Michael Cohen’s long and busy workday doesn’t leave much time for leisure, but what spare hours he had this winter were consumed by one thing: “My daughter’s wedding,” the president of Walker Furniture & Mattress in Las Vegas said.
“I am the sounding board,” the father of the bride asserted.
His role for the Feb. 16 festivities in Malibu, Calif., also included the critical duty of delivering the wedding toast. He was ready weeks ahead of time.
His daughter Chloe is one of three Cohen offspring, and the first to marry. In an interview at the Las Vegas Market Jan. 27, Cohen said he came from a family of four children – two boys and two girls, and he hoped to have two sons and two daughters himself. He ended up one son short of that.
But, as he prepared to welcome Chloe’s new husband, Brandon Feldman, into the family, it occurred to him that he was gaining the second son he always wanted. That sentiment would form the heart of his toast.
Cohen understands the idea of joining a family. In 2016, he left Coaster Fine Furniture, where he’d spent four years in California as vice president of sales for the western United States, to accept his current position with the long-established Alterwitz family business in Las Vegas.
The decision to move to the Top 100 retailer was made after family consultations. Cohen credits his oldest child, son Jaret, who was 27 at the time, with asking the key question.
Jaret noted that his father had held secondary positions with several companies but not a top job.
“When are you going to step up and do something bigger?” Jaret asked.
So, he did.
Cohen has known the Alterwitz family for 30 years. Oscar and Deanne Alterwitz purchased a furniture store in 1973 from original owners George and Ruth Walker, and later left it to their three children, Larry, Linda and Daryl. Las Vegas may have a large transient population and a steady stream of newcomers, but many residents recognize that the business is deeply rooted in the sandy soil. Its commitment to serving the community and supporting many worthy causes is strong.
“Walker Furniture is well-known for its charitable efforts,” Cohen said. “That’s very important to the family. It’s certainly an advantage in business when you have that kind of history in the community.”
“Michael’s been very supportive of our community outreach. He’s always there,” said Linda Alterwitz-Mizrahi, the family member who spearheads the company’s community work.
Cohen appreciates that history but joined the company to shake up the present and set a vision for the future. He arrived with the understanding that Walker Furniture would expand its footprint in the Las Vegas metro area. It already has, with the opening last fall of a 65,000-square-foot leased-space store in the suburb of Henderson. The new facility adds to the existing 125,000-square-foot superstore near downtown Las Vegas, two Walker Outlet Warehouses and a massive distribution center. Another superstore is slated to open later this year in Summerlin, a planned community a few miles west of Las Vegas that has grown to nearly 100,000 residents since it launched 30 years ago.
He also implemented new ways of operating day-to-day. The first was to improve communications. He began convening meetings of department heads over breakfast every few weeks because “generally when there are problems with one department it’s another department’s fault,” he said. Figuring out the source of trouble face-to-face helps to resolve it more effectively.
Cohen doesn’t want to force solutions from the top down. “Surround yourself with great people,” he advised. “When you hire someone to do the job, what good is it if you don’t let them do it?” The key to managing, he added, is to empower people and give them the goal of always improving.
“We have a lot to do to get better,” he said. “If we have the mentality that we’re going to do things the way we’ve always done them, we won’t get better.”
Cohen aimed to weed out older inventory, drive down returns and strengthen customer service.
“When you step on toes, you have to react fast,” Cohen said. “The customer took a long time deciding to buy a product, and the last thing they want is a problem. ‘I’m sorry’ are the most powerful words in customer service.”
Walker advertises in “all major media,” Cohen said, but “word of mouth can’t be shortchanged.”
He confessed to having a “Type A” personality: Out of bed at 5 to 5:30 a.m. and off to the gym. Arriving at the office between 7:30 and 8. Working at a standing desk. “I don’t sit. I’m on my feet all day. I always stand all day,” he said. He works six days a week, and always has.
“His energy level is unbelievable,” CEO Larry Alterwitz said. “He starts so early in the morning and keeps going.”
Maybe that will change, someday.
With his daughter’s wedding accomplished, golf courses beckon. Cohen said he once enjoyed the game but never played during his years in California. “I’m forcing myself to go back to it,” he said.
While amazed at Cohen’s work ethic, Alterwitz wouldn’t mind if Cohen resumed his golf game.
“I love it when people have a passion for their work, but I don’t like them to work too hard,” he said. “Balance is the key, taking a holistic approach to life.”
Yet, Walker Furniture operates in a growing and competitive market, sharing it with three other Top 100 furniture retailers.
“We’re all fighting it out,” Cohen said. “We’re all respected retailers. To me, it’s a good feeling because we all do our business respectfully. The customer always wins.”
Alterwitz said he likes the path Cohen is forging.
“I see the store continuing to grow,” he said, “and I see Michael becoming more seamless in working with people and taking it to a higher level.”
Assessing his progress so far, Cohen sounded pleased but far from satisfied. “I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but at least I see the change every day.”
And he’s happy he stepped up to the challenge.
“What makes us great is all we do,” Cohen said, when pressed to use the word “great.” Walker gives back to the community, offers large selections of products at good prices, and values customers.
“We try to have a lot of integrity,” Cohen said. “We try to have a lot of respect, and we try to treat people the way we want to be treated. What makes us a great retailer? We always try to do what’s right.”
Along the way, Cohen has expanded his family – and not just by acquiring another son.
“Almost every Sunday he’s at our family’s home for dinner,” Alterwitz said. “He’s part of our family.”
They’ve built a relationship worth toasting.
“I consider him a very good friend, a brother and a partner,” Alterwitz said.
What HFA Means to Me
“I graduated high school six months early,” Walker Furniture & Mattress President Michael Cohen said. “I’m always in a hurry.”
He attended college at night, working during the day. One year, he tried day classes. “I flunked out,” he confessed. So, it was back to night school at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., where he was more comfortable with older, working students. He eventually earned his degree, but he never stopped learning.
As a young sales representative visiting furniture retail stores, he collected what he called great ideas. “When I saw a great idea, I put it on my great idea list,” he said. “I’ve shared my great idea list with kust one person – Larry Alterwitz.”
He may give the secrets to a larger audience than the owner of Walker Furniture, the man who hired Cohen in 2016. Cohen will speak to participants at HFA’s Next Generation Now Leadership Immersion Experience hosted by Top 100 retailer Walker Furniture in Las Vegas Sept. 16-19.
Cohen was elected to HFA’s Board of Directors in January and strongly supports the association’s mission, which includes sharing “great ideas” with members. “The networking and the people that you learn from are top shelf, and the people who want to learn from you, learn from you.” Cohen said. It will only take one great idea to make the Leadership Immersion Experience worthwhile, he promised.