The iconic Jake Jabs, President and CEO of American Furniture, is as friendly and exuberant as you see him on TV. I just spent a couple of delightful hours interviewing the dynamic and enthusiastic furniture pioneer and found out why he is such a great leader and a devoted American patriot. Jake proudly states: “I thank my lucky stars that I’m an American!”
Life has been good for Jake Jabs because he was determined to make it good! In spite of his modest and challenging beginnings growing up with immigrant parents (who lost most of their family in European wars) and 8 siblings on a ranch in Montana, he had great lessons instilled in him by his parents to get an education, develop a hobby you like, and not to love money…. but find what you love to do. Jake also says as far as his business success: “The key to free enterprise is to find a need and fulfill that need, then you are guaranteed success,” and Mr. Jabs is the “poster boy” for success in the furniture business. Jabs is legendary for his commercials featuring a variety of animals – mostly big and rare felines. He is a master entrepreneur and has parlayed his company into the largest furniture chain in Colorado (and now in Arizona).
Around 1968, Jake Jabs moved to Denver from Montana and quickly developed a business philosophy of “being honest and educating the customer.” As far as his known charitable giving and philanthropy, it has made Jabs a standout personality in Colorado. Jake says: “I don’t ask for anything in return.” He believes in helping people who are handicapped or disabled with diseases involving muscular, brain or nerve disorders. He gives to cancer charities and to those who do research to cure diseases. Jake says: “I like to give to charities that direct most of the money for those who need it, or to those performing research, instead of giving to charities with excessive overhead costs.” Jake is also actively involved with Easter Seals, and they named the dining room at their Rocky Mountain “Handi-Camp” in Empire, Colorado “Jake’s Place.”
He started the “Jake Jabs Center of Business & Entrepreneurship” in Denver, which works with the University of Colorado, and Jabs has helped launch more than 150 businesses in the Denver area. “The Center fosters entrepreneurial mindsets in Denver and provides business owners and area professionals with resources, opportunities and innovative courses to propel their careers and ideas forward.”
It’s obvious Jabs loves people and takes pride in his country. He is a great “first hand” history teacher who shares his own life experiences. He stands up for what he thinks is wrong; as an example…. He thinks the tax collection procedures among the various cities in Colorado are too complicated and are “killers of small businesses,” and Jabs says they need to simplify the process.
I could have chatted with Jake all day, but it was time to let him get back to running his beloved company. What pleases Jake Jabs the most: American Furniture Warehouse seems to strike the right cord with their customers year after year.
Can you say what you love the most about being the founder/owner of American Furniture – and what makes you different from the rest? What I brought to the furniture business is honestly when so many others stores would high pressure the customers. We want the customer to pick the furniture they want. It’s about honesty in selling and not overpromising because of quotas, having to sell furniture polish, or high-interest payment plans. I grew this business from zero because our customers love us and recommend us. We don’t want people to buy something they don’t need. We are unique in that way and different from the rest.
How do you beat the Internet these days with the ease of ordering online? We might be heading for another recession, and I believe we will survive because we enjoy a great reputation and know our customers need to be happy. We will take merchandise back if they decide they don’t like it, or it doesn’t fit. Today the internet is the real competition. You can make anything look good in the photo, but people like to see what they are buying in person. We shop and buy hard, can sell it cheaper through volumes and low margins. We will be here no matter what the competition may be.
What does a typical day for Jake Jabs look like? Weekends? I go to work every day and still like what I’m doing and supervise many things including our “in-house” advertising. On weekends I go visit our various stores and can hit about 8 stores in one day. I enjoy it, and I believe the people enjoy seeing me. My parents retired from farming at 60 years old, but my dad continued on, building houses and was an appraiser with the government. Many who retire too early see their health go down, they don’t keep their mind active; and that’s when diseases like Alzheimer’s kicks in. I plan on enjoying what I’m doing as long as I can. My wife passed away several years ago, and I do have a girlfriend now, and we both like to hear and play music during the weekends.
What have been your favorite charities through the years? What are you focusing on at this time? We have given to thousands of charities through the years. Of course we are known for our work with Muscular Dystrophy and Easter Seals and nonprofits supporting the military and our veterans. So much progress has been made with various diseases that are almost gone, or you can still live your life with them. I like to help people with disabilities and the handicapped. At the Easter Seals Rocky Mountain “Handi-Camp” in Empire that I support, the kids and adults are happy and smiling – some work the computers with their head. The warm water pool is still open because of me, and it helps people with arthritis. People with severe disabilities used to be hidden somewhere and had a tough time. They didn’t go to school, but now they do; and we are seeing direct positive results.
Your most challenging time? I think it was during the 80’s recession. Oil companies were leaving Colorado. It was the only time the population was decreasing; builders left and went to California and Arizona, and people weren’t buying, because they were worried about their jobs… We closed 5 stores, and kept the 4 best stores we had in Colorado. Even when you are broke, to survive you have to have some “skin in the game.” You will get a lot more out of it, if you put your heart into it.
Your most memorable moment? I come from a family of musicians and have played music all my life. My first instrument was a tenor banjo. As a kid, we had a family band, and my dad played the violin. When the steel guitar came around, we were in Billings for our twice a year cattle tour, and we walked by a music store, and there was a steel guitar and an amplifier that cost $144. I said to my dad: “Please buy me that steel guitar!” He said: “I’ll tell you what, if you go in there and learn a couple songs, I’ll buy it for you.” I talked them into putting me in the basement, and I learned how to play a couple songs. My Dad being a man of his word, bought me the guitar! The banjo went into the closet, and I learned how to play the new Nashville-type songs on my steel guitar. I worked my way through college playing the popular songs for that time.
Your greatest accomplishment? I opened our store in Arizona in 2013, and it was unbelievable how well the store did in its first few years. Now we do around $100 million in sales, and the Arizona stores are doing great. When my wife was alive, she loved to spend several months in Arizona. The other furniture stores around used the “bait and switch” method to sell. That’s not happening now, and the other furniture stores like Levine’s, Levitz, Weberg’s, etc. are all out of business mostly because of their quotas system. None of them had a great store in Arizona, so I’m very thankful for opening a good store for our customers in Arizona. The people in Arizona thank us all the time for opening our stores there.
How do you feel about all the changes you have seen in Denver through the years? Most of them have been for the good… now I wish they would spend more money on highways and do what they can to help alleviate the traffic…. Too many traffic jams all day long, and it seems like everyone is fighting traffic jams no matter what time of the day.
What do you do when you need to totally escape from everything? I’m still a musician and like to go sing and harmonize with other musicians. I’m a musician at heart and music and entertainment keeps you young. Just look at entertainers like George Burns, Jack Benny and Bob Hope! They lived a long time.
If you weren’t Jake Jabs founder of American Furniture, who would you like to be? That would probably be one of the American Presidents…. One of my favorites is Ronald Reagan. Reagan was truthful and truly made America great again. Before him, we had the feeling that things were going to hell. He felt good about the country and about the changes he was going to make, so we all started feeling good about America. It’s too bad people think everything in America is messed up. We were at a conference in D.C., and everyone should go there to see all the good things we have done through the years; we are still the greatest country in the world!
How have you stayed so enthusiastic over the years? After growing up poor and with a family that came over here with just the shirts on their backs, I think just being successful has made a difference. I’ve been enjoying just hearing from people thanking me and saying they are enjoying our furniture.
Are you doing all you dreamed of and more? I really have and am… I never thought I’d be one of the biggest and most successful furniture store owners in the country.
Tell us about the public speaking you are doing at schools? I talk about my journey from Montana to owning American Furniture Warehouses, and the message I give is: Live below your means… many people have maxed out their credit cards, and end up paying late charges and high-interest fees. Have some cash in the bank and stay debt free so you can survive the tough times. Learn to pay cash for your cars – and even your house. I talk about the students’ hopes and dreams for the future, and how they can accomplish them. I have gifted millions of dollars to several business schools to help promote good business practices, free enterprise, and entrepreneurship.
Tell us about some of the extra benefits of being part of the American Furniture team? I have great benefits for our employees; and we have eaten the higher insurance costs for the last 9 years. Our employees start out at $14.50 which is much better than the big box stores. Those stores just don’t pay enough and should raise their salaries in my opinion. We have a “Grievance Policy” for our employees that resolves complaints and problems. We have our own trucking and delivery system, and we offer advancement opportunities and various incentive programs.
Fill in the blanks here: People today have lost the ability to…. Be responsible for their own actions, and not be dependent on the government. My Dad and Mom escaped from communism in 1917 and learned the lesson that communism didn’t work because everyone lived off the government. Even Lenin in his later life figured that out; and he was trying to change to a new economic policy and trying to introduce free enterprise by giving everyone a free acre of land, and they were encouraged to trade. Lenin died at 53 very frustrated with communism. Stalin, who was very ruthless and killed many people who were against him, took over. My Dad hated Stalin. He took back the acre of land given to people, and went back to communism. Many people starved to death in my Mom’s family. They took away the seed grain, took away their animals, and they just starved under communist rule. It just doesn’t work. Look at Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela. Even China has changed to more of a free market by letting people keep more of what they earn and allowing them to feed themselves. It has helped China become more successful today. They also don’t keep the same leaders, and they change premiers every 10 years and don’t keep the same family in power any more. It has helped them be more progressive and lower the cost of many products. I am a big believer in the “free enterprise system.”
What is your secret to good health? Staying active, eating properly…. There is a lot of obesity out there. We have a gym in our store, and I exercise every day by getting on the treadmill and doing weights. I do a lot of walking too.
Give us some fun facts about yourself? A lot of people don’t know that I’m a good musician, and that I’ve played all my life. I play out there with several bands and just have fun. And – I still mow my own lawn!
What should customers know about the furniture they buy from American Furniture? It’s hard to fool people today. We can sell a customer a sofa for $400 they may see elsewhere for up to $3,000 because we buy in volume. We have a large selection, unbeatable prices… because we don’t mark up our furniture like others, and we offer the best service. We sniff out the best quality deals with the top manufacturers. I learned a lot from when I had a factory in Montana making couches. Factories are making a lot of profit on their side, and make the margin on the dealer side. Off shore, people in China, have figured out that you can compete better if you make just one product, and they can ship that product all over the world. They can buy supplies cheaper, and the American factories are learning to do the same. It’s how you compete.
How do you want to be remembered? That I helped bring honesty to the furniture business, not by overpromising, not by selling warranties… or snake oil; I didn’t want it to just be about profit, I want people to know that I was successful because our customers loved us and recommended us to others. Also remember me because of my philosophy that there is nothing wrong with hard work; and I have always been grateful for everything I have.