They say in the most successful couples, where one person starts the other person leaves off, and each person’s individual strengths shore up the other’s weaknesses.
Hank and Cathy Browne match that premise, but there’s a whole lot to suggest that the strength of their relationship doesn’t entirely lie in their differences but in a common love for, and understanding of, the business of selling furniture.
“I’m pretty focused on furniture. I’ve been at it forever,” Hank said. “But I’m always thinking about things and Cathy makes a really good sounding board. She is quick to tell me if something doesn’t make sense. That’s the way it needs to be.”
“We love the furniture business,” Cathy said “It’s a great industry; it’s a very small but terrific industry. We just have a lot in common.”
As the first couple of Arkansas furniture – he, the founder of Hank’s Fine Furniture and she, its head of marketing and advertising – the two have only multiplied their points in common, platting additional locations (now 15 in four states), growing employees (about 300) and contributing untold dollars to local charities.
“Working isn’t like work to us,” Cathy said. “We just get up and we just do it and we have fun doing it.”
Hank Browne began in the furniture business in 1966 as a sales rep with the Frank Klein Company, a distributor for RCA Vector and RCA Whirlpool. Five years later, he and a partner launched Garner Brown and quickly turned it into the largest TV and appliance dealer in Arkansas. He got out of that in 1980 and bought into a small furniture store chain the following year that would be the humble beginnings of a furniture empire.
“A guy I was quail hunting with had three little hole-in-the-wall furniture stores called Freight Sales and I mean they were small, like 4,000 square feet,” Hank said. “In the ’80s, these freight sales-type operations were a big deal. I mean, they were everywhere. It was kind of a merchandising technique at the time, pretty big all over the country.”
Hank, who bought out his partner in 1983, kept the name until 1995 when he recognized public perception souring on words like “salvage” and “freight.” He renamed his stores Hank’s Discount Furniture and later Hank’s Fine Furniture to better reflect the quality of merchandise. It was also what crossed Cathy and Hank’s paths.
“I was getting ready to get out of the furniture industry and into real estate and a fellow from Natuzzi Leather called me and said, ‘We don’t have representation there. You think you might want to represent Natuzzi?’” Cathy said. “That was in ‘88 or ‘89, something like that. I could see the potential; at that time, the only people selling Natuzzi was Dillard’s.”
Cathy quickly landed additional accounts, but Hank’s was her big fish and an elusive one at that.
“In October 1997, I was driving from Oklahoma City to High Point, North Carolina,” she recalled. “I had been trying to get Hank on the phone to talk to him about coming in to see the line. And he had this general manager that was kind of his guard. He wouldn’t let me talk to him.”
“So finally, I’m driving through and [the GM] says, ‘Hank’s right here. Why don’t you talk to him?’ Hank said, ‘OK, tell me why I need to come see you?’ And this is a man that never liked to talk on the phone and I think we talked on the phone from Little Rock to Memphis and maybe even Nashville.”
That was the start of a professional relationship that would eventually turn personal and which celebrated 19 years of marriage in June. Along the way the duo shepherded the company through the often-fickle tastes of the furniture-buying public. As much as possible in a complex marketplace, Hank strives to keep it simple.
“People still respond, to a great extent, to the same type of advertising,” Hank said. “They still love the word ‘sale’. Everybody wants to feel like they spent their money wisely. So really, that hasn’t changed.”
“What has changed is social media. It is an interesting challenge in the retail business. It gives people an avenue to, for lack of a better way of saying it, to exaggerate situations and it certainly happens a lot. It’s too bad, but it does.”
If there’s anything more immediately recognizable than the trademark blue and white superstores, it’s the company’s slogan. Delivered in Hank’s smooth Delta drawl, “Hank’s Fiiiiiine Furniture,” has become so well-known he’s regularly asked to deliver the line in public by people on the street.
“It’s funny because we can go into a store, any store, a Burger King, and the minute Hank opens his mouth and says something, it’s like this triple take,” Cathy said. “And when he’s working the floor, which he loves to do during sales at the west Little Rock store, I mean people are taking selfies with him. They’re asking him to say it. It’s a bazillion dollar slogan.”
Cathy has become equally well-known in philanthropic circles. The company has contributed heavily to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, The Nature Conservancy and Women and Children First. The latter is a particular passion for her and she serves as its board chairman. Philanthropy is a nice perk of the couple’s success, she said.
“You know [giving has] honestly never been done from a recognition standpoint. I just think it’s really important,” she said. “Our customers are very appreciative of it. Like Hank says, Arkansas has been very good to us.”