Best Practices: Essis & Sons celebrate their 75th anniversary - Mar 2018
By Jessica Chevalier
Essis & Sons celebrated its 75th anniversary last year. Started by Michael Essis in 1942 as a small Persian rug shop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, today Essis & Sons is a full-line flooring retail store with six locations, run by two of Michael’s sons, Fred and Frank. The Essis’ operate under values that some might consider old fashioned. They believe that having their name on the door “means something” and take great pride in the fact that they’ve built their flooring empire as a family.
A FAMILY ATMOSPHERE
Frank’s older brothers Salem and Mussellem-both of whom have passed away-entered the family business in the 1950s as teenagers, and shortly thereafter Essis & Sons expanded beyond just rugs to include carpet and vinyl. Frank proudly recalls the early years of working alongside his family. The Essis brothers didn’t just organizationally build the business together, they physically built parts of it together too. Early on, the brothers bought a lot and constructed a warehouse by hand. “We’d close the store at 6:00 and then we’d build until 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. I was the mud man,” Frank recalls with a laugh. “We were all hard workers.” The brothers also worked together to construct several of their homes.
Says Joe Essis, one of Fred’s sons who works in the business today, “My father and uncles were pretty talented. They did everything themselves. Just like my grandfather. He could fix anything with nothing.” Michael, the patriarch of the business, died in 1978.
Just as in the early days, Persian rugs play an important role at Essis & Sons. The company carries thousands of rugs in its largest store and has an estimated inventory of around 10,000 overall. This extensive stock demands a large footprint, and for that reason, Essis & Sons has large stores; the Lancaster store is 40,000 square feet, and the Chambersburg store is 66,000 square feet. The business also offers rug cleaning and repair services-something it has done since Michael started the business. “I’d say that we have one of the largest selections of Persian rugs on the East Coast,” says Frank. “All our stores are pretty big and filled to capacity. We buy a lot.”
Currently, as is the trend industry-wide, soft surface goods are flat for Essis & Sons, and LVT is on the move, putting a dent not only in carpet sales but also in sheet vinyl and laminate. Essis & Sons sells a good amount of hardwood and also carries ceramic tile. Two stores also offer decorating services and window treatments.
In addition to its affiliation with Carpet One, Essis & Sons has close relationships with Karastan, Stainmaster, Fabrica and Nourison. Fifteen to 20% of Essis & Sons’ business is in the commercial market, a good portion of which is university work.
Essis & Sons celebrated its diamond anniversary by giving away a car. The business asked entrants to visit the store to enter the drawing, but no purchase was necessary. The drawing for the fully equipped 2017 Ford Focus was held on live TV, and the winner was Matt Hedge of Lititz, Pennsylvania.
SETTING A STANDARD
Essis & Sons believes that finding the best possible product for the customer’s desires, practical needs, decor and budget is the central tenet of business. While it does steer away from the low quality product, it always seeks to find value for the customer. “When a customer comes in, we try to find the right product at the right price, even if they don’t have a lot of money,” explains Frank. “We grew up doing hard work and sacrificing, so we understand value and try to accommodate everyone.”
Case in point, Joe recalls a situation from 2016, “A customer came in, she walked up to the counter and said, ‘My vinyl is turning yellow.’ I said, ‘How long has it been in?’ She said, ‘Since 1980. That man right there sold it to me,’ and she pointed at my father. My father said, ‘I remember you.’ Then he said to me, ‘Change out her vinyl for her.’ I said, ‘Dad, it’s 36 years old. Are you sure?’ He said, ‘Get her a new piece and put it in.’”
Frank believes that the purchase of flooring is both a practical and emotional one and must be treated as such. For the retail sales associate, this means that, while product knowledge is important, presenting oneself as a trusted resource with a genuine interest in the customer’s needs is even more important. “Eighty percent of selling is selling yourself,” Franks says. “We are very particular about who we hire. If you don’t have patience with customers, you don’t belong here. It only takes a few moments to make an impression, and you can lose a customer quickly if you don’t make a good one. Our main objective is to show the customer why they should buy from us. We bend over backwards to satisfy our customers.”
After 75 years in the business, Essis & Sons sees a lot of generational buyers. “Most of our business comes from word of mouth,” says Frank. “Often people will say, ‘You sold flooring to my mom 20 years ago.’”
The business has tried many advertising methods through the decades, and Frank believes that, in today’s market, the willingness to toss a lot at the wall and see what sticks is somewhat necessary. “You can’t really tell what’s going to work these days,” he says. “You have to try a little of everything.”
The company has had a website for quite a while and continues to improve on it regularly; in fact, Essie & Sons recently made its first IT hire. Frank admits that Essis & Sons is a bit behind with regard to social media. “We’re starting to do that now, “ he notes. “We’re dinosaurs and haven’t gotten involved as much as we should have.”
WHAT’S TO COME
The Essis brothers produced 19 children between them, and today a handful of them are active in Essis & Sons: Joe, Michael, Ed, Bob and David. The family isn’t big on titles and they don’t have distinctly differentiated tasks. “We all just do what needs to be done,” says Joe, “from fixing the toilet to handling complaints to estimating jobs.”
The Essis’ feel strongly that their children should not enter the business if it isn’t their passion, and many of the third and fourth generations of the family have followed their own paths. Of course, working in a family business means that the death of a loved one resonates on several levels, and that can make a loss especially painful. “I have lost two brothers and two nephews in the business over the last decade, which I attribute to us all being workaholics,” says Frank. His brother Salem died at the age of 67 in 2007, and Mussellem died at 67 in 2009. “I still have nephews in the business,” Frank continues, “but we are running out of family members to recruit, so we have promoted several employees-ones who have been with us for a long time-to leadership positions. We are second and third generation today, but to keep the business going in the family is tougher and tougher. People just aren’t interested in working in this type of business anymore, and it’s very competitive.”
Regarding employees, Frank believes it is becoming harder to find good associates today, in part because young people don’t want to work retail hours, i.e. evenings, and because many aren’t ready to settle into a long-term career. Luckily, Essis & Sons has a good number of both staff and installers who have been with them for decades.
As for the increased competition in the market today, Frank believes that the best way to compete is by staying true to oneself. “We don’t look to see what the competition is doing,” the retailer notes. “We just focus on doing our thing well and hope it works.”
For his part, Frank absolutely loves the flooring business and doesn’t see retirement as in the cards for either himself or Fred. “I still have the fire in my belly,” he laughs. “I still enjoy it. I get to meet such wonderful people. Eventually, I hope to slow down a bit, but I will always stay involved.”
Essis & Sons joined Carpet One in 1986 and continues to see value in the partnership. Frank says, “The products that they offer are unique to them. It’s a good organization. Well-managed.”
In spite of the close and valued partnership, Essis & Sons believes that maintaining its own name recognition has been an important part of its success.