After four decades in Lake County, furniture industry survivor calling it a career

 
 
Updated 8/30/2018 5:58 PM
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  • After 41 years in a tough business, Gary O'Reilly is retiring at the end of September.

      After 41 years in a tough business, Gary O'Reilly is retiring at the end of September. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

  • The store name will remain but Gary O'Reilly, who began selling furniture in Libertyville's Greentree Plaza store in 1977, will be calling it a career at the end of September.

      The store name will remain but Gary O'Reilly, who began selling furniture in Libertyville's Greentree Plaza store in 1977, will be calling it a career at the end of September. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

For 41 years in a tough business, Libertyville furniture store owner Gary O'Reilly has outlasted many well-known competitors in the Chicago area.

John M. Smyth's Homemakers, Thomasville, Plunkett, Wickes, Aronson, Bay, Lathrop, Leath and others -- O'Reilly matter-of-factly ticks off once familiar operators.

"They're all gone," says O'Reilly, who at different locations and names has navigated shifts in the industry and economy to stay afloat.

He contends the industry's move years ago to having its wood furniture made in China led to deflation, a steep drop in prices and the demise of many stores. O'Reilly weathered those and other storms.

"If you treat people right and give them a good product, they'll come back," he says of his longevity. While there is more to running a successful business O'Reilly, 66, says that has been a bottom-line for the duration.

Finally, the run is ending but it will be on his own terms. At the end of September, O'Reilly will call it a career and move to Nashville, Tennessee, where he is having a home built.

Until then, he'll be prowling the showroom at O'Reilly's Furniture & Amish Gallery in the Greentree shopping center on South Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville. His role changed on July 14, when the sale became official.

"Now, I'm an employee on the floor and I love selling furniture," said O'Reilly, a call it as he sees it, pull no punches type of guy with a savant-like memory for numbers, like the cost of furniture, rent or advertising rates 20 years ago.

He's staying as a consultant through September to new owner Mike Walsh. As part of the deal, Walsh is keeping the store name.

"The single biggest reason I bought the store is because Gary has built a really good business model," Walsh said. "People recognize the name immediately."

O'Reilly entered the furniture business in 1972 as a worker bee in Fox Lake. A few years later partnered with a buddy in their own store in Round Lake Beach. That pairing dissolved and O'Reilly in the summer of 1977 opened a tiny showroom in Libertyville. He stayed 24 years, expanding to 31,000 square feet.

In 2002, he bought the Dickson Weatherproof Nail Co. building on Route 176 in Libertyville and created an enormous 90,000-square-foot store and warehouse called O'Reilly's Fine Furniture Galleries Inc.

However, within three years, the corporation filed for bankruptcy and a $586,122 judgment against the company involving the move from Greentree became final.

"It was a very, very expensive life lesson," O'Reilly said at the time. He retired for 10 months in 2008 but couldn't stand the inactivity and opened a storefront in Vernon Hills.

Five years ago, O'Reilly in a full circle move returned to Greentree, taking six storefronts and 15,000 square feet.

By then, he had reinvented his business model and was dealing with about 40 Amish builders, which allows buyers to customize the type of wood, color of stain and size of furniture they wanted.

"Amish is our specialty," he told Mayor Terry Weppler April 3 during a "Mayor's Business of the Day" video. "It separates us from all those low-end, big box stores that are popping up -- the low-end garbage stuff."

A lot of people know O'Reilly personally but many others only know the store and won't realize the man who estimates having sold about $150 million worth of furniture in his career, no longer is running the show.

"When it's time to go, I'll probably be a blubbering idiot," he said.

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