Desert Bloom: Buffett Blesses New Willey Store

By Alan Wolf On Jul 7 2003 - 6:00am




Last month's grand opening of R.C. Willey's 12th store — and second in Las Vegas — brought throngs of well-wishers here from the local community, the vendor community and corporate headquarters in Salt Lake City.

But the most celebrated guest came by way of Omaha, Neb.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, second wealthiest man in America and owner of the furniture, electronics and appliance chain, spent the day shaking hands, posing for pictures, addressing guests, fielding questions, cutting a ribbon, signing autographs, sharing investment advice and dispensing his homespun homilies.

Willey, founded in 1932 by Rufus Call Willey, is a member of Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Furniture Group, the nation's sixth-largest furniture retailer, whose members include fellow NATM dealer Nebraska Furniture Mart, Star Furniture in Texas and Jordan's Furniture in Boston.

Indeed, it was Nebraska's megastore in Omaha (where Buffett's grandmother shopped) and its founding Blumkin family that put retail on the investor's radarscope.

"Most home furnishings retailers are not attractive investments," Buffett told TWICE. "The return is not very good. It takes good execution, great managers and a lot of people willing to work very hard.

"The Blumkins showed the way," he said, "and led me to people of similar caliber. [R.C. Willey chairman] Bill Child had no special financing. He just out-worked and out-thought the other guy."

Including Buffet. "Bill wanted to go to Boise," he recalled, "and I said 'You're gonna open a store in Boise and be closed on Sunday [in deference to his Mormon faith]?' So they opened the store and it was a home run. Then Bill said, 'Let's go to Las Vegas,' and I said 'You're gonna open a store in Vegas and be closed on Sunday? So they opened the store [a year-and-a-half ago, in nearby Henderson, Nev.], and it was a huge success, the No. 1 store in the chain. Then Bill said, 'How about we go to Summerlin?' and I said 'No, definitely not!' That's when he knew he had another hit."

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