For this business,
it’s easy being green
Toward the end of a recession is when the used office furniture business gets going, says Reg Cross, the owner of The New Office Furniture Exchange at 235 Main St. in Burlington.
by Holly Hungerford
Office Furniture Exchange and its successor, The New Office Furniture Exchange, have moved four times and changed hands twice in the last 20 years, but through it all there has been one constant: Reg Cross.
Reg didn’t start out in the office furniture business. After high school, he worked in manufacturing and purchasing at Garden Way for nine years, followed by a year at Yandow Sales & Service.
His affiliation with office furniture began in 1985, when he was hired by Larry Williams to manage the furniture warehouse and delivery departments at Copytek. “Copytek was just getting started in office furniture then,” recalls Reg, who also helped customers in the front of the store as the need arose. It was this experience that led Williams to ask him to run the used–office furniture business he purchased in 1987.
When, in the mid-’90s, Williams sold the business to Boise Cascade, Reg stayed on, and when Boise Cascade got out of the retail business in 2001, Reg and his wife, Ruth, decided to reopen the store as The New Office Furniture Exchange. “Copytek never registered the name, but,” he continues with a dry chuckle, “the state said we couldn’t register Office Furniture Exchange, because it was too close to Office Furniture USA.” Informally, it’s still just Office Furniture Exchange.
Reg met Ruth Donovan at Burlington High School — “We were high school sweethearts,” Ruth says with a smile. They were married in 1980, three years after graduation. Ruth’s family owned Merola’s Market on North Avenue, so she brought years of retail experience to their business partnership.
Ruth handles the bookkeeping and other details of the operation, but, she hastens to say, “Reg is the business.” She adds, as if explaining, “This is a typical Vermont business. We were both born and brought up right here in Burlington, so we know people and families and businesses.”
“It’s a fun, small, great, easy business to run,” says Reg. “I love doing it.”
Ruth Cross, Reg’s wife and business partner, brought years of retail experience to the business. Her family owned Merola’s Market on North Avenue in Burlington. She handles the store’s bookkeeping and operational details.
Not easy all the time, though, as the Crosses found out shortly after they opened the store. Business was booming, and then 9/11 happened and business went to nothing for six to eight weeks. Ruth confesses that she worried every day during that time, but Reg says he never had any doubts. “I knew business would have to resume eventually,” he says. Sure enough, after the first of the year, they were back in business, and sales have increased every year since then.
The company’s customer base is made up of small businesses, nonprofits, towns, schools, and local colleges, including Champlain College and the University of Vermont. “Everybody that actually has a budget,” Ruth says with a laugh. “They don’t necessarily downgrade when they buy used furniture, because for the same price as a lower quality new desk they can get a beautiful wood veneer one.”
Repeat customers are the life blood of the business. Mark Boutin, facilities manager at Biotek Instruments and one of Reg’s first customers, has been working with him for 12 to 15 years. “His pricing and commitment on delivery is solid,” says Boutin.
Betsy Haynes, procurement and logistics specialist at ARD, concurs. “They are so helpful and considerate, and the quality of the product is exceptional,” she says.
The Crosses obtain the majority of their used furniture from New York City, using the same broker who has been buying for the business for over 20 years. They have noticed an increase in the amount of local furniture available in recent years as more businesses turn over or decide to close.
Reg is confident that the slowdown they are experiencing due to the current economic climate will be temporary. “Towards the end of a recession is when our business typically profits,” he explains, “because bigger businesses are selling their furniture as one of the last parts of the closure of a company.”
The company’s customer base includes small businesses, nonprofits, towns, schools, and local colleges. Most of the furniture — all high-end — comes from New York City, but the availability of good local furniture has been on the increase.
Reg stocks only high-end furniture, and he needs to be picky about what he buys. The business now occupies 8,300 square feet of space on Main Street in Burlington, about 7,000 of which is used for warehouse. This is a decrease in space of over 40 percent from that of the previous location on South Champlain Street, a location the company shared with the growing Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, among others.
“Between our landlord and VEIC, they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, assuming we could find space,” recalls Reg. With two years left on their lease, the Crosses went searching for a new location. “Our biggest challenge in the last eight years was finding good, affordable, accessible space with parking in Burlington,” Ruth says.
At the last minute, just before they told VEIC that Office Furniture Exchange would not be moving, their current location came on the market. Twenty-eight truckloads of furniture later, they settled into their new home.
Reg and Ruth handle the business on their own most of the time, but there are regular periods each year when business picks up and they hire temporary delivery staff. These increases in activity correspond with the ends of the fiscal and calendar years and the start of the school year.
Until 2004, when he joined the Marines in response to increased violence against Americans in Iraq, the Crosses’ son, Reggie IV, was part of the business. When he leaves the service next year, he plans to return to the store. “I don’t think he realized it going in, but he knows now what a big hunk of his life he just donated to his country,” says Reg. “It also had a major impact on us and our business.” Their daughter, Rachael, works as a registered nurse in a nursing home.
The Office Furniture Exchange provides more than just furniture. Reg offers design and layout services as well as installation and delivery of used cubicles. He works with out-of-state vendors and offers the cubicles as is or refurbished. “Basically, a customer can come in with a floor plan, and he can match their needs to used furniture and not even have to have an inventory,” explains Ruth. The company also sells new furniture, but, notes Reg, the used is more profitable.
The Crosses market the Office Furniture Exchange as a green business — a place of true recycling. “Everyone benefits,” says Reg. “It benefits the people going out of business, it benefits me, and it benefits the end user, which picks up like-new products for a fraction of the cost.”
Good quality furniture lasts a long time, says Reg, and often has several lives. That was the case with the 365 workstations Vermont Student Assistance Corp. sold him when it moved into its new digs several years ago. Much of that furniture had come from National Life in the late ’70s or early ’80s, and Reg sold it straight on to another business without even unloading the trucks at the warehouse.
Away from their 9-to-5 job, the Crosses enjoy spending time outdoors, camping, hunting, and fishing. “We love the state parks” says Ruth. Until their son left three years ago and she needed to become more involved in the business, Ruth was an emergency medical technician with Milton Rescue, where she logged 5,000 hours of service. Reg coached youth football in Milton when their son was playing — from 1993 to 2003.
As constant as ever, in both his business and personal lives, this year Reg returned to the football arena, serving as interim president for the Northern Vermont Youth Football League. Says Ruth with a chuckle, “We’re looking forward to when our grandsons are ready to play football.” •