John “JJ” Jerman started his business in 2008 in an old, abandoned gas station in Cleveland, Tenn. Today, his company occupies a 137,000 square foot warehouse on Riverside Drive. It seems he chose the right line of work.
Jerman didn’t start out doing what he’s doing today. He used to design buildings and spaces for technology companies. Then, in 2000, the tech bubble burst while he was living and working in Atlanta, and an opportunity presented itself to him.
“I had a client with $1.2 million worth of furniture, and they were going to throw it away,” he says. “Not only that, but they were going to pay someone $40,000 to haul it off.”
Jerman had a client that needed furniture, so he brokered a deal between the two companies, and a new business was born.
“I saw I could make more money doing that than being an architect,” he says, a hint of incredulity still in his voice 15 years after making the deal.
Jerman left the architecture business and, for a while, flipped inventories from home. He decided to take his business into the realm of brick-and-mortar just as the recession was getting underway.
“We brought in a couple tractor trailer loads of furniture,” he says. “The gas station had big roll-up doors where the service bays has been and a big parking lot out front, so we’d drag the furniture out there when it was sunny.”
The recession was forcing a lot of companies to close their doors, and those companies that were in the market to buy furniture didn’t want new product, so business was good. “We were in the right place at the right time,” Jerman says.
Jerman is no longer at the abandoned gas station, but he still appears to be where the action is. Today, Office Furniture Warehouse is serving a town that’s on fire with entrepreneurial spirit.
His facility is stuffed to the rafters with countless types of office furniture - chairs, desks, conference tables, shelves, cubicles, and more fill tens of thousands of square feet. Variety is just as important as volume, as Jerman wants to make sure he has a style on hand to meet every preference. When it comes to conference tables, for example, he has tables with dark wood and a traditional aesthetic for established law firms, and desks with lighter, sleeker wood for start-ups.
While Jerman’s inventory is eclectic, he keeps his business model simple: “We sell furniture two ways,” he says. “We sell to other brokers like ourselves, and we buy it ourselves and sell it to other companies.”
Jerman’s target market is commercial offices. His introduction to these customers often comes by way of commercial Realtors who have tenants that need to furnish an office. “Maybe they have a client that’s going from 20,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet, and they need to unload some furniture,” he says. “Or maybe their client is going from 10,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet, and they need to furnish that space. The Realtor can hand their client over to us and go work on their next deal.”
Office Furniture Warehouse hasn’t just grown in size over the years, it’s also evolved in terms of the services it provides. The catalyst is usually a customer expressing a need for something Jerman doesn’t yet offer. This is how he came to clean and reupholster used chairs.
“Customers would often say, ‘I’ve got a great chair, but it doesn’t go up and down anymore. Can you replace the lift?’ Sure enough, we found a resource for lifts, and started a new line of business,” he says.
From that, people began asking Jerman if Office Furniture Warehouse could also reupholster an exam table. Ever the entrepreneur, Jerman said the only response in his vocabulary: “Yes.”
Again, Jerman’s timing was impeccable. “Doctors are opening satellite facilities, and they want us to set up their offices as cost effectively as possible,” he says. “So I’ve refurbished exam tables that sell for about $4,000 new, but I’m selling them for about a thousand.”
As with office furniture, Jerman leaves no stone unturned, selling not just exam tables but also assisted living beds, hospital beds, and stretchers – all for less than new would cost.
“I call my buyers used Lexus buyers,” he says. “They like the quality of a Lexus, but they’re not going to spend $80,000 on a new one. They might, however, spend $30,000 on one that has 70,000 miles on it.”
With two trucks and five full time installers, Office Furniture Warehouse has the capacity to move a lot of used Lexuses.
It also has the heart to give back to the community. Not only does Office Furniture Warehouse support Orange Grove by using its recycling center, Jerman has hired the participants there to organize thousands of keys for filing cabinets and other office equipment. “Now, when a customer asks if we have a key for a specific kind of filing cabinet, we can give them an answer,” he says.
Office Furniture Warehouse also operates a program called Wishing Well, which sells excess items donated to nonprofits and gives the majority of the proceeds to the organization.
While Jerman has been the driving force behind the evolution of Office Furniture Warehouse, he says he’s merely fortunate. “It was blind luck that I decided to leave Atlanta and move to Chattanooga,” he says. “ I stumbled onto a market I didn’t realize was going to do as well as it did during the recession. Friends in Atlanta were calling me in despair because the city was emptying buildings left and right, but there was a lot of optimism here because negotiations with VW were going well. So, yeah, I’m lucky to be in Chattanooga.