R.C. Willey Home Furnishings History

Address:
2301 South 300 West
Salt Lake City, Utah 84115
U.S.A.

Telephone: (801) 461-3900
Fax: (801) 461-3990

Website:
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc.
Incorporated: 1959
Employees: 2,500
Sales: $600 million (2004 est.)
NAIC: 442110 Furniture Stores; 442299 All Other Home Furnishings Stores; 443111 Household Appliance Stores; 443112 Radio, Television, and Other Electronics Stores; 522220 Sales Financing

Company Perspectives:

For over 70 years R.C. Willey has been recognized nationally for excellence. But our real goal is to have you recognize us as the number one place to find exceptional selection, value, superior service and professional associates that really care about you. It's true ... Nobody beats R.C. Willey, Nobody!

Key Dates:

1932:
Rufus Call Willey begins selling appliances door-to-door.
1950:
R.C. Willey opens its first store in Syracuse, Utah.
1954:
William Child takes over the business.
1969:
A second store opens in Murray, Utah.
1990:
Six stores have sales of $100 million.
1995:
Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. acquires the company.
1999:
The company expands outside Utah with Meridian, Idaho, store.
2001:
The company's first Las Vegas store opens.
2005:
Expansion continues in Nevada and California.

Company History:

R.C. Willey Home Furnishings is a leading home furnishings and electronics chain based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The company has grown into the biggest furniture dealer west of the Mississippi by offering a huge selection, convenient credit, and prompt delivery. R.C. Willey stocks its dozen stores from a nearly 900,000-square-foot distribution center, said to be the largest of its kind in the country. The company was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. in 1995.

Origins

Like many businesses, R.C. Willey Home Furnishings started as a sideline. Rufus Call Willey, an employee of the local electric company in Syracuse, Utah, began selling Hotpoint brand appliances door-to-door in 1932.

To get people using refrigerators or electric ranges when electricity was brand new to the area, he would let them try out the appliances for a week. He also let them finance the purchases in installments over a three-year period, payable at harvest time.

Willey resorted to refurbishing ranges and refrigerators from salvage yards during World War II. However, sales of new appliances boomed after the war.

Until this time, Willey had conducted business out of the back of a red pickup truck. In 1950, he built his first small store next door to his house in Syracuse, Utah, a small town northwest of Salt Lake City.

Leadership Change in 1954

Willey left the business in June 1954 due to terminal cancer. William H. Child, who had married Willey's daughter Pat two years earlier, took over the business. Child's brother Sheldon joined him in 1956. At the time, sales were about $200,000 a year, according to one source. William Child is credited with adding furniture to the company's appliance offerings.

The original 600-square-foot store in Syracuse was remodeled for the first time in 1956. It would eventually grow to 100,000 square feet.

Growing from the 1970s through the 1990s

The company built its second store in 1969. It was located in Murray, a suburb to the south of Salt Lake City. West Valley City, to the west, got a store in 1986. Both of these would be expanded repeatedly as the business grew.

R.C. Willey began an important marketing tactic in the early 1980s: giving out free hot dogs to increase traffic. In HFD--The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper, company executives credited the chain's success to three factors: an eye for expansion, focus on the middle segment of the market, and dedication to customer satisfaction.

A 73,000-square-foot store was opened in Orem, a community just north of Provo in Utah County, in November 1990. It cost $5 million to open, reported HFD. By this time, R.C. Willey had six stores (one a clearance outlet) and employed 700 people. Sales were $100 million in 1990, reported HFD.

The company opened its Central Distribution Center in the middle of the Salt Lake Valley in 1991. This included an 80,000-square-foot store adjacent to a 400,000-square-foot warehouse. The combined project cost $13.5 million, according to HFD.

A smaller furniture outlet and a carpet outlet opened nearby in the mid-1990s. A 100,000-square-foot store opened in a suburb of Ogden, north of Salt Lake City, in 1996.

The chain's range of offerings continued to expand with the addition of fitness equipment, personal computers, and snow blowers. Some stores were being fitted with garages for installing car stereos. The company began selling futons in late 1994 and by 1996, they were a million-dollar business.

Berkshire Hathaway Buys Company in 1995

By 1995, R.C. Willey's seven furniture stores were claiming annual sales of about $300 million, and the company had 1,300 employees. By this time, electronics were an important part of the product mix, and the company was holding its own against competition from big box retailers. A study done for R.C. Willey estimated it led the Utah home electronics market with a 28 percent share, while it commanded more than half of the furniture market. Its personal computer sales were worth about $20 million a year, according to Computer Retail Week.

Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., the holding company led by billionaire investment guru Warren Buffet, acquired R.C. Willey on May 24, 1995. The price was a reported $150 million in stock. For a dozen years, Berkshire owned another furniture retailer, Nebraska Furniture Mart, which operated what was considered to be the industry's largest single store. R.C. Willey CEO Bill Child credited Nebraska Furniture Mart president with suggesting the deal to Buffet, reported the Omaha World Herald.

With the backing of Berkshire Hathaway, R.C. Willey continued to build. Its Intermountain Distribution Center, erected next to Salt Lake International Airport in 1997, was the largest of its kind in the United States at 860,000 square feet. It cost $30 million and replaced three existing warehouses.

An outlet opened in Provo in 1998. The same year, R.C. Willey's store in South Salt Lake City became the site of a "Whaling Wall" mural by the famous marine artist Wyland. The company was also testing an interactive kiosk system inside three of its stores.

Beyond Utah in 1999

R.C. Willey expanded outside Utah for the first time in August 1999, when it opened a store in Meridian, Idaho (near Boise). It instantly claimed the leading spot in that market.

A 162,500-square-foot store opened in Henderson, Nevada, two years later. According to HFN, the Las Vegas metro area was the fastest growing in the United States, attracting 8,000 new residents a month. R.C. Willey was unique in the range of products it offered under one roof, allowing shoppers to buy home electronics and cabinets on the same trip. Another distinct practice was the company's policy of closing stores on Sundays.

Revenues were about $400 million in 2000, when the company had about 2,000 employees. Furniture accounted for about 60 percent of sales. Its credit operations had more than $185 million in loans, making it one of Utah's largest finance companies, noted the Salt Lake Tribune. Bedding sales alone were worth $25 million, according to HFN.

To keep volume up, the company spent heavily on advertising and promotions such as giving away 600,000 hot dogs a year. For special occasions, the company teamed up with pizza restaurants like Domino's in the giveaways.

Chief financial officer Scott L. Hymas, who had been with the company since 1987, succeeded Bill Child as CEO in February 2001. Child remained chairman. At the same time, Bill Child's nephew, Jeffrey S. Child, became the company's president.

A second Las Vegas area store opened in May 2003. Stores were averaging sales between $35 million and $90 million a year, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Furniture Today reported the second Las Vegas store as having sales between $85 million and $100 million. By 2004, 41 percent of sales were coming from outside Utah, according to Warren Buffet's yearly letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.

R.C. Willey was opening a new store in Reno, Nevada, in 2005. A 150,000-square-foot site was planned for Sacramento, California, the following year. The pro-business atmosphere of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger encouraged the entry into California, Hymas told Furniture Today. A third store was under consideration for Las Vegas. The company had also been scouting locations in the Pacific Northwest.

Parent company Berkshire Hathaway applied to open an industrial bank in Utah in 2005 in order to consolidate R.C. Willey's extensive credit operations. The company's finance department then employed about five dozen people, and more than 130,000 customers had charge cards with the company. R.C. Willey also provided financing for about 50 Big-O Tires stores. Its consumer loans were worth $185 million, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Principal Operating Units: R.C. Willey Finance.

Principal Competitors: Best Buy; Circuit City; Costco Wholesale; Granite Furniture; Ultimate Electronics; Walker Furniture.

Further Reading:

  • Allegrezza, Ray, "A Child's Success Story," Furniture Today, October 11, 2004, p. 4.
  • ------, "Flat-Packed Bandwagon," HFN, April 7, 1997, p. 1.
  • Arave, Lynn, "R.C. Willey Has Hot Dog of a Slogan," Deseret News (Salt Lake City), January 15, 2002, p. E3.
  • "A Better Way to Sleep: Upscale Bedding Departments Are Gaining Prominence on the Sales Floor," HFN, May 5, 2003, p. 36.
  • Engel, Clint, "Buffett Heralds R.C. Willey in Shareholders Letter," Furniture Today, March 21, 2005, p. 25.
  • ------, "R.C. Willey to Build Sacramento Store," Furniture Today, January 10, 2005, p. 1.
  • Friesen, Wendy, "R.C. Wiley Cites Success Factors: Of Three Components, Company Most Heavily into Corporate Expansion," HFD--The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper, July 15, 1991, p. 10.
  • Georgianis, Maria V., "Computer Business in Guise of Furniture Store," Computer Retail Week, November 6, 1995, p. 35.
  • Gibson, Stephen W., "R.C. Willey Got Its Humble Start Selling Refrigerators to Farmers," Deseret News (Salt Lake City), April 11, 1999, p. M8.
  • Ginos, Becky, "A Whale of an Art Project in S.L.," Deseret News, September 8, 1998, p. B1.
  • Hicken, Robb, "Honesty, Integrity Needed in Business," Daily Herald (Provo, Utah), March 27, 1993.
  • Historical Highlights, Salt Lake City: R.C. Willey Home Furnishings, 2005.
  • Jones, Chris, "Berkshire Hathaway Chief Attends Opening of Las Vegas Furnishings Store," Las Vegas Review-Journal, June 21, 2003.
  • Jordon, Steve, "Berkshire Hathaway to Buy Utah Retailer," Omaha World Herald, Bus. Sec., May 25, 1995, p. 21.
  • Kunkel, Karl, "Creative Promotions Drive Bedding Business," HFN, January 31, 2000, p. 20.
  • ------, "Place Your Bets, Ladies and Gentlemen," High Points, July 2000, p. 14.
  • Meyers, Donald W., "Business Booms for R.C. Willey Store," Daily Herald, March 12, 1995, p. 34.
  • Mitchell, Lesley, "Better Business Bureau of Utah Loses Important Member," Salt Lake Tribune, October 10, 1998.
  • ------, "Salt Lake City-Based Furniture Store to Gamble in Vegas, But Not on Sundays," Salt Lake Tribune, October 22, 2001.
  • Nii, Jenifer K., "R.C. Willey Chief Is Named to the Furniture Hall of Fame," Deseret News (Salt Lake City), October 22, 2002, p. E1.
  • ------, "R.C. Willey to Start Bank," Deseret Morning News, May 24, 2005, p. E1.
  • Oberbeck, Steven, "Buffett to Open Bank in Utah," Salt Lake Tribune, May 24, 2005, p. E1.
  • ------, "R.C. Willey Sees Room to Grow--In Idaho; R.C. Willey to Build Store in Boise," Salt Lake Tribune, July 25, 1997, p. D1.
  • Pusey, Roger, "R.C. Willey to Keep Its Name and Management But Tap into Berkshire Hathaway Connections," Deseret News, May 25, 1995, p. B14.
  • "R.C. Willey CEO Gives $1 Million in Stock to WSU," Salt Lake Tribune, October 11, 1995, p. B2.
  • "R.C. Willey Constructing New Distribution Center," Enterprise (Salt Lake City), November 4, 1996, p. 1.
  • "R.C. Willey Depot Nears Completion," HFN, August 11, 1997, p. 36.
  • "R.C. Willey Looks at Pacific Northwest," HFN, December 16, 2002, p. 4.
  • "R.C. Willey Under New Direction for First Time in Over 46 Years," Deseret News (Salt Lake City), February 8, 2001, p. E1.
  • Silberg, Lurie, "R.C. Willey to Test Interactive Kiosk," HFN, February 23, 1998, p. 6.
  • Sorcher, Jamie, "R.C. Willey Futons Strong from Middle to Upper End at Utah Chain," HFN, April 15, 1996.
  • Sorcher, Jamie, and Doug Olenick, "R.C. Willey Sold," HFN, May 29, 1995, p. 1.
  • Taylor, John, "Furniture Mart President Steered Berkshire Toward Utah Deal," Omaha World Herald, Bus. Sec., May 26, 1996, p. 18.
  • Wolf, Alan, "R.C. Willey's Steve Child to Retire," TWICE, December 17, 2001, p. 8.
  • "Work to Start on R.C. Willey Store," Idaho Business Review, November 16, 1998, p. 7A.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.72. St. James Press, 2005.