Grand Piano & Furniture Company - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Grand Piano & Furniture Company

4235 Electric Road
Roanoke, Virginia 24014-4145

Company Perspectives:

Despite significant growth over the past fifty years, Grand still retains its reputation as a local employer whose philosophy is to serve the local customer.

History of Grand Piano & Furniture Company

Grand Piano & Furniture Company is a private company based in Roanoke, Virginia, operating Grand Home Furnishings, one of the largest furniture store chains in the South. In addition to 19 stores located in Virginia and Tennessee, the company maintains five distribution centers. Grand is owned and run by members of the Cartledge family, with a third generation now assuming top-level positions. For the past half-century, Grand has been known for its signature custom of opening the front door for customers--or anyone who wants to visit--and offering them a cold Coca-Cola. Each year the chain serves about 1.25 million sodas.

Early 1900s Roots in the Music Business

The "Grand Piano" in Grand's name is an artifact of the company's history. In 1910, Paul Hash launched the Grand Piano Company in downtown Roanoke to sell a range of pianos. In the ensuing years, the store added other musical instruments, sheet music, and musical supplies. As recorded music and radio gained in popularity, cutting into sales of instruments to the general public, Grand Piano adapted by adding phonographs, in particular Victrolas, and radios to the sale mix. In the late 1920s, it went even further afield and began selling furniture, soon adding appliances as well.

The Cartledge family connection to the business came in 1945 when George B. Cartledge, Sr. and partners L.G. Sherman and M.B. Seltzer bought Grand Piano from the Hash family. Cartledge was born in Georgia about the time Grand Piano was founded. After managing a grocery store, he became involved in the furniture business in 1931, working as a salesman in Atlanta and Knoxville. In 1937, Cartledge, along with Sherman and Seltzer, started Southeast Wholesale Furniture in Atlanta. The Grand Piano purchase expanded their operation to Roanoke, and Cartledge's brother Karl along with Henry Williamson were dispatched to run the store, the name of which was changed to Grand Piano & Furniture Co. The new owners improved the store's furniture offerings while cutting back musical instruments to just pianos, which remained a key factor in the company's business for many years. In fact, the regular truckload piano sales the company conducted in the region led in some cases to the opening of new stores.

George Cartledge bought out his partners in 1950, the same year that the store launched its popular annual warehouse sale. Grand also nurtured a long-term relationship with North Carolina-based Kincaid Furniture Company, which became the chain's largest supplier of wood furniture and largest single supplier overall. Kincaid was started by George and J. Wade Kincaid in 1946 in a small building where a handful of employees produced cedar chests and wardrobes. Cartledge began buying Kincaid's cedar wardrobes, then around 1950 asked the furniture maker if it could add bedroom furniture. Kincaid's first effort was a solid mahogany suite. Through the years, Grand and Kincaid worked hand in glove to build their businesses, with Cartledge regularly conferring with the Kincaids about what furniture the manufacturer would make. The relationship was so close that Kincaid actually named products for the Cartledge and Bennett families (Cartledge's son-in-law Robert Bennett, Jr. played a major role in Grand). For example, Kincaid offered the Cartledge cupboard and the Bennett wardrobe. For a time, the two companies jointly operated a piano factory in Morganton, North Carolina.

Grand Piano Expands in the 1950s

Grand began expanding outside of Roanoke in February 1951 when it opened a store in Radford, Virginia, followed later in the year with a store in Covington, Virginia. The fourth Grand store opened in Lynchburg, Virginia in September 1953. It was here that the tradition of serving Coke in the "little bottles" (holding 6.5 ounces) to customers was born as an opening day promotion. The swarm of people who gathered to visit the store was so great that the police were called in to provide control and the street was blocked off. By the end of the day, the Lynchburg store served 12,000 (some sources say 14,000) ice-cold Cokes. As Grand's vice-president of advertising told Virginia Business in 1999, "Forty-six years ago it didn't take much to move people's meter."

George Cartledge, Sr. was quick to recognize the potential of the soda giveaway, and soon free Cokes were being served at all of the Grand stores on a daily basis. It became more than gimmick, evolving into a key element of the chain's success. Cartledge took it so seriously that he issued a memo that has become part of company lore on how to properly serve a bottle of Coke. He wrote in part: "Let me emphasize how important it is to give our Cokes with enthusiasm and a smile. ... Salespeople and store managers too should watch the door and be ready with a Coke when the customers walk in." It became a tradition with customers as well, as parents who cherished the memory of their first Coke at a Grand Piano store brought their own children to share the experience. Additionally, while they were visiting the store many of them shopped for furniture. Not only was the offer of a drink a neighborly gesture that customers appreciated, it served as an ideal icebreaker for salesmen who could introduce themselves while offering a Coke. Later, when they relieved the customer of the empty bottle, they were afforded another opportunity to chat. The tradition was ingrained that Grand never considered switching to Pepsi or another brand of cola, and the company continued to offer the small bottles as long as Coca-Cola offered them. Grand finally had to switch to the ten-ounce Cokes, and to keep pace with changing tastes the chain added Diet Coke, Caffeine-free Coke, Sprite, and bottled water to what it offered guests. Although damage caused to the merchandise was rare, there were spills on the carpeting that required vigilance and quick cleaning. Nevertheless, Grand considered the one-day promotion that became an ongoing tradition well worth the costs involved.

Grand added three more stores in the second half of the 1950s. The company grew through acquisition for the first time, buying M.C. Thomas Furniture Co. of Charlottesville, Virginia, and converting it into a Grand Piano store in October 1957. In addition, in that same month Grand opened a clearance center in Charlottesville. Another acquisition took place in Lexington, Virginia, in 1959 when Grand picked up Brown Furniture Co. and added it to the chain of Grand Piano stores. Along the way, Grand also picked up Ball Brothers Furniture Co. in Bristol, Virginia, and United Furniture Co. of Kingsport, Tennessee, both of which continued to operate under their old names.

Continued Expansion: 1960s-1980s

The 1960s were marked by further expansion, a change in structure, and tragedy. The latter occurred in May 1963 when a corporate airplane crashed in the mountains of North Carolina, killing the pilot and one executive and injuring three others, including Karl Cartledge. The company would never again own a plane. George Cartledge, Jr. was just graduating from Hampden-Sydney College and due to the accident took on far greater responsibilities with the furniture chain sooner than expected. Two years later, the family business experienced further changes. George Cartledge, Sr. and Karl Cartledge split the family assets, with Karl taking ownership of Ball Brothers Furniture and United Furniture Co., while George kept the Grand Piano stores. All told, Grand Piano added seven stores in the 1960s. Staunton Furniture Co. of Staunton, Virginia, was acquired and converted into a Grand Piano store in February 1961. A month later, the chain also opened a clearance center in Staunton. Two more stores, located in Harrisonburg and Waynesboro, Virginia, were added in 1965. The Harrisonburg store was the first the company built from scratch. Grand Piano closed the decade by opening a store in Pulaski, Virginia, in October 1968, a Roanoke clearance center in June 1968, and a Grand Piano in Martinsville, Virginia, in July 1969. Piano sales remained an important part of the company's business. During the 1960s, to take advantage of a mirror piano fad, Grand ran a Roanoke shop that turned old upright pianos into the popular ornamented instruments.

By this time, George Cartledge, Sr. had begun developing a succession plan, part of which included naming George Cartledge, Jr. company president in 1972. The elder Cartledge was known for his willingness to delegate responsibility and refrain from criticism. As a result, the family-dominated team of executives grew in ability and learned to work together decades before Cartledge passed from the scene. During the 1970s, the chain added just three stores as the company concentrated on the 15 units already in operation. In 1972 a Lynchburg clearance center opened, followed by a Winchester Grand Piano in July 1973. In July 1976, the first Grand Piano store opened outside the state of Virginia, in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Grand was almost visited with tragedy once again in 1980 when 16-year-old George Cartledge III was in a car accident that left him in a coma for more than two weeks. He recovered and later in the 1980s became involved in the family business, alongside another member of the third generation, his cousin Robert George Bennett. During the 1980s, Grand added to its slate of furniture stores. The company launched a new concept, Grand Interiors, which opened near Roanoke's Tanglewood Mall in October 1981. It would be the only Grand store that carried a number of upscale lines from furniture makers Henredon, Hickory Chair, and Thomasville. A Harrisonburg clearance center was added in September 1982. Grand Piano stores were opened in Blacksburg, Virginia, in August 1983, and in downtown Bristol, Virginia, in September 1984. Next, a Winchester clearance center opened in July 1986, followed by a second Grand Piano in Lynchburg in July 1989, as well as a second Charlottesville store in June 1989. Grand Piano closed only one store, at their Pulaski location, during the 1980s.

Store Closings and Openings in the 1990s and Beyond

The mix of Grand Piano stores underwent greater change in the 1990s, as the shopping district in many communities moved from downtown areas to the suburbs. The Harrisonburg clearance center was closed in 1990, while the Roanoke clearance center shut its doors in 1991 and the Lynchburg clearance center in 1992. The Charlottesville clearance center was shuttered the following year and the Winchester clearance center followed in 1995. The downtown Harrisonburg Grand Piano store was also closed in 1992 and the Martinsville store in 1994, along with the Radford and Blacksburg locations in 1996, the Hagerstown store in 1997, and the downtown Roanoke and downtown Kingsport stores in 1999. The downtown Winchester store was lost to fire in May 1996 and subsequently rebuilt outside the city.

In addition to opening suburban stores in existing markets, Grand also expanded into new markets during the 1990s. The chain added stores in Harrisonburg in May 1990, Roanoke's Valley View Mall in May 1991, and Christiansburg, Virginia, in August 1996. Grand also entered markets outside of Virginia, in September 1995 opening a store in Greenville, South Carolina, a unit in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in August 1998, and a suburban Kingsport location in June 1999. The company consciously avoided large metropolitan areas, preferring markets within 300 miles of Roanoke that it could dominate. To support its assortment of stores, Grand built regional warehouses which were intended to serve clusters of stores.

To stay current, Grand instituted a number of changes during the 1990s, such as cutting back on newspaper inserts in favor of increased television buys. With piano sales experiencing a steady decline over the years, the company finally exited the music business in 1998. As a result, the Grand Piano name no longer applied and, although the corporate name remained unchanged, the furniture stores now adopted the Grand Home Furnishings name, although long-time customers would continue to call the stores Grand Piano, much to the confusion of a younger generation. The 1990s were also marked by the death of its chairman, George Cartledge, Sr., in March 1997 at the age of 87. After suffering a number of strokes that led to his being housebound in the fall of 1996, Cartledge continued to attend every store opening and paid regular visits to the stores, delighting in the tradition of handing out Cokes as he greeted customers at the door. Because he had long since implemented a succession plan, Grand carried on without difficulty after his death. Early in 1999, his son, George Cartledge, Jr., assumed the chairmanship, while at the same time George Cartledge III became president and cousin Robert Bennett was named executive vice-president. Both shared the responsibilities of the chief operating officer.

With a third generation of the Cartledge and Bennett families being groomed to one day take full charge of the company, Grand faced some challenges due to significant changes throughout the furniture industry. The demand for high-priced, high-quality furniture, the kind that a family might pass on to succeeding generations, had abated. Instead, consumers were more interested in buying furniture with the idea that they would be changing their decor within a few years. Hence, stores began stocking less expensive furniture. Even Grand Interiors, which had relied on the sales of upscale furniture for a generation, was now adding moderately priced furniture, much of which was casual and contemporary in design as opposed to the traditional styles that had once been popular. In another attempt to remain current, Grand Interiors began selling the artwork of popular painter Thomas Kinkade, known as the "Painter of Light" because of his distinctive use of back light in his work. A second Kinkade gallery opened in the Winchester store in 2001.

Now topping the $100 million level in annual sales, Grand continued to open and close stores in the 2000s. New units included a Roanoke outlet in February 2000 and a Spartanburg outlet in 2004, as well as Grand Home Furnishings stores in Norton, Virginia, in 2001; Culpeper and Warrenton, Virginia, in 2002; and Bristol in 2004. In November 2005, Grand was scheduled to open its first West Virginia store in Lewisburg.

Principal Competitors: Ethan Allen Interiors Inc.; Scandinavian Gallery, Inc.; Sears Roebuck and Co.


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