Discover why this store, which calls itself “Rockford’s hometown merchant,” has successfully served its customers for three generations.
Many years ago, Martin Gustafson taught his young son, Dale, the most important lesson in retail: Good customer service is the only thing that truly matters.
He knew what he was talking about. This year, Gustafson’s Furniture, 808 W. Riverside Blvd., Rockford, is celebrating 85 years in business. Sure, there have been a few bumps along the way, but the Gustafson family wouldn’t trade their jobs for anything.
“It’s what we like to do,” says Dale, president of the company. “It’s been a labor of love.”
A Family Affair
Martin grew up on a farm in Stillman Valley, Ill. His father died from pneumonia, leaving his mother to raise him and his 10 siblings. “The children helped raise each other,” says Dale. “It was a blessing that they all turned out well.”
With an eighth-grade education, Martin sold mothballs and vacuums door to door. He was successful, thanks to unrelenting determination and a strong rapport with his customers. “He had a big heart and a love for people,” says Dale. “He always said, ‘It’s what we do for customers that counts.”
In 1928, Martin expanded his business and opened a store on 7th Street in Rockford. “It was tough sledding during the Depression,” Dale says. “It probably wasn’t the best time to open a business, but he wasn’t about to give up. The retail business will keep you humble.”
Dale went to work for his father when he was just 12 years old. He headed off to the shop after school, dusting appliances and dishes for the bridal registry. Spending time with his father, Dale learned the value of hard work – but it took awhile to sink in. “I was like most typical teenagers,” he says. “My dad kept telling me, ‘Someday you’ll understand.’”
After serving a short stint in the U.S. Navy, Dale could have worked anywhere in the country. But he elected to return home and join his father full-time in the furniture business.
“I liked it,” he says. “My friends were sons of farmers and machinists, but there was nothing I liked better than working for my dad in the family business.”
Dale worked his way up over time. He excelled in sales before taking the reins of the company when he was 26. The father and son enjoyed a solid relationship as Dale learned plenty about life, and business, from his dad. Martin suffered health problems for several years, before passing away in 1985 during a father/son fishing trip in Canada. Dale’s confidante and best friend was gone.
“He had no regrets in life,” Dale says. “He went out the way he wanted to go out. He always said that he never wanted to suffer.”
A Legacy Continues
Martin Gustafson’s good work continues, thanks to Dale and his family.
“Dale is a good listener,” says wife Trina, whose parents worked in sales. Her grandfather was a furniture designer. “Dale’s father always said, ‘please the customer.’ That’s what we’ve done. He knows how to treat the customer and he leads this business by example. He’s very generous. He’s done a lot of things for this community.”
Today, Dale and Trina, who’ve been married for 39 years, oversee business operations. Their sons, David and Christopher, are working their way up the ranks. David is responsible for marketing and social media, while Christopher assists with human resources. The Gustafson’s oldest child, Kristen, is a Christian family counselor who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Gustafson family members enjoy being together, a quality that enhances the business.
“We really like each other,” Christopher says. “We may have our differences, but we’re nice to each other. We treat each other with respect.” The company employs 30 people, many of whom are like members of the family. “I like people to be happy,” Dale says. “There’s service and reward to this business.”
Trina formerly worked as a banker and as a teacher at Beyer School. She joined the family business full-time 18 years ago, as chief financial officer. When Dale suffered a heart attack 14 years ago, Trina ran the store for a week. She handled everything from working with customers to unloading delivery trucks. “Trina is my bride, bookkeeper and best friend,” Dale says. “She is in on every detail of this business.”
In 1998, after 63 years on 7th Street, Gustafson’s relocated to its current location at 808 W. Riverside Blvd. Located in the former 109,000 square-foot Bergner’s store at North Towne Mall, Gustafson’s has 14,000 pieces of furniture in its showroom, including 3,000 mattresses, making it one of the largest stores of its kind in the state. And there are 1,200 parking spaces instead of the five at its former location, which has helped increase business and exposure.
While many of today’s customers do their research in advance of making any purchase, Dale says the furniture business is still one that requires a customer to “squeeze, sit on or lay on the products.” That’s something the Internet just can’t provide.
“It’s just like buying a car,” says Dale. “You may only buy one car, but you want to see them all. It’s the same in the furniture business. People may come in to buy a lamp or another accessory, but they see all the other products we offer. Down the road, they may come back in and furnish an entire room or house.”
With such a massive store, the staff is happy to show customers around, but they refuse to hover. At Gustafson’s, the customer is in charge of any buying decision. “It doesn’t matter if they spend $199 or $1,000 with us, every customer is important,” Dale says. “When you take care of your customers, they come back.” Gustafson estimates that, over a lifetime, a customer will spend an average of $50,000 with its furniture store of choice.
Gustafson’s Furniture is a member of the Furniture First Buying Group. Purchasing with more than 300 stores allows each one to lower its costs through volume purchasing. As with any industry, however, there have been some difficult years. The furniture business, Dale says, has experienced a sharp decline over the past decade; customers now scrutinize every dollar they spend. Many don’t replace furniture until a piece breaks. Dale is proud of the fact that, despite a tough economy, he hasn’t had to lay off any employees. And, he points out, he would never consider leaving the Rockford area.
“We love Rockford, and people know us here,” he says. “People don’t know us in Chicago or Madison. Our goal has always been to do a better job for our customers than the competition.”
Gustafson’s Furniture has about 40,000 active customers on its mailing list, a number Dale attributes to an unwavering commitment to customer service. “My dad taught me the importance of good value,” he says. “We do a good job servicing the customer, but we’re not perfect. We don’t have an 800 number and it doesn’t take us six weeks to fix the problem. If we make a mistake, we get right on it. My father taught me three things about this business. First, satisfy the customer. Second, make sure to satisfy the customer. And the third thing is to see No. 1.”
“Our headquarters are in Rockford, not our branches,” he adds. “We have been family owned and operated for three generations. A member of management is available 360 days a year. Concerns or service adjustments are handled in 24 to 48 hours. Our on-staff skilled upholstery repair technicians and woodworking personnel are fast and efficient. We have great latitude. We’re not constricted by corporate policies.”
Keeping the Faith
There are plenty of long days for the Gustafson family. When they moved to their Riverside location, for example, they worked 93 straight days. But Dale has no plans on retiring any time soon. Instead, he plans on taking longer breaks. The Gustafsons live in Lake Geneva where they enjoy spending time on their boat. Trina tends to her garden and loves to cook. Chris plays piano and David enjoys skiing.
“We have faith in God,” Trina says. “There have been difficult times but He always sees us through. We feel good that there will be longevity with our business. It will continue. It won’t drop off a cliff.”
Like Dale learned from his father, his sons are following in his footsteps. “I find his words coming out of my mouth,” says David. “As a family, it’s nice to have ideas to reverberate off of each other. There’s a perpetual learning curve in this business.”
His younger brother agrees. “This business grows on you,” says Christopher. “People recognize us as a family. I learn every day from my family. My brother is college educated. His textbook knowledge serves our business in a larger purpose. I learn from my mom everything from finances to decoration. And my dad, who has a vibrant personality, has taught me how to conduct business relationships with people. This business is very rewarding.”