Biltrite's success built on strong family, quality products
Biltrite, 5430 W. Layton Ave., is a furniture store that specializes in quality American-made furniture, including Amish furniture. The store has easy to understand "good," "better" and "best" options and labels all its furniture with tags reading, "American-made," "imported" or "I am Amish made."
Biltrite is a longstanding Milwaukee company, owned and operated for four generations by members of the Komisar family. What is now the oldest furniture family in Milwaukee includes Maureen, who was a trial attorney before joining the family business and becoming the de facto store manager (they don't really have job titles in their family business).
"Any concern a customer has is actually an opportunity," says Maureen, who takes pride in saying that Biltrite also has four generations of shoppers.
Maureen is also the "Amish guru" at Biltrite. She has developed business and personal relationships with the 200 Amish furniture manufacturers in Holmes County, Ohio. A self-described "wood geek," Maureen visits Ohio and other Amish manufacturers in Pennsylvania and Indiana yearly, where she marvels at their small scale production lines, understanding of wood and their technology. That's right, technology.
"The Amish are the original environmentalists," says Maureen, who tells customers about the oven the Amish use to bake the finish on their handmade wood products. Because of this process, a glass of water can be left on their furniture for two weeks without it leaving a mark.
Maureen first brought Amish-made furniture to Biltrite in 2007. The "wood geek" finds their quality to be superb, noting differences between them and wood from overseas manufacturers, which she says is compositionally a lot like "meat loaf" – various woods used in the same furniture piece together.
Maureen estimates that over 80 percent of the furniture Biltrite carries is made in North America.
"We focus on attaining the highest-quality imported products when we bring those pieces in. We go with American-made as much as we can, but some things simply aren't available from American manufacturers anymore," she says.
Biltrite used to be one of these American manufacturers. The company was founded in 1928 by Irwin Kerns, an upholsterer and furniture builder who sold custom-made sofas for a $1,000, which is fairly incredible considering this was during the Great Depression.
In 1948, Biltrite moved from its North Side beginnings to 7th and Mitchell Streets, where they discontinued making furniture and became a full-fledged retailer. They continued to expand on Mitchell Street, taking over most of the block until 2006, when they finally had to relocate to an even larger building.
"We love the city, but because of the historical designation of the Mitchell Street buildings, we couldn't expand anymore," says Randi, Biltrite's spokesperson and Maureen's niece. "We're holding our own here, it was a good, positive move."
Biltrite's Greenfield space is 65,000 square feet, including offices, warehouse and the showroom.
The Biltrite showroom is organized by type of furniture, which Randi says makes it convenient in that people don't have to walk all over the store to see, for example, all of Biltrite's nightstands.
Biltrite provides a lounge with fresh coffee and numerous cards and letters from happy customers along the walls. More customer testimonies are pinned up in the hallway adjacent to the "wrap up desk" (the checkout).
Biltrite carries all major furniture and mattress brands, including Tempurpedic, I Comfort, Lane, Best, Bassett, Rowe, King Coil and Spring Air. Biltrite is also "old school," in that they examine all furniture before sending it out to customers. For example, they have their wood finisher open up all the crates containing the wood furniture, inspect and assemble it – to the point it can be put together and still shipped safely.
"This is something all furniture stores used to do. To cut costs, a lot of our competitors will just send stuff out in the box," says Randi.
Randi, who appears in Biltrite's advertising, says customers sometimes register their surprise when they encounter her at the store, especially on Saturdays, thinking since her family owns the company that she wouldn't be there.
"We're not just family-owed, but very hands-on. It's our business, we enjoy this, so why wouldn't we be here everyday?" says Randi.
Randi started working part-time at Biltrite while attending Nicolet High School. She began working full-time in the family business in 2001, after returning from High Point University in North Carolina where she earned a degree in interior design. Her brother Brad also attended High Point for a business degree specializing in home furnishings marketing and management. Brad is the head of operations at Biltrite (the main office guy, in other words).
Irwin Kerns' grandson Marty and his wife, Gail, round out the third generation in the family business, along with Maureen. Marty is the head buyer. Gail handles accounting and also specializes in upholstery and mattresses.
"We do what we have to do, each of us has different responsibilities, but we all sell and help each other out," says Randi.
During the summers, the second generation comes in to Biltrite, working a day or two a week.
"Grandpa and grandma are in their 80s and still like to be in the store. It's fun to be with the family everyday. It's like a reality show," says Randi.
Biltrite has 30 employees, including two members of the Grand Avenue Club, which works to provide employment and housing to Milwaukeeans with mental illnesses.
"We hire people with integrity and experience in the furniture industry," says Maureen. This includes veterans from other family-owned stores that have gone out of business, like Biltrite's warehouse manager.
Biltrite is one of the founding members of Furniture First, a buying cooperative consisting of retail shops across the country that came together in 1994. The cooperative provides the member retailers with leverage to hold their own against large, national chains. Like Biltrite, most cooperative members are family-owned and operated and have been in business at least 40 years.
Through Mattress First, which is part of the buying cooperative, Biltrite carries its own line of mattresses, manufactured for them by one of the big "S" named mattress manufacturers (there are a few big mattress makers whose names begin with "S").
"We're not allowed to say which one," says Randi.
Maureen says Biltrite has relationships with its suppliers that are similar to those with their customers, some going back over 20 years. She says these carefully developed personal and professional relationships allow Biltrite to give their customers a high degree of service.
"Customers have come in who've been looking for a piece for a year or two and I get to say, 'Tell me what you want,' and I can often get it for them," says Maureen.
I've bought a few pieces of furniture there and they are still looking good...even after 3 toddlers have used and abused them! We will be back in the future. I was even able to negotiate a lower price on a sectional couch we bought a few years ago. People need to remember a price sticker is just a suggested price so don't be afraid to negotiate the same as you would a car. It never hurts to ask...all they can say is no!
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