Local family-owned furniture retailers navigate industry disruption

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Brick-and-mortar retail across the country has faced major obstacles over the past decade, following the 2008 financial crisis and the rise of e-commerce. Certainly, home furnishing retail companies are no strangers to those challenges.

The furniture industry, among others, was once heavily dominated by family-owned small businesses, which typically were started by a first-generation immigrant and passed down from generation to generation, said Sharron Bradley, chief executive officer of Roseville, California-based Home Furnishings Association.

“It’s been a longstanding way of owning a furniture company,” Bradley said. “People came to the U.S. and started stores. Entry wasn’t difficult to become a store owner back then, and they passed those stores down one generation to the next.”

Many of those family-run furniture retailers, several of which happen to be based in areas east of the Mississippi River, have consolidated, have been purchased by larger companies or have shut down completely, Bradley said.

But not all of them.

“There are still multigenerational families that own (furniture) stores all over the country,” she said.

Such is the case in southeastern Wisconsin, where some of the industry’s biggest local names continue to be family-owned and -operated as many as four generations later.

Waukesha-based Steinhafels Inc. began in 1934, when John E. Steinhafel and Arthur Mueller opened a furniture store called Mueller-Steinhafel Furniture on North Teutonia Avenue in Milwaukee. Mueller died in 1944, and Steinhafel bought out his share of the business.

The business has since expanded to 18 stores with 800 employees in Wisconsin and Illinois, and has been passed down to the third and fourth generations of the Steinhafel family. John’s grandson, Gary Steinhafel, currently serves as president and in 2013 Gary’s nephew, Andrew Steinhafel, joined the company as director of IT.

“The unique thing about furniture, at least on the retail side, is that there are still quite a few privately-held, independent companies in the industry, and a subsection of those are family-owned,” Andrew Steinhafel said. “But in Wisconsin, some of them have lasted three, four generations and that is not the norm.”

Steinhafels networks with a number of noncompeting, family-owned furniture retailers from other regions of the country, but most have only made it to first- or second-generation ownership, he said.

Being a multigenerational family-owned business is a major part of Steinhafels’ brand identity and reputation among customers, Andrew said. Purchasing furniture is often a steep investment, so customers want to shop at stores they know and trust.

“People are looking for brands that won’t go away in one to two years because in three to four years from now, if you have an issue with the furniture, is that company still around?” he said.

Milwaukee-based Bachman Furniture Gallery was first established in 1920 by Russian immigrant Joseph Bachman.

In 1958, he and his son, Howard, opened a 25,000-square-foot store at North 68th Street and West Capitol Drive in Milwaukee that would house the business for the next 60 years.

Howard and his wife, Irene, owned the company until they both died of cancer in 2006, within nine months of one another.

Bachman Furniture was then passed down to Howard’s son, Joe Bachman, who had joined the business in 2003 as general manager. He had originally chosen to attend law school with no idea he would one day join the family business. As an only child and the sole remaining family member, Bachman took full ownership and was tasked with leading the company on his own.

“I credit my parents for their education on (operating the business),” he said. “The furniture industry is not something you can just buy into… It’s the daily basis of being on the grind. You learn that by doing the work and being there.”

In 2018, Bachman purchased a 60,000-square-foot portion of a historic building on West St. Paul Avenue in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, with plans to renovate the space and relocate the 99-year-old Bachman Furniture Gallery there. That new store will open later this month.

Bachman said the new location will help create an experience that customers cannot get from furniture shopping online, “something where they can sit, touch, feel.”

“If we make stores interesting enough, we can go head-to-head with online (retailers),” he said.

West Allis-based Colders Inc. was founded in 1942 by Henry Felker as a refrigeration service company called the Henry Cooler Co. An advertisement later misspelled the company’s name as Henry’s Colder Co., inspiring its current moniker.

Colder’s branched out into refrigerator and freezer sales in 1946 when Henry’s brother, Harry Felker, joined the company. Soon after, Colder’s added clothes washers, dryers and ovens to its appliance selection at its first retail location at North 18th Street and West Fond du Lac Avenue.

In 1983, Colder’s purchased the former Wickes Furniture building on Highway 100, which remains its current West Allis location. It also has stores in Oak Creek, Delafield and Grafton.

Colder’s is currently owned and operated by three of Harry Felker’s children. Felker was involved in the business into his 80s, and passed away in 2011.

Co-owner and vice president of merchandising Tom Balistreri joined the family and the business in 1983.

He said Colder’s has prospered through both successful and challenging economic times by treating its customers like family.

Greendale-based Penny Mustard Furnishings is owned by brothers Arvid and Ben Huth, who started the company together at the ages of 19 and 21, respectively. Growing up on a farm in Eau Claire County, they had never stepped foot in Milwaukee before moving here in 1993 to open their first store on South 74th Street and West Layton Avenue.

Penny Mustard has since expanded to nine locations — three in southeastern Wisconsin, five in Illinois and one in northern Indiana.

As owners of a family-operated, locally-based business, the Huths try to source products from companies like theirs instead of importing furniture from other countries, Ben said.

“Most of our furniture (at Penny Mustard) is made in Wisconsin,” Huth said. “The closest workshop is in Muskego. By going local, we are supporting other families, too.”

The oldest member of the Huths’ second generation is only 12 years old, so the brothers haven’t given much thought to retirement or succession, he said.

Brick-and-mortar retail across the country has faced major obstacles over the past decade, following the 2008 financial crisis and the rise of e-commerce. Certainly, home furnishing retail companies are no strangers to those challenges.

The furniture industry, among others, was once heavily dominated by family-owned small businesses, which typically were started by a first-generation immigrant and passed down from generation to generation, said Sharron Bradley, chief executive officer of Roseville, California-based Home Furnishings Association.

“It’s been a longstanding way of owning a furniture company,” Bradley said. “People came to the U.S. and started stores. Entry wasn’t difficult to become a store owner back then, and they passed those stores down one generation to the next.”

Many of those family-run furniture retailers, several of which happen to be based in areas east of the Mississippi River, have consolidated, have been purchased by larger companies or have shut down completely, Bradley said.

But not all of them.

“There are still multigenerational families that own (furniture) stores all over the country,” she said.

Such is the case in southeastern Wisconsin, where some of the industry’s biggest local names continue to be family-owned and -operated as many as four generations later.

Waukesha-based Steinhafels Inc. began in 1934, when John E. Steinhafel and Arthur Mueller opened a furniture store called Mueller-Steinhafel Furniture on North Teutonia Avenue in Milwaukee. Mueller died in 1944, and Steinhafel bought out his share of the business.

The business has since expanded to 18 stores with 800 employees in Wisconsin and Illinois, and has been passed down to the third and fourth generations of the Steinhafel family. John’s grandson, Gary Steinhafel, currently serves as president and in 2013 Gary’s nephew, Andrew Steinhafel, joined the company as director of IT.

“The unique thing about furniture, at least on the retail side, is that there are still quite a few privately-held, independent companies in the industry, and a subsection of those are family-owned,” Andrew Steinhafel said. “But in Wisconsin, some of them have lasted three, four generations and that is not the norm.”

Steinhafels networks with a number of noncompeting, family-owned furniture retailers from other regions of the country, but most have only made it to first- or second-generation ownership, he said.

Being a multigenerational family-owned business is a major part of Steinhafels’ brand identity and reputation among customers, Andrew said. Purchasing furniture is often a steep investment, so customers want to shop at stores they know and trust.

“People are looking for brands that won’t go away in one to two years because in three to four years from now, if you have an issue with the furniture, is that company still around?” he said.

Milwaukee-based Bachman Furniture Gallery was first established in 1920 by Russian immigrant Joseph Bachman.

In 1958, he and his son, Howard, opened a 25,000-square-foot store at North 68th Street and West Capitol Drive in Milwaukee that would house the business for the next 60 years.

Howard and his wife, Irene, owned the company until they both died of cancer in 2006, within nine months of one another.

Bachman Furniture was then passed down to Howard’s son, Joe Bachman, who had joined the business in 2003 as general manager. He had originally chosen to attend law school with no idea he would one day join the family business. As an only child and the sole remaining family member, Bachman took full ownership and was tasked with leading the company on his own.

“I credit my parents for their education on (operating the business),” he said. “The furniture industry is not something you can just buy into… It’s the daily basis of being on the grind. You learn that by doing the work and being there.”

In 2018, Bachman purchased a 60,000-square-foot portion of a historic building on West St. Paul Avenue in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, with plans to renovate the space and relocate the 99-year-old Bachman Furniture Gallery there. That new store will open later this month.

Bachman said the new location will help create an experience that customers cannot get from furniture shopping online, “something where they can sit, touch, feel.”

“If we make stores interesting enough, we can go head-to-head with online (retailers),” he said.

West Allis-based Colders Inc. was founded in 1942 by Henry Felker as a refrigeration service company called the Henry Cooler Co. An advertisement later misspelled the company’s name as Henry’s Colder Co., inspiring its current moniker.

Colder’s branched out into refrigerator and freezer sales in 1946 when Henry’s brother, Harry Felker, joined the company. Soon after, Colder’s added clothes washers, dryers and ovens to its appliance selection at its first retail location at North 18th Street and West Fond du Lac Avenue.

In 1983, Colder’s purchased the former Wickes Furniture building on Highway 100, which remains its current West Allis location. It also has stores in Oak Creek, Delafield and Grafton.

Colder’s is currently owned and operated by three of Harry Felker’s children. Felker was involved in the business into his 80s, and passed away in 2011.

Co-owner and vice president of merchandising Tom Balistreri joined the family and the business in 1983.

He said Colder’s has prospered through both successful and challenging economic times by treating its customers like family.

Greendale-based Penny Mustard Furnishings is owned by brothers Arvid and Ben Huth, who started the company together at the ages of 19 and 21, respectively. Growing up on a farm in Eau Claire County, they had never stepped foot in Milwaukee before moving here in 1993 to open their first store on South 74th Street and West Layton Avenue.

Penny Mustard has since expanded to nine locations — three in southeastern Wisconsin, five in Illinois and one in northern Indiana.

As owners of a family-operated, locally-based business, the Huths try to source products from companies like theirs instead of importing furniture from other countries, Ben said.

“Most of our furniture (at Penny Mustard) is made in Wisconsin,” Huth said. “The closest workshop is in Muskego. By going local, we are supporting other families, too.”

The oldest member of the Huths’ second generation is only 12 years old, so the brothers haven’t given much thought to retirement or succession, he said.

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