Ottoman Empire

Gardner White Furniture Co. in Warren has aggressively moved to pick up the best pieces of former rival Art Van Furniture, including taking over its headquarters, landmark store, and a state-of-the-art distribution center. It’s proving to be a winning formula. By Norm Sinclair // Photographs by Becky Simonov
Rachel Stewart, president of Gardner White Furniture Co. in Warren, grew up in the century-old business. Today, she leads the way in adding stores and inventory.

In more than a century of selling home goods in metro Detroit, Gardner White Furniture Co. in Warren has racked up a number of firsts in the industry: the first retailer to provide free pickup of used bedding, the first in the Midwest with same-day delivery, and one of the first to offer customers real-time tracking of the trucks delivering their furniture.

These days, the family-owned company, founded in 1912, looks a lot like the second coming of Art Van Furniture, the iconic company that dominated the Michigan and Midwest market until it went out of business in March 2020.

In the past two years, Gardner White took over and rebranded six of the former Art Van stores — Canton Township, Rochester Hills, Saginaw, Shelby Township, Taylor, and Howell. The acquisition brought the company’s store count to 13, with more than 900 total employees.

Early last year, the company moved its headquarters from Auburn Hills into the massive former Art Van headquarters, store-clearance center, and warehouse complex along 14 Mile Road in Warren (between Mound Road and Van Dyke Avenue).

Over the last decade, Alan K. Sussman and the Sussman Agency in Southfield directed Art Van’s marketing and advertising strategy, pumping out nearly 8,000 attention-grabbing television commercials for the furniture and mattress company. Now, Sussman is doing the same for Gardner White. Carolyn Krieger, an Art Van alumnus, is the publicist for Rachel Stewart, president of Gardner White.

Gardner White store in Warren.
Gardner White store in Warren.

One of Art Van’s most significant marketing and public relations successes was its statewide sponsorship of America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is televised across the country from downtown Detroit. Gardner White has assumed the role of the parade’s presenting sponsor into the next decade.

Art Van’s sudden demise coincided with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and both incidents contributed to Gardner White’s ascension to dominance in the southeast Michigan market.

“When somebody leaves a big hole in the market, you fill it,” Sussman says. “At the end of the day, Gardner White stepped up to fill that hole, and they’re great retailers.”

The “they” Sussman is referring to are Stewart, Gardner White’s 37-year-old fourth-generation president, and her parents, Barbara and Steve Tronstein, who are still active in the management of the company.

“I think they recognized there was an enormous void created by the demise of Art Van, and they recognized, correctly, that it was a real opportunity for them to grow to meet the needs of Michigan consumers,” says Bill McLoughlin, editor-in-chief of Furniture Today, the industry’s leading publication.

Unlike other businesses that pulled back or closed during the pandemic, under Stewart’s direction, Gardner White went all out to capture new customers as well as their former rival’s customers.

“We doubled down in the pandemic and took leaps of faith that worked out well,” Stewart says. “For example, in March of 2020, when the world was shutting down and you didn’t know what the future held, people in our industry were canceling their POs (purchase orders) left and right. We never did that and, as a result, we were pretty much the only player in stock in the industry for nearly a year.”

When other retailers cut their marketing and advertising budgets during the pandemic, Stewart saw homebound people parked in front of their television sets as an unprecedented opportunity to reach new customers. She increased spending on her marketing campaign to reach the new audience.

“In retail you’re either growing or you’re dead, so you have to go in every year (pandemic notwithstanding) with a perspective of growth, so that was our plan. The game we tried to play in COVID-19 was that you had to be ready to make fast changes,” Stewart says.
That meant sometimes switching vendors, as well as the locations where products were manufactured.

“Our buying changed, and you just had to keep rolling with it. We’ve changed our lineup a lot,” she says. “We have high-end product in stock that can be delivered today. No one in the state has that.”

Another significant change Stewart instituted at Gardner White was in her buying and leadership teams. All are now female, a deliberate recognition that most furniture shopping is done by women, who usually make the final decisions on purchases.

“I think you’re seeing a lot more fashion-forward looks (in inventory), and you’ll keep seeing that. We have a young female buying team that’s like our consumers,” she says. “It’s a constant evolution. For the past five or six years, we’ve been upping the game, changing the game. The person who does case goods for us is a woman; the person who does upholstery is a woman.”

McLouglin says Stewart’s strategy is long overdue in the industry.

“A historic irony of the furniture business is that the companies’ target is typically female. Very often, it’s the women who make the buying decisions, yet historically all (the merchandise) decisions have been made by men,” he says. “It makes a lot of sense that if you’re going to address a consumer, you have people who are involved in the decision-making process who are reflective of that consumer base.”

McLoughlin, whose publication tracks the furniture industry and its key players, isn’t surprised by Stewart’s bold moves.

Gardner White Furniture Co.
Business: Home and office furniture retailer
Principal: Rachel Stewart, president
Headquarters: Warren
Employees: 900
Revenue: $305M (2021)

“She’s dynamic, focused, and bright — one of the young leaders in the industry,” he says. “She also brings some fresh perspectives. I think she’s somebody the furniture industry is already watching. We’ve been watching her for a number of years, and I think she’s someone who is going to make a mark on the industry. She’s part of an entire new generation coming into the business, taking over the family business.”

He describes Gardner White’s performance during the pandemic as “dramatic,” as the chain catapulted up Furniture Today’s annual list of the Top 100 furniture retailers. It is, in fact, one of the fastest-growing companies on that list.

In the two-year period between 2020 and 2021, Gardner White grew 62.2 percent and reached $305 million in sales in 2021, from $188 million in 2020 (the company reports 2022 revenue in mid-June). For the most recent 2022 Top 100 furniture rankings, it’s now in 39th place.

Decortated corner
After observing how customers would ask delivery crews to move around furniture in their homes, Stewart offered a new service where people can pay to have items moved.

At the same time, the company was twice voted Best Place to Work by its employees ­— accolades that Stewart says make her particularly proud.

She says the cost of freight, driven up by inflation, was her biggest pandemic-related challenge. A furniture container from Asia that previously cost $4,000 to ship jumped to well north of $20,000, she says. That meant a $499 sofa cost the same to ship as one costing $4,999.

“That was a real challenge for us at the lower end, but as inflation is easing, to my surprise, the cost of freight is back to pre-pandemic levels,” she says.

Stewart says retail is a full-time commitment. She’s in the corporate offices five days a week, sometimes accompanied by her dog, Trone, a mixed beagle who has a bed in the conference room. On weekends and holidays, she visits the stores.

She says she’s driven to experiment with new avenues for growth.

“It would kill me to be on the tail end of where retail goes,” she says. “I talk to a lot of retailers, and I’m like, ‘Guys, wake up, the world is going to pass you by,’ ” she says. “I’ll experiment to a fault. We’re experimenting with 3-D printing now. Even though the product might not be there yet, it’s one I want to be on the front end of because it could be really transformative.”

The advantages of 3-D printing could allow the company to ditch much of their parts inventory. A customer with a broken leg on a six-year-old sofa, for example, could draw a schematic of the leg, bring it in to Gardner White, and have a new part made, she envisions.

What’s more, 70 percent of the stores now have design studios where customers can work with creative experts to customize their own furniture, as well as the rooms in which that furniture will be placed.

Stewart’s habit of going on ride-alongs with drivers delivering furniture or mattresses to customers’ homes opened a new source of revenue. She observed homeowners repeatedly asking delivery crews to move existing furniture around their home for them. Now, Gardner White has a service where you can pay to have items moved around in your house, she says.

That experience prompted her to make ride-alongs a requirement for leadership and for new hires. “Retail is a unique beast, and we want them to understand the business no matter what they’re doing — finance, HR, whatever,” Stewart says. “Our CFO just did a ride-along, too.”

Doing whatever it takes to make a sale is ingrained in the company’s culture, she says, and is the focus of constant training of sales staff in product knowledge and affability with customers.

“We were the first in the industry to take away used mattresses, and I think we’re still the only one who will take apart furniture that’s too big to get into a home and reassemble it in the home, because we’ll get over every objection to a sale,” she says.

Gardner White Furniture was founded on Fort Street in Detroit in 1912 by Eugene Clinton White and John G. Gardner. In the 1950s, Stewart’s maternal grandfather, Irwin Kahn, bought the store and operated it until he turned the business over three decades ago to his daughter, Barbara, and son-in-law, Steve Tronstein.

Coincidentally, Kahn and Art Van’s founder, Art Van Elslander, worked together at Crown Furniture in Detroit before starting their competing companies.

Sussman says, based on a shared history, it’s not a coincidence that the two furniture chains are intertwined.

“They have similar DNA because the people who founded them came out of the same retail church, singing out of the same hymnals,” he says. “Whatever resemblance they had was because they both believed in the same kinds of values. They’re both family businesses and they’re both community-driven.”

Although Stewart grew up listening to her parents talking retail around the dinner table, it would have been difficult to predict early on that she would go into the family business.
She graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2002, and went on to the London School of Economics, where she earned a Master of Science degree in economics.

As a child, her father encouraged her love of the outdoors, a passion that morphed into her championing environmental and clean energy issues. That interest led to a job with the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.

Corner window view
Stewart doesn’t envision expanding Gardner White to other markets, citing how hard it is for online furniture retailer Wayfair to maintain a multi-state supply chain.

It was a prelude to signing on with the U.S. Department of Energy during the Obama administration, where she worked on solar energy research and development. During her four years with the energy department, Stewart had the opportunity to work under Dr. Steven Chu, the famed Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

At the end of the Obama administration, she was living in San Francisco and contemplated starting a solar energy company in the Bay area.

She says she realized, however, that while she knew the substance of the solar business, she didn’t know the substance of business. That shortcoming made her rethink joining her parents at Gardner White.

“(Coming home) was especially attractive because I would get the opportunity to learn. In anything you do, you have to understand the guts of it, and I had two parents who were willing to teach me,” Stewart says.

“They were at the point in their lives where they were going to have to invest more in the business and grow it, or think about what their next step was going to be. So, the timing just worked. For the first year my mother was really cautious, saying, Are you really serious? But retail is pretty infectious, so here (I am).”

Stewart says Gardner White’s takeover of the Art Van stores wasn’t motivated by a desire to assume Art Van’s mantle. Rather, it met a pressing need for readily available, well-located retail spaces to accommodate her company’s post-pandemic growth spurt. She points out the Gardner White store located a block-and-half away from the Art Van headquarters was already successful before she moved it into the Warren space.

“That store probably led the industry in sales per square foot, so if you can triple the size by moving here, then surprise, you can be successful and have room to move a terrific team here, as well,” she says. “Today we have a lot of real estate and technology, and we can do a lot more. There’s a lot that Art Van did well. There’s a lot we do well. We try to pick the best people and we’ve grown stronger than either company was before.”
She’s also determined to avoid Art Van’s costly mistake of expansion as far away as Chicago. “That’s definitely not our path. We’ll continue growing in southeast Michigan wherever it makes sense,” she says.
As for competition with online retailers, Stewart says she focuses on what Gardner White does well.

“You do your own thing. You’re not going to outdo Amazon. Wayfair is learning how hard it is to have a thriving supply chain and a profitable business,” she says. “They can’t deliver a sofa and they certainly can’t take a sofa back. That’s just not going to work well for them online.”

Picking up the sponsorship of America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit was an easy call, she says.

“That’s such an iconic event. One thing about Michiganders that makes me crazy is we’re not good at tooting our own horn,” she says. “We have the best parade in the country, and it’s broadcast in 180 markets, so that was an easy one to get behind.”
Sussman says the parade is one of Detroit’s most important traditions. “(Hundreds of thousands of) people come downtown to see it. It’s one of the few ecumenical things we have,” he says. “African-American families, families from the suburbs, it doesn’t seem to matter. The parade is so universally loved by every family in Detroit. Religious background or affiliation, or ethnic groups, don’t matter. The parade seems to lift all boats.”

Apart from her day job, Stewart and her husband, Brian, a dermatologist, are the parents of two young girls.

“I’ve worked for two U.S. presidents, but working with my parents is much harder,” she admits. “The good thing is there’s always someone who has your back and has the business’ back,” she says. “I’ve got little kids. You’re never going to have a colleague who wants you to work your ass off and do your best by the company, and also wants you to get home and be with their grandkids and make sure they’re being raised well. That’s a very unique and useful dynamic.”