Dunk & Bright an icon in heart of South Side
Johnnie Knight shifts from room to room at the massive furniture store, piecing together someone else’s vision: a living room, a kitchen or a room that has no purpose yet in the minds of the customers she’s helping.
For Knight, becoming a designer fulfilled a passion. She didn’t take this job thinking it would be a career of 30 years. But in filling spaces for others, she has found one for herself as well. Working with clients to create their home is a very personal responsibility that she doesn’t take lightly.
“When people give you the opportunity and ask and invite you, whether it’s here in the store, a conversation over the phone, or in their home, it is an honor,” she said.
Knight is part of the family at Dunk & Bright Furniture, a 90-year-old institution in Syracuse that soon will be marching toward the century mark —under Joe Bright. He came home this past September to take on the fourth generation of leadership, a milestone few businesses of any kind ever see. Family-owned businesses can outlast others, but even among them, some 95 out of 100 or so would have been long gone by now, experts say.
It may sound like a commercial or feel-good ad, but the store’s near-century as an anchor on the South Side has earned it a loyal following that believes the Brights’ “community over profit” message is authentic.
Dunk & Bright is indeed a part of the community through its donations to dozens of local charities and efforts like the summer Jazz in the City series that the store has long supported, hosting one of the concerts on its own grounds each year.
Joe Bright comes home
Joe Bright, who has stepped in as vice president during the leadership transition, and his father, Jim, say it was never assumed Joe would take over from his dad.
“My dad’s the best business person I’ve ever come in contact with,” Joe said recently in an interview in the store. “I’m learning a lot from him and learned a lot from him growing up.”
A Bright has been at the helm of the ever-growing store at the corner of South Salina Street and Brighton Avenue since the beginning in 1927. Its 100,000 square feet of space is large enough to accommodate the entire floor space of the White House and still have 45,000 square feet to spare. (Sports fans could think of it as nearly the size of two football fields.)
Dunk & Bright Furniture has grown through three expansions, not just in the ground it covers but in the livelihoods it supports. On a monthly basis, the store donates to some five to 25 organizations, and it employs 77 full- and part-time employees. To get a glimpse of how many people have worked at the store and how much business the Brights have done over the decades, Joe looked at numbers as far back as he could and made some guesses.
He estimates that the family has hired and employed around 6,000 people since the store opened. Going back over data that covers only part of the store’s history, he estimates salespeople have sold 3 million pieces of furniture over 90 years — with living room sofas the most popular piece.
Associate professor Alexander McKelvie, who is the chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship & Emerging Enterprises at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, said few businesses of any kind make it this long. He said the majority of companies last just one year, and 80 percent fold within a decade.
“Going into fourth generation, if you’re thinking 60 to 80 years, there are not a lot of companies that do that,” he said.
Deborah Streeter, a senior professor of personal enterprise and small business management in the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, noted that a common statistic she sees is that 30 percent of family businesses make it to the second generation, 10 to 15 percent make it to the third, and just 3 to 5 percent to the fourth generation.
Decades spanned, one spot
Dunk & Bright Furniture remains in the very spot where it started.
The store was originally owned by Bill Dunk and Bill Bright, and eventually Dunk sold his part of the business to Bill Bright for $5,000. When Bill Bright died, his widow and brother-in-law ran the place until Pat Bright Sr., Bill’s son, took over in 1952. In 1990, Bill’s son Jim moved home to Syracuse to work in the store.
Now, Joe’s shadowing and preparation for the succession follows that history. Pat Bright sold the business to Jim after Jim worked for three years getting ready. “I was working in New York City, and he had asked for help if he were to sell Dunk & Bright, how he would package it, how he would get investors interested, and maybe buyers interested,” Jim said. “I helped him package it and said, ‘You could get a lot of money for it.’ Then he said, ‘Well Jim, why don’t you move back to Syracuse and buy it from me?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not worth that much. It’s not worth as much as I said,’” Jim Bright recalled with a laugh.
McKelvie, the Whitman professor, said these kinds of handoffs are a combination of vulnerability and opportunity.
“With the incoming generation, you have to think, ‘What is the respectful way of changing what we’ve done and respecting grandma, grandpa, and parental roles while preparing the company for the future?’ A lot of the innovative shifts that come in, come in with the new generation.”
Joe Bright steps in among a team where some have known him since he was a boy.
“I think I always wanted to be in business,” Joe said. “Even when I was young, I’d get excited to do garage sales or whatever, and you know, sell some products.” Although he grew up visiting the store, even being featured in some of the advertisements with his grandfather and cousins, it never was a given that he would be the one to own the business after his father.
He had thought about being a manager and leading an organization as he grew up. He also has gained experience since graduating from Cornell University and then earning a master’s at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. Joe worked for Aldi, the supermarket chain, attended Darden, and then worked for two years in California for Danaher, a wide-ranging conglomerate in science, tech and healthcare.
When Jim moved back to Syracuse in 1990 with his wife, Cynthia, Joe had recently been born. Cynthia is a pediatrician and has a practice in Camillus. Jim said the store didn’t do much until his father took it over. Jim called him a merchandising genius and the one who really developed the business.
“It wasn’t much before my dad got into it,” Jim said. “It just kind of chugged along and my dad got into it in the early 1950s and built it up.”
Jim grew up around the store. He remembers going next door to the Brighton Lanes bowling alley and even to the warehouse downtown, helping to unload boxcars of mattresses as a 14-year-old, when the furniture would come on trains.
Now that building is the Nancy Cantor Warehouse, which houses Syracuse University’s School of Design programs.
Father and son
Jim said his father neither discouraged nor encouraged him and his four siblings to join the business. The father preferred they be independent and work elsewhere to gain experience and not be distracted by the family business. The mindset was passed down to Jim as he planned for the future of Dunk & Bright.
“If you’re going to bring someone in to help you run your business, you want them to be competent, of course, and have some experience,” Jim said. “I think if he (Joe) had never been out of Syracuse working elsewhere, he’d have a different view.”
Jim said Joe is modest. Joe was in the Top 10 of his class at Darden.
“That’s a competitive group of people,” Jim added.
He called the passing of the store through generations “a dream come true but not mandatory. If it wasn’t right for my kids, I wouldn’t force it by any means, and I’d be fine. We’d be OK.”
A perk of the job for Joe is that he can move around. The staff changes the designs and layout of the rooms regularly. He’s not at a desk often. When talking about similarities with his father, he said they are both generally calm. Joe sees the differences on the business side.
“With my previous work experience, I’ve worked a lot to be analytical, data-oriented. (Now) I’m learning the sales and marketing aspect of the business,” Joe said.
“I see him make decisions every day, that if you have a choice and can make decisions that make the store more profitable or you could make the store be a better neighbor, better employer, better partner, and better community partner, he consistently chooses to be a better neighbor, community partner,” Joe said. “And it’s liberating. That’ll de-stress you in itself instead of always making the choices that make the store more profitable.”
A part of the community
Dunk & Bright charges modest rent to the South Side Innovation Center, which is on its property across the parking lot. Syracuse University oversees the center, which houses 25 small businesses in transition, offering support and space to work. These businesses may also get guidance from various schools at the university, including the business and law schools.
Southside TNT (Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today) holds a meeting the first Monday of every month in the SSIC. Joe has started attending the meetings and also tries to attend TNT events. The store supports that organization, as well as Model Neighborhoods, another South Side organization.
Part of learning and training for Joe is handling donation and support requests from the community.
The store has a donation-of-the-month section on the website where mostly nonprofits make requests. It also gives gift certificates that can be used at silent auctions. Dunk & Bright is a sponsor, as well, for Jazz in the City, a neighborhood outreach concert series, and the store hosts one of the events every summer. The 2018 schedule for the free-admission event will be announced this spring. The program features national and local jazz artists, as well as community performers and students from the Syracuse City School District.
Over the decades that Jim has led the business, he has noticed changes in the neighborhood.
“I think there’s a spirit of optimism,” Jim said. “I think it’s the best it’s ever been in terms of optimism and a spirit of community.”
His son is also optimistic. “That’s a change from what I remember in the mid-’90s and early 2000,” Joe said. “In terms of what it looks like, there’s development, with the Dollar Store next door. That’s refreshing and definitely different. A new business going in in the last couple of years, that’s a big change. SU investing in the South Side Innovation Center is a big change.”
Another change, of course, is the digital revolution and the role of online shopping.
“In the last three or four years, how to do business is changing so rapidly so it’s very important to stay on top of trends and be open to trying new things,” Jim said.
Customers span the years, too
Yet, some things do remain the same: Over the 30 years the designer Knight has worked at the store, she has seen the same clients come back, and they refer their children.
“It’s generational shopping,” she said.
The loyalty of the customers has added to the longevity of the store.
“People were loyal to buying local before buying local was cool,” Knight said.
Ika Mobley has been a customer since 2009. She came in last year to buy her son a new bed and mattress and came back to find a dresser to match.
She brought her cousin, Candice Dunbar, with her. Dunbar hadn’t planned on buying anything but tagged along since they were running errands.
“I knew what it was like but she didn’t, and now she’s golden,” Mobley said. “She found a bed.”
Dunbar had been looking online but hadn’t seen anything that she really wanted.
“I just happened to see it and I had always wanted this bed,” Dunbar said. “I couldn’t leave without it.”
Mobley said sales consultant Moe Tadros offered to make them coffee.
“I just like the environment,” she said. “It’s just warm and fuzzy here.”
Joe is optimistic about the store’s ability to participate in digital marketing and e-commerce.
He’s sure there are some potential customers who may be shopping at Dunk & Bright but then who choose to purchase elsewhere online. But there are the loyal and longtime customers as well.
“We have a bed in a box,” Joe said. “We sell online. We advertise online. It’s a necessity if you want to exist today.”
Studying the generations of owners in family businesses, McKelvie has seen the importance of the next generation being sent out to learn new things because they experience new industries and draw inspiration from other areas. He said they tend to do better, and they most likely grow in their appreciation of the family business as well.
“A lot of the new, innovative shifts come in with the new generations,” he said, generations that have stepped away and returned. “Five, 10 years down the road, those entrepreneurial skills are going to be very useful for the company to help it grow and sustain to the next generation.”
‘It changed my life’
Sherrie Beaudette is an interior designer who has worked with the business for 37 years. She was working in Endicott and got a referral to go to Syracuse to interview at the store. When she arrived, she changed her mind. She questioned if the opportunity was worth moving for and started to head home.
“I went back on the highway to go home but then I said, ‘No, you have to go in,’” Beaudette said. “Best thing I ever did. I’ll never forget what they said to me here: ‘We cannot wait to get you. We cannot wait for you to come.’ It changed my life.”
With Joe joining the team, there will be some change. Beaudette is excited to see what he will personally contribute.
“I think it’s great,” Beaudette said without hesitation. “Joe’s very bright, very personable, and very approachable. I think it’s very good for us.”
She might not have remembered the time his father gave him a project to track the employees’ time cards.
“They put me in the middle of all the sales people and had me audit their time cards,” Joe said with a laugh.
Jim chimed in that his son was always good with numbers.
“He (Jim) said just tell them that’s what you’re doing and then they were all jazzed up about it,” Joe said.
Jim mentioned that they might have been upset, as he began to recall the story. The activity was assigned simply to provide Joe with something to keep him busy, and they had the employees believing they were checking to see if they left early.
“It was definitely just a show,” Joe said. “They took it very seriously.”
Today, not having a desk suits him, as he shows customers to couches stretching to the other side of the store or asks customers’ names to remember them when they visit again.
Knight remembers two elementary school teachers who came in on separate occasions and asked for her. Both women had a great impact on her life and choices, and each visit was a surprise that still moves her today.
“It wasn’t about them buying furniture,” Knight said. “It was just to see who I am today and to acknowledge that in our conversation. That meant a lot.”
— Article and photos by Julianna Whiteway, The Stand Staff reporter