Fowler family marks 125 years in furniture sales

Fowler family marks 125 years in furniture sales

February 20th, 2010 by Ellis Smith in Businesstopstory

Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Martha Mackey browses through some of the patio furniture available on sale at The Patio Shop. The Fowler Brothers Co. ends its 125th anniversary day sale with a visit from designer Joe Ruggiero, who has starred on design shows on HGTV.

A family that owns a retail furniture operation in Chattanooga this year is celebrating 125 years of furniture sales.

The fifth generation family business is now known as Fowler Bros. Co. and operates under two brands, The Furniture Shoppe and The Patio Shop. They are off Fourth Avenue beside Interstate 24.

Carter Fowler, general manager for The Furniture Shoppe, said he has fun helping out customers in the store, but he didn't originally plan to be part of the family business until he realized how much it was ingrained by his upbringing.

"Quite honestly when I got out of college, I did not want to do this, as I was looking for other opportunities," said Mr. Fowler, son of the president, Richard Fowler Jr. "Dad stepped back and let me come on board myself." Carter Fowler's sister Chappell is also involved in the business.

U.S. GOODS FAVORED

Research firm Grant Thornton LLP found 90 percent of family companies go bust before a third generation can take over, but Mr. Fowler refers to his two young children as "the sixth generation," noting that they will grow up around hand-crafted chairs, tables, sofas and beds, just as he did.

"The products we offer are as classic today as they were when we started," he said. "It's not as much about trends, it's something you can have today, and pass onto your grandkids tomorrow." He gestured to a handmade oak dining set made by L. &J.G. Stickley in New York.

Carter Fowler prides himself on selling American-made furniture at his 35-employee company whenever possible.

"I'm not saying we don't have anything from China, but we are focused on American-made goods," he said.

The Fowler Bros. Co. recently expanded into a custom upholstery business online, but the Web site points customers to the brick and mortar store.

"Online, we want to tell people about us so they feel comfortable shopping here, but people who buy the kind of products we offer online are usually dissatisfied because they didn't get to put their hands on it first, or get to sit in it," Carter Fowler said. "Online is great for a T-shirt, but this is investment furniture."

His father, Richard Fowler Jr., stays involved in the operation.

"We actually thought we were having our 123rd birthday this year, and when we started looking back, we realized it was the 125th after looking through some of the old stuff," Richard Fowler Jr. said.

TRAVELING SALES IN 1885

The company traces its roots to 1885 when James G. Sterchi began traveling to sell glassware. The next year his brothers John Calvin Sterchi and William Sterchi opened a furniture store in Knoxville. That business has continued with Sterchi Bros. and Fowler being the name adopted for the

business in 1911 and then the Fowler Bros. Co. name being used after 1930. Fowler Bros. had a landmark store at Seventh and Broad streets in downtown Chattanooga for years.

Family in the furniture business

* 1885 -- James G. Sterchi enters retail trade.

* 1886 -- John Calvin Sterchi and William Sterchi, brothers of James G. Sterchi, open a Knoxville furniture store.

* 1911 -- John O. Fowler joins his father-in-law John Calvin Sterchi in opening a store in Chattanooga.

* 1943 -- R. Calvin Fowler, long a leader of Fowler Bros. Co., becomes president when his father John O. Fowler dies.

* 1981 -- Richard C. Fowler Jr., son of R. Calvin Fowler, active in furniture retailing for years at Richard Fowler's Galleries, becomes owner of Fowler Bros. Co.

* Today -- Carter Fowler, son of Richard C. Fowler Jr., heads operations of The Furniture Shoppe, one of the brand name businesses of Fowler Bros. Co.

"I remember my dad talking about how during World War II you couldn't get steel because of the war, but he never ran out of coil springs for the furniture because he had a warehouse full of them," the elder Fowler said. "People knew they could come to him to get whatever they needed."

The furniture industry has largely moved overseas, with around 90 percent of production taking place outside the United States, according to Richard Fowler Jr..

He said quality furniture will always be made in the U.S.

"Good furniture never changes, as long as there is still a passion for ownership," said Richard Fowler Jr. "When my father was asked what type of furniture was the best, he said, 'Good furniture never changes.'"