Jake Jabs knows a little about guitars, and even more about furniture.
For more than half a century he’s been excelling at both.
His first business lesson? That’s easy. Jake Jabs remembers walking through downtown Bozeman, Mont., wondering why the city’s lone music store wasn’t selling guitars. It was 1955 and folk music was a huge part of the American culture, rock and roll was starting to sweep across the country and a guy named Elvis was months away from producing Heartbreak Hotel. “Everyone I knew wanted to play the guitar,” recalled Jabs, an accomplished guitarist himself.
It wasn’t easy, but using his family’s livestock as collateral Jabs secured a $3000 loan and, along with a business partner, opened a music store selling guitars and offering lessons. “I never doubted it would work,” Jabs recalled. “There was a need and we filled it.”
A year later, Elvis Pressley recorded Heartbreak Hotel. The single sold more than a million copies in its first week, but not in Bozeman. Jabs’ business partner thought Elvis and rock and roll were a fad, and saw no need to sell the record. After a year of turning away shoppers, Jabs bought out his partner.
Bozeman had Elvis, and Jabs had a lesson he would never forget. “Nobody cares what you like or don’t like in business,” he said. “You have to give the customer what they want. It’s that simple. The red sofa you hate? Doesn’t matter. If enough people like red sofas, you better get yourself some red sofas.”
These days it’s safe to say Jabs, winner of the inaugural Home Furnishings Association Trailblazer Award, has a few red sofas he can sell you. In 1975, Jabs bought the assets of Colorado’s American Furniture at a bankruptcy sale for $80,000 and turned it into one of the nation’s largest home furnishings businesses with 13 stores in Colorado and Arizona. Combined sales are more than $400 million annually, but Jabs insists his stores maintain a small-store feel with the service and attention they deliver to the customer.
That same attention is extended to the communities his stores are located in, as well as the home furnishings industry. Jabs may be known for the exotic animals that once showed up in his down-home commercials, but he’s also known in the industry as someone who frequently donates his wealth and expertise.
The Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship at Montana State in Bozeman was started by Jabs. He also opened one of his Denver stores earlier this year to the HFA’s Leadership Immersion Program, where Next Generation Now members spent three days touring the store and learning from AFW’s staff. He’s also a fixture at furniture markets or the HFA’s conferences offering advice to new retailers or playing his guitar.
“I like to give back, I like helping others,” he said. “This industry we’re in—it’s changing. It’s nothing like it was, say 10 years or even five years ago, and will be nothing like it is now in five years. That’s why we all need to help each other out. Everyone needs a little help now and then. I like being there for them when they need that help.”
Even now, all these years later, Jake Jabs is filling a need.
Jake Jabs is the 2017 HFA Trailblazer Award Winner