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This Furniture Seller Steers Clear of Common Marketing (cont.)

Reprinted from:
"Success Secrets of Sacramento's Business Professionals"
Article

Click on each link beside each bullet point to go directly to that portion of the article, or, just move the mouse to navigate down the page to read the entire article.

 

 

.. Steve took a roundabout road to selling used office furniture. He served for two years in the military, worked as a longshoreman, assisted an evangelist in southern California, and finally worked with local office furniture sellers before he embarked on his own furniture-selling business ten years ago.


Now, with his wife, Twila, working beside him, and with the help of eight other employees, Steve keeps his 26,000-square-foot store stacked to its fourteen-foot ceilings with desks and tables and chairs and file cabinets and more. He is in the unusual and enviable position of benefiting from the struggling local economy.


Not only do downsizing and failing businesses sell him their furniture, allowing him to keep his store well stocked, but people who might not have considered buying used furniture in a booming economy visit his store and happily discover high-quality stock at excellent prices.


Years ago wary of more traditional methods of advertising, which tend to be costly and cannot ensure results, Steve invested in the two plastic cows. To his Surprise, they appealed as much to the public is they did to him. Today, they still inspire smiles and laughter and continue to bring customers to his door.
"Where I see a crowd, I see an opportunity."

For years, I moved from one unsatisfying job to another. After I graduated from James Marshall High School in West Sacramento, I went to college part time and had a job with the Port of Sacramento. Then I was drafted. After two years, I returned to Sacramento and worked as a longshoreman with a rice mill and immediately started feeling disenchanted.


It was hard, dusty work, and people literally had to die for someone to be promoted. One day, we found one of the forklift drivers dead. Before the paramedics took him away, some of my fellow workers were standing in front of our job steward, arguing over who would tike his position. I got chills from that. I asked myself if I really wanted to stay and do this for a living.

 

 


A DIFFERENT KIND OF COLLEGE

Throughout my life, I've been blessed with father figures to assist in my education. Paul Trulin, the pastor of my church is one of those men. I spoke to him about my discontent in
the warehouse, and soon after that, he called to tell me that there was a work opportunity in southern California with an evangelist.


Each year, the evangelist would lead crusades all over the world and hold twelve to fifteen meetings in the United States, and he always brought along an advertising package. He needed a production manager to help create this material and run his mailroom, so I drove clown with my wife and our young son, Zachary.

My first responsibility after I was hired was drafting a letter to the people who didn't get the job. It soon became evident that I didn't have strong communication skills. Some people call me unpolished because I have what I call a chainsaw personality. I have a knack for cutting through the rhetoric, for interrupting people who use too many words. I was more interested in getting things done than in sounding polished.

I look at that time as the equivalent of a college education, not only because it ran about four years, but because of all the experience I gained.


LAYING THE FOUNDATION

What impressed the most about my supervisor was his ability to get things done. He taught me how to break tasks down; how to use time lines; and how to work with schedules, vendors, and employees. Basically, he taught me how to take all the tools and use them to accomplish my work. He also taught me how to speak in front of groups.

People who know me now may he surprised to hear that there was a time when I was afraid to talk to more than two people at a time. In high school, if I was asked to read aloud to the class, I would take an F instead. He forced me to perform. Once I overcame my fear of public speaking, I realized what a tremendous tool that skill really is. Today, I have the confidence to talk in front of almost any group.

 




DEVELOPING A CORPORATE IDENTITY

When we started this store, we wanted to be seen as a legitimate and acceptable. We wanted stature. My wife and I took a few management courses, and one of them emphasized corporate identity. We decided that our company color would be royal blue, like IBM's blue, but brighter. We had blue shirts made with our names embroidered on them. Our sign was blue. For the first few years, everything was blue.

Later, we bought a four-door pickup truck for the company - red with a long white stripe down the sides. One say after that, my dad advised me, "You need to be more aggressive in the marketplace." Red is a very aggressive color, and it was Dad's favorite, so was changed our company colors to red and white to match the truck. I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but that decision opened the door for RUOFS.



A NEW FACE
About five years ago, I was called out the the Elk Grove Meat Market. It had closed, and the owners wanted to sell off their furniture. They had a barn filled with meat grinders and rusty desks and storage cabinets. I was going to offer them $100 for everything. Then I noticed that they had a life-size red and white plastic cow.

The colors matched the colors of our truck almost perfectly. I asked, "How much would it be if you threw him in?" The guy thought a minute and asked, "You don't know anybody who would want to buy that, do you?" I said, "Yeah, I do." It's a little embarrassing to say, but I spent $200 on him.

Now he stands in front of our store every day! Small businesses need to see an immediate return for their advertising, but no one can guarantee that kind of response. What we've tried to do is create an environment that demands a response. RUOFS has that ability. Just by standing there, he reaches out and touches the eight-year-old in everybody who sees him.

 




SURPRISING CELEBRITY
Since I was a kid, growing up in a house with eleven other kids, I've always hated to be ignored. I'd rather be foolish just to be noticed. RUOFS allows us to get attention and to have some fun. We dress him up for the holidays. Once we dressed him up as Elvis. We put corny signs on him: "When you want a good deal on office furniture, sometimes you've gotta grab the bull by the horns."

"We're the Merrill Lynch of office furniture.  We're bullish on office furniture." "Sacramento is a one-cow town . . . and I'm its favorite son." He's also my alter ego. He says things that I wouldn't be comfortable saying on my own. Shortly after Pete Wilson became governor, he raised the state sales tax, so we put a sign on RUOFS, "Governor Pete, Read my lips. Ax the new tax."

The day we put that sign on him, a newsman from a local TV station actually came out the the store with his crew. I wasn't expecting them, of course. I was out running errands when they arrived, and they waited a half-hour for me to return. My wife met me at the back of the store with a fresh red Ruland's shirt.

I quickly changed shirts, and then I went up to the front. The newsman asked me, "What's our beef with the governor?" He didn't care what I had to say. He just wanted to use that pun. That spot ran at five and eleven that night and twice the next day. Do you know how much I would have had to pay for television exposure like that?

A few years ago, RUOFS was stolen. I had taken him home for a party and left him unprotected in my driveway. I got him back, but before I did, I had seven radio interviews. Three were live from my truck, where the DJs tracked me down. We also received coverage in The Sacramento Bee . My competition swore I made the story up for the attention. I didn't, but I sure enjoyed the publicity

 




A LARGE COW, A LARGER IMPRESSION

People have always enjoyed RUOFS, but I didn't realize how big an impression he made until I spoke with a friend of mine who was a lieutenant for the Sacramento Sheriff's Department. He used to drive by my store late at night. He told me once, "I used t see RUOFS out there on the sidewalk in front of your store, watching the place.

It was as though he worked night for the sheriff's department." The thing is, I've never left him on the street overnight. This man is a police officer, an expert witness, and even he swears he's seen him out there. RUOFS makes a huge impression on people.  



MARKETING ON THE HOOF

After people got to know RUOFS, a man came by the store and threw a newspaper down in front of me. The headline read, "Does Anybody Want a Cow?" A school district up in Downieville had been given a rust-colored fiberglass cow on wheels, and they didn't know what to do with him.

The district couldn't take money for him, so I gave them furniture instead, and I got a mobile cow. I don't advertise much, and I thought he would be a great promotion. I was right. Our marketing strategy was simple.[[
Where I see a crowd, I see an opportunity. I grew up in an era in which street evangelists would walk around in search of a crowd. We will attend a fund-raising march, for example, and we'll take RUOFS along. If there's a camera crew out there, you can bet they'll take a shot of our cow.

On one side, we may put a sign that asks for contributions to the cause: "Help us turn this red cow green." On the other side, it says, "My brother sells office furniture." We like to help, but we also want to help ourselves. Small businesses need to position themselves to win all the time.

 




VULNERABILITY OF SMALL BUSINESS
We buy business assets every day, so I know that small businesses don't die a natural death. A business may have had the best month it's ever had, but if one transaction goes wrong, the business can be killed. There are a hundred ways for a small business to die: a cash flow problem, an insurance claim, a divorce, an unjust lawsuit. A big guy can squeeze a little guy out simply by harassing him through an attorney.


EVERYBODY WINS
One of our strategies is avoiding dealers who attack a particular market. If there's a really strong competition in one specific area, we stay out of it. That's why brand-new office furniture represents only 10 percent of our sales. What I like about selling used furniture is that everybody wins. Because list price for new furniture is so high, when I have a piece that looks as good as new, I can sell it for a third or half that and still make a profit.

Some people come in here prepared to make a volume purchase and to pay in cash. I make my best deals in situations like that. We also provide good deals to nonprofit organizations and small businesses working on a minimal budget. If someone comes in here ready to tell me exactly what they need, I can give them more for their money than anyone else in town.

Instead of focusing on individual prices, we wait until we've gathered all the pieces. Then we figure a percentage discount and throw in an extra piece of furniture or floor mats to boot.




DON'T FORGET THE BANK
I was at a meeting recently where an articulate man presented his very detailed business plan. He was in the middle of it when I became impatient and gave him a taste of that chainsaw personality of mine. I interrupted him and asked, "Does your plan mention how many times you go to the bank?"

The fact is, if you want to stay in business, you have to make deposits at the bank. You have to be able to tell your clients that you don't give your goods or services away, and many people starting out have a very difficult time with that concept.

I admit that about 5 percent of my business involves bartering, but I consider it icing on the cake. I'm very careful not to sacrifice the cake for the bartering deal. What really makes a small business work is the influx of cash.



TAKING CARE OF SELLERS AND BUYERS

I belong to a leads group that has been very helpful. I tell the others in the group that the best tip they can give me is news about a company that is talking about moving or downsizing. There are other stores in town that do what I do, but if I show up first, I'm the one who ends up with the furniture. In those situations the office dwindles down until someone is faced with the responsibility of liquidating a lot of furniture.

He may have no idea what to do. He may not even know what the company paid for the furniture he now has to sell. I can take the burden off his shoulders and put it onto mine. I have the knowledge and the resources to take care of him and to provide my customers with furniture at a good price while still making a profit for myself.

 





THE MOTHER OF THE BUSINESS

My wife, Twila, is in charge of administration at our store. She's the brains and the mother of the business. She has tremendous faith in me, and that's the most important thing she brings into our partnership. For the first ten years of our marriage, she stayed home to raise our three children: Zachary, who's now twenty-two; Joshua, who is twenty; and Stephanie, who is eighteen.

If you ever want to find someone qualified to be a general manager of a small business, find a mom. Look at her experience. She was a room mother and a team mother and a den mother.

She kept the shot records up to date. She made sure the children got to the dentist. She took care of all the appointments and the household chores. Those are all transferable skills to be a general manager in a small business. She can take care of the employees. She can make sure that the services are taken care of. She can pay the bills. What more could you ask for?


FOLLOWING THROUGH
You'll find that your business will rise above your competitions if you simply do what you promise to do. Many people don't do what they say they will. They like to change their mind and back out of promises. If you do what you say you're going to do, you're already on the road to success.

When I hire people, I tell them, "One of your responsibilities is to make my word good. If someone walks into the store tomorrow and I'm not here, and they say that I told them I would sell a chair to them at half off, sell that chair to them at half off." It's very important to me that we do what we promise we'll do.







CREATING A COMFORTABLE ENVIRONMENT

Do the best you can with the resources you have. Play with the cards you were dealt. Take everything you've learned and use it. Treat people fairly, as you would like to be treated. One of my personal goals in business is to keep everybody in the game. Help other small businesses to succeed, and you are helping yourself. The more they grow, the more they need me.

If you're a partner in a business, you need to realize that only one person can be in charge. Democracy is good, but it doesn't necessarily work well in business. Each partner has particular skills and abilities, and each should have defined responsibilities. One needs to have a vision of how the business should be run and what the goals are.

One has to have the final word. Business survives best as a kingdom with a benevolent ruler. Prepare a good business plan that allows you to measure your own progress. One day you may wake up to find that your business is growing in a direction that's different from the one you intended. If the new direction is profitable, be prepared to change your plan.

Don't change the direction of your business to fit your plan. Keep good records. Write everything down. Remember who your good customers are. Know what their needs are. Don't simply show up and write an order down. Spend time talking with them.

Find out what they really want and what their goals are. Ask yourself, "What can I do to help them achieve their goals?" Create an environment where you feel comfortable, where you are playing a game that you know how to win, where everyone can win. You may even have created the game yourself.





CREATING YOUR OWN PLAYING FIELD

All things come to he who hustles while he waits. I'm prepared to run twice as far and twice as fast. After you decide that you're not going to be the president ad you're not going to do this and you're not going to do that, and you discover that there are many guys out there who are a lot smarter than you are, you recognize that you've carved out a little playing field of your own.

We have a game of our own. Who in Sacramento determines the value of used office furniture? I do. We are a small business that appeals to every other small business. We're like a gas station for businesses. When the last business goes out of business in Sacramento, then we can quit. The other day, a woman asked me, "Why do you sell used furniture?" I said, "Because that is where I am."

It just turned out that way. I don't know anyone more suited to do this than I am, and I don't know anyone who enjoys what he's doing as much as I do. I intend to be in the used office furniture business for many more years.

I tell my children, "If I win the lottery next week, think of all the used office furniture I could buy!" There's a bumper sticker that reads, "The Worst Day Fishing Is Better Than the Best day at Work." Anyone who believes that has never put a good deal together. They've never landed an account that brings in $1,000 a month. They haven't had that satisfaction.




Steve Ruland
Ruland's Used Office Furnishings
215 North 16th Street
Sacramento, CA  95811
916-441-0706