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About Utah: RC Willey growing but holds to roots

Published: Sunday, Dec. 16 2012 10:48 p.m. MST

Scott Hymas, CEO of R.C. Willey, at the headquarters store in Salt Lake City. The home furnishings company is owned by Warren Buffett?s Berkshire Hathaway and has expanded to California, Idaho and Nevada, but Hymas says it steadfastly maintains its Utah roots.

Lee Benson, deseret news

SALT LAKE CITY —

It's been more than 17 years now since RC Willey, the home-furnishings chain that started on the edge of a cornfield in Syracuse, went all Wall Street on us and sold out to Warren Buffett's investment company, Berkshire Hathaway.

Since that time, RC Willey has expanded beyond Utah's borders, opening a store in Boise, two in Las Vegas, another in Reno and still another, the biggest yet in the chain, in Sacramento, Calif. Next year it plans to open another giant store in Utah, just west of IKEA in Draper. Its employee force has grown to 2,400.

So the question to CEO Scott Hymas is obvious: "How's the weather up there?"

To which Hymas replies: Pretty much the same as it's always been.

"We like to think we're a bunch of local guys still peddling furniture," says the 51-year-old Hymas, who took over as RC Willey's CEO when Bill Child stepped down in 2001. "Our management team is the same one that's been together a long time. Berkshire Hathaway owns us but they let us run it. That's Warren Buffett's style. Really, not much has changed. We do business like we've always done business."

And if that sounds like just so much aw shucks hype from a company that now does more business outside Utah than inside Utah, a company that is on the make and has obviously left its farm roots in the rearview mirror, Hymas points out this: RC Willey is still closed on Sunday.

Not just in Utah. Everywhere.

***

For years, through the decades of the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, "Never on Sunday" was RC Willey's advertising jingle as it methodically established itself as the leading home-furnishings business in Utah. Owned and operated by Child, a devout Mormon who inherited the family business from another devout Mormon, his father-in-law, Rufus Call (RC) Willey, RC Willey catered to a Utah clientele that accepted and became accustomed to the company's six-day-a-week schedule. If you wanted a couch on the weekend, you bought it on Saturday.

But then, in 1995, came the Berkshire Hathaway acquisition, bringing the little fish not just into a big pond, but a big pond where Sunday was one of the most popular shopping days of the week.

When RC Willey's first expansion beyond Utah was planned in 1999, no less an expert than Warren Buffett — the Oracle of Omaha himself, the most celebrated investor of our time, Berkshire Hathaway's guiding light — personally questioned the sanity of sticking with the never-on-Sunday tradition.

But Child dug in his heels. He told Buffett that he would put up the money for the new store in Boise himself, all $9 million of it, and if the store didn't make it sans Sunday sales, then Berkshire Hathaway would not have to absorb it.

But the Boise store did make it, made it big, in fact, and within a year Child sold it to Berkshire at cost.

Next came Las Vegas, Reno and Sacramento, markets where plenty of shopping is routinely done on Sunday.

In each city, RC Willey has thrived. In Las Vegas, it's thrived so well with its lights off on Sunday that it now has two stores.

"We're open from 10 to 9 six days a week. That's a lot. That's enough," says Hymas. "Our employees need to have the day off to be able to spend time at home with their families. We've had a lot of people from other companies come over to work for us just because of that reason."

Besides, he adds: "It's who we are. We're still us."

Staying true to all its roots, not just Sunday closing, Hymas believes, accounts for RC Willey's uncommon longevity. That means emphasizing customer service, employee loyalty and steering clear of debt — the company's other bedrock principles.

"You have to take care of customers, you have to take care of employees, and you have to prepare for a rainy day," says Hymas. "If you don't have any debt, you can really survive."

He's had a ringside seat to watch it work, ever since the day he joined the company in 1987 when his father-in-law, Sheldon Child, Bill's brother and the company president at the time, offered him a job.

Hymas had no idea the ride he was about to take. The family-owned chain was three stores then, comprised of the original store by the cornfield in Syracuse, another in Murray and another in Taylorsville.

A quarter of a century later, he oversees a four-state, 13-store, Warren Buffett-owned operation that's about to get bigger — and every month he sits down and writes a personal progress letter to Mr. Buffett to keep him up to date on how the little ol' company out in Utah is doing.

But never on Sunday. Now, as then, when it comes to Sunday, RC Willey rests.

Email: benson@desnews.com

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