Jim Fee learned a lot about running a furniture store in college, but even more working alongside Dennis Novosel. Maybe that’s why the two are so close 40 years later.
There are bonds you are born with, like your parents or siblings, and bonds you choose, like friends and lovers. Then, there are the bonds that come along by accident, that somehow choose you, and draw you in.
Jim Fee and Dennis Novosel can’t recall the exact day they first met—but they do remember where: Stoney Creek Furniture in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada. It was 1975. Novosel was the store owner looking for cheap labor in his warehouse, and Fee was a high school senior in need of a summer job before heading off to college. On the surface, nothing suggested the relationship would grow beyond the typical boss-employee arrangement.
Two men, two very different lives. But there was something about Novosel that a 15-year-old Fee found intriguing. “There was this thing about Dennis, his style, I guess, that made you want to work hard for his success,” says Fee. “That’s still true today. He has that sort of personable way about him.”
That respect went both ways. “Jim’s such a likeable guy,” says Novosel. “The way he talks to you and works next to you can really put anyone at ease. I could see that in him from the start—even as a teenager working in that warehouse I could see it.”
Heaven knows how many conversations Fee and Novosel struck up that summer in the warehouse. They talked about typical things: sports, life, work. Along the way they formed a connection, the unexpected kind, between a highly successful businessman who traveled the continent making deals and a student who traveled to and from work everyday that summer by bike.
Only Novosel never saw Fee that way. “I know he was straight out of (high school) but he showed a good head for business and retail. He had a professional way about him that some of my employees didn’t have. He was special—still is.”
One day, as Fee tells it, Novosel approached him in the warehouse that first year. Summer was beginning its fade and Fee was getting excited about heading off to college. Novosel had another idea.
“What about coming to work for me full-time?” asked Novosel, who made Fee an offer: Work for Stoney Creek and Novosel would one day pay for Fee to go to college.
Fee was flattered, but he turned Novosel down. He was heading to college to get an education, play rugby and, well, all those activities that come with freedom and college. “There was just no way I was going to give all that up to sell furniture,” recalls Fee. “Are you kidding? Furniture?”
Except college has a way of changing a young man’s ways of looking at the world. Politics, literature, philosophy—even furniture.
The next summer, when Fee came back to work at Stoney Creek, Novosel’s business had grown to the point that he was opening a bigger store. Everyone at Stoney Creek was going back to school in some form to learn how to run the business better. Novosel’s offer to Fee was still on the table: An education for work?
This time Fee said yes. Yes to going to college on Novosel’s dime. Yes to working in the warehouse on weekends. And while he might not have known it at the time, yes to a life in furniture retail. Forty-two years later, Fee doesn’t have a single regret. He quickly worked his way up from the warehouse to sales manager to vice president at Stoney Creek. When Novosel retired in 2015, it wasn’t hard coming up with a successor.
Fee relies heavily on those four decades of Novosel’s mentoring to push Stoney Creek to where it is today as one of Canada’s most successful furniture stores. Fee, who is also the 2018 president of the Home Furnishings Association, says Novosel, who still maintains an office at the store, showed him not just how to run a business, but how to treat employees.
“The team I’ve gathered here are some of the best in the business,” says Fee, “but that wasn’t enough. I wanted a work environment of laughing not complaining. I wanted a business where the people who work with you get up each morning thinking, ‘I’m happy to be going to work today.’ That goes across the board from the guys who drive our trucks to the people who work with our customers. I wanted to maintain that family atmosphere Dennis created when I first came on board.”
Thanks to Novosel’s leadership years ago and his passing of the baton to Fee in 2015, there’s a lot of laughing and smiling going on these days at Stoney Creek. The main store is positioned at the gateway to Niagara in one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in Canada. In 2015, Fee helped open a second, smaller store, in nearby Vaughan.
The store has a strong customer base of adults between the ages of 25 and 54, with household incomes over $75,000, according to the 2016 Canadian census. That makes Fee and his staff work all the harder to ensure those affluent customers expecting a first-rate experience get just that when they walk into the store.
“There’s that line about only getting one chance to make a first impression,” says Fee. “We never take that for granted around here.”
Success hasn’t come easy for Fee now that he’s running the business. The store in Vaughan has been struggling to gain traction. Fee has countered by partnering with a local designer to offer in-store and home design services.
The consolidation in the industry has made it clear that for a furniture store to succeed it needs to adapt to the rapidly changing habits of shoppers. There’s also the challenge of pricing to deal with. As the industry continues its shift to the lowest price, Stoney Creek, like other stores, is working twice as hard just to keep up with last year’s sales.
“When you’re selling a dining room set for two-thirds or half the price of what you used to sell it for, you have to work harder and ship a lot more goods just to get the same gross dollars you got in years past,” Fee says.
Only making things more difficult, says Fee, is the amount of money people have for furnishing a home is dwindling. “Go back 10 years, when nobody had Netflix and maybe Dad was the only one in the family who had a cellphone,” he says. “Now everyone in the family has a phone and is watching Netflix on their own screens. Suddenly that $60 monthly bill is more like $300. That’s $4,000 a year from a family’s income not being spent on redecorating a room. That’s just a part of business in this new age we’re living in. The old way isn’t coming back so we need to adapt.”
Fee says Stoney Creek is shedding its ties to that old way every year. One of the biggest marks he’s made on the business since taking over is the incremental shift from traditional advertising to digital. Fee is not a tech geek. He can’t remember the last time he checked his Facebook or LinkedIn page. He’ll check his phone for emails when he gets up in the morning, but that’s about it.
“But I know online’s impact,” he says. “We’re changing our advertising blend each year, putting more into digital (than traditional),” he says. “Probably 5 or 10 percent every year.”
Fee and Stoney Creek are adapting by investing heavily in the store’s technology with upgraded computers and software. And what new technology can’t provide, old-fashioned paint and carpet can.
The staff is always moving the floor around to keep things fresh. “It’s part of our daily life here,” says Fee. “We want people to come back in thinking everything is going to be new to them, that they’re always going to find something different if they come in and that’s why they need to come in. Visual merchandising is just as important as any marketing or advertising strategy.”
Novosel knew he was doing the right thing when he turned the store over to Fee. “He’s like the son I never had, but he also has a good business head. I didn’t bring Jim on all those years ago because I thought of him as family. I brought him on because I thought he was a smart business guy.”
Today, the relationship between Fee and Novosel has come full circle with the addition of Novosel’s daughter, Cassandra Novosel, to the Stoney Creek staff. And while Fee has no intention of retiring anytime soon, he’s grooming the next Novosel to take over the company.
Fee isn’t passing on any hidden secrets of success to Cassandra Novosel. “I like to think,” says Fee, “I’m showing her everything Dennis taught me over 40 years.”
For his part, Novosel knows his daughter is learning from the best. “What’s not to trust?” Dennis asks, not waiting for an answer. “Jim’s like family to me.”
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? The sense of family? In many ways, Fee and Novosel are as different as an experienced businessman and an awkward teenager. In many ways, they are so very much alike. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Dennis,” says Fee. “I owe him a lot.”
What HFA Means to Me
I saw the value Dennis got out of a membership and that was relationships. When I first started off being part of the Association it meant hanging around top 100s and knowing them by their first names and even more important them knowing us by our first names. They might have been bigger than we were, but they shared ideas and directed us to vendors when we had a particular problem. I’ve seen time and time again that the relationships we’ve built through being in the HFA have made us money.
Stoney Creek Furniture
Stoney Creek, Ontario
Locations: Stoney Creek (85,000 sq. ft.), Vaughan (19,000 sq. ft.)
Years in business: 49
Furniture Lines: Palliser, Universal, Legacy Classic, Durham, Groupe Bermex, American Drew, Kincaid, Hughes, Jonathan Lewis