Wayside Interiors.
INTERVIEWER: You came to Market as a buyer for Wayside?
DARRELL HARRIS: Well, long before that, when I was really young, I used to get into the furniture Market in High Point and just wander around the halls, and they never knew who I was or anything. I was just a young kid.
INTERVIEWER: You just sneaked in?
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes. And I could tell you some really old stories about some of the suppliers there in the building. You know, it was a different world back in those days, and people trusted each other. There were factories that are not even in existence anymore. The whole world has just changed, big time. The case goods have gone offshore; they’ve gone to China and the Philippines and Vietnam. We were once at war in Vietnam, and now we’re buying furniture from over there. And in our store we now have employees from, what, 18 different countries now?
STELLA HARRIS: Quite a few.
DARRELL HARRIS: I can remember shopping the Hickory Market when there were great lines shown there, like Century and Bernhardt and a whole lot more. That part of the Market is gone now. All those companies moved their Market showrooms to High Point.
INTERVIEWER: You would make the rounds like any buyer would?
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: Stella, when you got involved in the buying, you also must have gone to the furniture Markets.
STELLA HARRIS: I did.
INTERVIEWER: Can you remember the first one you attended?
STELLA HARRIS: You know, I can’t say that I remember the exact first one because I went to some Markets with Darrell without actually purchasing for the store. At that point, I was just going with him as part of the team. I would look at product and look at the way it was displayed and everything, but didn't really participate in the buying decisions. But when I actually started shopping the Market and buying product, I looked at it from a totally different perspective.
DARRELL HARRIS: Nobody spends your money like you do, do they?
STELLA HARRIS: That's right. I started really paying attention to the price points, and particularly to fabrics. I always liked to buy upholstery at the furniture Markets because you can see the fabric and touch it. When you go to a lot of different upholstery lines, which we do because we carry a lot of different upholstery lines at different price points, you’ll find that several upholstery lines carry the same exact fabric. And if I found a really nice fabric at a high-end furniture line like, say, Century, and I found that same fabric at a less expensive vendor, then I would buy that fabric from the lower-priced vendor.
And then, when I would go back to purchase from the upper-end lines, I would always make sure that it was fabrics that I hadn’t seen everywhere else, that was either exclusive or unique. Because I didn’t want inexpensive sofas sitting on the floor with the same fabric as in an expensive sofa line. You had to be careful about that, so I always paid a lot of attention to that.
DARRELL HARRIS: That's one thing that I’ve always noticed about Stella’s buying. We might have 1,500 different sofas on our floor, and not one single time have I seen a fabric duplicated, not one time.
STELLA HARRIS: After you've shopped the Market a few times and you look at fabrics a lot, you tend to remember who has what. You kind of know where to go for any particular look.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever have any formal training as a designer or interior decorator?
STELLA HARRIS: No, as a matter of fact. What I know I've just picked up by osmosis, from being in the business and just being out there working with people, working with our employees and shopping the Market.
INTERVIEWER: Obviously, you’ve grown to a tremendous size. Could we go through some of the specifics of Furnitureland South's growth? Over 40-plus years you've gone from 5,000 square feet in High Point to this huge, multi-store complex along Business I-85 in Jamestown. What were some of the key expansions along the way? You must have had to borrow money and taken some pretty big risks.
DARRELL HARRIS: We were thinking at first that we would have a one-year plan, a three-year plan, a five-year plan and a 10-year plan. But we just started growing like crazy. About 10 years of growth was rolled back into two years. We just couldn’t keep up with the growth that we had, and so we discussed this and we knew we could grow too fast if we weren’t really careful. We could outgrow our capabilities of handling the furniture. We became very systematic in our growth, I think.
It took a lot of years to get where we are now. My whole life is on this campus here. There's over two-and-a-half-million square feet in the whole operation, but we’ve been very systematic, I think, in our growth. We’ve been very blessed too. I mentioned Bob Jessee a while ago. I remember when we were building one of the buildings out here, and they were using a gas acetylene torch to do some of the metal work, and that thing caught on fire. Bob ran over and shut off the source of the gas while everybody else was running away. They thought it was going to explode. He took his life in his own hands right there to turn that thing off. That’s a real hero to me, somebody that will do that. We’ve had great employees through the years.
One of our great partners over the years has been our bank, First Citizens Bank. They’ve never turned us down when we needed to do something, whether it was buy showroom samples or build a new building or whatever. We’ve had great friends there. We’ve always done what we said we would do and it just happened. We’ve just been blessed to have great people. Of course, you can’t do anything unless you have good health. And we’ve been blessed with that, with great health through the years.
INTERVIEWER: As you've said, many of the old High Point furniture retailers are out of business or much smaller. What set you apart? Can you put your finger on what you did that made you so successful?
DARRELL HARRIS: I would say the most important thing is trust. We have always done exactly what we said we would do. And I’m sure there are other people around here who have gone out of business who had that same philosophy. There’s something about our company that's hard to describe, but I would say that it's become like a big family. We don't have just a bunch of people working here. All of these people really care about what happens at Furnitureland South. We’ve always done exactly what we told our suppliers we would do, and what we told our bank we would do. We’ve now got these big buildings and it’s totally paid for, but that took years to do. We’ve always done the right thing, I think. That matters. I think people count on that.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever tried to serve the low-end of the Market?
DARRELL HARRIS: No. If you rate furniture from one to 10, with one being the cheapest and 10 being the most expensive, we go from about 4.5 to 10. We've probably missed some business by not going for the one to four segment, but it’s worked for us to have the great lines of furniture here. People come here, and it’s not always the cheapest, but it’s as good as you can get. You can’t do any better than to come to Furnitureland South and get a designer who will hold your hand and walk you through here and help you make the decisions of what you're going to buy for your home. Having a nice home with nice furnishings is a very important thing for people in their lives.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever sell furniture over the phone via 800 numbers?
DARRELL HARRIS: When we first got to be fairly big and fairly well known, we did some of that. I can remember being interviewed by “Good Morning America” on television one time, and somebody called from Chicago and bought the sofa they interviewed me on, right out from under us right then. We did have an 800 number at one time and we did a fair amount of business by phone. But it wasn't that much of our total business. As a matter of fact, the only thing I can remember about the 800 number is that our phone bill dropped about $25,000 a month when we got rid of the 800 number.
INTERVIEWER: This would’ve been back in the '80s, when some people set up 800-number phone banks in North Carolina and sold furniture at deep discounts from manufacturers' catalogs to customers across the country, particularly the Eastern Seaboard. Of course, the local stores complained about unfair competition and pressured the manufacturers to cut off the North Carolina discounters.
STELLA HARRIS: Yes, but we never did that. The main complaint was that the 800-number discounters had an unfair advantage because they didn't have stores, so they didn't have the expenses of keeping up a store.
DARRELL HARRIS: We always had a store. We showed 95 percent of what we sold in our store.
STELLA HARRIS: We did have an 800 number for a few years, but then the manufacturers pretty much discouraged that to the point that they threatened to take the line from you if you had an 800 number. We got out of that immediately and were never really hurt because of an 800 number. We had a lot of customers who, even if they called in first, would end up coming to the store anyway to make a large purchase.
DARRELL HARRIS: The biggest issue in my career that I’ve had to face has been state sales tax issues. I’ve always felt that if somebody came to North Carolina, or to any state, from another state and bought furniture here, then they were responsible for paying their own state's sales tax. That’s what the law read: If they come here and buy something, they have to report that and pay the sales tax to their own state, because that’s where it’s being used. It’s not just a sales tax; it's a “sales and use tax.” We shouldn't have to collect that sales and use tax and pay it to another state. If people came here from out of state and bought furniture, we had them sign off that we hadn’t collected sales tax on the purchase. We specifically reminded them of their obligations.
And we spent $3.5 million, maybe $4 million, defending our position on collecting out-of-state sales taxes when that issue became a hot topic and some of the states sued us in court. I realize that a lot of folks weren't declaring and paying sales and use taxes to their own states, and that the states were thus losing revenue, but I didn't think it was our obligation to collect and pay those taxes. Now, we pay taxes to every state we sell into. We’re probably the only furniture retailer in America that does that. Every state that we deliver into, we collect the sales taxes and we submit it to those different states.
I think we were sued by many of the states because they felt that if they got the biggest furniture store in America to collect and pay sales taxes, then all of the rest of the North Carolina stores would fall into line and do the same thing. And what happened is that most of them went out of business. And so we were left here paying those taxes to whatever state the furniture was used in.
INTERVIEWER: You have to calculate different sales tax amounts for the various states and localities. Do computers make that easier?
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes. We couldn’t do it without computers.
INTERVIEWER: When did you first get into computers?
STELLA HARRIS: Pretty early on, when our store was still on South Main Street and the computers were huge. I remember the first computer we got filled up a whole room. I don’t remember the name of it. Do you, Darrell?
DARRELL HARRIS: It might have been IBM.
STELLA HARRIS: I think it was an IBM.
INTERVIEWER: And how did you use it?
STELLA HARRIS: For accounts payable and receivable, for orders and inventory tracking – everything we could use computers for.
INTERVIEWER: Did it work?
STELLA HARRIS: It worked. Of course, it didn’t have the capacity that computers have today.
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes. We had people who knew how to make it work. Somebody told me once that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the world if you just try harder than anybody else does, and that’s what we did. We hired people who knew how to make these things work. I have people right now that work for us who have master’s degrees. We don’t have that kind of education, but we have CPAs and lawyers and people who really know how to make things happen in business. That’s what we’ve counted on. We’ve been able to move those people around to the right slots in our company to make it work.
INTERVIEWER: Talk some more about the advertising you've done over the years. You've mentioned the effectiveness of so-called word-of-mouth advertising.
DARRELL HARRIS: For 25 years it was by far the most effective. The word just got around that we offered great values. You know, I think one of our greatest contributions to the furniture industry is that we've unbottlenecked a lot of the furniture that was mostly just sitting in factory warehouses and Market showrooms. We’d go out and buy the furniture in those showrooms, and buy factory overruns and other stuff they needed to get rid of. We bought them at really good prices, and we passed the savings on to the consumer. And we still do that today.
If you want to come here and spend $20,000, you can buy a house full of beautiful furniture. If you want to spend $100,000, you can do that too. We have great values throughout the whole store. It just depends on how the customers want to do it. If they want to try to save money and still get a really good look, they have to buy pretty much what we’ve got in stock – what you see on the floor is what you get. Since we have such a tremendous selection, most people can get what they want this way. But if they're willing to spend more money, they can get exactly what they want in whatever fabric and whatever color they want.
STELLA HARRIS: Yes, through special ordering. We do a lot of special-order business. But at the beginning, what advertising we did was in newspapers and magazines, and some billboards. We also did some radio advertising. We still do billboard advertising. And now, we’re doing a lot of advertising over the Internet. We don’t sell over the Internet, but we have a website and we show a lot of product there.
INTERVIEWER: What newspapers and magazines are you talking about?
STELLA HARRIS: Local newspapers and national magazines.
DARRELL HARRIS: But we are encouraged by our suppliers to mostly just advertise in North Carolina. We’re controlled somewhat in being able to go to other parts of the country and advertise. We have to do it mainly in our own marketing area.
INTERVIEWER: I assume that’s because manufacturers don’t want to get flak from some of their retail accounts that happen to be in, say, New Jersey or Virginia.
DARRELL HARRIS: A lot of those people are great friends. They run legitimate businesses and they don’t have the same ingredients that we have by being located here in the furniture capital of the world.
INTERVIEWER: How have things changed in buying over the years? Stella, you’ve outlined how you first got involved, but haven't things changed drastically since then?
STELLA HARRIS: There are fewer U.S. manufacturers and there are lots of imports. It’s hard to find U.S.-made furniture now. Like everyone else now, we buy furniture that’s imported from China, Vietnam, and a lot of different countries. We have some nice lines that we buy out of Italy.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever gone to any of the Markets overseas?
STELLA HARRIS: We've been to Italy, not to the Markets but to see some of our vendors' factories, like Giemme and Natuzzi. We’ve been to those factories in Italy, but we haven’t gone to any foreign markets, per se.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever gone to the Dallas, Atlanta or San Francisco Markets?
DARRELL HARRIS: We’ve been to Atlanta.
STELLA HARRIS: Yes, we used to go to the Atlanta Market.
DARRELL HARRIS: More recently to the Las Vegas Market.
STELLA HARRIS: We’ve been once to the Vegas Market, but we didn’t feel that we saw anything really new there. We went to the January Market and we really saw pretty much the same product that we had seen at the October Market in High Point. We like shopping the High Point Market, obviously, since its right here, and we hope it’s going to stay here.
DARRELL HARRIS: We found from going to the Las Vegas Market that it’s mostly a regional Market for the West Coast. They don’t show some of the really great-quality lines that we see at the Market in High Point. People come from all over the world to shop here, and its wonderful furniture. They’ve always had great fabrics and they just do a great job of displaying the furniture. Of course, it’s very cost efficient for us to shop the High Point Market, and it’s really great for this community to have the furniture Market here. We feel very blessed to have been part of this in our lifetime, to see it grow like it's grown. You know, there's nothing easy about the furniture business, I can tell you that.
STELLA HARRIS: It’s harder now than it used to be, but that’s true in a lot of industries, what with the economy like it is and the unemployment rate like it is. We’re like everyone else. We’re eager to see the economy improve, to see people get back to work and be able to purchase the things they need. We feel like people are going to have a big need for furniture, because it hasn’t been one of their biggest priorities in recent years. If you’re out of work, your priorities are to feed and clothe and house your family. We’re hoping like everyone else to see a turnaround in the economy
INTERVIEWER: Do you find that consumers are really interested in where the furniture is made? You hear about how people want to save American jobs and buy American, but when it comes to what they actually buy, don't consumers want value, and they're not much concerned about where that value comes from?
DARRELL HARRIS: I think the value’s coming back to furniture made in this country. I know that manufacturers have a huge job to retool their factories and bring production back to America. But where there used to be a big price gap between going offshore and buying the furniture that's made here, that gap is closing big time. Sure, labor rates are low overseas, but you've got to pay the freight to get the wood out there, kiln dry it, get it processed and finished into furniture, then bring it back into this country. And shipping costs keep going up, and wages are rising for those overseas workers, so that gap is nearly gone now. You can probably buy furniture made in the United States now just about as cheap as you can from China, by the time you get it here.
STELLA HARRIS: But where can you buy it? Nobody’s manufacturing furniture here anymore, or very few are.
DARRELL HARRIS: But there are a few.
INTERVIEWER: Haven't some of the higher-end companies kept a good deal of their production in this country?
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes. Companies like Harden and Linwood and Baker are still manufacturing furniture in the United States. Most all the upholstery is made in this country, except leather. Leather’s gone offshore, but most of the upholstery is still done well in this country. You can tell a difference between that made offshore and the stuff that’s manufactured domestically.
STELLA HARRIS: Yes, most of the upholstery that we sell is still manufactured in the United States.
INTERVIEWER: Case goods, of course, is a different story, but I think many of the high-end companies still make at least some of their wooden furniture here in the states.
DARRELL HARRIS: They do.
STELLA HARRIS: Yes.
DARRELL HARRIS: By the time they load the lumber on the ship and process it through a foreign country, especially halfway around the world like in China or Vietnam or the Philippines or wherever it’s made over there, and then ship the furniture back over here, it’s very expensive. The cost of getting it here, the fuel cost, the wrapping techniques and that type of thing, has gone up pretty high in the last year or two.
INTERVIEWER: Have you had significant quality problems either earlier on or in today’s market with the furniture you receive from your resources?
STELLA HARRIS: I believe that when furniture first started coming from China, there were a lot of quality issues, and the manufacturers had to deal with those issues.
DARRELL HARRIS: That’s why a lot of them are gone.
STELLA HARRIS: I think the quality has improved on offshore product because people weren’t willing to accept the deficiencies.
DARRELL HARRIS: With furniture coming from China we've had mildew problems. At times we’d get containers in that were mildewed. When dampness or moisture gets into a container of furniture, you might as well just throw it away when you get it. Of course, furniture sometimes gets damaged in other ways, and if it's from overseas, it takes a long time to get a replacement. And you might as well send customers a new piece of furniture if what we get shipped to us is even slightly damaged. By the time you pay the freight to get the parts and whatever else you might need to fix it, and figure in the time and the labor involved in getting it fixed right, it's just about as cheap to simply get a whole new piece from the manufacturer. Of course, we have a repair department here, and when I say repair I don’t really mean repair, but we have a deluxing department that’s better than the manufacturers. We can actually make the furniture look as good as or better than the manufacturers do when we take them one at a time and deal with that piece of furniture.
INTERVIEWER: If you get a piece of furniture that’s gotten a little nicked, say, the best thing to do is to have your own people spruce it up.
DARRELL HARRIS: Absolutely. There’s no question about it.
INTERVIEWER: Are you a retailer that finds a good manufacturer and sticks with it, or are you more inclined to drop a line quickly and move to other vendors if you're disappointed in the quality or service?
STELLA HARRIS: We try to stay loyal to the companies that we’ve been doing business with for a long time. But if a manufacturer continues to have problems and doesn’t correct them, then we’re forced to drop that line because you can’t sell damaged furniture. We find that most of our vendors who we have a good relationship with, that we really do a lot of business with, they really want to make it right. Once they’ve been made aware that a shipment has come in that has problems, they come out and inspect it and make the necessary adjustments to make sure the next shipment comes in right. Obviously, they don’t want to lose our business because of the volume we have.
DARRELL HARRIS: Some words that come to my mind when you talk about these kinds of things, are trust and honor and doing what’s right. We’ve been very fortunate to have suppliers who want to do what’s right. If they do have a mildew problem, it’s their problem, not ours. That’s one of the reasons we don’t go overseas and buy direct from the factories over there. That would pretty much make their problems our problems. We think we have a really great thing for the consumer, while we can make money and offer a great service. We don't want to mess with that.
We do have a lot of loyalty. I still go with the same bank that I started off with, First Citizens Bank. I still go to the same church I grew up in, Green Street Baptist Church. I went to the same barber until my barber retired. We’re creatures of habit, and we try to do what’s expected of us and what’s right. And as long as we keep doing that, I think we can come out on top.
INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your managing style? How do you manage your employees, your business?
DARRELL HARRIS: I don’t think I’ve ever asked anybody to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself if I were able to, or haven't already done at one time or another. I’ve sold on the floor. I’ve delivered the furniture. I’ve driven the trucks. I’ve mowed the yards. I’ve done everything that could be expected to learn the furniture business. I’ve never felt like I was on one level and somebody else was on another, lower level. We’ve always treated people with dignity and respect in anything we’ve ever done, as far as I know. I don’t know of anybody we’ve ever mistreated. We might not always agree, but that’s a different thing altogether.
STELLA HARRIS: We’ve had very little turnover in our employees, even in the last few years. For one thing, people appreciate their job, and as long as they’re doing their job, we try to stay loyal to them. I try to hire the most qualified people that I can find, and then you work with them, you teach them what you want them to do, and then you give them the freedom to do that. I think you’ll find that most people really want to do well. Given encouragements and opportunities, they like to grow. We do try to promote people from within the company to other positions once they’ve been here for a while, if they aspire to have a different job.
DARRELL HARRIS: I have a granddaughter that’s turning 16 next week. I would describe her as sacrificial, responsible, frugal and determined. I think those are really great character traits. If we could leave something like that as our legacy, that's what we'd want to leave to our family and our company. Stella and I have always tried to lead by example. We haven’t always had the money we’ve got right now. We haven’t always had the opportunities that we have now in doing business, but we try to do what’s expected of us and what’s right and what we’ll say we’ll do. That’s been our thing, to try to do what’s right for our customers and our suppliers.
INTERVIEWER: In your careers, have you had some key mentors along the way who have given you important advice about how to conduct and grow your business?
DARRELL HARRIS: Before we came out here to this campus – we have about 150 acres here now, which is five miles from downtown High Point – I had one of my key suppliers tell me not to come out here. What he tried to get me to do was put 10 Furnitureland Souths at sites across the country, and his company would support me financially in doing that. We would have become a small fish in a big pond. But by coming out here we became a big fish in a smaller pond. That fitted our philosophy a lot better, I think. So that’s what we did. We settled down here, and people came from all over the world to buy furniture here.
STELLA HARRIS: It’s worked so far.
INTERVIEWER: You've never seriously considered opening a furniture store in, say, Virginia or South Carolina?
DARRELL HARRIS: We’ve had that chance, and also in bigger cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Jacksonville, Florida, those kinds of places.
INTERVIEWER: Over the years, people have come to you and asked you to consider buying their store in places like Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami?
DARRELL HARRIS: Sure. All the time.
INTERVIEWER: And you decided not to do that.
DARRELL HARRIS: Right. Remember the store that used to be directly across the highway from us out here, Boyles Furniture?
DARRELL HARRIS: I asked him not to build directly across from us because I didn’t think putting all that furniture in one place was a good idea. But he did anyway, and he also had stores in Florida, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Hickory and maybe some other places. I think he spread himself out too thin. He’s gone now and we’re still vibrant, so we think we did the right thing by having a very big store – actually several stores – in one place, and not trying to go to other places.
This is a big place, two-and-a-half million square feet. It takes time to shop this place. You can get tired walking from one display to another, one building to another. It’s a job to shop for home furnishings if you’re doing a 5,000- or 6,000-square-foot home. It takes time to do something like that and do it right. And we can help you meet that challenge. We can help you do it right. We know what goes into successfully furnishing a home – not just a house, but a home, a place where people live, that people enjoy, where they raise their family. We've done that for a lot of people from all over the world.
We’ve done the right thing, I think, in putting this all in one place where people can come to the best arena in the whole world to shop for home furnishings. They come here and they get a great value and they get great advice. We know what goes with what and we have most of the great lines that are available, not just in Jamestown, North Carolina, but in the whole world. People come here and get great advice and great value and they leave happy.
One reason they get great value is because I’ve always been a frugal person. And if you find a frugal person that owns a company, the frugality doesn’t stop with the owners. It goes through the whole company, down to the truck drivers. Everybody here’s frugal, I think, except maybe my children.
INTERVIEWER: Would you like to add anything to that, Stella?
STELLA HARRIS: That’s a mouthful there, I tell you. No, I don’t think so
INTERVIEWER: As you look back over your years in the business, what would you describe as the biggest challenges that you both have faced?
DARRELL HARRIS: My biggest challenge has been to keep involved and to make a profit on everything that we do. And, of course, to give back. Stella has taught me a lot about giving. As a matter of fact, I tease Stella sometimes that I can’t make money fast enough for her to give it away. She loves to give, and we’ve been so blessed to have good health and to have good people around us.
It’s not just one thing you need to do to be successful and make a profit, its 10 things. You have to do all those 10 things to be successful. If you do just one, or even five, of them, you don’t ever get there, but if you reach into 10 of them, and are the right person in your community and give back to the community, helping people where they need help, I think you'll be successful and leave something important here.
INTERVIEWER: But it's been a challenge to make money...
DARRELL HARRIS: There’s no question about that.
INTERVIEWER: It’s a tough industry.
DARRELL HARRIS: It’s a tough business, but I think there’s room for everybody in the furniture business. This is a loving business, and if you do what’s expected of you and do it right, I think you’ll come out on top. People want you to make a profit and stay in business. They just don’t want you to get rich by taking advantage of them.
INTERVIEWER: There’s never been a point where you haven't been able to make a profit, even during a recession?
DARRELL HARRIS: No. We always have been able to make a profit. Recessions are tough on everybody. In our system, when you go into a recession or you go down in volume, everybody else does too. It doesn’t just happen in the furniture business; it happens in the jewelry business, it happens in restaurants, it happens to doctors and lawyers. It happens to everybody. You just have to do more with less.
INTERVIEWER: Have you had to lay off people, either previously or in the current recession?
DARRELL HARRIS: At one time we had 1,100 employees. I’m talking about 15 years ago, when we had five or six different warehouses, and it took a lot of people to make that work. Right now, we have about 450 employees. We haven’t had big layoffs or anything like that along the way, but we've gradually become more efficient. We built a huge new warehouse that's 45-feet tall, and it has forklift-type machines called pickers that know exactly where to go to get a certain piece of furniture because everything that's in there has its own barcode put on it. We just haven't replaced a lot of the people who left us, but we haven’t had to have a big layoff. It all happened pretty gradually. We still feed 450 families with this company.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve simply become more efficient.
DARRELL HARRIS: We have become more efficient. We’re doing less volume now, naturally, mostly because of the recession, but we buy really well and we still service our customers. We’ve just found ways to make some profit. Every little thing becomes a bigger thing.
INTERVIEWER: How much time do you spend going over the numbers at this point?
DARRELL HARRIS: Not a lot. I have CPAs and lawyers and accounting people that do that. I watch the numbers, and I know what percentage of our revenues here is profit, and that’s pretty much what I look at.
STELLA HARRIS: One of the biggest blessings I think we have right now that’s in our favor is that we own this land and we own these buildings. If we were in the position of having to make big lease payments every month, I think that would really have impacted us. Because, let’s face it, we’re not as profitable right now as we’d like to be, and we’re holding on like a lot of other companies to try to stay as efficient as we can, keep our expenses down and just ride out this time where the economy is very sluggish.
So, like a lot of other companies here in America, we’re waiting and hoping that we’re going to see the tide turn and people are going to be getting back to work and the housing market is going to come back, which directly, of course, affects furniture purchases.
INTERVIEWER: The whole country is hoping for that.
DARRELL HARRIS: Everybody’s doing more with less, and when the economy does break open, I think it’ll break open big time. There's a lot of pent-up demand.
INTERVIEWER: You’re very optimistic about the future.
DARRELL HARRIS: I am very optimistic about it, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Stella, you were talking a while back about some of the things you’ve done recently, especially involving computers.
STELLA HARRIS: Yes. Our sons are a lot more savvy about media and new technology than Darrell and I. We’re electronically challenged. But our sons are getting us involved in a lot of the social media with Facebook and Twitter and blogging. We just got a new app for the iPhone, so that people can come in and it’s easier to navigate the store and get more information. We’ve put a QR code on every tag in the store, so shoppers with iPhones can scan the codes and quickly download more information. We’ve also invested in better signage, outside and in. We’re embracing technology, and our sons are on the front lines of that
INTERVIEWER: Was it in both of your minds that Jeff and Jason would come along in the business? Did you have that in mind from the very beginning?
STELLA HARRIS: As they grew, the boys took an interest in the store. I can’t speak for Darrell, but I wanted the boys to do whatever made them happy. I knew we could always hire people to help us run the business. It’s nice the boys have decided to come into the business.
I remember when Jason was studying at the University of North Carolina down in Chapel Hill. He was a sophomore and he had been coming home during the summers and working at Furnitureland South. He came to me one day and said, “Mom, I just don’t think I want to come into the furniture business when I graduate.” And I said, “Well, son, that is perfectly OK. You're in college and you’re exposed to a lot of opportunities, and if you find something that really sparks your interest and your enthusiasm, if you want to become a doctor, a lawyer, if you want to go into some other field, then I think you should feel free to do that. And if you change your mind later, I hope the store will still be here.”
Both of our sons had our blessings to go in another direction if that’s what they wanted to do. But they decided themselves, when they graduated from college, that this is where they wanted to be. And it’s interesting the way they have developed their own interests in the company. Of course, with the company being the size it is, it’s easy for them both to work here and interact, but still have separate responsibilities. Jason, our youngest son, is over sales and marketing; he loves it and is very challenged by it. Our older son, Jeff, likes logistics, so he works with the delivery department, shipping and receiving.
INTERVIEWER: You never pushed them strongly to become part of the business.
STELLA HARRIS: I didn’t, personally, but I’ll let Darrell speak for himself about that.
DARRELL HARRIS: Stella never did make a strong push for the boys to come into the business. I did. I was raised a Christian at Green Street Baptist Church, and I saw pastors with their children, and the children would go to foreign missions in China, to other places, to Africa, and I kind of programmed the boys to come into the furniture business that way.
But I always felt they had to have sawdust in their veins if they wanted to be successful in the furniture business. I didn’t just push them into the furniture business, but I wanted them to know they could be incredibly successful if they decided that was the right thing for them. And they did. And they’ve both been very successful in what they’re doing; they’re both the best I know of in what they’re doing. There have been great factories that have tried to hire those boys out from under me here, but they know they’ve got a great future here with this company.
INTERVIEWER: What did you have them do as they were growing up?
DARRELL HARRIS: My thinking was that they first had to be successful on the sales floor before they could go into management and lead other people. They had to sell at least a million dollars worth of furniture within one year to get out of sales and into management.
I can remember when Jason was 12 years old, he had seen Jeff pushing boxes and sweeping floors in the warehouse, and Jason said he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to sell furniture. I told Stella that I would put Jason in sales. She had her doubts about that, but I said, “I’m going to teach him a lesson. I’m going to teach him that selling is not as easy as he thinks it is.” I put him in sales at 12 years old.
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes. And he made like $1,200 the first week.
STELLA HARRIS: In the summer.
DARRELL HARRIS: I told Stella about this and she said, “Well, you can't keep him on the sales floor, taking sales away from professional people who have been with us for years.” Well, she had a point. But first I wanted to figure out how he was making these big sales. I sneaked into the outlet center and I heard Jason telling this customer, “Well, I can give you a better price than anybody can. My dad owns this place.” I concluded that he's definitely got some natural abilities in sales. Later on, he pursued that. Sales was just a natural thing for him to pursue.
Jeff got involved in the logistics of running the business, with shipping and receiving. He’s a great people person too, like Jason. He now runs our outlet center, and that’s become twice as successful this year as it was last year, and he’s doing a lot of buying for that. They both have their hands full, and they’re starting to take leadership roles in the company. They too have learned this business from hard knocks. It hasn’t all just been handed to them, even though we've been able to mentor them so they could avoid making some mistakes. I think the best way to learn is from somebody else's mistakes, not from your own.
INTERVIEWER: Neither of your boys was interested in going into the buying end of the business?
STELLA HARRIS: As Darrell said, Jeff’s involved in buying some showroom samples for the outlet store. But for day-in and day-out buying for the showrooms, they haven’t gotten into that. And I’m not the only buyer. When we expanded and added buildings out here, we put in a lot more categories, so we’ve had to add some buyers. Buying all that furniture grew into a very big responsibility. But we still use the same procedures that I started years ago, working by appointment and knowing what you have. That’s just critical, to know what you have in your inventory, on the showroom floors, in the warehouse and what you have on order. To me, that’s just crucial.
DARRELL HARRIS: Buying is one of the biggest responsibilities there is here. Because nobody will spend your money like you would, unless they spend a lot of time with you and you teach them well. I'm sure of that. We have great buyers here that are really involved and invested in the business, and they've been very successful in getting us product that sells, that gives customers what they want at a great value.
STELLA HARRIS: I taught them well.
DARRELL HARRIS: You have.
INTERVIEWER: What sort of coaching have you done with your sons specifically? Do you spend time with them every day, or did you at one point?
DARRELL HARRIS: We do and we did, with both the boys. Stella and I have both taught them this: That they don’t have to be the best in the world at what they do, they just have to do their best. They have to do what's expected of them, and they have to do what's right. They really care about people deeply. I think to get respect, you have to give respect, and we’ve always done that and so have our boys.
STELLA HARRIS: We’re very proud of our sons. They’re very stable and they have a passion for the business and it’s grown over the years. They’re married, have lovely wives and beautiful grandchildren. Jeff has three children and Jason has five children. Together we have eight grandchildren. Our sons are very family oriented and we take a family vacation together every year. We just feel very blessed in that area and the boys both really do have a heart for the business.
DARRELL HARRIS: And they show up every day.
INTERVIEWER: If you don’t have a passion for the business, it’s just too tough, isn't it?
STELLA HARRIS: That’s right.
DARRELL HARRIS: That’s true.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see a third generation coming along in the business? Are they old enough yet?
STELLA HARRIS: The oldest grandchild is turning 16, and the baby is 8 months. It’s a little bit early, since we don’t have any in college yet. But I think a lot is going to depend on what happens in the next few years in this industry, as well as in a lot of other industries.
DARRELL HARRIS: I have a saying: This whole business didn’t just blow up here. We and a lot of other people have done some real hard work to put this in place for the people that are here now. What if Stella and I had had this place to sell from when we started this business? Can you imagine? It’s incredible the opportunities the people that work here now have. They just have to come in and do what’s expected of them to excel in what they’re doing. We’re glad that we’ve had that opportunity to put something like this in place for the good people that we have here now.
INTERVIEWER: After all these countless hours and years, are you able to leave the business behind you when you go home now?
STELLA HARRIS: It’s like Darrell said earlier: When you own the company it’s hard to get away from it. We do get away from it some with our family and friends. You can’t stay with it 24/7, but it’s funny because when we go on vacation, we always talk about Furnitureland South and always seem to have cards to pass out to those we meet.
We were in Hawaii once and were talking to some people we met there and gave them a business card. Several years later they came here and bought a whole house full of furniture. We’ve actually had some interesting things happen over the years by meeting people out of state when we were on vacation, just talking with them, and they end up coming here and buying furniture. It’s hard to get away from it. But I think that’s true for anybody who owns their own company and has grown it from birth.
DARRELL HARRIS: You can’t really tell anybody everything about this place. You can say that we’re in the furniture business and we’ll give you a great deal and everything, but until they actually come here they can't really get a sense of the scale of business that we have here and the amount of furniture that we have. I remember one time I met somebody on the pier at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and later we passed by his house. He was building a big new home and he was just about ready for furniture. He came here a little while later. When he saw this place, he said that whatever I had described to him was nowhere near what he found when he got here.
I really believe this is the best retail furniture store in the whole world, not just in North Carolina or in America but in the whole world. People come here from all over the world, and we can do anything for anybody, and we can get anything they need with the support of our suppliers and our bankers and our community. We can keep doing all this as long as we just do things right.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever considered adding major appliances or consumer electronics to your offerings, along the lines of Nebraska Furniture Mart? Maybe you could have a campus twice as big as you have now.
STELLA HARRIS: Oh, heaven forbid! Please don’t even go there. Actually, we did get into electronics for a short while when the big flat-screen TVs were first coming out. There were three major manufacturers, Thomasville, Hooker and Drexel, that came out with entertainment units that could hold these big screens, and each of them hooked up with an electronics maker to sell the home theater systems along with the furniture. I think one had RCA, one had Sony and the third had another brand which I can't recall. Anyway, all three of them were also selling the electronics, so we could buy that through them. But what we found out pretty quickly -- and the manufacturers found this out too -- is that electronics is a very specific type of sale, that it's not at all like selling furniture, and that if you’re going to sell electronics, you really need to know electronics. You need to know how they work and what to do when they don’t work and how to service them. We certainly didn't want to get into that. We sold some home theater electronics, but after about a year the furniture manufacturers dropped the idea and went back to selling just the furniture, and so did we.
DARRELL HARRIS: It takes a whole different aptitude and mindset to sell electronics. Even Circuit City couldn't make a go of it.
STELLA HARRIS: We sell a lot of area rugs, and we tried carpeting for a while. The biggest obstacle to carpeting, and I'm talking about wall-to-wall carpeting, turned out to be the installation issue. It was very hard to get reliable installers, particularly if you sell outside of this area. Carpeting wasn't something we wanted to get into.
DARRELL HARRIS: We finally figured out that we would just specialize in home furnishings, and that’s what we’ve pursued. We couldn’t do it all. You can’t be everything to everybody, so we decided to try to be very good at what we are doing. The best at what we are doing – and that’s home furnishings. That means we still sell home theater furniture, but we don't sell the electronics.
INTERVIEWER: Among the family, have you ever had any significant disagreements about strategies or business approaches?
DARRELL HARRIS: Sure, we've had differences. I still run this business from the old-school approach, where the boys want to get involved in the electronics, computers, the Internet, apps, Facebook and all that kind of stuff. They’re right and I fund all that, but they’re the brain trust behind it, and it takes both of them to make it work.
INTERVIEWER: But you haven’t had any strong disagreements, you've just figured out the areas that your sons need to be responsible for.
DARRELL HARRIS: That's true, but it does involve a little stress among the family, if you know what I’m talking about. I don’t necessarily agree with them and some of the things they want to do, but at the same time I respect where they’re coming from. I know the wave of the future involves computers and the Internet and smart phones and having tons of information readily available to you. I’m just thankful they’re able to do it, and I’m thankful I don’t have to learn all that stuff.
INTERVIEWER: You see the future, but you don’t want to deal with it directly yourself.
DARRELL HARRIS: I don’t. We’ve been here for a long, long time, 42 or 43 years, and we’ve been successful. We have the best arena anywhere for shopping for home furnishings, from the Fortune 500 people to the professional athletes to the average guy. We have people come from all over the world to shop for furniture here because it’s the best.
INTERVIEWER: How are you going to know when it’s time for you to retire? Have you talked about this?
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes. Somebody told me once that when they stop asking you all the questions and they start directing those questions to your sons, it’s time to get out. And that’s happening.
INTERVIEWER: You’re gradually drawing back?
DARRELL HARRIS: When you own a business, it’s a whole lot different than when you just work at a place. When you own a business, you don’t just up and say one day, “I quit. I'm getting out of here.” You’ve still got your whole past wrapped up in this business and this little corner of the world here. And I feel I still can be of great counsel to my sons and to the people who work here. Half the people here really enjoy the old ways of doing old business, and half the people here enjoy the way of apps and computers and all that kind of stuff. And I just don’t think I’m through yet, not quite. I still have a few good years left.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever considered selling the business? Surely you’ve had offers over the years.
DARRELL HARRIS: Would take a lot to buy this place. Yes, we've thought about selling it. But I promised my boys that as long as they had sawdust in their veins, and they did the right thing with each other and they honored each other, then I’d probably leave this business to them. They would have the opportunity to take over the business and do it their way, as long as they did it right. When I find that’s not true, I’ll probably change my attitude. We have had people over the years offer to buy the business.
INTERVIEWER: You're convinced that Jason and Jeff are capable and interested and want to run the business?
DARRELL HARRIS: I am. I find that to be very true. They’re both loving and supportive and really care about Stella and me, and they want to do what’s right too. Stella especially is a great influence on my boys and their lives, and we both know we’re not going to be here forever, and so what we've got to do is let go and turn things over to the boys…
INTERVIEWER: You believe you're going to be able to let go?
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes, I do.
INTERVIEWER: You’ll become the chairman, perhaps?
DARRELL HARRIS: I don’t know. I don’t know where all that goes, but to tell you the truth I'm not worried. The Lord has led us to make the decisions that got us to where we are now, and I believe He'll continue to lead us.
INTERVIEWER: Stella, what about you? Will you be ready to retire at some point?
STELLA HARRIS: Definitely. I’m actually working fewer hours now than I ever have. I’ve moved mostly into the area of our corporate giving, and I really enjoy that. We’ve done a lot of things in the community, such as building a house for Habitat for Humanity. And not only building the house but completely furnishing it. We’ve done several projects for the North Carolina Baptist Children’s Home and the North Carolina Children’s Home in Winston-Salem. We’ve done a lot of things in those areas and I’ve found that to be very rewarding. Brenner's Children’s Hospital is another one of our projects that we’ve worked with for several years.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve been spearheading Furnitureland South's community and charitable efforts.
STELLA HARRIS: I have.
INTERVIEWER: Are you looking to support charities other than the ones you've mentioned?
STELLA HARRIS: I believe the Salvation Army is a wonderful organization, and we help every year with their food and toy drives. That’s one that we are constantly giving to. There are always projects coming up, large and small, that we’re asked to contribute to, and we try to help where we can. The list is pretty long of the charities we’ve been involved in, and you never know when you'll get a phone call or a letter asking for help. We try to help where we can, because we do believe it’s important to give back to the community, to give back as a good steward.
INTERVIEWER: What about your involvement in industry associations? Have you been a member of any retailer group?
DARRELL HARRIS: We don’t really put much emphasis on that. We don’t get involved in that too much.
INTERVIEWER: Any particular reason why or why not?
DARRELL HARRIS: You just can’t do it all. We fit in where we can, and we have nearly 500 employees and their families that we’re responsible for. We work hard in the community and we have some involvement with High Point University. But you just can’t do it all, and I just haven’t felt it’s necessary for this business to get involved in industry associations.
STELLA HARRIS: We’ve supported fundraisers, such as those for the City of Hope, but we just haven’t gotten involved in taking leadership roles.
INTERVIEWER: Did Furnitureland South get involved in the anti-dumping controversy over duties on wooden bedroom furniture imported from China?
DARRELL HARRIS: Not really, because we felt that issue had to do mostly with the manufacturers. We've always bought, and still buy, from manufacturers based in this country. They may have sourced the furniture from overseas instead of making it here in America, but that's their business. It's true that a lot of our manufacturers have changed roles. They've sold off their equipment and their factories and become importers and processors rather than manufacturers.
INTERVIEWER: What about our society's attitudes toward women, and racial issues? Have those had any affect on your business?
DARRELL HARRIS: Not really. We’ve always had respect for everybody, regardless of what gender they are or what color they are. It doesn’t matter to me.
STELLA HARRIS: As long as they do their job. We have some excellent women in sales and management and in the office, and in just about every area of the business except truck drivers. I don’t think we have any women truck drivers, but then we haven’t had any women apply for that job.
DARRELL HARRIS: Over the past 15 years, our 10 top salespeople have all been women. Can you believe that?
INTERVIEWER: I can believe it very easily. We've know for years that women make most of the home furnishings decisions as consumers. I imagine most of your designers/salespeople, however you describe them, are women now, right?
STELLA HARRIS: We have a fair number of men who do a really great job, so we have both men and women.
DARRELL HARRIS: Some people from Saudi Arabia won’t let a woman wait on them. We have an international department; we sell a lot of furniture overseas.
INTERVIEWER: How do you service those people?
DARRELL HARRIS: We put it on a ship and send it to them, and they handle it on their end. We only get involved if there’s been a big mistake or something like that.
INTERVIEWER: And you generally deliver domestically on your own trucks, right?
DARRELL HARRIS: Right. We use Cory to do some of our deliveries, but we do most of them on our own trucks, particularly along the East Coast.
INTERVIEWER: What about out West?
DARRELL HARRIS: We send our own trucks to California when we have enough business to warrant it. Nobody can service our furniture like we can, I can tell you that. We’ve tried to hire out our deliveries, to get somebody else to do it. But nobody does it as good as we can.
INTERVIEWER: Has your business been affected by state and federal workplace regulations, environmental regulations? Have those been headaches for you over the years?
DARRELL HARRIS: No, not really. We are a processor, not a manufacturer, so those have not really been big issues with us.
INTERVIEWER: You haven't had problems with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or other agencies like that?
DARRELL HARRIS: No.
INTERVIEWER: No safety issues in the warehouses?
DARRELL HARRIS: We are very conscientious about that. We take care of any problems before they really become problems. We are very proactive about that.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the most serious problems facing the industry today?
STELLA HARRIS: Right now I think it's the economy. I think people need to see the economy become more robust, the unemployment rate drop drastically, the housing market come back strong. I think our government needs to do more to get the economy going in the right direction and get consumer confidence up so people feel comfortable spending money.
INTERVIEWER: Have you gone to more advertising, or done anything else to stimulate sales during the current recession?
DARRELL HARRIS: We’re offering free delivery anywhere in the United States.
INTERVIEWER: That’s new, then?
DARRELL HARRIS: Yes. I don’t know what next year holds, but I can tell you that it's harder to get people to open up their pocketbooks than it used to be. And I have found that people really want to get a great value when they spend their money. Like Stella says, if the economy picks up and more people go back to work, people may be more willing to spend on such things as furniture.
It's a good thing for us now that we've been successful and that this place is all paid for. Because it costs a lot to buy fuel and run our trucks and do all the things we do. They still have to be paid for, whether the consumer pays for them and gets the service, or whether we pay for them. And we’re constantly at the mercy of our partners who supply the furniture to give us the very best price we can get.
INTERVIEWER: There must be a minimum order involved in order to get free delivery, right?
STELLA HARRIS: There is.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that’s stimulated some business you wouldn’t ordinarily have gotten?
STELLA HARRIS: I think it has.
INTERVIEWER: Have you tried anything else along those lines in recent years?
STELLA HARRIS: We’ve had sales promotions. We partner with our vendors for extra discounts which we pass on to our customers, giving them a better price during peak months like August and February.
DARRELL HARRIS: And we have made some really good buys for our outlet center, so people get a great value there. I was over there the other day and I saw a $3,000 piece go for $999. That’s less than what we could buy it for from the manufacturer.
INTERVIEWER: How do you stay in touch with your customers? Do you have a newsletter or mailings that go out to people who have bought here?
STELLA HARRIS: We stay in touch mostly by computer via the Internet.
INTERVIEWER: And that seems to be working?
STELLA HARRIS: It seems to be working very well. Mailings are pretty expensive, and these days it sounds like the post office may be going out of business, or at least cutting back on deliveries.
INTERVIEWER: You've talked a little about your business philosophy and management styles. What has your personal goal in business been?
DARRELL HARRIS: To lead by example, and to have a heart for my people. I think it’s still a people business, whether you're dealing with furniture, cars, jewelry or anything else. It all comes down to how you treat people and how they trust you.
STELLA HARRIS: I still say our people are our biggest asset, truly.
INTERVIEWER: What sort of employee benefit programs do you have?
STELLA HARRIS: We have 401(k) plans for our employees.
DARRELL HARRIS: And we have a great health insurance program here.
STELLA HARRIS: Yes. That's important because health care is very expensive.
DARRELL HARRIS: Our business here touches on so many areas. We have a restaurant and a Starbucks here. We have to keep an eye on all of it, and try to keep costs down, even the lights. Just to light this whole campus costs us about $1 million a year.
INTERVIEWER: Have you considered using solar energy to help control those costs?
DARRELL HARRIS: We’ve looked into that, but it’s not cost effective for us to go that way at this point.
INTERVIEWER: Are there any other technologies or methods you’re looking at in order to stay profitable? Do you see anything on the horizon that could boost profits or make you more responsive to customers?
STELLA HARRIS: We have a financial meeting once a month where our top managers talk about the issues and brainstorm about things we can do. And we’re trying different things, sales promotions, mass Internet mailings, using all the social media to entice people into the store. Because we feel like once they come into the store, we have a great chance of selling them. We’re looking at ways to physically get people in the store.
DARRELL HARRIS: I still think it comes down to great values. People will come a long way if you have great values. A lot of people think Furnitureland South just caters to the elite people, the people who can afford to buy really nice furniture, but we have furniture for everybody here.
INTERVIEWER: You've described how you work by appointment with major customers, but do you also do a significant walk-in business?
DARRELL HARRIS: I had a customer walk in the front door the other day and buy $100,000 worth of furniture. They didn’t have an appointment. But if I were going to buy a house full of furniture, I would want an appointment with an interior designer so I could work with them. We have some of the best, and they can save you time and money, and they can just do so many things. These people that we have employed here as designers are magical. They just never cease to amaze me. Every single day I see something they do here and it just amazes me.
INTERVIEWER: At what point in the growth of your business did you start hiring interior designers?
STELLA HARRIS: When we first had to hire salespeople, we had designers apply for those sales positions, and we hired them when we could. Not every salesperson we have is an interior designer, but we do have a lot of interior designers that work for us.
INTERVIEWER: And that went way back?
STELLA HARRIS: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: You were believers in the Ethan Allen model of retailing that Nat Ancell established, where interior designers help people create beautiful homes.
DARRELL HARRIS: I respect what he’s done and he’s been a great part of this industry. Ethan Allen is all over the world now from what I hear.
INTERVIEWER: Did you know Nat Ancell?
DARRELL HARRIS: No, but one of my very best friends once worked for him. That's Dan Grow, who used to be president of Drexel Heritage. That's been some time ago. They used to tease me that I'd buy anything from Dan Grow regardless of what company he worked for at the time. He’s been a great friend.
STELLA HARRIS: I think Dan works for Ethan Allen these days. He’s a competitor now.
DARRELL HARRIS: I think there’s room for everybody to be successful.
INTERVIEWER: Even with competitors, you've never felt any personal antagonism?
DARRELL HARRIS: No. We've always known who are competitors were, of course, but we’ve always had a mutual respect for each other. We know we’re in a tough business and going against the same odds. I remember one time, when we were just getting going out here, that Bill Kester, head of Rose Furniture in High Point and one of our competitors, sent me a big customer because he didn’t have what they were looking for in his store.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever gotten involved in any businesses outside the furniture industry?
DARRELL HARRIS: Not really, but I sometimes say that because I've got two-and-half-million square feet of buildings out here, I'm in the real estate business as much as I’m in the furniture business.
STELLA HARRIS: Plus, with the Starbucks and the café we have here on campus, you could say we're in those businesses too.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of leisure activities do you both enjoy?
STELLA HARRIS: Darrell plays some golf.
DARRELL HARRIS: I used to play softball when I was young, and of course I played basketball in college. But today, I mostly enjoy watching TV. Stella’s a great walker. She exercises and walks a lot, and she can out walk me two-to-one, and I tease her all the time about that. I like to watch TV a lot. Stella doesn’t like that so much. She reads a lot.
STELLA HARRIS: I like to read and take walks and spend time with family. I like photography. I’ve got a new camera that I’ve got to learn how to use, but I’ve always taken a lot of pictures.
INTERVIEWER: Have you gotten into digital photography?
STELLA HARRIS: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Well, you’re cutting edge.
STELLA HARRIS: That’s right, I'm getting there.
DARRELL HARRIS: We've had so many people here like my secretary Linn, who’s a genius on a computer. She knows just about anything when it comes to computers, and she helps us do what we need to do with them. I’m going to retire when Linn retires.
INTERVIEWER: You’ll be comfortable with letting your sons take over the business?
DARRELL HARRIS: I think they’ll be wonderful here. People have a lot of confidence in them. They know they’re the right kind of people. And they trust them. I know I keep using that word trust, but it's a big, big word. When you really get down to it, people will do anything if they trust that you’ll do your part.
INTERVIEWER: Is there any part of the business you think your sons may need to get a little more involved in before they’re completely ready to take over?
DARRELL HARRIS: They’d probably say they need to play a little bit more golf! My youngest son was playing golf at Sedgefield Country Club the other day and ran across this golfer who was 82 years old. My son was feeling a little bit guilty about going out to play golf in the afternoon and said to the guy that he probably ought to be working instead of playing golf. And the old guy said, “Son, play all the golf you can while you’re young. You can hit the ball twice as far, and you feel like playing. When you get older, you can’t hit it half as far and you don’t feel like playing as much. Play all you can while you’re young. When you get older, you can work.”
So like I said earlier, if we hadn’t had our health, we wouldn’t have had anything. Neither one of us has ever been really sick, nor neither has our family. We are so thankful for this industry. This has been a great trip that we’ve taken together. We’ve had some ups and downs and we’ve had some really great times and we’ve had some times that haven’t been so great, but we always tried to keep it in the right perspective, that it’s just the furniture business.
INTERVIEWER: I’ve very much enjoyed talking to both of you. Thank you so much for your time.