Queen of The Hill
By Tom Lassiter
Photos: ©2016 christian giannelli Photography. www.christiangiannelli.com.
Who doesn’t really like an all-American success story?
Hollywood’s finest writers would have a hard time dreaming up a script better than this.
Here’s the one-line synopsis: Middle-aged woman buys a bedraggled casual furniture shop, survives Great Recession, and within 10 years wins her industry’s top retailing award.
For atmosphere, set the story in Chestnut Hill, a tony neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia.
Those who attended the 2015 Apollo Awards banquet at Casual Market Chicago in September know this 21st century Horatio Alger tale rings true. The woman is Linda Moran. Her business, Hill Company, won the Apollo Award in the single-store category.
|Unique accessory items make the store an interesting place to shop.|
The store, recently relocated to a 12,000 sq. ft. location just a few blocks from its original site, was made over for the Christmas season. Holiday décor and accessories complemented the Hill Company’s usual array of high-end merchandise.
Recognition by the International Casual Furniture Association was so special, she said, because it validated how far she had come as an entrepreneur who took a chance later in life.
“I bought this business when there was a cigar box in the bottom desk drawer,” she recalled, “and that’s where the money was kept. The rugs were threadbare. There was no warehouse. You can’t believe he (the prior owner) was selling $900,000 worth of furniture in this environment, but he did.”
(Moran was a major reason the store enjoyed that much success; more about that later.)
The former owner kept stock in a barn “way out in the suburbs.” He shuttled it to his store in a battered, unmarked van. The merchandise was shoehorned into about 3,500 sq. ft. in a rabbit warren of rooms.
Part of the store was in an old stone house, though the main entrance was in a building that filled the space between the stone house and its neighbor. The store’s best feature was its location in an upscale shopping district and across the street from Chestnut Hill Station, a landmark trolley stop on Germantown Avenue.
The award, Moran said, “made me realize that it was worth all the hard work” that she put into making Hill Company a top-flight retailer of casual furniture.
That’s the story in a nutshell. But there’s more to tell.
Nominations in Triplicate
Three sales representatives independently nominated Hill Company for the Apollo Award. Each had worked closely with Moran and witnessed how she steered Hill Company to overcome obstacles and seize opportunities.
“She keeps her finger on the button,” said Tim Davis, who reps for Gloster, TUUCI, Patio Renaissance, Windham, and the Hammock Source. “She doesn’t let things fall through the cracks. She pays attention to what’s going on.
“When she was working for the previous owner, she was pretty much the force” that propelled the business forward, he said. “She’s got a good eye, and she surrounds herself with good people. She empowers the people who work for her. She allows them to do their job.”
|Linda Moran seated in one of her vignettes.|
Hill Company operates with four full-time and four part-time store employees. The warehouse-delivery operation (an innovation Moran added after purchasing the business) usually has three employees and adds a couple more in season.
Moran’s right hand in the business is Eli Hymer. Officially he is vice president of Sales. He notes, however, “There’s really nothing I don’t do. In a small business, your role is whatever has to be done.”
Hymer got started in the casual business 30 years ago. He joined the staff at Four Seasons Fireplace & Patio when the business, based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had four stores. When he left 18 years later to pursue an opportunity in Florida, he was general manager, looking after eight Four Seasons stores. (That company, several times an Apollo Award nominee, filed for bankruptcy in 2006.)
When sales reps urged Moran to hire Hymer in 2008, as she was about to open a second (and now closed) location, she balked. She thought there was no way she could afford such a top-flight pro with his experience. But she interviewed him anyway and changed her mind.
“I found out he could do the work of two or three people,” Moran said, which made Hymer an affordable asset. “So I hired him, and he’s been wonderful.”
In addition to sales, Hymer teams with Moran to buy merchandise. His tastes lean toward the traditional, while she prefers more transitional and contemporary looks.
“We sort of balance each other out,” he said. “Don’t buy what you like; buy what sells. It’s nice to have a pretty store, but each spot has to sell itself.
|L to R: Kari Ghazarian, comptroller; Linda Moran, owner; Eli Hymer, vice president of Sales.|
“Linda is a dreamer,” he continued. “I’m more of a realist. To her, the glass is half full. To me, it’s half empty. So what comes together is a great balance of product.”
Moran noted that one of Hymer’s greatest contributions to Hill Company’s ongoing success is his knack for managing claims. Hymer sees himself as a diplomat and customer advocate. “I always fight for them,” he said. “They are the ones who keep referring us.
“I handle every claim, and I pride myself on resolving it quickly and thoroughly.” The outcome means the difference between keeping a friend and customer or losing good will in the community. “I want the customer to remember it as a positive, and how we took care of it,” Hymer said.
The other half of quickly resolving claims is to build strong relationships with the customer service staff people at each of Hill Company’s many suppliers. “They make us or break us,” Hymer said.
Hill Company carries a Who’s Who of casual furniture brands in virtually every category. (See Retail Snapshot at end of article.) Choice and variety in each category is extensive. The store offers wicker and synthetic wicker from 13 suppliers. Teak furniture is available from three leaders in the category, as well as a fourth supplier that offers teak in its broad product mix.
“I’ve heard people say they can’t sell teak,” Moran said. “We sell a lot of teak, and we sell a lot from all of those manufacturers.”
Hill Company’s success in teak led Moran to add Jensen Leisure (Ipe and Roble woods) to her lineup for 2016.
Better teak furniture often is associated with upper-income customers, and northwest Philadelphia and environs have plenty. The famous Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad runs nearby, leading to the outlying towns that attracted many of Philadelphia’s wealthy citizens beginning in the 19th century. “This area, Chestnut Hill, is very wealthy,” Moran said, “and the suburbs of Philadelphia are upper crust.”
|Linda Moran seated in one of her vignettes.|
Moran said her core market area covers a 50-mile radius, but Hill Company serves customers as far as Lancaster, 80 miles to the west, and the Jersey Shore, a two-hour drive to the east. During the summer season, she said, “Sometimes our trucks are down there twice a week.”
The market area mix of urban and suburban environments requires Hill Company to have expertise in serving customers whose Outdoor Rooms range from large suburban backyards, to more intimate patios in city backyards, to rooftop decks.
“We have people in the suburbs buying mega-mansions, and they need a 112-in. table, with deep seating to match,” she says. “A lot of the big extension tables do really well. We ran out a couple of times last year and had to reorder.”
Rooftop decks constructed on renovated row houses in the city can be surprisingly spacious. It’s not unusual for homeowners to place a large sectional along with a fire pit and still have room for a dining group.
Moran noted that “a huge number of young people and retirees have moved back into the city.” Even for early 20th century row houses or twins (a matched pair of homes sharing a common center wall and built on a single lot), the new owners often choose contemporary outdoor furniture for the rooftop getaway.
“They like contemporary,” Moran said. “That’s the reason we got into Patio Renaissance,” which offers a wide selection of transitional, woven sectionals, “and we sell a ton of them.”
Unlike some retailers who can point to a runaway, best-selling category, Moran said her sales are fairly evenly split between cast aluminum, woven, and teak. Poly furniture is another successful category, with purchased product often being delivered to second homes on the coast.
“We have Adirondack chairs from three companies in plastic,” she said. “People aren’t buying it for the price; they are buying it for the comfort. Whatever feels best for them is what they buy.”
Moran estimated that 60 percent of her business is special order, which is a drop from two or three years ago. “We’re stocking more now because we’ve gotten into the Lloyd Flanders container program and others,” she said.
Container programs have two compelling advantages, she said. “We’re stocking things to get a good price point, mostly,” she explained. Smartly chosen container goods sell for somewhat lower price points, which allows Hill Company to convert younger shoppers into customers. “They’re happy to buy it and get it right away because the price is right,” she said.
Moran and Hymer always go for maximum style, even with container goods. For instance, specifying a contrasting welt on a cushion adds flair without great expense.
“We try to buy it to be really classic looking,” she said, “so it still looks like a designer did it.”
|In December, Hill Company becomes a Christmas Wonderland, attracting visitors from miles away.|
Going to Homes
All of Hill Company’s sales personnel have a knack for design, Moran said. The store does not charge customers to make a home visit and survey the outdoor living space and make recommendations.
“One of the things that makes us special is that we get all the high-end customers because we do free design work,” Moran said. “We’ll coordinate the pool and the patio and the deck, and they know we can do all that.
“I have always maintained that staying high end, staying high quality, is the best thing I can do. That’s the kind of customer I have. They are here because they don’t want to go to Home Depot.”
Hill Company charges $100 to make a site visit associated with planning for a Solair awning. The single Solair awning on display in the store generates sales, she said.
“A lot of people come in thinking they want an umbrella,” she said. Once they are exposed to the advantages of a retractable awning, some choose the Solair product instead. “We don’t sell a lot,” Moran said, “but it’s good to have it here.”
Hill Company uses an outside contractor who makes site visits to awning customers prior to order placement. Customers pay the contractor for installation.
Hill Company may be in a wealthy area, but all clients these days hammer furniture retailers in search of a better deal. “It’s the name of the game,” Moran said. “You would think they were buying a used car.”
She counters penny-pinchers who try to leverage offers of free shipping from online resellers with a reminder that Hill Company also offers free shipping. But unlike an online seller, her trucks don’t leave boxes at the curb.
“We actually unpack it, assemble it, and deliver it to your home for free,” she said. “We hope that people realize that it’s worth it to buy from us to get the service, and our prices are very competitive, usually less than Frontgate.”
Marketing and Advertising
As a manager with “her finger on the button,” Moran doesn’t feel the need to do everything herself. Nor does she want to. She would much rather delegate certain tasks to someone with the right skill set and focus.
That’s how she manages Hill Company’s social media presence. Moran hired a young woman who “comes in a few hours a day, a few days a week” to keep Hill Company active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Houzz.
“I don’t have time to be doing that,” Moran said. “We talk about pictures to take and put on this week, and she takes care of everything.”
Hill Company still advertises in the metro Philadelphia newspapers as well as the local Chestnut Hill paper. The company also advertises in an upscale publication, Philadelphia magazine, “geared toward the upper end.”
The store participates in an annual designer home project; profits from the “designer showcase” event go to charity, and the project warrants a spread in Philadelphia magazine. “A lot of people go to those design houses,” Moran said, “and then they pick up the magazine.” It’s all good exposure for Hill Company.
|Gold accessories highlight the yellow geometric pattern on rug and chairs.|
Casual furniture is not prominent in the enormously successful series of Harry Potter books and films. Yet
the popularity of Harry Potter helps Hill Company and other Chestnut Hill merchants bring in droves of new shoppers each October.
The Harry Potter Festival in Chestnut Hill, according to promotional material, is “two days of spellbinding events that magically morph the neighborhood into the much-loved fictional world created by author J.K. Rowling.”
For adults of a certain age, there’s a Harry Potter Pub Crawl. There’s a 5K run, Sorting Hat Demonstrations, and the annual Philadelphia Brotherly Love Quidditch Tournament.
Stores along Germantown Avenue take on a fresh persona for the festival. Hill Company becomes Owl Emporium, selling toy stuffed owls. (Hedwig, a Snowy Owl, is Harry Potter’s companion.)
“We went through 250 owls – all sizes and all different – and sold out by 3 pm,” Moran said. “People come all dressed up. It’s absolutely crazy. There are a lot of people who come and see your store who otherwise wouldn’t have seen it. That’s what (the festival) is good for.”
Hill Company held a women-only Open House early in the Christmas season, spreading the word by email and some local advertising. Moran was unsure how attendance would go, as this is the first Christmas in her new location, about six blocks “down the hill” from her old store.
“I wasn’t sure if we would get six people or 60,” she said. She shouldn’t have worried. “We had probably 100 girls here. It was unbelievable. We sold a lot.”
Destined for Retail
When the Oriental rug store down the hill went out of business, Moran made her move. She negotiated a lease on the building, unique because of an arched garage door that faces the cobbled street. She later learned that the structure, built nearly 100 years ago, originally housed a Ford truck agency.
|Light grays and dusty blues soften the appearance of this brown woven group.|
She laughed at the thought of Model T trucks puttering over concrete floors, painted gray and now occupied by Summer Classics, Barlow Tyrie, and other premium brands. “Isn’t that funny?” she asked before answering herself. “Yeah.”
She poured $100,000 into renovations, freshening the exterior with a coat of white paint and using the building’s great bones to her advantage.
The hardwood floors in the smaller front showroom, which previously showed off imported rugs, are perfect for a more homelike presentation of casual furniture and accessories. She warmed up the concrete floors in the larger back room with area rugs. The beautifully appointed showrooms display more furniture than was possible in her two previous locations combined.
“It’s a beautiful old building,” she said.
Linda Moran had two other careers before she discovered the casual furniture business.
She was a stay-at-home mom for her kids. Then she became a schoolteacher for 10 years. But she always had enjoyed working in summer retail jobs as a college student. She liked to organize and plan things. She felt she had a knack for design. So she and a sister-in-law enrolled in a two-year interior design program at Philadelphia University.
Moran, then 58, decided she wanted some part-time work. So she asked the neighborhood outdoor furniture store if they could use some help. The Hill Company said yes.
“It wasn’t until I got into it that I realized I was good at it,” she said. Before long, “I was managing the store. I went to Chicago and did all the buying, and I was buying things that everybody loved. I just fell in love with it.
“My friends thought I was crazy. They still think I’m crazy.”
She saw the potential and pushed the owner to do more. “I would say, ‘You have a gold mine here if you would just spend some money and make it … you know …’” Make it appealing. Make it welcoming to the Chestnut Hill clientele. Show more to sell more.
But it wasn’t in him. Feeling stymied by his lack of support and vision, Moran told her boss she was leaving. That turned out to be her golden moment.
“He sat back in his chair and said, ‘I can’t do this without you. Why don’t you buy it?’”
So she did. Ten years later, Hill Company won an Apollo Award.
Retailing, she said during a break from the Christmas rush, “was in my blood, I guess. Sometimes people don’t know what they want to do when they grow up, and I finally found out what I wanted to do.
“I’m having fun. I love what I do. So that’s my story.”
Store Name: Hill Company
Location: 8040 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Owners: Linda Moran
Year Established: 1949
Web Site: www.hill-company.com
Phone: (215) 247-7600
Number of Stores: 1
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales: $2.8 million
Av. Sq. Ft. of Building Space: