Retailer Profile: O'Briens' Focus on Family Leads to Third Decade on Top
John Hughes began his adult life working in Omaha for a manufacturer in another industry. During a strike seven years later, he got a side job working with his brothers at a flooring store in Iowa to cover the bills. When the strike ended after a month, he had discovered a new love.
He spent a year working at that retailer before opening his own store nearby and operating as an independent for 11 years. When that area’s farming economy went south in the mid-‘80s, he saw the writing on the wall and sought out an opportunity in Colorado Springs with a furniture retailer who mentioned he might want to open a carpet store next door.
The rest, as they say, was history. Hughes and his wife, Beth, picked up their roots and replanted their family in Colorado Springs, and soon became enmeshed within the fabric of this community. Helping the O’Briens business along the way has been its affiliation with CCA Global Partners, which John calls “one of the best business decisions we ever made.”
While John worked much of the front end, Beth kept the back end of the business running smooth. Together they built a company which now operates under three banners—Carpet One Floor & Home, ProSource and Floor Trader—out of four locations. Each operation is helmed by the second and third generations of Hughes, with John and Beth overseeing the business that has cared for their family as much as they nurtured its growth.
“We worked seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day back then,” he says. “You have to have a fire in the belly to be successful and win.”
As the business grew, Hughes brought down overhead by purchasing the properties where they operate and took the opportunity and value in opening the doors only six days a week.
“We felt Sunday is a family day for our employees, as well as for our family,” he explains. “There is a much better attitude from our people because they can take the day for church and family.”
Today, after just celebrating the company’s 31st anniversary, son Ryan runs the ProSource business while grandson James West handles the Floor Trader segment. The biggest portion of the business—accounting for more than 60% of the overall companies’ combined revenues which are definitively in the eight figures—is achieved through the two O’Briens Carpet One locations each managed respectively by the Hughes’ daughters, Nancy Denning and Brenda Allen. Allen’s husband, George, and Denning’s daughter, Anna, also work sales for the family business. The Hughes’ third daughter and James’ mother, Lisa West, took over the businesses’ marketing communications and strategy about four years ago.
“All of my parents’ grandchildren [many of whom are still in school] all work summers here,” notes West. “Everyone is involved in one fashion or another and it provides all of us a living.”
As much as the family effort has been integral, John Hughes notes the biggest key to their success has been “having good people to run our operation. We hire people who are good quality and good family.”
He says the essence of his people being part of their family extends down to their subcontractor crews who handle the installations.
“We treat them like family and they are tremendous,” he says. “Our installation crews are often the last people the customer sees and the impression they leave is the key to everything we do. Having our family involved in our business has been key to our success.”
Touching upon the current issue of whether installers should be classified as subs or employees, Hughes says, “We do everything in our power to have all the papers and whatever else the Labor Department wants signed and sealed. The problem is they are changing the rules in the middle of the game.
“It is absolutely a shame what they are trying to do to independent contractors and small businesses,” he continues. “If they [just] told us the rules we would follow them. But what [makes me angry] is they come in the middle of the game, change the rules and then try to penalize you for it. Just give us the rules and we will follow them.”
To ensure the extended family has all the tools necessary to succeed, Hughes points out his managers are “coaching from the sales floor continuously.” In addition, education is reinforced with weekly sales meetings and in-house training from manufacturer reps on a regular basis.
The focus on strong people applies to the back of the business, too, he says. “We want our customers to be treated with respect as their repeat business is key to our whole operation. From the people answering the phone to our sales staff, we are all part of a wheel and everyone has to be in tune with the concept of our business.”
Another element in the company’s success has been the family’s ability to move beyond missteps.
“We are a forward-thinking and aggressive company,” Hughes explains. “We try to learn from our mistakes and move forward. We don’t let them define who we are.”
Instead, family has defined the company since its inception.
“We care,” Hughes explains. “As a family business we will come down and open the store after hours for our customers. We do everything in our power to treat them like gold because we are working for our customers and they are our main concern.
“I don’t think the big boxes go to that extent of taking care of people,” he points out.
Getting that message to the customer is Hughes’ daughter, West. From increasing the businesses’ digital exposure via social media, pay per click and the most prominent review sites (including Houzz, Angie’s List and Carpet One’s own Trust Pilot), to TV and radio, she has helped guide consumers into the stores.
“Consumers today are finding companies through online reviews and we need to play in that realm as a company,” she says. “But we have also learned to be careful not to spread our advertising dollars too thin. We need to really own the venues we are in and focus exactly where we have an audience who can identify with who we are.”
Through whatever means a company utilizes to reach its customer, West says, “consumers are more educated than ever before. When they walk in your store, they know a great deal about the product they are looking for. We have to be able to go out and talk to them, never forgetting the personalization of meeting our customer.
“It’s our job to help them understand we are the flooring experts,” she explains. “We can help make their selection from the look, touch and feel all the way through to making the installation as easy as possible.”
Although he mentioned the risk big-box retailers can pose to flooring specialists, Hughes noted the biggest competitor is not even in the industry.
“The local car dealer is our biggest competitor,” he explains. “It’s all about the money left in the pocket. If the car dealer gets the money, we don’t get any of it. It can be electronics or anything else as far as competitors in the market go for disposable income. I don’t worry too much about competition in the flooring industry; I’ll go head-to-head with any of them.”