Israels Charting Klingman's Future

January 14, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Robert Israels has been interested in the Klingman Furniture Co. for more than 30 years. Today he owns it. Tomorrow he will rebuild it.

The CEO and president of Israels Designs for Living said he was first attracted to the seller of fine furniture when he became a retailer in 1976. At that time, Klingman’s had been in business for roughly 85 years. The firm had its share of ups-and-downs over those years, and even rebounded from a close bout with bankruptcy in the late 1930s to develop a strong reputation as a seller of high-quality home furnishings.

“When I opened up, I became their competitor, and now we’re actually doing more business than they are doing, buying-wise,” said Israels.

“We will take the original Klingman’s philosophy of retailing and re-enhance it with all the lines they don’t have any more, the furniture-manufacture lines that we have, and create the Klingman Co., which will be completely different from Israels,” he added.

While the furnishings offered by Israels will continue to focus on the design element, Israels said the Klingman’s spotlight will be focused on retailing. To accomplish that, he needs to stock Klingman’s with higher-end furniture lines, such as Stickley, EJ Victor and Sherril, because for the past few years the company concentrated its sales efforts on a lower-end product.

“What I want to do to that company is bring back all those high-end lines that were there before and bring those back very strongly in a retail modular system that would be consistent with what Klingman’s had done. So our process is to take this and put it back the way it used to be,” said Israels.

Israels said Klingman’s employees will play important roles in achieving his goals for the company. He said the workers are “fantastic” and emphasized they are a major reason he bought the business.

“I was interested in the company because of the quality and longevity of the company,” he said, “and neck- and-neck with the company was the employees.” 

The high-end furniture business is an intricate one and much larger than most people probably realize. Israels said his company represents 40,000 brands. Those brands, he said, range from a tiny firm that makes tassels for custom-made furniture pieces to companies that produce a complete line of furnishings.

“Some of those are going to make their way into the Klingman’s building that haven’t been there. That will be helpful for them on a retailing side because we handle so many of those brands from our Israels Designs for Living lines. We have tons of different brands out there that will help to make Klingman’s even more retail-friendly for the Klingman’s customer,” he said.

Israels said he has paid millions to buy franchises from the fine-furniture manufacturers for the Designs for Living lines and he will be able to stock Klingman’s with those products because he already owns the rights to sell the goods in this region.

“So I can actually transfer better pricing to Klingman’s than what they had before,” he said.

When the Business Journal spoke with Israels last week, the last real decision he had to make regarding Klingman’s was where to locate the business. He favored putting it in the former Drueke Gaming Co. building that he already owns and is restoring and expanding at 601 Third St. NW.

But his sons, David and Jason, who handle the business’s retail side, were leaning toward locating it in the vicinity of its current home at 28th Street and the East Beltline, where they hold an option on a piece of property. A third site they’ve optioned downtown is also in the running for Klingman’s, whose lease in Centerpointe Mall expires in May.

“The persons who are going to make that decision — even though I’m going to try to influence them as much as possible — are going to be my sons. And I’ve got to tell you this has been quite a sales job for dad,” he said laughing.

“They know their business and they’re pushing me out to the Grand Rapids area on the southeast side. Because that would have to be a brand new building, we have to make some decisions real quick.”

Israels said he wasn’t concerned about losing sales by moving Klingman’s from the heavily traveled, highly visible intersection as 28th Street and East Beltline to his near west-side campus. He recently shifted his company’s retail outlet, The Other Store, from a busier downtown site to the Aslan Building at Seventh Street and Seward Avenue, roughly two blocks north of the Drueke building. He said customer traffic to the new store has been more than brisk and even better than his home furnishing store on 28th Street.

“We just opened up The Other Store — we haven’t even had an open house — and we’re getting three times as much traffic at The Other Store as we get at the 28th Street store — in the volume of people, not in the volume of sales. But we’re getting that much additional traffic, and it’s amazing,” he said.

“We had to have people park all over the place. Our parking lot was so full last weekend that we had people parking on the side streets. Normally in a furniture store with the number of spaces that we have, you wouldn’t fill up the parking lot. So people are coming over here to buy.”

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