Reflecting back on 80 years, Walter E. Smithe Jr. looks toward the future
Just about anyone in Chicago can hum his store's jingle and his name is well known, largely thanks to the quirky television advertisements his three sons have done since 2000.
Walter E. Smithe Jr. turned 80 this week and, even though he is officially retired (remember when he drove off in that red convertible in one 2013 commercial?), he still drives to four of the family's 11 stores every Saturday in order to socialize with customers and design consultants, alike.
Walter E. Smithe Custom Furniture, based in Itasca, is the epitome of a family business. All three of Walt and Florence Smithe's sons -- Walter III, Tim and Mark -- are well-known to television viewers. One of their four daughters, Margaret, was in the business for awhile but has now moved on. In addition, four of their granddaughters are now taking their respective places in the family firm. In total, Walt and Florence have seven children, 19 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
Even though the Walter E. Smithe Furniture that we all know so well was officially founded in 1982, Smithe traces his roots in the business back much further -- to 1945. That is when his father, Walter E. Smithe Sr., met Bill Shanahan while the two were working at the Douglas Aircraft plant at O'Hare Field.
The two knew that with World War II ending, GIs would be coming home, starting families and buying houses. The two were astute enough to realize those new families would need to buy lots of supplies for their homes, including refrigerators, stoves, washers and dryers. No household appliances had been manufactured since the war began. All of the country's manufacturing resources had been devoted to the war effort.
"So they went into business together and opened Tone Appliance on West Belmont (Avenue) in the Schorsch Village neighborhood of Chicago. I was 9 at the time and I can remember helping out in the store, cleaning and polishing appliances and later, driving a delivery truck," Smithe recalled. "In those days the appliances and televisions went out the door as fast as they were delivered and before long, at the urging of a newspaper ad salesman, they changed the store's name to 'Smithe and Shanahan' and eventually moved it to Belmont and Central."
Smithe graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1958, married Florence Flynn, a nursing student, and worked for his father at Smithe and Shanahan. He did marketing and sales for the six months he had off before reporting to the Army to fulfill his service obligation required because he had been an ROTC student during college.
During that short period, Smithe convinced his father and Bill Shanahan to allow him to display a silver aluminum Christmas tree in a small area of the store's entryway, starting right after Labor Day. They offered homeowners the opportunity to purchase a tree on layaway, paying a little bit each week so they would have it in time for the holiday. The promotion was a huge success and Smithe gained some confidence in his marketing instincts.
Then he went off to the Army where they put him to work for two years, teaching and preparing Army personnel to deal with the computers that were already on the horizon.
Smithe was so good with computers that when he left the Army, General Electric hired him for its computing division. Later, IBM's data processing division hired him as a printing and publishing specialist.
In 1966, he chose to rejoin the family appliance business.
"One day a new salesman came in, representing a small custom sofa shop, and the guy who usually handled vendors pushed him off on me," Smithe remembered. "We had been handling a very limited amount of furniture in a corner of our 800-square-foot showroom.
"I was probably naive but he promised me that his shop could deliver custom sofas in only 30 days and I was the only one who believed him. They laughed at me for trusting him but he came through and did as promised -- and that is when we started offering custom furniture," he said.
"Integrity is the foundation of our business and it always has been. If we say we are going to do something, we do it. That is something that is so overlooked in business today. Because of that emphasis on integrity, we still actively seek out shops and vendors who also deliver what they promise," Smithe said.
"I got really excited about the custom-order furniture business at that point and we continued to expand it. I was running the business with my brothers, Gary and Tomm, by then and we opened a 4,500-square-foot store in Park Ridge selling custom order sofas and chairs," he said.
When Smithe was ready to open a second furniture store, he came to an amicable parting of the ways with his brothers.
"They were reluctant to expand again. They were comfortable with what they were doing at Belmont and Central so I sold them my interest in Smithe and Shanahan and they sold me their interest in the Park Ridge store," Smithe said.
Smithe credits his master's degree in anthropology, which he earned while working full time at the store, with his ability to understand changing demographics. He saw how the Belmont and Central neighborhood was shifting. Smithe knew the suburbs were where the growth was taking place then.
So in 1982 he sat down with Walt III, a fairly recent college graduate, and they incorporated Walter E. Smithe Custom Furniture -- formulating its mission, business plan, slogan (You dream it, we build it!) and much more.
"We looked at the map of the Chicago area and realized it formed a crescent. So, we decided to open stores throughout that crescent, from north to south, so that all the stores were within a half-hour of each other and located in communities with name appeal. We opened a store in Schaumburg, followed by one in Arlington Heights, and on and on -- up until the recession. Today we have 11 stores that cover the region well, including the city." he said.
Smithe's granddaughter Meghan Clarke, the company's director of marketing, said the family considers its website, smithe.com, to be the 12th store and they are currently placing a lot of emphasis on it.
"What makes Walter E. Smithe Furniture different is we like to know what our clients are thinking so that we can filter those ideas back into our stores. We offer furniture at a broad range of price points and we actually 'test drive' our furniture to make sure its quality is what our clients expect," she said.
Smithe said employees have all noticed a trend among millennials, in particular, where people want to get things very quickly because they are used to ordering something online and getting it within a day or two. So Smithe stores have tried to speed up delivery when possible.
"But everyone understands you can't build a custom sofa overnight," he said.
That creates a marketing challenge for Clarke, who is Walt III's daughter.
"My dad says life is too short for uncomfortable furniture," she said. "We are trying to get the point across to millennials, like me, that you want furniture in the latest styles and colors, but you should also want it to be comfortable and well-made so it lasts and looks nice longer than a year. We are working hard to offer well-made, designer furniture at a broad range of price points.
"We are knocking down the borders. People say we are too expensive, too traditional, their parents' furniture store. We are fighting all of those attitudes by bringing in renowned designers like Thomas O'Brien, Jeff Lewis and Cynthia Rowley, who all have their collections in our stores. In fact, Jeff Lewis filmed one of his 'Flipping Out' shows for Bravo here with us recently. It is supposed to air in mid-August," Clarke said.
Looking into his crystal ball, Smithe said he expects Walter E. Smithe Custom Furniture to anticipate and react to changes in the marketplace so it continues to hold the interest of its clients of all ages. In addition, he expects the stores' presence on social media to grow even further as the fourth generation of Smithes becomes more and more active in the business.
Today Walter E. Smithe Custom Furniture employs 352 people across the area. The third generation of Smithes runs the show, with Walter III as chief operating officer, handling general management, accounting and marketing. Mark is vice president and corporate counsel. He also oversees warehouse operations and developed Smithe's client services department, which today employs 31 people looking after customers' after-purchase needs. Tim, who developed Smithe's popular advertising program, took an early retirement late last year in order to pursue his dream of writing a book and delivering motivational speeches. But he remains "on-call" if the family needs him.