“I don’t hunt, I don’t fish and my wife doesn’t let me chase women,” Wendell Farrell said Monday. So what keeps this 66-year-old busy day after day?
Farrell is the founder and namesake of Wendell’s Furniture in Colchester, and the Vermont Bed Store in South Burlington. His wife of 45 years, Karen, is his silent partner and a retired Army National Guard Lt. Colonel. She currently works as a Nurse Practitioner in Cardiology at the UVM Medical Center in Burlington. Together they live in the home Wendell built in Jericho 35 years ago.
Farrell is a graduate of Rice High School, but can’t figure out how. “My senior year, I think we skipped more than 60 days of school and we borrowed the principal’s car,” Wendell remembered. “I think they graduated me just to get rid of me.”
At 21, he went to Champlain College and earned his business degree. He was then chosen to be one of 13 U.S citizens in a deaf education program at UMASS Amherst, where he received his Master’s in Special Education on the government’s dime.
After graduating, Farrell and his wife drove home to his childhood farm in Jericho. “My dad died on Mother’s day,” said Farrell. “So I found myself back in the barn milking cows.”
After three years he sold the cattle and equipment and looked for a business to buy.
He had a mash-up of different business ventures including: The Tilt Company – pinball machines and arcade games; At Your Service – commercial cleaning; Southern Vehicles – buying and trucking used cars from South Carolina to Vermont; JAGS Vintage Clothes; GDS Manufacturing – manufacturing exhaust duct for the semi-conductor industry, like IBM; WF Trading – exporting used clothing to Africa; and a stint in real estate.
“I put deals together,” Farrell explained. “In reality, we’re all in sales all the time.”
Wendell’s Furniture opened on July 1, 1999 in Milton. Six years later they moved it to the Colchester location on Hercules Drive.
“The building is about 35 years old,” said Farrell, explaining that Nokian Tires was the previous business in the 40,000-square-foot space. “It was a dirty, stinky warehouse when I bought it,” said Farrell. “We’ve turned it into a nice store.”
The Colchester facility also operates from a neighboring 20,000-square-foot warehouse that is supported by three delivery trucks and 10 employees.
Farrell is slowly passing the torch to his children: Tara, who does all the ordering from her home in San Francisco, Calif.; Ryan, the CEO who lives in Bolton; and Sabrina, who Farrell says is not involved in the business yet, but maybe someday. Now she works in the arts and as a stay-at-home mom in Underhill.
Farrell recently elaborated on his life’s work.
Q: How did you get started in furniture sales?
A: I had been in the business of exporting clothes, but then they went from 25 cents to 2 cents per pound and I was sitting on a million pounds of clothes… basically I became poor very quickly.
I made a deal to put up my truck for collateral and got 12 pieces of furniture to sell from a hole-in-the-wall building in Milton. I had 4 beds, 3 futons, 2 bunk beds, flat beds and chairs.
My plan was to retire at 55. My business was growing, but I had no great vision. When I woke up on my 55th birthday I decided that I didn’t want to do anything else [other than sell furniture]. I wanted to see if I could be the biggest furniture store in Vermont.
My dad always said, “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” I see opportunities and make things happen. I’m not very good at managing, that’s where my son comes in.
Q: How would you describe Wendell’s Furniture?
A: The old way of furniture sales was not about customer service. My way is that you are going to be happy at the end of our transaction.
We really have something for every pocketbook. We also have great institutional knowledge. When I started out I was just a guy who liked people. Now the design help is here.
The Loft [upstairs at Wendell’s Furniture in Colchester] is where we will sell lower priced pieces and floor models. This is where prices get slashed. We will also have “rooms to go” sets where someone can buy a display exactly as they see it. We’re hoping to do a grand reopening in 5-6 weeks. We’ve put in new floors, lights, walls plus the inventory from the Plattsburg store and more to show.
Q: What is unique about the Wendell’s Furniture mattress line?
A: The Wendell’s Furniture mattresses are all named after our grandkids. Six years ago I was whining because I had no grandchildren and now I have 7.
We decided to do our own mattress line so I could cut out all the middle people and keep the cost low.
Q: How is it going letting your children take over the business?
A: I tried retiring, but then the recession hit and I needed to jump in to save the business. This business gives me everything I want: It keeps me busy and lets me have a creative mind. But we have to recognize mortality. I’m 66 years old no matter how I feel.
The biggest thing now is transitioning me out of the public eye and Ryan into the pubic eye. I make a point never to get between my son and anyone else.
Q: You say: “There’s always a deal to be made.” What advice do you have for making deals?
A: If you ever hear a salesman say ‘trust me’ — duck! That’s when you know you can’t trust them. And, always ask for a better price.
Q: What do you do with all the plastic and cardboard the company generates?
A: We bale all the cardboard and plastic. That keeps it out of the landfill. We’re very concerned about recycling and our environmental footprint.
— Elsie Lynn Parini