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September 2011
Building Business on Relationships
By Barbara Fagan

     Relationships factor heavily in the business of Larner’s Office Furniture, and not just because the successful office furniture company is owned and run by brothers.

     When Dan and Daryl Larner talk about their company, relationships are mentioned often: relationships with customers, with manufacturers and with the wide network of vendors that complement their business.

     “It takes years and years to develop contacts and relationships,” says Dan Larner, who manages the project scheduling, finance and other internal nuts and bolts needed to run a company. “Our goal is to take care of our customer and build trust and confidence with them and with our vendors.”

     The sales, marketing and purchasing responsibilities are handled by younger brother Daryl, who credits some of his most recent sales successes to the relationships he’s built in local networking groups such as the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club and Midweek Business Connections (MBC).

     “Joining the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club last year was a big step for us,” Daryl Larner explains. “Now we’re meeting all the right people.”

 

Projects Big and Small

     And the current bottom line supports this. Larner’s Office Furniture is enjoying their best year yet. Revenue for the first eight months of 2011 already exceeds revenues for any calendar year they’ve had since opening in 2005.

     US Airways is redoing their executive offices here in Charlotte,” says Daryl, “and we’re supplying all the new product. Also, we were just awarded a project with MacLean Power Systems. The main job starts in October, but they’ve already added to it.”

     Dan mentions other large past projects: Radiator Specialty Company when they moved their offices from Wilkinson Boulevard to Indian Trail, and Senior Living Communities, one of their first customers which has become a continual customer, with projects in their corporate office, other offices and senior living facilities all over the country.

     “Our biggest customers keep coming back to us,” Dan adds. “We’re not the type of company that just wants a big grand slam with a customer. We want them to come back again and again and again.”

     And while the Larners are proud of their large projects, they are equally enthusiastic about their smaller jobs. Many of their customers are small businesses: law firms, mortgage companies and even home offices.

     “The person setting up a home office should thinks of us,” says Daryl. “It would save them money. We have better quality than the box stores.”

 

Executive Looks. Exceptional Prices.

     “When we first opened we offered only two product lines,” Daryl explains, “but because so many furniture manufacturers struggled in the recession we had to reach out to other suppliers in order to be able take care of our customers.”

     Larner’s Office Furniture now represents 37 manufacturers giving customers an extensive and varied selection from which to choose. A generous sampling of new product, spanning a broad range of styles and budgets, is on display at their showroom on Freedom Drive.

     In addition, the Larners have applied their extensive experience and contacts in the industry to acquire a large selection of high-end used furniture. Around a thousand used items that could easily be mistaken for new occupy their 10,000-square-foot outlet showroom, which is also part of their Freedom Drive location.

     “There’s significant savings in buying our refurbished used furniture,” Daryl advises. “On average, customers pay 15 to 20 percent of what they’d pay for new and they can get a higher quality product for their dollar.”

     Jim Abbott, chairman of American Security Mortgage, agrees on the cost savings. He purchased 50 work cubes from Larner’s Office Furniture. “They were all reupholstered and looked great,” he says, “and the price was incredibly good. I’ve been impressed with the selection of high quality, gently-used furniture they offer.”

     Talking about their used furniture inventory, Dan says, “We set ourselves apart from the competition in our attention to detail. We touch up the wood, reupholster or shampoo upholstered items and make sure everything is clean, has all its parts and functions properly.”

     “We’ve had customers who’ve bought a file cabinet from somewhere else,” adds Daryl, “and when they get it back to their office they realize it doesn’t have a key or rails. So they come to us to buy the missing parts and we’re happy to help them but they end up paying more for the item. They should have just come here first.”

     But anyone who has purchased office furniture knows that the good product alone is only part of the story.

     Lenita Woodruff, of Fleetnet America, Inc., has worked with Larner’s for the past five years and says that Larner’s emphasis on communication is one of the qualities that makes them exceptional.

     “They follow up when the order has been placed and again about delivery dates,” she says. “I usually work with Mary Kegley at Larner’s and I was very impressed when Mary interrupted her vacation to call and take care of an issue for us.”

     Jim Abbott mentions timely delivery and prompt installation as a few of the qualities he most values in his dealings with the company.

     “We had a 50-cubicle project to set up but didn’t want to interrupt our business,” he remembers. “The installers arrived on Friday night, worked late and came in all day Saturday and part of Sunday to finish. Not only was it ready and functional for our employees on Monday at 8 a.m., it was available for workers Sunday afternoon.”

     Abbott has also used Larner’s Office Furniture to furnish American Security Mortgage offices in Wilmington, Virginia Beach and Fayetteville.

     “I can’t imagine doing business with anyone else,” he says.

     It seems other customers feel that way as well. Daryl tells of how Central Piedmont Community College pulled strings to go outside of their contract and purchase from Larner’s Office Furniture. Daryl was told doing so saved almost half of the college’s allotted budget which could then be used for other pressing school needs.

     Lenita Woodruff is so loyal to Larner’s Office Furniture that in anticipation of her retirement this December, she has already passed on Larner’s information to her successor with explicit instructions that all future business be booked with them.

     Charlotte is very lucky to have them,” says Woodruff. “They are ‘top of the line.’”

 

Local with a National Network

     “We’re here for the long term,” says Dan, when speaking of Charlotte. “We are investing in this community. Our labor is the people who live here. We outsource to quality local companies.”

     But even with an emphasis on the local, Dan is quick to add that the network of vendor relationships they’ve carefully developed over the years allows them to assist a customer anywhere in the country.

     “It’s not cost effective to service everything from Charlotte,” he explains, “but we have partnerships with installers, brokers and delivery people nationwide. This way we can keep costs down.”

     Daryl mentions their membership in the OFR Clubhouse, an exclusive interactive online marketplace for the office furniture industry.

     “We have good confidence in OFR members,” he says. “I know most of them, so I have exactly who I need in the right area. We’ve handled projects in Minnesota, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania and we have particularly strong partnerships and presence in the D.C. area and Virginia.”

     “We can service anywhere,” Dan adds.

 

One-Stop- Shopping

     A glance at their sales brochure or a click on their website reveals another reason why Larner’s Office Furniture is having a record year. In addition to furniture sales, the company offers 12 other complementary products and services that include furniture rentals, brokering and repair, as well as space planning and design.

     “Both of us can help with office design,” says Dan. “We’re happy to give our input. For larger projects we have a designer who can assist the customer. Sometimes even a manufacturer can help with the layout.”

     “We had a customer,” Daryl remembers, “who wanted to put two workstations in what was basically a closet. So I asked her what her goals were and she said she wanted to grow the office to 10 people. That’s when I suggested she talk to the design person that works with us. The designer came in and now they have space for 13 more people, and it’s good space.”

     When asked about advice on setting up a home office, Dan notes space, budget and visibility as key factors.

     “It’s a very personal thing, but if your home office is say, right across from the dining room and one of the first rooms someone sees when they walk in the door, you’ll need to furnish it very differently than if it were in your basement.”

     Custom furniture is another service offered and can be handled two ways.

     “We have a woodworker who can custom build what a customer wants,” explains Dan. “We also represent a manufacturer named Colecraft that makes furniture to order.”

     “We have a pending order now for a judges’ bench for the Charlotte School of Law,” Daryl says.

     “We’re hoping our new website will help people know that we do everything having to do with offices,” says Dan.

 

Common Sense Approach

     When asked about the success of the business and his customers’ loyalty, Dan is quick to respond: “The biggest thing is serving the customer.”

     But it’s obvious that any company which has survived and thrived in the recent economic climate must have a smart business strategy.

     “Our plans have changed some since we first opened,” Dan shares, “but the basic way our business works is the same. We keep overhead low. We don’t sit on an excessive amount of inventory. We want to go long term. We’re not going to pop into someplace, make some money and then disappear. I say, let’s do it right.”

     Dan credits this strategy with how Larner’s, a fairly new company when the recession began, made it financially through difficult times.

     “The end of 2008 to 2009 were tight for us,” Dan says, “but during that time we didn’t cut back; we invested. We started work on our website, increased marketing, hired an outside sales person and increased our product lines. We were trying to build so that when we came of the recession we were ready.”

     And Daryl believes that as companies come out of the recession their mindsets will be very different.

     “They will be much more budget-minded in their future purchases,” he says. “The companies that can give the customer the most for their money will be the winners. We’re positioned perfectly for that.”

     When asked about the future, Dan answers simply, “More people. We just offered a job to a sales and marketing person this morning. The focus is on more people to go out and build relationships.”

     “And of course, as they succeed, we’ll need more people internally to support those new relationships,” adds Daryl.

     An emphasis on relationships; it’s key to the ongoing success of Larner’s Office Furniture.

Barbara Fagan is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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