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How Independent Businesses are Transforming Rockford

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Locally owned businesses are the anchors of our communities and some of the most dedicated leaders of positive transformations. Meet five business owners who are making a difference.

The family owners of Benson Stone Co., (from left) Andy, Kim, Paul and Howard, took a gamble when they moved the business to 11th Street in 1998.

The family owners of Benson Stone Co., (from left) Andy, Kim, Paul and Howard, took a gamble when they moved the business to 11th Street in 1998.

All around Rockford, the signs of change are emerging. As the Transform Rockford movement inspires positive improvements around the region, its leaders seek to create a top 25 community, where people are engaged, inspired and leading fulfilling lives. To accomplish that goal, Rockford will need to embrace changing attitudes, which will enhance roles and stabilize the local business base.

Some businesses are already on board with this philosophy. Many are led by second- and third-generation owners who saw the blood, sweat and tears their forefathers poured into making the family business succeed, and who are invested in helping a new generation to thrive. Today, these businesses are the anchors of their respective neighborhoods, destinations that drive visitors to their block and help surrounding businesses to flourish. Here’s a look at five success stories, that epitomize Rockford’s amazing entrepreneurial spirit that is certain to transform Rockford.

Set in Stone

One of the best moves that Benson Stone Co. ever made was relocating its store in 2001, when it bought the former Rockford Standard Furniture building.

Benson Stone closed its East State Street location in the process and spent nearly two years extensively renovating its current home at 1100 11th St., which now includes offices, a four-story showroom, a community room for special events and a glass elevator. The furniture showrooms were added in 2004, and a full flooring department was added in 2008. A lighting showroom will open in the near future.

“Seeing this location become what it is today has been very satisfying,” says president Andy Benson. “By moving into a huge 130,000 square-foot building, we’ve been able to grow into other specialties, like furniture, kitchen cabinets, flooring and other products.

We’re several specialty stores rolled into one. It’s really convenient for the customers, and it’s brought us awareness. We’ve become a destination.”

Benson Stone was founded in 1930 by Andy’s great-grandfather, Martin O. Benson, and his grandfather, M. Howard Benson. The father and son started out in the Indiana cut-limestone business, in a shop on 10th Street and 10th Avenue in Rockford.

Andy joined the family business when he was in high school. He did everything from pulling weeds to making deliveries, working his way up the company ladder. He succeeded his father, Howard D. Benson, in the late 1990s. Howard is still involved, as are Andy’s wife, Kim, and son, Paul.

“My dad has always been hardworking and driven to continually improve things like equipment and showrooms,” says Benson. “He’s always taken calculated risks when growing and improving the business.”

One risk that’s paid off is a move beyond stone, a product whose market slows considerably during the winter, says Benson. The company’s first big expansion started in the 1980s, when Benson Stone added fireplaces and woodstoves. In 1991, the business opened a second location, on Rockford’s east side, to house the fireplace showroom, patio furniture and barbeque grills.

While stone, brick, granite and marble remain an important part of the business, Benson Stone also sells furniture, flooring, home décor, fireplaces, cabinets for kitchens and bathrooms, landscape materials and barbecue grills.

“The original concept was exclusively building supplies related to commercial and residential construction,” says Benson. “All of these other categories got us through the recession.”

The 11th Street showroom includes the Hearth Rock Café, a popular spot for breakfast and lunch. “The initial idea was just to have coffee and pastries and a few tables located near the window, but it quickly grew to the point where we have tables on the second floor for overflow,” says Benson. “The restaurant has added life to our showroom. Hopefully, we’re top of mind when customers need to shop for furniture.”

In addition to its main building, Benson Stone occupies 300,000 square feet across seven buildings located within a three-block radius. Those buildings include warehouses, fabrication centers and granite shops.

Benson Stone’s visionary move has breathed new life into its neighborhood, and today, it’s in good company with other positive change-makers. Benson serves on the boards of the Midtown District and the Rockford Chamber of Commerce. Serving as an anchor tenant in the Midtown District is gratifying to Benson.

“Things have really improved around here,” Benson says. “State Street is doing great and Seventh Street has really improved. The work being done around SwedishAmerican Health System is very encouraging. I’m optimistic about the future.”

A Neighborhood’s Anchor

Guler Appliance Co. has been a cornerstone in Rockford’s Midtown District for 79 years. Even when other companies expanded eastward, there was never a compelling reason for the appliance business to leave its 100-year-old building at 227 7th St., says owner Darwyn Guler.

“We’re a destination,” he says. “We’re centrally located and easy to get to. We have a strong customer base around us, with SwedishAmerican Health System, BMO Harris Bank and the Rockford Public Schools headquarters, and we serve the entire community.”

Unlike big-box retailers, Guler Appliance has built its reputation on personal connections, something instilled in Guler by his father. Company founder Andrew Guler made many personal connections with customers, especially rural farmers, some of whom were part of his business network when he was a distributor of liquid-bottled gas.

When Andrew Guler started his appliance store in 1936, steel was in short supply; America was coming out of the Depression and slowly heading toward World War II. Shortages were so severe that Guler had almost no inventory. Instead, he’d get a single product in stock and would have to keep it as a sample for in-home demonstrations.

Today, Andrew’s son, Darwyn, owns Rockford’s longest-running independent appliance retailer, while nephew Dale Johnson and niece Dawn Stock are part of the management team. Guler Appliance draws residential and commercial customers from a five-county radius. Since the company’s earliest days, General Electric, Viking, Sub-Zero, Wolf and Speed Queen have remained its strongest brand names.

“Our business isn’t predicated just on longevity, but quality and service,” Guler says. “Service isn’t a department, it’s an attitude.

There’ve been challenges along the way, and tough economic times have tested the company’s fortitude. “In this business, you have to roll with the punches,” Guler says. “But we’ve grown because of our quality products and services.”

Guler believes the appliance business could change drastically over the next few years. He sees innovations hitting the market and a decline of major retail competitors.

The “buy local” movement and the economic recovery have been good to Guler Appliance. During the last quarter of 2014, the company experienced its best sales since 2007. Guler says sales in 2015 are strong so far.

“There are many reasons to buy local,” he says. “Service is the No. 1 reason to support local retail that helps give our community its one-of-a-kind personality.”

Guler has served on the boards of various Seventh Street associations and currently sits on the Midtown District board. He’s pleased about the progress the area has made over the past several years, including plans to upgrade lighting and resurface sidewalks, curbs and streets.

“It really hasn’t been one individual who’s responsible for the improvement to this area,” Guler says. “It’s been many residences and businesses. The most important thing we can do is maintain the physical buildings, keep them clean, paint and repair them, and pick up litter on the sidewalks. Those are the types of things that will make a significant impact on the Midtown District.”

Customer Driven

Dale Gustafson wants to make one thing perfectly clear about his business: It’s all about the customers.

“It doesn’t matter how much they spend – every customer is important,” says Gustafson, president of Gustafson’s Furniture & Mattress. “We do what corporate businesses don’t want to. We fix it and we fix it right away. Even if it’s past warranty, we don’t leave customers out in the cold.”

This year, the furniture store at 808 W. Riverside Blvd., Rockford, celebrates 87 years in business. “Our headquarters is in Rockford, not our branches,” Gustafson says. “We have been family-owned and -operated for three generations. We’re not constricted by corporate policies.”

With an eighth-grade education, Gustafson’s father, Martin, started selling mothballs and vacuums door to door. He was successful thanks to tenacious determination and a solid rapport with his customers. In 1928, Martin expanded his business when he opened a furniture and appliance store on Seventh Street.

“It was tough sledding during the Depression,” Gustafson says. “It probably wasn’t the best time to open a business, but he wasn’t about to give up. He had a big heart for people.”

Young Dale went to work for his father when he was just 12 years old. He headed off to the shop after school, dusting off appliances and dishes for the bridal registry. After serving a short stint in the U.S. Navy, Dale could have worked anyplace else in the country. But he elected to return home and join his father full-time in the furniture business. “There was nothing I liked better than working for my dad in the family business,” he says.

The younger Gustafson excelled in sales, before taking the reins from his father at age 26. The father and son enjoyed a solid relationship, as Gustafson learned about life and the business by his father’s side. In 1985, Martin died during a father/son fishing trip in Canada. “He had no regrets in life,” Gustafson says. “He went out the way he wanted to go out.”

Today, Gustafson and his wife, Trina, who’ve been married for 41 years, oversee business operations with help from sons David, who’s responsible for marketing and social media, and Christopher, who works in human resources. The Gustafsons’ oldest child, Kristen, is a Christian family counselor who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich. “I like having our kids with us,” Gustafson says. “The future here at Gustafson’s is evolving.”

In 1998, after 63 years on Seventh Street, Gustafson’s moved to its current location at the North Towne Mall. Located in the former 109,000-square-foot Bergner’s store, Gustafson’s has 14,000 pieces of furniture in its showroom, including 3,000 mattresses, making it one of the largest in the state. The Riverside storefront includes some 1,200 parking spaces, instead of the five it had on Seventh Street.

“One thing we did was stay at our old location too long,” Gustafson says. “We didn’t have enough parking, and it wasn’t conducive to displaying our merchandise. We were in the gift and china business and the TV and appliance business when we decided to put all our efforts into home furnishings. Moving to a new location gave us a fresh start.”

One move you won’t see Gustafson’s make is someplace outside its hometown. “Rockford is all we know – we’ve never considered anything else,” he says. “People don’t know us in Chicago or Madison. I’m encouraged by the changes being made in Rockford, along with the growing enthusiasm for the Transform Rockford movement. The economy is getting better, and we’re thriving. We’re proud to call Rockford home.”

Red Carpet Treatment

For Kevin Rose, owner of Carpetland USA, the key to success in the retail business is all about providing good customer service. Half of Carpetland’s business comes from repeat customers.

“We treat them like family,” Rose says. “I have seven kids, and everyone who works here has kids. We’re all heavily involved in sports, church and other extra-curricular activities. We run into people in the community, and the last thing we want to do is have them say something bad about us.

“Ten or 15 years ago, you might write off a customer complaint as no big deal. You can’t do that anymore. Every single customer has to be taken care of. Take care of the customers and they’ll take care of you.”

Rose started as a salesman in the Rockford store, 326 N. Alpine Road, more than 25 years ago, before moving into management. He operated a location at 1719 DeKalb Ave., in Sycamore before purchasing both stores 12 years ago.

“I always had a plan to open a business, not necessarily this one,”’ says Rose, who previously owned a landscaping business with his brother in South Bend, Ind. “This opportunity came about, and I accepted.”

Rose and Carpetland have seen tremendous growth over the years, especially in the commercial contract division – a group whose clients span a 300-mile radius around Rockford. Some of its Carpetland’s largest projects are found in Chicago and southern Wisconsin.

Although it’s locally owned, Carpetland benefits from being part of Alliance Inc., a national buying group, and Rose serves on its national committee. As part of this national consortium, Carpetland receives cost savings on products that can be passed on to customers. It also allows Rose to share opinions and best practices with other owners in his industry.

Another big help to Carpetland is the longevity of its employees. The average tenure is 15 years. “Our sales professionals stay active, with the steady stream of clients and continued education opportunities of new technology within the flooring industry,” says Rose.

Under Rose’s leadership, Carpetland has increased sales, improved efficiencies and grown market share. Rose estimates that annual sales have steadily climbed 10 to 20 percent over the past few years.

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years now,” says Rose, twice named Carpetland Retailer of the Year. “As you perform well, you get invited to bid on projects that others might not. We’ve done well for many years.”

The hot product trend these days is a tile-and-plank resilient vinyl flooring – a material that looks like a genuine wood floor but is composed of man-made materials.

As the economy rebounds, Rose is looking toward growth opportunities. He’s also starting to contemplate a succession plan that may involve some of his children. But not yet.

Rose is excited about the future and a new, more positive, attitude he’s seeing take root in the community. “I enjoy selling and making people happy,” he says. “Flooring is a major purchase for people. Clients know when you’re taking care of them and listening to them. When you do, everyone is happy.”

Special Brew

Jodi Erickson shakes her head when she thinks that her family business, Meg’s Daily Grind, has been around 14 years.

“We’ve truly been blessed,” she says of the coffee shop with four Rockford locations. “I believe God opened doors for us that we never would have imagined. It’s truly an honor to serve the customers of Rockford.”

Meg’s Daily Grind is owned by Jodi and her husband, Chris, with daughters Megan and Leslie. The inspiration to start the business came from the daughters, both of whom had worked in coffee shops during high school. Leslie earned a business degree from Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., before returning home. Megan, who started college but decided it wasn’t for her, was looking for a career opportunity. That’s when the family decided to pursue their own venture.

To get a better grip on the business, the family traveled to Seattle to research a number of coffee shops. They sampled coffees and snapped photos, evaluating what they liked best. They even brought samples home to friends for additional feedback. “We read a lot of books and talked to a lot of people,” Jodi says. “People are wonderful and will give you advice.”

The first Meg’s opened in 2001, on East Riverside Boulevard, later moving four blocks east to 3885 N. Perryville Road, so that a drive-thru could be added. In 2002, Meg’s opened a kiosk at Rock Valley College’s library. In 2006, Meg’s opened a café at 1141 N. Alpine Road, and later that year opened a fourth location at Heartland Church, 1280 S. Alpine Road. Megan oversees the Perryville and Rock Valley locations, while Leslie manages the Alpine and Heartland sites. Jodi handles financial responsibilities. Meg’s Daily Grind employs 50 people, mostly part-time high school and college students, along with a few seasoned workers.

Meg’s offers blended, organic and fair trade coffees, along with espresso, house coffees and more than 100 flavored coffees. Every week, Meg’s orders beans from small-batch roasters in Madison and Chicago. Meg’s also serves pastries, light lunches, desserts, fruit smoothies and hot and cold teas.

There have been challenges over the years, mostly related to product and maintenance costs. Equipment such as espresso machines, refrigerators and computers need to be replaced. The price of milk has doubled since Meg’s first opened.

“We want to stay competitive but we’re small,” Jodi says. “A larger corporation can buy cups in volume, for example, but we can’t. Just when you think you’re getting ahead, something happens.”

The Ericksons are encouraged by the Transform Rockford movement, and what it could mean for businesses like theirs. “Anything that will transform Rockford, for schools and for people to live, that’s what Rockford needs,” says Leslie. “I think a transformed Rockford would help bring people to town and keep people here. That can only help local businesses like ours.”

The Ericksons say they’re here to stay.

“Rockford is a great community, and it has really supported our business,” says Jodi. “We’ll never get rich doing this, but we’ve made friendships that will last a lifetime. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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