Conventional wisdom says McMillin's Furniture in Yale never should survived since 1948.
For starters, the corner building bought by Charles and Sophie McMillin in 1948 was "jinxed," the townspeople told them. No business had ever survived at that location for more than five years.
Then in 1960 the couple divorced, and Sophie McMillin continued the business alone despite there being no other business women in town.
Finally, in the 1980s, at a time when many family-owned businesses in small communities were folding, McMillin's expanded to its current 30,000 square feet.
Chuck McMillin, second-generation owner of the brick store with the green awnings at Yale's main intersection, has a lot to celebrate this year. It's the store's 50th birthday--and his, too.
He literally grew up with the business--standing by his mother's side as a 12-year-old delivery boy in 1960, then becoming president upon his mother's retirement (and death a few months later) in 1980.
"I give my mother credit for teaching me how to treat people, how to run a business, and how to deliver excellent customer service," says McMillin. "I think she would be happy with the progress I've made."
McMillin's oldest son, Justin, has joined his father in the family business, managing the floor-covering department while earning a business degree in the evenings. He has been attending furniture markets in High Point, North Carolina with his dad since he was 18, and he completed a two-week program at the Mohawk College of Carpeting so he could better serve customers.
"Justin's really put a lot into learning about the business, but he's also learned an awful lot just by being here--by being exposed to the business and the people," says his father. McMillin and his wife, Sherry, have two other children: Brett, and Lindsey.
As a family business, McMillin's likes to treat customers like family. For the store's 50th anniversary celebration, McMillin hosted a big pancake breakfast under a tent. Customers making a purchase could select and pop a special balloon to reveal certificates for $35 to $100 off their purchase.
Working with people one on one and having fun are important to McMillin.
"When you get into someone's home, it's a real personal thing," says McMillin. "You should make the experience pleasurable for them from the time they come into the store until their purchase is delivered. We're not there to grab the customer's money. If you run a business to make the customer's life pleasurable with a purchase, it's a nicer way to do business--and the money will come in."
McMillin's carries a broad range of furniture and accessories, including home office decor, lighting, clocks, floor coverings, window treatments and wallpaper. The staff of 15 includes three decorators who know how to make all the merchandise in the store work together to create the desired look for a customer's home.
"The decorators have been a real plus for us," says McMillin. "People are busy today. We offer them a way to put together a room the way they want it without having to go to several different stores. It's part of giving them good value for their dollar."
Value and service are two of McMillin's bywords. He says, "You can have a great building, nice merchandise, fancy trucks, but if you don't have customers, you don't have a business."
While that business philosophy hasn't changed since 1948, McMillin has found new ways to implement it. In 1989 the store added a computer system with a customer service program.
"We keep customer histories, so we know what they bought, when they bought it, what fabric they selected, when it was delivered, and what problems they've had," McMillin explains. "We track our customer problems, then critique them once a week so we know what we need to do to improve our service. That keeps us ahead of the competition."
The store has added a toll-free number and an e-mail address to make it easier for customers to contact the store. The store also has a web site www.mcmillins.com so customers can browse through featured merchandise, including Howard Miller clocks, Flexsteel leather sofas and American Oak office furniture.
McMillin says that the Michigan Retailers Association has been a big help to him as a small-business person.
"I attribute a lot of our success to MRA. The workers' compensation insurance fund, health insurance, the credit card program--they all have been terrific for us," he says.
"If I have questions about laws or legislation, I know I can call and get answers. They're like family."
Paul Williams, a former MRA board member and retired Yale business owner, is also part of the McMillin's Furniture "family." He does consulting work for McMillin and assists him in critiquing the business and researching future plans for the company's growth.
"Chuck has really adjusted to the times and hung in there," says Williams.
"His secrets are listening to the customers, trying to find out what's happening in the market and above all, good old hard work. While a lot of small-town furniture stores have gone out of business, his continues to grow."
In fact, McMillin's recorded a 20 percent increase in sales last year.
"Sometimes you think you're at your peak, but there's always room to improve," says McMillin. In fact, he's currently considering opening a second store, a smaller "showcase" store that would feature the top items in each of his furniture categories.
"You have to keep trying new things," he adds. "If you don't keep changing, you'll get rolled over by the competition. Plus, doing new things is more fun and you don't get bored."
This profile was written by Elizabeth Johnson, a Lansing area freelance writer.