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Bernie Rotman – He’s Faaaaantastic!

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Photo of Bernie in Rotmans new Design Center/Window Fashion Studio

By Ellen O’Conner

Bernie Rotman has been in the family business for 30 years, his familiar voice exhorting customers here and beyond to come on down to Rotmans Furniture because, well, it’s faaaan-tastic!

But Rotman, who has been the well-known and genial face of the long-established family company for three decades, took a rather circuitous route to becoming an integral part of the successful business.

“I was a hold-out,” he said simply.

The furniture business was pretty much in the family’s genes. Bernie’s parents, Murray and Ida, had been in the furniture and carpet business since the 1940s. Originally from the Boston area, they moved west to Worcester in the 1950s, opening up a concession in a couple of the city’s old department stores. Two of the sons, Steven and Barry, have been working in the family business since the mid-1960s. Steven is the president and Barry is the chairman of the board.

Bernie, who is vice president of the company, did not come on board until 1980, nearly 20 years after his brothers. Even when he did arrive, he thought his time at his parents’ store would be limited, given his first vocation. He is an ordained rabbi and had been serving in that capacity in Rhode Island.  But, he decided to take a sabbatical from his religious duties and come back to Worcester to try his hand at the family business.
“I was not expecting it to be long-term,” recalled Rotman.

He spent time learning all aspects of the furniture business. It took him about one to two years before he settled into the marketing end of things.  He had found his niche.

“I enjoy it,” he says of the advertising and marketing work. “It was a natural thing for me.” He is particularly proud of the creative work the in-house advertising agency has done for Rotmans.

Perhaps the most well remembered of the many Rotmans commercial spots are the ones with various Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots players, talking about where they had bought their brand new furniture.  John Valentin. Derek Lowe. Antoine Walker. Adam Oates. Ellis Hobbs.  Shea Hillenbrand.  Matt Light. It seems that at one time or another, pretty much every pro athlete in Boston must have filmed a Rotmans bit.

Interestingly, these sports personality ads developed on impetus from the athletes, not Rotmans. Rotman’s nephews used to run a sport memorabilia business out of the furniture store.  Frequently, the various athletes would be at the store for an autograph session and they would take a look at the store’s furniture while there. The idea for the commercials just kind of grew from that relationship, explained Rotman.

In fact, you can log onto the Rotmans website and view a couple of the classics. You can probably remember the others, with an assist from the recent airing of a retrospective of sports ads from the past. There is Bernie goal stopping a shot or Bernie behind the plate or Bernie doing a post-touchdown celebration or Bernie tossing a football around a backyard barbecue with Ellis Hobbs. All the spots, of course, include the timeless “It’s faaan-tastic!” line.

It’s been a while since Rotmans has done a pro athlete commercial; the most recent was the 2007 commercial with the Patriots’ Hobbs. But we may be seeing a new Celtics spot someday soon.  According to Rotman, a player for the Boston hoops team recently expressed interest in doing an ad, but talks are in the beginning stages.

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Bernie with wife Benita accepting the 2006 Corporate Citizen Business Leader Award (from The Worcester Business Journal and Clark University)

Bernie with wife Benita accepting the 2006 Corporate Citizen Business Leader Award (from The Worcester Business Journal and Clark University)

Rotmans has been in the old Whittall Carpet Mill in College Square ~ the enormous brick building that is clearly visible from I-290 ~ since the 1960s, the. Over the years, the furniture store expanded during several phases of renovation and construction, the biggest expansion coming during the 1980s. It now has more than 200,000 square feet of space, which necessitated that the old store slogan ~ Seven Stores on Five Floors under One Roof ~ give way to the new one ~ New England’s Largest Furniture & Carpet Store.

The 200,000 square-feet of space is just a wee bit bigger than the first lease that Murray (who died in 2004) and Ida Rotman signed when they moved to the old carpet mill in 1964. That lease was for 10,000 square feet. Prior to opening at the Whittall Mill, the Rotmans had set up shop within the C.T. Sherer Department Store and, later, Barnard’s Department Store.  When the Rotmans decided to move to the current location on Southbridge Street, they first operated the store as an outlet of Barnard’s. It was in 1971 that the family decided to change the name of the business to what it is called today ~ Rotmans Furniture.

When the furniture store made the move to its College Square location, it had not only found a home, it had found a place where the business had potential to grow exponentially.

First, the spot is the perfect location, says Rotman. It is near I-290 and Route 12, which provides accessibility for area customers. It is close to I-395, which makes it easy for people from Connecticut to reach. And the new Massachusetts Turnpike exit in Worcester provides better access for customers from the east.

“So many roads intersect here,” he says.  “The other advantage is that it is visible from the highway.”

Having an old mill complex as its base of operations also provides Rotmans with a bit of an edge over other furniture stores, if customers appreciate both décor and history.  There is a certain charm to running a business out of a building with a past.  There are tunnels. There are exposed oak beams. And on the top two floors, you can still see some of the old carpet equipment.

“We try to make the charm work for us,” says Rotman. “We are not as sterile as some of the other places.”

Early on, the family made a business decision:  they wanted to make Rotmans a destination store and draw customers from well beyond the Worcester area.

“Not everyone starts with that thesis,” explained Rotman. “But we decided to put all of our eggs in one basket.”

The end result was the largest store of its kind, he says. Rotmans also decided to store its furniture elsewhere, thus freeing up even more showroom space. Fifteen or so years ago, they moved their warehouse to an industrial park in Clinton, making even better use of its space.

While size is important, Rotman went on, there is far more to a successful business model than having a huge space.

“Having the best pricing and product supersedes even selection.”

Keeping any business thriving is always an experiment, to some degree.  In the current economy, the task grows even more difficult.

It is a constant guessing game ~ albeit  an educated one ~ trying to gauge customers’ needs and wants.  It is a challenge, admits Rotman, trying to stay ahead of the curve. In essence, the business tries to anticipate what will draw new customers to the store and keep old customers coming back.

The Rotman Family (circa 1997): From Left to Right - BERNIE ROTMAN, Vice President; BARRY ROTMAN, Chairman of the Board; MURRAY & IDA ROTMAN, Founders; STEVE ROTMAN, President

One of the recent changes Rotmans incorporated involves a new product line ~ the selling of some appliances. They are selling televisions ~ and furniture, of course ~ so that you can fully outfit your family room without leaving the store. Rotmans has partnered with Vin’s TV of Shrewsbury, which takes care of the actual TV installation.

The business has also expanded into the window treatment area and offers a free designer program for its customers. Essentially, the store is trying to become a one-stop shop where customers can get everything they need to furnish their homes ~ from flat screen TVs to new flooring to window treatments to couches to bedroom sets to easy chairs.

“We are trying to cover the gamut of our customers’ needs,” says Rotman.  “We’re trying to be a full service store.”

The bottom line in business – even in tough economic times – is that people have to trust you and what you sell, says Rotman.  If there is not that kind of relationship between store and customer, a business will not be very long-lived.

***
About 18 years ago, the proverbial light bulb went off in Bernie Rotman’s head and a charitable mission was launched.

The results of a marketing survey he had read showed that there were people out there ~ potential customers, especially the elderly ~ who were not replacing their furniture, essentially because they had no idea what to do with their old stuff.  He also realized that there were plenty of people in the community in desperate need of furniture, but unable to afford it.  He knew this because the store would get calls from people in immediate need for replacement furniture, people who had lost all of their furnishings in a fire, for instance. Rotman would often find himself scouring his warehouse, looking for something suitable to donate to the families who had called.

The calls for help from people were so frequent that is was extremely difficult to keep up with the demand, said Rotman.
So, it was clear that there were customers out there looking to upgrade their furniture. It was also clear that there were plenty of families out there who were in great need of donated furniture.

Rotman “connected the dots,” as he described it. He made a few phone calls to local social service agencies, eventually hooking up with the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance (CMHA). The Furniture Exchange was born.

Since 1992, Rotmans and the CMHA, a non-profit agency dedicated to battling homelessness, have worked together to make sure that local families who need furniture get furniture.  The CMHA was formed in 1994 as the result of a merger between two different area groups whose housing missions were complementary. Both groups ~ the Housing Information Center and the Worcester Committee on Homelessness and Housing ~ had been in operation since the 1980s.

Bernie (L) & Bishop O’Reilly from last year’s record breaking Walk for the Homeless

Bernie (L) & Bishop O’Reilly from last year’s record breaking Walk for the Homeless

One of the programs the CMHA had been running prior to Rotmans’ involvement is something called Donations Clearinghouse, a charity designed to provide recycled furniture and household goods free of charge to families who are in no position to pay for them. Donations Clearinghouse was first founded in 1985 and was run by the then-Worcester Committee on Homelessness and Housing. Many of the families are referred to Donations Clearinghouse by area shelters, neighborhood centers and health and human service agencies.  Often, these people in need are the elderly or the disabled, those on fixed or limited incomes, or those who have been the victims of a fire. Donations Clearinghouse has a bare-bones paid staff, along with team of unpaid volunteers, all of whom make the program run.

The way it works is simple. Any Rotmans customer who lives in a town or city within the donation area may donate ~ for free ~ their old furniture to the Furniture Exchange. The furniture must be in reasonably good shape; it can’t be broken or structurally unsound or have torn fabric. The Exchange will take beds, mattresses, tables, chests, couches ~ basically any piece of furniture so long as it meets the requirements for recycling.  As Rotman described it, the furniture and bedding should be “gently worn.”

“We try to do our best so that people understand the parameters,” says Rotman.

A Donations Clearinghouse truck will pick up the old furniture and deliver it to a warehouse, where it will be stored until it is shipped out to a needy family. Rotmans supplies the financial support Donations Clearinghouse needs for pick up, storage and delivery.

“It really is a tremendous win-win,” says Rotman. “Our customers feel good about donating. They also get a tax benefit. And we are filling a great need in the community.”
The partnership with the CMHA and Rotmans has been going great guns since its inception back in the early ’90s.  It also shows no sign of slowing down.

“Believe it or not, we fill up and deplete a warehouse of furniture every day,” says Rotman.

Prior to the involvement of Rotmans Furniture, Donations Clearinghouse was able to serve about 100 families a year, says Grace Carmack, executive director of CMHA. Now, they are able to serve about 1,100 families a year.

“I can’t say enough about what Bernie and the entire Rotman family does for the community on so many levels,” said Carmack. “He is not just a supporter in name, he is very hands-on, helping us to figure out what we need to do to get things to the next step in fighting homelessness. “

Fighting homelessness has become the furniture store’s “cause of choice,” explains Rotman, who is in his 11th year serving as the co-chair of the annual CMHA Walk for the Homeless.  Retired Bishop Daniel Reilly of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester serves as the other chairperson of the event, which has been successful both in raising money and awareness of the homelessness issue. The Walk for the Homeless is now in its 25th year.  Beneficiaries of last year’s walk include Youth Against Homelessness, Friendly House, Donations Clearinghouse, Hope for Housing and the Interfaith Hospitality Network.  The walk raised more than $100,000 in cash donations and $20,000 in in-kind donations, according to Carmack.

The work that Rotmans has done to combat homelessness in Worcester County has earned it, in addition to local acknowledgement, recognition from the National Home Furnishings Association. Perhaps more importantly, the Furniture Exchange program has been replicated throughout the United States, which means that people in need all across the country are being helped and homelessness is being battled head on.

“It is so easy, really,” says Rotman. “Every business could do this. You can recycle anything that you sell, really, and that would be a wonderful thing.”
***
When Murray and Ida Rotman made the decision to put the family name on the business, it was more than just a symbolic change.

“They could have called this Acme Furniture,” says Rotman.  “But they put their own name on the door.”

The reason? His parents wanted to be proud of whatever went on at their business.

“They had high expectations,” says Rotman.

It was a set of expectations, Rotman says, that the parents made sure to pass onto their sons.

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