All Springs Considered

Mattresses, couches, chairs, tables — Wendell Farrell has it all

by Will Lindner

wendells-lead0418In 1999, Wendell Farrell (left) launched his furniture business in a small Milton shop. Since then Wendell’s Furniture has grown to a 40,000-square-foot furniture emporium in Colchester. He and his son, Ryan, now run the company.

For Wendell Farrell, the founder and owner of Wendell’s Furniture in Colchester, the personal touch is central to his business philosophy. It’s not just the warm fuzzies, though they’re in the mix. For example, Farrell’s office is directly behind the counter at the entrance to his spacious, 40,000-square-foot store, and if he sees through the connecting window that someone has entered and not been immediately welcomed, he darts out with a greeting (“Hi, I’m Wendell.”), an invitation to have some chocolate (there are bowls filled with wrapped chocolate pieces throughout the store), and an inquiry about how he can help.

But that just scratches the surface. Farrell and his son, Ryan, the company’s vice president, preach a mantra of customer service to their 25 or so employees — sales, delivery, and warehouse people; managers; and office personnel — that’s captured by a reminder prominent on every computer screen in the store:

Take. Care. Of. The. Customer.

That, Farrell asserts, is “the Wendell way,” and he underscores it in his advertising. Sue Gosselin, an account executive for Hall Communications, handles Farrell’s ads on radio stations in the Burlington-Plattsburgh market. The ads, she says, spring from a fertile mind — “Wendell’s world moves quickly!” she says. The ads are purposely crafted to associate the positive experience of purchasing furniture from Farrell’s store with the personality of the owner himself.

“He’s not afraid to market himself, and it works, and he knows it works,” says Gosselin, who considers Farrell a friend as well as one of her top clients. “He’s always the personality — the brand — of the store.”

Farrell says he developed this style of entrepreneurship over a long and varied history of business ventures that taught him “the importance of treating people well.” Attentive personal service translates into a good reputation, he says, and a good reputation makes his name an asset.

He put this principle to work after taking over a small furniture store in Milton in 1999. Though inexperienced with furniture, this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up: He could have the space rent-free, just paying the owner a third of his sales income, while the building — which included apartments upstairs — was on the market.

Farrell changed the name from the (ho-hum) Milton Clearance Center to Wendell’s Furniture, and imprinted his personality on every transaction. Before long he had doubled and tripled the inventory and purchased the building (including those profitable apartments). By 2002 he needed more space, and found a 6,000-square-foot rental at the Creek Farm Plaza in Colchester.

“I didn’t know how I was ever going to fill it,” he recalls. But fill it he did, and added another 6,000 square feet.

When that wasn’t enough, he purchased the present building on Hercules Drive and moved there in 2005. The entryway, festooned with a giant Adirondack chair outside, opens onto a modest showroom, with an adjoining room for beds and mattresses. Another doorway, however, opens into a vast, two-story building — formerly a Nokia tire outlet — that houses an exhaustive inventory of bedroom and dining room sets, couches, recliners, ottomans and easy chairs, patio furniture, office furniture, and more. Farrell even points out a Murphy bed, a rarity these days.

The second floor includes an area called The Loft, where clearance items can be purchased right off the floor, with no need to wait for an order to be filled.

Each floor of the former Nokia building is larger than the Creek Farm Plaza facility that Farrell once doubted he could fill. Besides these, there’s a 20,000-square-foot warehouse close by (moving warehousing and delivery services there freed up the Nokia building for sales), and Wendell’s Vermont Bed Store on Williston Road in South Burlington.

The inventory is equally diverse in terms of cost. There are high-end choices, but Farrell makes a point of offering more affordable brands that still provide quality and longevity. The Amish and Flexsteel lines are Wendell’s staples.

Two product lines exemplify Farrell’s calculated approach to attracting customers. One of these is mattresses. He carries some expensive, marquee brands, but points out that in some cases, brands like these are actually owned by large conglomerates, so significant portions of the retail price are diverted to corporate obligations. Determined to provide a comparably made but less-expensive alternative, Farrell tracked down a manufacturer that now produces his own “Wendell’s” brand.

He also displays beautiful, locally produced wooden furniture from Thor’s Elegance, a family-owned company in Brandon founded in 1960 that specializes in bedroom furniture crafted from sustainably harvested maple, cherry, oak, and ash.

“Vermont has a reputation for quality,” Farrell points out.

Theirs is a long-standing, thriving relationship.

“Our volume (of sales with Wendell’s) is greater than ever,” says Jeff Thurston, who owns and operates Thor’s Elegance with his wife, Michelle. And they’re planning to increase it, going from a four-week turnaround on orders from Wendell’s to two weeks. “We’ve been working on ways to grow our sales together. Wendell is forward-thinking; he knows what we make and how it fits into his customer demand.”

Farrell’s personal touch applies here, too.

“Wendell often comes down and picks up the furniture himself,” says Michelle, “and he always comes in to say hi.”

Surprisingly, Farrell was already 51 years old when he founded Wendell’s Furniture. His colorful history before that time was filled with ventures long-lived and short, successful and less-than.

Raised on a dairy farm in Jericho, he graduated in 1966 from Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington, traveled a while, and then drove trucks for the Jericho road department. He went back to school to earn a business degree from Champlain College; then intrigued by the possibility of obtaining financing for a field that combined technology and education for deaf students — his brother earned the first Ph.D. in the field — he completed the master’s program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

On the way to his first job with this specialty in Rochester, New York, Farrell and his wife, Karen, stopped by the family farm in Jericho. While they were there his father, Vincent, died.

Suddenly, Farrell was a farmer again.

It didn’t last long. He credits his farm upbringing for instilling a powerful work ethic, but says, “I realized farming was not going to take me where I wanted to go,” so he sold off the stock and launched one business after another. He sold pinball machines, owned taverns, worked in construction, sold real estate. He thrived, for a while, purchasing used clothing and selling it by the bale to distributors who sent the apparel to Africa. But the market, he says, tanked due to oversupply and machinations by the dealers at the top of the food chain. Like the furniture business, Farrell says, all these enterprises were just opportunities that dropped into his lap.

Through it all, he has been accompanied by Karen, a nurse (and later, nurse practitioner) he met on a blind date in Burlington. Theirs was a mixed marriage: his family raised Holsteins, while she came from a dairy farm in Waitsfield that milked Jerseys.

“She is my lifelong business partner,” says Farrell. “She’s also retired military — a Lt. Col. in the Army National Guard.”

Family is a big part of the Wendell’s story, for both the man and the business. Daughter Tara, who now lives in California, worked for Farrell in the early days. “Really,” he says, “she was instrumental in creating the culture of Wendell’s Furniture,” which he considers to be unusually responsive, personal, and community-oriented for the furniture business.

The Farrells’ other daughter, Sabrina, lives in Underhill. She’s an artist and mother to three of their seven grandchildren, but is not involved in the store.

Then there’s Ryan, who now shares the office with his father, but who arrived there after a circuitous route that involved eight years teaching in inner-city schools in Baltimore and Philadelphia, as did his wife, Sara (who now teaches in Jericho). A certificate of appreciation from Teach for America hangs above his desk. “After 9/11 happened,” he explains, “I wanted to do something that was important.”

But when he and Sara started a family in 2008 they opted to move back to Vermont to raise their children. Ryan worked first at the front desk, then managed the warehouse and supervised the delivery crew for several years.

Though less exuberant than his father, Ryan has embraced the store’s personal touch.

“Our services have included doing things for people who need lift chairs,” he notes, “or people in hospice-type situations. It’s surprising how intimate a relationship you can have with people through addressing their furniture needs. You’re talking with them about their home, their comfort, and their family.”

The younger Farrell talks, too, about the many causes Wendell’s Furniture supports: youth sports, the Richmond Food Shelf, Odyssey of the Mind, All Breeds Rescue (for dogs), and Cochran’s Ski Area.

This spring, Karen Farrell will retire from her job at the UVM Medical Center. She and Wendell will then fly to Sacramento, where they left their motor home and Mini Cooper last September, and resume their excursion though the Northwest. Travel is a favorite pastime for the Farrells.

What Karen might not be counting on, however, is her husband’s cellphone.

“People,” Farrell says enthusiastically, “like the fact that Wendell is in St. Barts (in the Caribbean) or up on a chairlift skiing somewhere, and he takes their call. We take care of our customers!” •