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Missoula, Mont. — Vann’s has never been afraid to be a pioneer, and the CE and majaps retailer continues to reinvent itself with each passing decade. Founded by Montana native Pete Vann (now retired) in 1961, Vann’s was the first GE dealer in the Northwest, according to the company’s president/CEO and chairman George Manlove. All six of Vann’s locations are in Montana, and it is the largest independent retailer in the state; the main location, in Missoula, is 35,000 square feet and features a 12,000-square-foot showroom footprint.

Featuring a product mix of majaps, home theater, custom home products and custom installation and satellite video, Vann’s changed its merchandizing strategy seven or eight years ago in an effort to move away from commodity-driven products like those sold in big-box stores, and moved toward midscale products and services.

“We really focused on a specific niche,” Manlove said. “We get a lot of competition that’s price driven, but we’ve maintained our integrity and expanded it into a different segment … We’ve grown substantially in the past six or seven years.”

Manlove cites Vann’s fastest growth products as being custom home appliances and upscale video and audio lines. Particularly contributing to its achievements is the success of its e-commerce business, which was launched in 1998. Indeed, Vann’s was an early pioneer in offering vendor-authorized merchandise online, which was initially prompted as a courtesy to customers who traveled vast distances through the under-stored Montana countryside to reach Manlove’s retail locations. Since then, Vann’s e-tail business has become “wildly successful,” he said.

One important aspect that Manlove believes differentiates Vann’s from its big-box competitors is the fact that the company is 100-percent employee-owned. In 1996, Pete Vann sold the store to his employees. The buyout was completed in 2004, and Manlove cited employee loyalty and low turnover as strong features of Vann’s.

Also, Manlove said, since Vann’s is privately held, it has never really had any debt. “We funded all of our growth through uprating capital, rather than debt, and I think that makes a big difference in changing our economic climate to be able to weather any trends because you don’t have debt service.”

When asked what plans Vann’s has for the future, Manlove said the company is looking to expand its business format to feature more lifestyle boutiques, rather than broad-based showrooms, which can be positioned in lifestyle communities and resort communities. “We do really well in resort communities because they’re upscale,” he said.

Vann’s also intends to expand its successful e-commerce business, as well as build a new distribution center that will be primarily used for e-commerce distribution, which has long since expanded beyond Montana’s borders. “There will be 26,000 square feet just for e-commerce,” said Manlove.

Manlove said that Vann’s, a former NATM dealer and current PRO Group member, is also looking for merger and acquisitions opportunities to complement its business.