From Legal Career to Retail CEO
In the ever-evolving landscape of retail, businesses often face the daunting task of adapting to new technologies and changing customer expectations. Brakenridge Furniture, a family-owned company, found itself at a crossroads when Anna Ferguson, a former lawyer, took over as the president. Ultimately, Anna and her team led the business to become the Home Furnishings Association’s 2019 Retailer of the Year for stores with less than 50 employees!
This Q&A-style blog dives into Anna’s journey, highlighting the challenges she faced in revamping the business, the impact on her team, and the lessons learned along the way.
Join us as we explore how Anna navigated the transformation of Brakenridge Furniture, building bridges between tradition and innovation in the furniture industry.
WithIt: President of an award-winning furniture retailer?! How did that happen? Professionally speaking, how did you get here?
Anna Ferguson: Let’s back up a bit. When my parents were no longer running the business, I felt the need to be more involved and take on the business. Even though I studied interior design during my college years at LSU I had to relearn the ins and outs of the industry.
Back then, I worked alongside Lisa McEwen, an experienced interior designer who would visit different stores, revamp the layout, paint the walls, and arrange the merchandise to create appealing vignettes. This experience laid the foundation for my understanding of the industry.
My father was part of the Texas Marketing Guild, an organization that united small, family-owned stores across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Working together allowed us to make bulk purchases and secure better prices.
Our business initially operated on a regional scale, with manufacturers based in Mississippi and a significant market in Dallas. Over time, the furniture industry transitioned from regional to international, with production moving overseas. We started sourcing parts like mechanisms for La-Z-Boys from China and leather from Italy. The entire manufacturing process had changed.
Additionally, we had never computerized anything before. My mother, a former schoolteacher with a passion for perfection, handled the meticulous task of writing contracts by hand. Every number and calculation was double-checked to ensure accuracy. We even managed our own financing, all done manually and documented in ledgers and index cards. It truly was a mom-and-pop operation, even though my mother, despite having a master’s degree in math education, refused to embrace modern consumer technology. She drew the line there and preferred to stick to her tried-and-true methods.
When I was growing up, I became more involved in the business, handling tasks like accepting payments, and eventually went to law school for my graduate degree. Afterward, I considered attending design school. However, in 1986, Louisiana’s economy took a hit when the price of oil plummeted. This led to a significant recession, and job opportunities, especially in the design field, were scarce. Relocating across the country seemed like a possibility, but I wasn’t ready for such a drastic change. So, I made the decision to stay and contribute to the family business.
WithIt: And that was immediately after interior design school?
Anna: I’m not suggesting that everybody should do that, but that’s what happened. After completing interior design school, I took a different path. I worked at the state legislature, then briefly got married and experienced some romantic reversals. Eventually, I moved back home around 1999 and opened my own general civil practice in early 2000. Quickly, I became the city attorney and also provided legal services to political subdivisions and the hospital. In 2003, I got married again and had a baby in 2004, just two days before my 41st birthday. So, I became an older parent balancing work and family life.
We’re almost there. I got divorced in 2013, which happened to be the same year my mother passed away. My father lived for about five more years, so I officially took over around 2017-2018.
WithIt: Do you feel that your background in law prepared you for the role of company president?
Anna: Yes and no. A law degree provides a fantastic liberal education, and I’m grateful to have it. It empowers me to navigate various aspects of life and avoid being taken advantage of. However, working in a retail business is quite different from being a lawyer in a law firm. There’s a distinction. When I’m at the furniture store, I’m seen as the kid who took over, despite my legal background. It’s a unique dynamic to manage, especially in a small town where our employees have known us for years.
WithIt: What’s it like to be the second generation of your family to be in the furniture industry?
Anna: My experience was bringing in new ideas and practices to a business that was accustomed to doing things a certain way. The status quo was deeply ingrained, and it took time for them to adapt to change. People are often afraid of change and may not initially recognize the benefits it brings. However, after going through the transition and experiencing the positive outcomes, everyone realizes the value of embracing change. It’s common to hear people say, “I wish we had done this sooner.” Overall, going through this significant transition and telling the story of our journey played a role in receiving the award. The application process involved sharing the ups and downs, the challenges, and the unique experiences we encountered.
WithIt: What would you say was the hardest part of undertaking the revamp? Was it the actual process of implementing the changes, dealing with the people, or something else?
Anna: Oh, definitely the people. Getting buy-in from the employees was the most challenging aspect. As the world rapidly embraced computerization, I graduated at the time when it became mainstream, so I was equipped with the necessary skills. However, many of the employees at the furniture store had been working there since high school and had missed out on acquiring computer knowledge. Some of them didn’t even know how to use email and had to attend classes at the local library just to learn the basics.
WithIt: Are those same people still working with you? And how have you seen them change or grow over time?
Anna: Yes, they are still with us. I’ve witnessed tremendous growth and increased confidence in their abilities. Looking back, they now laugh at how worried they were initially, but it was a genuine concern for them. They feared they wouldn’t be able to learn the new technology and might lose their jobs as a result. However, their transformation has been remarkable. They are now much more proficient in their work and have developed a sense of assurance that they can adapt to new circumstances, even if they initially feel overwhelmed.
WithIt: I hadn’t considered the depth of their concerns before, that they believed they couldn’t learn and feared being fired. It makes so much sense now to understand their journey and the positive impact it has had on their confidence.
Anna: Exactly. They genuinely believed they couldn’t grasp the technology. It’s a relief to see their increased confidence and realize that they not only acquired the necessary skills but also discovered their own capacity to learn and adapt. They excel at their work, possessing knowledge about inventory and prices that even I find impressive. It’s fascinating to overhear their conversations and witness their expertise in action.
WithIt: It sounds like they possess the best of both worlds—their excellent memory and expertise combined with the adaptability that comes from embracing technology.
Anna: Absolutely. They have a wealth of knowledge that goes beyond what technology can offer. Their memory and deep understanding of the business are invaluable. They can recall prices and style names effortlessly, which often leaves me in awe. It’s a unique blend of skills that they bring to the table, and it’s a testament to their dedication and expertise.
It’s truly remarkable. The way they’ve embraced technology while retaining their valuable expertise is a testament to their resilience and adaptability.
We have our original store, which is about 30,000 square feet, and we’ve had longstanding customers who have been with us for many years. Some of these customers have been loyal to us for generations. With the opening of the new store, which is located only about 10 miles away in Mississippi instead of Louisiana, we’ve started attracting new customers. Interestingly, we’re now seeing tourists and people from larger cities who are visiting our charming downtown area, which is rich in history. Understanding the differences between our local customers and these new visitors has been a fascinating learning experience.
WithIt: That’s intriguing. It’s like comparing the cultural differences between local customers and those from different states or even larger cities, despite the proximity of the two stores.
Anna: Absolutely. Despite the stores being so close to each other, there are distinct differences in the customers we serve. We have the local customers who have been with us for years, and then we have the newcomers who bring their own perspectives and preferences. It’s a unique blend of demographics and cultural backgrounds, and it’s been interesting to navigate and understand the needs and expectations of these different customer groups.
WithIt: You mentioned working with a group called Crystal’s Profitability Consultants. Was that part of your effort to better understand the business and make informed decisions?
Anna: Yes, exactly. Knowing that I needed to familiarize myself with the business, I sought assistance from Crystal’s Profitability Consultants. They have worked with numerous stores that have achieved great success. It was important for me to gain insights into the industry and gather knowledge to make informed decisions. Additionally, I attended furniture market and discovered Furniture Wizard, a software that suited our needs perfectly. It streamlined our inventory management and generated tags seamlessly.
WithIt: So, returning to the furniture industry and taking over your parents’ business, how has this impacted your personal life beyond the workday? Has it affected your home, relationships, or other aspects of your life?
Anna: It has introduced me to a whole new network of people, which has been fantastic. I have thoroughly enjoyed interacting with everyone in the industry. People have been incredibly kind and helpful, genuinely trying to assist one another. It’s a refreshing change from the high-pressure environment of a law firm, where you often see people under immense stress. This new venture has allowed me to explore art, design, and make valuable connections. For instance, I connected with the Home Furnishings Association, which has been an exceptional resource for me. So, it’s been an enriching experience that extends beyond the boundaries of work.
WithIt: In that sense, how has this transition and the responsibilities of running the business affected your life?
Anna: Well, it has required me to shift my focus away from my legal career, which is obvious. I have had to let go of certain things I used to do. However, over the past year, I’ve been able to pick up some cases involving children in need of care, particularly those placed in foster care, as well as representing kids in delinquency court. So, it has allowed me to incorporate those aspects back into my life to some extent. It’s been a balancing act, but it has expanded my horizons.
WithIt: Given all these changes, what does a typical day or week look like for you now?
Anna: Well, it usually starts with caffeine to kickstart my day. Then, I dive into my email, which often becomes a time-consuming task. Fortunately, many of my work responsibilities can be handled remotely using an iPad until my physical presence is required. Since the new store opened, I’ve made an effort to be more present and engage with the operations. They open at 10 am, so I can manage my email and then be there when they open. If I need to visit the other store, I can do that too. The daily routine varies, and as someone who loves gadgets, I’m always reachable through my phone, email, or text messages, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing.
WithIt: How do you, as Brakenridge Furniture president, build bridges and ladders for women in the furniture industry?
Anna: Definitely. I try to attend conferences and keep my employees informed about the valuable insights I gain. I believe in sharing information that can benefit our sales, marketing, and overall success. I also strive to provide access to training and resources, leveraging my experiences from various places to ignite their curiosity and drive their growth. It’s all about empowering them with the knowledge they need to thrive.
WithIt: It sounds like you’ve come a long way and have positioned Brakenridge Furniture for success.
Anna Ferguson: Exactly! We’ve laid the foundation, gathered all the puzzle pieces, and now it’s time to optimize and keep moving forward. It feels great to have overcome the challenges of COVID and the ice storm, and now with the new store up and running, we’re ready to embrace these changes and make the most of them.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my experiences, and I hope it provides valuable insights to others in the industry. I’m excited about the future and what lies ahead for Brakenridge Furniture.
As you reflect on Anna Ferguson’s remarkable journey in the furniture industry, may her story inspire you to embrace challenges as opportunities for growth and transformation. And if you’re considering WithIt membership for your professional journey, find out more about our mission here or make the decision to join today.