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Brothers' persistence pays off for furniture store.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

As a kid, David Fendrich played hide and seek among the sofas, beds and dining room tables at Brenner's Furniture, while his parents, Nathan and Beatrice Fendrich, presided over the family business.

Now, with his older brother, Jack, David runs the place. In the past six years, the two have transformed the showroom and increased sales. They've done it while keeping their store in downtown Eugene during a time when other merchants fled to malls or gave up and closed their doors.

In the past 1 1/2 years, the brothers' persistence has paid off. The Fendrichs saw a 30 percent increase in sales during that period, David Fendrich said. The two attribute the growth to a veteran sales staff working as a team, fast turnaround on orders and deliveries and new products that attract buyers.

That's no small feat, considering the state of the economy, both nationally and locally.

Furniture retail sales have been flat since 2001, with just a few retailers reporting 3 percent growth during the past three years, said Mike Pierce, spokesman for the National Home Furnishings Association, a nonprofit trade group.

"Somebody with 30 percent growth anytime, that's phenomenal, but in this economy, I think that's incredible," Pierce said.

Jack and David Fendrich represent the third generation of a family of merchants who have had a presence in downtown Eugene going back to 1926.

That's when Sarah and Karl Fendrich, Latvian immigrants and Nathan's parents, opened the Eugene Bargain Store at 206 W. Eighth Ave., kitty-corner to the family's current location.

In those days, the shop sold secondhand goods. The 1929 Eugene phone directory lists this ad for the Fendrichs' store: "JUNK WANTED: Furniture, Rags, Sacks, Metal, Tools, Clothing - For Highest Prices Call Us."

But tragedy struck the Fendrich family in 1936, when Karl Fendrich died in a truck and train collision. Nathan was only 2 years old at the time.

Two years later, his mother married Jack Brenner, who moved the store a half-block away and made some merchandising changes.

The store became Brenner's Hardware and Furniture, a joint effort of both his parents that thrived well into the 1950s before undergoing its next metamorphosis. By 1956, under pressure from national chains such as Sears, Jack Brenner dropped the sale of tools.

"As hardware faded, furniture became more and more important," Nathan said. He stepped into the family business in 1960, having served in the Army from 1953 to 1956, then working in furniture stores in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

Nathan slowly took on more management work and by 1965, his parents eased back their involvement in the store. But they never quite gave it up, Nathan said. It was only after they died - Jack in 1985 and Sarah in 1986 - that Nathan took over.

Through those years, he had considerable help from his wife, Beatrice, whom he married in 1974 and whose son Jack by a previous marriage he adopted.

"He'd call up and say, 'Get down here, we're busy,' ' she said. And off she'd go. She'd do whatever needed doing - answering phones, doing the bookkeeping, buying furniture accessories such as mirrors.

"From time to time I also had to run the office, so I was always more or less there," she said.

Nathan plays down his business skills, but acknowledges a talent for buying furniture at a good price that he could turn around and sell.

As an independent businessman, he could make snap decisions that national chain store managers couldn't, such as accepting factory overstock on a moment's notice.

"I had the flexibility to maneuver," he said.

And he had a sense of what would sell, keeping what he called "buying errors" low, which meant fewer unpopular sofas and chairs hanging around for long periods or being sold at a huge discount.

David, now 25, remembers his dad as an extremely hard worker who was at the store seven days a week.

Son Jack entered the business when he was 20, in his third year of college at the University of Oregon, where he was working on a business degree.

But he got no special treatment from his parents. They put him to work delivering furniture, and it was several months before he was allowed onto the sales floor.

He got so engrossed in the work, he didn't go back to finish his degree.

"I saw the potential of the business to be so much more with my involvement," Jack said.

Under Nathan, the store was famous for its variety of merchandise on site. The showroom was wall-to-wall furniture with narrow aisles.

Jack wanted to widen the aisles and improve the store ambiance to attract more customers.

Nathan, recalling those days, laughed.

"I used to say, 'I can't sell aisles!' ' he said.

In the mid-'80s, the store was still stuck in the dark ages, technologically. There were only two phone lines and no computers. The place hadn't been remodeled in years.

Nathan resisted change, especially the change to computers, he said.

"I always kept the stock in my head," he said.

The store wasn't even air conditioned, making it a sauna in the summer. Nathan tried turning that into a plus, citing it as the reason his customers got such good deals.

But Jack pushed him to modernize, and he gave in, trusting his son.

"I knew he was doing a better job. The world had changed. I was right for my time, but he is right for his time," Nathan said.

Six years ago, Nathan realized it was time for the younger generation to take over, and he retired.

Beatrice still works occasionally at the store, spending on average about five hours a week there, much less than the 30 or so hours she put in at one time, but enough to help out where she's needed.

In 1997, David came on board, beginning work on the delivery side of the business at age 19.

But there was no guarantee the sons would be successful, said Jerry Bowden, a retired J.C. Penney manager who counsels small-business owners locally.

Selling furniture is highly competitive, with national chains and local businesses vying for customer dollars, Bowden said.

"Passing it down doesn't always mean success. Sometimes, when the children are handed something on a golden platter, they don't have the same work ethic as the parents," he said.

On the plus side, family-owned retailers often have a better track record for longevity of sales staff, which allows them to give better service.

"Seasoned veterans can welcome customers by name," Bowden said. "In today's world of computers and lack of personal contact, people welcome that."

Nathan said his sons surpass him in business acumen.

The store has been remodeled, moving from mass displays of furniture to attractive vignettes - settings that allow customers to see furniture in a design context.

The brothers also have chosen a less top-down management style in the store.

In his day, Nathan had humorous cards made up naming himself as "Exalted Excellency."

But behind the humor was the fact that the decision-making was his.

Jack and David favor a team approach with employees entrusted with management decisions, everyone encouraged to bring their creative ideas to the job and everybody sharing the hard work.

"David and I will not ask any employee to do something that we wouldn't do ourselves," Jack said.

That's why you'll find them sweeping the walk in front of the store or throwing out the trash, he said.

It's too early to say whether the store will be handed down to the next generation of Fendrichs. Neither Jack nor David have children, yet. But Jack, at 39, has his eye on retirement in the next 10 to 15 years. With David so much younger, maybe he'll wind up being the "fourth generation."

On that question, his younger brother begs to differ.

"I'm not the fourth. Call me three and a half," David said.

BRENNER'S FURNITURE

Address: 151 W. Eighth Ave., Eugene

Owners: Jack and David Fendrich

Years in business: 65

Number of employees: 12 to 15, depending on the time of year

Family members involved in the business: Nathan and Beatrice Fendrich retired six years ago and handed it off to their sons, Jack and David Fendrich

CAPTION(S):

David (left front) and Jack Fendrich took over Brenner's Furniture from their parents, Nathan and Beatrice. Beatrice occasionally still helps out at the store.
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Title Annotation:A third generation takes the helm at Brenner's, downtown for 65 years; Business
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 28, 2003
Words:1405
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