Alexei Agratchev and Mitchell Gold

Long before “disruptive” became a business buzzword, the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture company was shaking things up.

The approach was evident from Day One 30 years ago, when Gold and Williams launched their upscale home business in the South. “We were two gay guys starting a furniture business in rural North Carolina. The county had 38,000 people, two traffic lights, rolling mountains and over 100 churches. We were something different in that community,” recalled Gold, during his conversation at the forum with Alexei Agratchev, chief executive officer and cofounder of RetailNext.

After the dust settled from their landing in Taylorsville, N.C., Gold and Williams decided to evolve their company in an unorthodox way for the times. “What we wanted to do is have a furniture business that really took care of its employees and took care of its customers. It wasn’t that revolutionary of an idea, but in the furniture industry where I [previously] worked for a big company, they really didn’t pay attention to their employees and they really didn’t pay attention to their customers,” said Gold. While working there, “One of my customers was J.C. Penney. I sold them a big program, with furniture on the front cover of their catalogue. But this factory let them down on delivering their floor samples and their inventory. That was typical — and they served crappy coffee for 30 cents a cup and the place wasn’t air-conditioned.

“When we started our own business, we said we would do things differently. We bought a 60,000-square-foot factory and we air-conditioned it in the first year. That sent a ripple through the community. We had an air-conditioned factory. We had good coffee makers and we charged just a nickel for a cup of coffee just to recoup our costs. We did a whole bunch of things, and what happened eventually was all of the best employees from other factories started working for us.”

Unlike other furniture firms, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams became customer-centric. “In the furniture industry in 1989, 14-to-16-to-20-week delivery was the regular deal. People just didn’t get furniture quickly. We figured out a way we could ship a special order in less than 21 days and that was unheard of in the furniture industry, and the secret wasn’t such a big deal. You had to have the inventory, the raw materials. A lot of other factories weren’t willing to take the risk on the inventory.”

Early on, sustainability became important to Gold and Williams, after Gold read an article in The New York Times casting the furniture industry in North Carolina as one of the biggest abusers of the environment. Because of the way furniture foam is made, it emits CFC gases that harm the ozone layer.

“I called my business partner Bob, and said, ‘You are not going to believe this, but we are going into a business that is ruining the environment.’ We set out to find foam that was environmentally responsible.”

The company, which operates 33 stores and an e-commerce web site, also takes a special approach to service.

“In our stores, the most important experience a consumer can have is to have great salespeople, to have a great designer. Furnishing a home is such an anxiety-ridden experience,” said Gold. “We work really hard to train our people and make them understand how important they are, and we compensate them well, too.”

Coordinating furniture pieces so a room looks put together is not easy, Gold stressed. So for $100, customers can become “comfort club” members, where representatives of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams measure, create a floor plan and “put the whole thing together,” Gold said. “And when the furniture is delivered, they will go to your house and make sure everything is just right. They’ll fluff the pillows, bring some accessories, and help you finish off the look. When we get into somebody’s home and can measure and see their house and see what their needs are, our average ticket goes way, way up. When we can be in a customer’s home when furniture gets delivered for installation, and we bring other things along, we sell more stuff.”