VERO BEACH – When Sunshine Furniture owner Gail Williams walks among the dozens of furniture displays on her showroom floor, she will tell you as much about the families which make the furniture as the product itself.
Family and doing the right thing has been part and parcel of how she has turned her Vero Beach casual furniture store from a 2,000-square-foot shop into one of the top 100 such retailers in the country.
She has engendered that spirit with her 10 full-time employees, some of whom have been with her since she bought her first shop – Sunshine Patio Land – 20 years ago.
She has also developed the same sort of bond with her vendors because she has made it a point to buy American from similar Mom and Pop shops, many of whom have grown alongside her.
“About 50 percent of our product is U.S. made,” she said. “Some of it you can’t get away from because it is a global economy, but I try to buy from smaller, family-owned companies.”
That means she buys from Classic Rattan, based out of Nicholasville, Ky., the last such furniture maker in the United States.
She and owner Dave Gaunce also share the common bond of turning over their life’s work to their adult children to build and grow in the Internet age.
“His son has come into the business too and his son has all these great ideas and Dave is bucking him,” she said.
She admitted after she offered the opportunity to her son, George, to help her grow her business nine years ago, she butted heads with him, too.
She also admits having her son by her side has allowed her a measure of success she could not have imagined when she and her father took over Sunshine Patio Furniture in 1991.
“She has done it right and she’s done it for 20 years,” said George. “Sometimes you get a new mind or a new way of looking at things. She was resistant to some of the change. I won her over with persistence.”
“I couldn’t have grown like this without George,” she said. “I had my way of doing it and that was it. He has so many great ideas, he does everything I used to do. I had to just let it go and let him do it, but his way of doing it is much better than my way.”
That is not to say Gail Williams is not a force to be reckoned with.
She has those 20 years of relationships with vendors and customers and has had the knack to uncover high quality, affordable casual furniture and accessories that speak to the Vero Beach lifestyle.
She has been so successful that her store currently takes up 35,000 square feet and boasts two warehouses, which enable in most cases same day or next day furniture deliveries.
Sunshine Furniture has been named the last two years to the 100 powerhouse casual furniture retailers in the country by industry magazine Casual Living.
It has been by sticking to her roots that Williams has been able to expand Sunshine Furniture to the point that annual sales are registered in the millions of dollars.
“I try not to buy Chinese imports – some things you can’t get away from like lamps and accessories,” she said. “I had a couple of American manufacturers that shut down their factories and moved production to China and I saw what the product became. It was terrible, so we wouldn’t carry them anymore and we started getting very picky.”
She also buys locally.
“Our cushions and umbrellas are made right here in Vero Beach,” she said. “Pam and Tom Butz, they own Classic Cushion, are our suppliers and they ship all over the world.”
Williams’ business philosophy is paying dividends. She said last summer was her best in 20 years of business.
She is also noticing a trend. Where before her customers were older retirees, she now is selling to younger baby boomers.
“What fascinates me, even 10 years ago, our clientele was retired and older, they came in November and they left in April,” she said. “That was the way it was. Now, and it really started before the economic downturn, I have people that are 45, 55, who are buying homes here. But they use their homes 10 or 15 times a year. They are continuously coming for long weekends. I see that as keeping everybody busy.”
Sunshine Furniture also has developed a loyal following that is now crossing generations. It is not uncommon to sell to the children and even grandchildren of original patrons.
“We have been here and done a great job for every customer and so they tell their kids and they are coming in,” said designer Diane Crockett. “It is basically a store of referrals.”
Sunshine is located at 1295 U.S. 1 and can be found on the Web at www.sunshinefurniturecasual.com.