Value Added: A Bethesda furniture store prospers after a family tragedy


From left, daughters Sascha and Jillian Roth help their mother Rachelle Roth help run the family business, the Urban Country furniture store. (Mark Gail/For The Washington Post)
Thomas Heath
Reporter October 14, 2012

I generally don’t like traipsing around furniture stores, but Urban Country, in Bethesda, caught my attention because the co-founder, Rachelle Roth, has kept it going with the help of her daughters after the death of her husband more than a decade ago.

It’s the third family-owned business I have written about in the past three weeks, and each story is about how owners dig down to keep the enterprise moving forward after setbacks.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Roth, 64, told me how her daughter, Jillian, sat with Roth’s husband, Jeffrey, for hours on end, soaking up the details of the business as he was dying of a brain tumor.

“She literally learned at his knee,” said Rachelle, who worked the artistic side of Urban Country while her husband handled most everything else.

The detail-oriented Jillian, 40, has stayed with Urban Country, filling the vacuum left by her father at the $4.5 million enterprise. The furniture and design store has 11 employees, all of whom get health care, and the business produces a nice profit for the family despite a towering lease that eats up a significant chunk of that revenue.

A second daughter, Sascha, 31, also joined the business after moving back home following a year at the University of Michigan in order to help the family cope with her ill father (she eventually graduated from George Washington). A third daughter, Sascha’s twin, is a teacher.

“They are growing to love the business in their own right,” Rachelle said of her daughters.

As I suspected, the business of a furniture store is less about furniture sales and more about the soft side of interior decorating, where customers pay consultants $150 an hour to learn what would go where and which curtain matches what wall paint. The store splits the revenue, 50-50 with its designers. A designer who hustles can make nearly $100,000.

A little less than $3 million of Urban Country’s revenue, or 60 percent, comes from interior design and a fast-growing “home staging business.” Home staging is furnishing a home that is for sale so that would-be buyers aren’t looking at empty rooms.

About $1 million of Urban Country’s revenue comes from furniture sales, which helps pay the bills but doesn’t bring the high margins. Case in point: a sofa that Urban Country purchased wholesale for $1,000 might be marked up to around $3,000 for retail. But to help bring in customers, the store might discount the sofa 30 percent to $1,800 or less.

The rest of the revenue is from higher-margin accessories such as baby gifts, cuff links, pottery, lamps and pillows.

Roth comes from a family of entrepreneurs. So did her husband, whose father was a successful real estate businessman in New York. Rachelle and Jeffrey met there in the sixth grade. They both attended the University of Pittsburgh where Jeffrey studied business and Rachelle pursued a fine arts degree, and they married just after graduation in 1969.

Rachelle started at $130 a week as a buyer for big New York City department stores, helping find the next hot look in women’s fashion. She worked with names such as Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein before they became mainstream names.

Jeffrey went on to earn an MBA at New York University and then started work for big department stores such as Abraham & Strauss, which was a division of Federated Department Stores.

The couple moved to Chevy Chase when Jeffrey took an offer from Hecht’s. While Jeffrey ran a staff of 400 there, Rachelle the entrepreneur opened up a baby-clothing business in her home. She also earned a master’s in interior design from what was then Mount Vernon College and is now part of George Washington University. The baby business eventually folded (lesson learned: Don’t extend credit to customers) and Jeffrey eventually decided he wanted out of the corporate executive world, so the retail-oriented pair decided to open their own business in 1991.

“It was a blending of our talents,” Rachelle said. “He had the merchandizing background and I had the creative, design background.”

For research, they traveled around England, Belgium, Holland and France, scrounging for offbeat items that would differentiate their furniture store. They were after the wealthy suburban population that was growing around Washington after the booming 1980s.

“Our niche was countryside, with big farm tables, armoires, curiosities,” Rachelle said. “We would buy offbeat stuff. We would buy antique doors off people’s houses. It was a look that was out there. . . wholesome, warm, easy to live with. I want people to feel like they are waking up in Provence and Tuscany.”

They wrote a mission statement that described the business plan as home furnishings for countryside and urban spaces. One of Jeffrey’s brothers, a student of retail, suggested they shorten it. The couple came up with Urban Country.

The key, as in all retail, was finding the right location.

The Roths drove throughout Washington, Northern Virginia, Potomac and Rockville, looking for a place with street exposure, lots of windows and nearby parking. They found a space on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, just north of Old Georgetown Road and one block off Wisconsin Avenue. “We were pioneering in that part of Bethesda,” Rachelle said. “There was no retail. It was not a shopping district, it was commercial businesses and restaurants, not retail. We took a huge risk.”

They spent $300,000 in savings to buy furniture and accessories for the showroom, to pay some of the lease and to refurbish the space.

They were a success right out of the box, grossing more than $1 million the first year. The business has been profitable every year, Rachelle said.

After Jeffrey died in 1999, Roth has amped up her work schedule. She works seven days a week, and is up at 5 a.m. every day, looking at blogs, writing down design ideas that come to her in the night.

Rachelle is thinking of taking it to the next step and franchising the business.

If she does that, her daughters will be part of that, too.

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