Thomas Heath
Thomas Heath
Columnist

Value Added: At 60, Jeff Frank reinvents himself and the furniture business

Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post - Jeff Frank, president of Simplicity Sofas, holds an attachable segment of a sofa at his High Point, N.C. showroom.

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I am not the target audience of Simplicity Sofas.

In my dictionary, hammer is the name of a rap star and a screwdriver is a cocktail. My toothbrush is my most valuable tool.

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Simplicity is the assemble-it-yourself, online furniture company founded by owner/President Jeff Frank of Bethesda. Simplicity ships your furniture in modular parts. You — the customer — put it together.

The marketing pitch — with a video to back it up — is that it’s so easy a child can do it in as little as three minutes and 52 seconds.

The six-year-old Simplicity has found a market. This year, Frank expects to sell $1 million worth of furniture online and reap a modest profit.

Frank, 60, is a resourceful sort who has furniture sales in his DNA. His unique start-up turns the traditional model of a furniture store on its head. The buyer actually has to put the furniture together. He sells his sofas and beds mostly online. And his showrooms, save for one, are his customers’ homes. He follows each sale with a call or an e-mail, asking, “Is anything wrong?”

It all is aimed at a more upscale buyer than the type of people who made Ikea the world’s largest furniture company. He even has made a virtue of putting the stuff together — that way his customers can easily maneuver their purchases into small apartments or rooms at the top of narrow stairs.

He sums up his business gifts thusly: “I am not a good salesman. But I have ideas of how to do things differently than they were done in the past.”

People complain all the time about boring jobs or bad bosses. But Frank is refreshing because he loves selling furniture and loves his company. He can wax for hours on the finer points of selling love seats.

His inventiveness has been on display since he graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1974 with a degree in history.

The first breakthrough came in 1974 as a $12,000 “assistant manager” in a two-person furniture department at the old Woolco department store in Forestville, Md. He sold a sofa, love seat and chair set for $199.

The furniture wasn’t moving because customers had to wait a month for delivery. They wanted them NOW. Frank drove to the Philadelphia distributor’s warehouse on his day off and persuaded the owner to dump a truckload of furniture at the Woolco. Frank sold everything in a few hours the next weekend. He soon became the top-selling furniture salesperson in the now-defunct Woolco chain.

He had similar “value adds” as a furniture buyer for Marlo and when he worked for a local government contract consulting firm. He was so successful at helping companies sell furniture to the U.S. government that the consulting firm made him a partner and paid him more than $100,000 a year, not a small sum for a furniture salesman in the 1980s.

Now he has found a way to sell it on the Internet.

Simplicity, which started in November 2007, has made 2,000 deliveries to every state but Hawaii. The company shipped 600 orders last year at an average of $1,800 per order.

The District is its third biggest market after New York City and North Carolina, where his only showroom is located. Frank constantly commutes between Bethesda and North Carolina.

Frank came up with the idea for ready-to-assemble upholstered furniture in 1991 as a way to deal with the perennial problem of moving furniture through narrow confines. He approached a custom furniture builder in North Carolina, Glenn Laughlin, who built some prototypes of Frank’s vision of ready-to-assemble furniture.

Laughlin is not a partner in Simplicity but collects royalties on the sales. Frank owns 25 percent of the company, while an investor from Portland, Ore., George Latus, the owner of two Harley-Davidson dealerships, owns the rest.

Frank met Latus through friends, and Latus bought into Frank’s vision for Simplicity Sofas and eventually invested $400,000 in the company. The $400,000 represents both an initial investment and cash calls from the first three years when Simplicity was losing money. The last two years, Simplicity has turned a small profit, though Frank said he is bullish on 2013.

“We should make a substantial profit,” Frank said.

The business plan involves keeping the company lean (there are three full-time employees and one part-timer) and selling 95 percent of its products on the Internet. The other 5 percent is sold at the High Point showroom, which Frank leases.

Frank didn’t collect a salary for three years after starting the company, and even now his $60,000 compensation — which includes salary and royalties — is modest. His vice president makes the same.

Simplicity subcontracts its manufacturing to one factory in High Point, which saved a fortune in capital investment because he didn’t have to build a plant.

The company advertises in magazines and on the Internet, linked to Google search terms.

Most people like to buy their furniture after seeing it in person. To fix that, Simplicity Sofas recruits existing customers to turn their homes into virtual showrooms. New customers can then go to their existing customers’ homes to check out the goods before they buy. Frank said roughly half of those visits end up with purchases.

By avoiding retail stores and selling directly to the customer, Simplicity is able to hold the line on prices. It also allows the company to earn a higher margin on its sales than it would by selling to a furniture retailer.

Frank said the company is maniacal about customer service and has received tons of word of mouth through customer service networks.

“It’s how we grew in the beginning, through word of mouth about our customer service,” Frank said.

Frank has one full-time customer service manager whose job is to contact every customer. Frank earned his customer service chops working two years for a consumer help organization, where he handled all the complaints involving furniture retailers.

He said he broke with tradition in the furniture retail businesses by following up every sale within 24 hours to ask if the customer was satisfied and “if there were any problems.”

When one customer accidentally sliced the upholstery on her new sofa, Simplicity shipped a new sofa arm within days — free of charge.

“If you treat customers poorly, you lose them forever, and they tell all their friends to stay away,” Frank said. “If you treat them better than they expect, there are huge rewards.”

His is selling furniture.

For previous Value Added columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.

 
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