He'll spend his birthday greeting customers, but Gary Steinhafel considers the opening of the family's new store this week a worthy celebration.
After an intense eight months and a top-to-bottom renovation of the former EXPO Design Center in Vernon Hills, Steinhafels, the Wisconsin-based furniture and mattress giant, hopes to make a mark with its first Illinois store.
Being ready in time for an Aug. 27 grand opening beat initial expectations, and will allow the company to introduce itself during the busy Labor Day holiday.
Its building at 569 N. Milwaukee Ave. had been vacant for 18 months before the third generation, family-owned business picked it up late last year in a depressed commercial real estate market.
Visitors will see a dramatic change inside and out of what basically had been a 110,000-square-foot box.
Twenty windows, many of them floor-to-ceiling, and four big skylights were added to increase natural light, for example.
"You could have cut doors in the side of that building and made a warehouse out of it -- fortunately, that didn't happen," Vernon Hills' Assistant Village Manager John Kalmar said.
The exterior work exceeded what was approved, he added.
"They've done a wonderful job with the exterior of the building. We couldn't be happier."
The company's investment, which includes the cost of the building, extensive renovation and inventory, is about $15 million, said Steinhafel, the company president.
Inside, every corner of the spacious interior is visible. Departments are delineated by varying ceiling heights, various styles of flooring and other architectural features.
Offerings include hundreds of brands and about 8,000 individual items ranging from assemble-yourself furniture to pieces costing several thousand dollars. There also is a clearance center.
"There is no consumer who should feel they can't afford to shop our stores," Steinhafel said.
The opening is not a push to flood the Illinois market but part of a calculated growth plan for the company that notched $100 million in sales last year. The Vernon Hills store will be the Steinhafels' eighth superstore and first renovation of an existing building. The company also operates eight mattress stores.
The Vernon Hills location is in the company's southern Wisconsin/northern Illinois market, which has been served by a store in Kenosha that opened 16 years ago.
"We've been marketing in Lake County for most of that time," Steinhafel said. "It was part of our strategic decision to dominate in the markets we serve."
Like other retailers, Steinhafels had a banner year in 2007 but took a hit during the recession, absorbing a double-digit loss in 2008 and mid-single digit loss in 2009.
"The last two years we've had modest gains. We're not where we were in '07, but we're getting close," Steinhafel said. Sales the first year at Vernon Hills are estimated at about $25 million.
Furniture retailers were among the leaders in nine major categories that posted sales gains last month, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
While the Vernon Hills move is a risk, the company owns its buildings, inventory, equipment, trucks and other assets.
"We've just been a family business with very steady growth," Steinhafel said. "We're financially very prudent and conservative. That's served us well in good times and bad times."
With its extensive commercial base, Vernon Hills, which is always at or near the top in sales among Lake County communities, also has a stake in what happens.
Steinhafels will receive $729,000 in sales tax rebates over five years, one of several retailers the village has helped in recent years to fill empty big boxes.
"It's a whole new world and I think our board recognized the need to incentivize some of these retailers," Kalmar said. "Filling this space was huge."