John Gabbert grew up in the furniture business. To be precise: at Gabberts, a popular Midwestern retail chain founded by his father. As the elder Gabbert nursed a heavy golf habit, John began to take on more and more roles within the company. By his mid-20s, he was running the operation. But in the midst of a stagnating late 1970s economy, his father stepped back in, planning to split the business in two between John and his younger brother. “I said, ‘No, thank you,’” recalls Gabbert, who abruptly left for a period of “wandering” that would ultimately lead to launching a furniture company, Room & Board.
At the time of its founding in 1980, Minneapolis-based Room & Board was something of a reaction against the prevailing trends in the furniture business: importing everything; a top-down approach to product design; and an obsession with novelty. Instead, Gabbert developed a business based on American manufacturing; streamlined, clean styles; and an avoidance of newness for its own sake. At its base, his concept was, and is, simple: “I want to work with people I like and trust every day,” he tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “I want to sell product I’m really proud of, and I want to do it in a way that’s fair to everyone—I want to sell [to] everyone just like they’re my best friend.”
Elsewhere in the episode, Gabbert describes the business books that became his “bible,” why he’s always turned down private equity money, and why, despite what people say, furniture is nothing like fashion.
Crucial insight: In an effort to foster a company culture based around serving customers as opposed to maximizing dollars, Room & Board does not pay its sales force on commission. “I don’t believe in that at all. If someone’s working on commission, they’re working for themselves, not you,” says Gabbert. “Some people love being on commission; they love the competition. They don’t work for us. It’s not the kind of person that gets our culture. The people that fit our culture are people who are really there to help people.”
Key quote: “[The conventional wisdom in the furniture business was] that they were trying to make it a fashion business, and I just didn’t see it that way. It was all about new, new, new,” says Gabbert. “We got completely away from this idea of fashion and product changing. Some of the products we introduced in the late ’80s, we still make today.”
The Thursday Show
BOH executive editor Fred Nicolaus joins host Dennis Scully to discuss the biggest news in the industry, including a design media shake-up, an update on the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams bankruptcy and a look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s new experiment in hospitality. Later, Christi Barbour, the High Point Market Authority’s first interior designer board chair, shares her thoughts on an evolving market.