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COOL HUNTING

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For nearly two decades, Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams have been making the kind of furniture that has become an American interior design vernacular, while also setting new standards in the workplace with their progressive business practices. With their recently released book Let's Get Comfortable and five new stores opening in the U.S. (for a total of 18), we thought we'd check in with the duo to find out what it takes to build such a dynamic company. Read on to learn about their new quarterly online magazine, their rock-solid ethics and their winning strategy for building a furniture company.

They've also been kind enough to give Cool Hunting three signed copies to give away. To find out how to enter (and for the whole interview) go here.

Your furniture has such a new American sensibility and your approach to business has a similar parallel. Can you tell us what informs your decisions when it comes to business practices?
We treat people how we want to be treated. That’s a little more difficult than it sounds. There’s more than one constituency. We are very focused on treating our employees with respect, just as we would want to be treated if we worked for someone. We treat our suppliers with respect. In our world, many treat suppliers as a doormat. We don’t and as a result, we find that we get great service. We treat our customers with respect. They need to make a profit and we work with them to get their fair share. They have difficult jobs and we work with them to make their jobs go smoothly. Imagine if you are a buyer for 150 stores and you advertise one of our leather chairs. If the floor samples are not delivered on time and of good quality, a chain of events starts that is incredibly frustrating for the buyer. And finally, we put ourselves in the consumers shoes. Buying furniture can be an anxiety-ridden purchase so we have figured out every detail to make it as pleasurable as possible.

How has technology affected the way you do business? How do you think it has affected your customers and informed their lifestyle?
The most significant way technology has affected us is the overall use of the internet. We were either the first or one of the very first to have a website. We quickly learned that this was becoming a great way for consumers to “shop around” without even going to a bricks and mortar store. So, we really focused on making it a research-friendly site. We love when one of our retail stores tell us that customers come in with the items printed out that they want to buy. It makes for a quick and easy transaction. As our brand name has grown, our actual sales on our website have steadily increased.

We also use the most up to date technology in our factory. While our furniture is literally hand-built, there is one aspect that we have been able to do “computer assisted.” Using advanced cutting machines, our fabric and leather are cut under human supervision but greatly aided by these massive computerized “cutters” that give us maximum yield of materials and produce about four times faster than doing the whole operation by hand. In the final analysis this gives us the opportunity to give the consumer the best possible value.

Our whole shtick is to give consumers a more comfortable lifestyle. Using our website we give a constant flow of new ideas and product. We house the website on site at our factory and main offices with a staff that can change anything on a moments notice. So it is very up to date with our new products. Last week we launched an on-line “short” magazine called Comfortmag.net. It will just have two stories and come out quarterly. We don’t want to overload people. The first issue will have an article on what we think would look great in a second home as well as an article on Eve Ensler and her great work. Eve wrote and starred in The Vagina Monologues, and founded V Day, which raises money to protect girls and woman around the world that are abused. So, with the use of technology we’ve been able to spread our mission of making the world more comfortable for everyone to more people than ever before.

You've mentioned that your personal aesthetics play a role in Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. How do you apply the same approach on a business level?
From early on, we decided that we would only make furniture that we would have in our own homes. We also decided that we would only conduct ourselves in business as we would want to be treated. Our factory has an incredible cafeteria with an accomplished chef that serves healthy food that is second to none. Chef Sean has cooked for people who have had the opportunity to eat at great restaurants all over the world.....from Al and Tipper Gore and John Edwards to Darren Starr and Judith Light to Gordon Segal (founder of Crate and Barrel)....and all of these folks will tell you that Chef Sean is really world class. The point is that we decided we wanted to eat great food everyday and made it available for everyone at our factory—all 750 people. We eat in the café with everyone else, no private dining rooms for the execs.

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We have a five-star daycare “Lulu’s Child Enrichment Center,” because if we had kids we’d want them close to us during their formative years. And we have a free gym and provide basic physicals at no charge. Most of all, we treat our employees with respect, because we’d want the same.

How did these kind of values come to play in putting together a book?
As we travel around people are constantly telling us how difficult they find decorating or simply buying furniture. We wanted to help and make a few bucks at the same time . So we wrote it very carefully trying to make sure it was easy to follow. Hopefully our book will help to give people the tools to become confident and have better self esteem about venturing out on their own.

What were your goals in making Let's Get Comfortable?
As time has gone on we’ve developed our own distinct style sense. You’ve referred to it as a “new American sensibility.” Thank you, that’s exactly how we’d like to be summed up. From early on we realized we had this great synergy together when furnishing our homes or creating product and the look we present in our showrooms. People ask us often how we get that look. So we created the book to let people into the backstage of our work and hopefully it will give them the ability to execute our look for themselves.

With the book and your new stores opening, it seems like there's a lot in store for Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. What kind of challenges do you face in preserving the positive business practices as you expand?
To some what we are doing looks fast, but actually we do things very slowly and deliberately. We’ve been in business over 18 years, carefully building a team that understands us....and also not overexposing ourselves. For example, about five years ago we appointed a 28 year-old as our Human Resources Director. He had no experience in HR but in the pit of his stomach, he is one of the nicest and fairest people on earth. He is the keeper of our culture. He’s helped hire a team and coach existing employees that can easily follow our flow.

For sure, one of the key points is that some years ago we realized that we had to stop being the “doers” and focus on “teaching” and facilitating conversations. We cringe when we hear people say “I’m a perfectionist. I have to do it all myself. Nobody can do it the way I want.” We feel sorry for them because we know what failing traits they are. We spend time nurturing so that our people will recognize how important it is and do it for their teams and peers. We don’t hire leap-froggers, we hire people who want everyone in the company and everyone we touch to be successful. That, at the end of the day, gives people a great deal of satisfaction.

What are your goals for the long term?
To be the most loved home furnishings company. Not necessarily the biggest, just to be so good that everyone wants to do business with us.

For your chance to win one of three signed copies of Let's Get Comfortable, follow the contact link at the bottom of the page, select "Let's Get Comfortable Giveaway" from the pull-down menu and send us a message before Thursday, 12 April 2007, 11:59pm EST. We'll choose winners at random from the correct entries.

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