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March 2006
A Couple of Wise Guys
By Lisa Hoffmann

Listening to Dan and Daryl Larner describe the months leading up to their opening day, it’s easy to forget that they’re the owners of a thriving retail office furniture outlet. Tales of long days stripping and resealing the concrete floor and painting exposed beams in their 10,000-square-foot showroom are more likely to have you guessing handyman or construction worker. Are they gluttons for punishment? No, just two smart, hard-working guys with a sharply focused vision.

 

Wisdom of Experience

Dan and Daryl Larner grew up watching their businessman father, Dennis, work his way to the top. Dennis Larner was the president of a succession of companies, and stepping up the corporate ladder required family moves almost every year for a while. Their mother, Patricia, an energetic stay-at-home mom, was supportive of them all as they crisscrossed the country.

“The only school I went to two years in a row was the one I was in for my junior and senior years in high school,” laughs Dan Larner, the eldest son. “But I didn’t mind. Looking back, I see that moving around a lot taught me how to relate quickly to people, something that has proven to be extremely valuable.”

Growing up listening to their father tell stories around the dinner table about the trials and tribulations of running a business, Dan and Daryl Larner felt destined for the business world themselves. After college, they both began their careers in the restaurant industry. Dan Larner spent more than ten years working in management positions for Pizza Hut and Daryl Larner managed a Chili’s Grill & Bar. The men agree they gained crucial insights from their experiences.

“The most important thing you learn in the restaurant business is what it takes to satisfy customers,” Dan Larner says. “It’s very simple: People want a quality product, good value and excellent service.”

In January, 2002, Daryl Larner began managing the Office Environments furniture outlet store. Since he regularly purchased product for the store, Office Environments secured him a membership to the OFR Clubhouse, an online interactive office furniture marketplace that facilitates easy communication between brokers and dealers across the country.

“Buying wasn’t my main focus as manager, but there was a lot of information sharing going on between brokers and I started getting more and more involved,” Daryl Larner says. “I learned that many of the brokers I was dealing with were in business for themselves, and that interested me.”

In January, 2005, Office Environments told Daryl Larner they planned to close the outlet store and his position would be dissolved effective that April. “They thought I was going to be upset about the store closing but I saw it as an opportunity to start brokering by myself,” he says. “I knew the client base was there.”

Once Office Environments made their decision on the outlet store, Daryl Larner joined the OFR Clubhouse on his own and began networking. “I figured I’d start out brokering and save enough money to open my own store in a few years,” he says. “Office Environments gave me plenty of notice and a nice severance package so I felt pretty secure.”

Two years prior, with almost two decades of experience in mid- and upper-level management to stand on, Dan Larner had become operations manager at Office Environments’ Charlotte headquarters. The company had changed hands in September, 2004, and he suspected that closing the outlet store wasn’t the only company modification in the works. In February, 2005, he learned that he, too, would soon be out of a job.

 

Smart Strategy

The brothers began formulating a business plan for a retail office furniture store complemented by brokering services. Dan would oversee the nitty-gritty of the business end and Daryl would handle brokering and product acquisition. They agreed to avoid debt by starting small and doing as much as they could by themselves.

“We put the whole thing together on sweat equity,” Dan Larner says. “Everything from day one has come from our personal finances and sales.”

To feed the pipeline, they served customers before the store even opened. Jordan Cain, owner of AmeriFirst Direct, based in Crawfordville, Fla., was their first customer.

“We moved up here from Florida thinking we’d find a great selection and low prices in the ‘furniture capital of the country,’” Cain explains. “Boy, were we wrong. We went from store to store and just couldn’t believe the prices. Then I met Daryl Larner. I gave him our floor plan and he made excellent recommendations for filling the space. And the best part is that we got gorgeous furniture for about 50 percent of what we would have spent at the other places. Since then, they’ve furnished three of our offices. We plan to open about 20 offices over the next three years and we’ll be calling on the Larner’s to furnish them all.”

Years of restaurant experience taught the brothers how to treat customers. Years in the Charlotte furniture business illustrated the need for an office furniture store catering to small and mid-sized businesses. None of it prepared them for how long it would take to find the right location, though.

“We went out looking at places almost every day for more than two months, inspecting close to 100 buildings,” Daryl Larner recalls. “We knew we wanted to keep our overhead low to stay true to the outlet ideal.”

Weighing size, location and visibility against cost, they finally settled on leasing a 14,000-square-foot brick building off Freedom Drive. It was big enough, accessible and the price was right. Although it’s not right on the street, a large lighted sign serves to increase visibility.

Once the location was set, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work installing drywall, painting walls, laying carpet, cleaning and decorating. “We even got our wives involved to make suggestions about the ladies’ room,” Dan Larner explains. “We both know it’s important that people feel comfortable here.

With the showroom ready, Daryl Larner leveraged his brokering experience to stock inventory. He ordered ten trailer loads of liquidated furniture, all of which the brothers unloaded themselves under the blistering August sun. The delivery company parked one or two trailers at the store’s loading dock each morning and the Larners had the day to unload everything. The next morning, the company would collect the empty trailers and return with more furniture.            This went on for about a week.

Knowing all that hard work was putting them closer to opening day made it well worth the effort. “We were tired and hurting every morning but it was a good kind of tired,” Dan Larner explains. “We stayed energized the whole time, thinking about what we were working toward.”

Larner’s Office Furniture Outlet opened its doors in September 2005, just nine months after Daryl Larner had first learned the store he managed was closing.

 

Clever Concept

The Larner’s showroom looks a lot like any office furniture store. Matched sets of new and pre-owned furniture sit neatly together on one side and rows of sturdy file cabinets and bookcases line the back. Orderly rows of desk, break room, lobby, meeting room and task chairs and a variety of tables take up most of the other side. Some of the items look used, but nothing looks anywhere near used up. And many of the pre-owned pieces seem brand new. Well-known brands such as Steelcase, Herman Miller, Haworth and Knoll figure prominently in the mix.

“We have Steelcase file cabinets in here that are just a few years old. They still have decades left in them,” Dan Larner says. “Our customers save about 60 percent by buying them from us, getting excellent durability for the same price they’d pay for a new, but far flimsier, product.”

Daryl Larner only deals with brokers he’s learned he can trust. His enviable reputation among office furniture brokers positions him to locate prime product. And he doesn’t mind sharing.

“Dealing with Daryl is like working with a friend,” says Brian Jacobs, owner of Top of the Line Furniture in Greenville, S.C. “He never misrepresents his product and always does what he says he’s going to do. We’ve partnered together on shipments and I don’t think twice about letting him supervise load-outs. He’s found inventory and offered it to me when I know he could have used it himself. That’s just the kind of businessman he is. Both Dan and Daryl are honest guys who know how to take care of the customer.”

The Larners carefully inspect every item they receive. Anything too damaged to sell is stripped for parts and discarded. They don’t buy damaged goods directly from distributors because they watched a competitor disappoint too many customers with furniture purchased that way. Desks, tables, cabinets and bookcases are cleaned and touched up, drawers are tested and fixed, and they test drive every chair.

“We sit in the chair, try the lift cylinder, roll it around and make sure everything works,” Dan Larner says. “We clean all the upholstery and can have chairs reupholstered if the customer prefers. We don’t ever want anything to come back to us because the customer isn’t happy.”

Their vast furniture selection and price range allows them to cater to a wide range of tastes, needs and pocketbooks. The choices can be a little overwhelming, especially for the business owner on a budget. “We recognize that $1,000 is a lot for some customers and that moving or setting up a new business can be very stressful,” Daryl Larner says. “Once they realize what we can do for them, they start to relax.”

When customers enter Larner’s Office Furniture Outlet looking to furnish a home office or 3,000 square feet of space, they may not expect to receive planning and layout advice, personalized recommendations, myriad reupholstering and refurbishing options and trusted referrals for related services. But that’s exactly what they get, and at considerable savings. “We offer everyone the same level of customer service whether they’re buying one table or an entire office set-up,” Daryl Larner says.

“Dan and Daryl are all about relationships and customer service,” says Terry Cox, executive director of the Business Innovation & Growth Council of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. “They were a tremendous help when I moved from South End into the Chamber.”

 

 

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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