It’s all in the family at Jerome’s Furniture
By Kris Grant
“Hi, I’m Jerry,” says the man with the outstretched arm … and the smiling face that millions of San Diegans have grown up with over television. They’ve always associated the face with a guy named “Jerome.” But it’s Jerry. Jerry Navarra.
He’s the guy who — week in, week out — has been personally inviting the public down to Jerome’s Furniture for “great deals” on bedroom sets, dining room sets, and, of late, a special on a sofa, just $299. It’s a recession, after all.
The man with the famous face sighs. “It’s my fourth recession,” he says. “We’re not doing the kind of business we’d like to do. We’re surviving and working very very hard to do that. But we’re picking up market share in these tough times.”
Furniture, he says, is a deferrable purchase. “No one has to have it today; they just throw an old bed sheet over the sofa. But then, during periods of a robust economy, we tend to do better than the rest of the economy. We go from very tight to we’re so busy, we can’t get the supplies fast enough.”
Navarra has been in the furniture business for as long as he can remember. His father, Jim, with two partners, founded what was then named Strep’s Furniture Warehouse, in 1954. Shortly thereafter his father bought out his partners. And in 1968, when Jerry was only 20 years old, Jim Navarra renamed the company “Jerome’s.”
At that time, Jerry was driving a delivery truck. His two sisters also worked in the warehouse. But his father knew that his son would one day take over the family business. In 1970, armed with a bachelor of science degree in business with an emphasis in marketing from the University of Southern California and a masters in business administration from San Diego State, Jerry Navarra began his full-time career in the family business when “Jerome’s Furniture Warehouse” was but a single location company with only 12 employees. In 1974, he took the helm as president and has guided Jerome’s growth to reach more than 380 employees, five retail locations and multi-million dollar revenues.
Today Navarra is chairman of Jerome’s Furniture and his sister, Ann is also a member of the board of directors. Last year, Jerome’s was recognized as the Retailer of the Year by the Western Home Furnishings Association.
Now Jerome’s Furniture is moving into a third generation as a family enterprise, with Jerry’s three children all working with the company in different capacities.
Son Jim, 31, says, “I must have been 10 years old when I was sweeping the warehouse on odd weekends. Hey, I made a couple bucks a day. Dad’s office was always a cool place to hang out; it was cool to be with all those warehouse guys.”
Back then – and we’re talking all of 15 years ago – Jim Navarra recalls it was truly hand labor with dollies. “It wasn’t automated. There was a lot more manual labor involved.”
Jim started working in earnest around 2005. Like father, like son, Jim went to grad school at San Diego State, obtaining a masters degree in business with an emphasis in marketing.
The company, with a fleet of more than 30 delivery trucks, provides same-day delivery, even on orders placed late in the afternoon.
Jerry Navarra says that the company’s success can be traced to “a number of things and they all add up.”
The first would be longevity and the second would be pricing. “We’ve been here long enough so we have good brand equity. And our pricing is good so people feel like they get a lot for their money,” he says.
But the key, the real key, he says, is that it’s a family business. “That motivates us to serve our customers. It just happens naturally.”
He reflects on the time when he worked at a retail facility in Los Angeles while attending USC. “The customer was pretty much the enemy,” he remembers of that company’s culture. “Is that crazy?”
At Jerome’s, if something goes wrong, he says, the staff will take it personally. “And they like it when the customer has fun and they’re engaged. We attract people to work here that like a family business and family is important to them.”
One of those people attracted to Jerome’s was Lee Goodman. “Lee comes from a similar family store background on the East Coast,” Navarra said. “He worked with his dad in the same kind of business and he was very successful. We needed the sophistication of a larger organization. Lee did so well we made him president in 2007.”
Navarra looks back at when his mother, Esther, was the bookkeeper and his father was at the helm. “My father was probably the hardest working man I ever knew,” he says with awe. “And he was one of those guys who had a saying for everything, and they were all in Italian. One of them translates to ‘Slowly, slowly you go a long way.’
“It’s a reminder that you don’t feel you’re getting anywhere until you take a look backwards.” And in the last couple of years, when he looks back, Jerry Navarra sees the progress his company has made. “We’ve done pretty good.”
“My parents were full-blooded Sicilian,” Navarra said. “Dad was a good teacher, back in the early days, he would mentor, teach his staff and friends some basic business skills. English was his third language, Spanish, his second, Italian, his first. He grew up off Ocean View Boulevard in the Barrio.
“My parents were Depression-era people,” he recalls. “They were very modest about how they lived, but family and good meals were important.”
Jerry says he feels he’s inherited his father’s strong work ethic, and some other principles as well. “ I’ve worked hard all these years, I’ve been honest; it’s true that it’s easier. Lies always catch up with you. People appreciate knowing where they stand and where you’re coming from.” And, he says he likes seeing something he’s finished which fills him with a sense of accomplishment.
Now the third generation of Navarra’s is coming into its own. Jerry’s son Mark is vice president of operations, son Jim is vice president of marketing and daughter Adrienne is vice president of health and safety and has spearheaded a company-wide wellness program. Jerry’s sister, Adeline Navarra Williams, is director of human resources and public relations, and her daughter, Carolyn Williams, manages customer pick-up and clearance in Rancho Bernardo.
Now Jerry Navarra is able to take a little more time off. He enjoys fishing at his home in Mexico over long weekends, and gardening; he’s an expert tree pruner and the results are evident at his Mission Hills home where he’s lived for 31 years and is now remodeling. Jim lives in a two-story Craftsman next door, and he plans to remodel the home with the help of his fiancé, Stefanie Venter, Jerome’s accessory buyer and one of the company’s in-house designers. Jim’s home is, of course, furnished completely with Jerome’s furniture.
The Navarra’s are active with the San Diego Natural History Museum, where Jerry’s wife, Eleanor, started as a docent and just retired as chairman of the board. “We were able to sponsor a program from its inception,” Navarra said. “Eleanor discovered that the museum owned about 1100 Albert Valentine watercolors. He had been hired by Ellen Browning Scripps to tour and paint all the flora of California. When she died her estate gave all the watercolors to the museum which vaulted them. Sixty-six years later we financed a program to create a new vault for them, get them photographed, do all the protocol. They just returned from a national tour.”
Jim Navarra sits on Jerome’s board, and oversees marketing. “We’re everywhere now, TV, radio, billboards, online advertising and a lot of social networking. We have a blog, email newsletters, do some limited print and direct mail,” he said.
Celebrating its 55th year in business this year, the company has a number of promotions, including a home makeover in conjunction with KGTV. “We invite people to submit photos online and share their story,” Jim Navarra says. “We furnish a home a month, including all the accessories.”
Another promotion is “Jerome’s Best Seat at the Q” where two lucky winners can watch Chargers games from leather recliners on the field. (A similar promotion is available for Padres fans.)
There’s also “J-Club” with a schedule of free quarterly in-store events. The next event on holiday dining and entertaining takes places at 11 a.m. on Nov. 7 at the Morena store. Attendees will hear presentations from Jerome’s designers and enjoy free appetizers.
Jim says that he has seen a movement of higher-end customers shopping at Jerome’s. “People are price sensitive and tightening their belts. We’re seeing high-end customers that wouldn’t shop us as much before- they were more Ethan Allen, Pottery Barn customers- shop us for higher ticket items. These items are becoming top producers for us.
He points to a Heritage Manor bedroom set. “It’s very tasteful, felt-lined drawers, not flashy.” Jerry adds, “When you get your hands on it, the drawers work well, the finish is good. People who appreciate nice cabinetry drift toward it. People appreciate good quality.
“In the past, it was flashier and bigger,” he adds. “Not anymore.
“People have had their fill of that,” Jerry Navarra says. “That may be where America is going. People are taking a step back and figuring out what is really important to them.” z