Update: 03/20/20, 1:30 p.m.: It was announced today that the deal that would have allowed Robert Levin to buy back Levin Furniture as an ongoing concern through a Bankruptcy Court restructuring of the parent company Art Van Furniture, LLC had been cancelled. Levin learned on March 19 that Art Van Furniture, LLC has decided to close all of the Levin Furniture and Wolf Furniture Stores immediately, to terminate the employees, and to not proceed with the terms of their Agreement. Read more in next week’s Chronicle.
Pittsburgh’s most famous furniture salesman decided life on the couch wasn’t for him. After 26 months of retirement, Robert Levin, 63, reacquired the company his grandparents, Sam and Jessie Levin, started nearly a century ago.
Forgoing retirement to buy back Levin Furniture is “a good story,” said Levin. The real message, though, is “we saved a total of 1,200 jobs.”
Levin’s decision to purchase the Pennsylvania and Ohio assets of Levin Furniture and Wolf Furniture through a court restructuring of parent company Art Van Furniture, LLC, was announced on March 4, however, the Squirrel Hill resident had been following related news for weeks from media in Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Toledo, Ohio, describing Art Van’s financial straits.
“About a month ago or so I learned that the situation was pretty dire,” Levin said.
In March 2017, months after acquiring Levin Furniture, Art Van completed an equity recapitalization in partnership with Thomas H. Lee Partners, L.P. of Boston. The move, however, was followed by a series of miscalculations, reported Crain’s Detroit Business:
“After its 2017 acquisition, Thomas H. Lee set an aggressive strategy to open 200 more stores and double revenue to $2 billion by 2020. But being saddled with roughly $400 million in debt and no financial cushion to respond to the disruption of changing furniture habits left Art Van’s business model sitting on a tinderbox. Management missteps were all the fuel needed to burn the house down.”
Cash shortages, unpaid bills and shipping problems were afloat, said Levin, “so I got involved and my goal was to save the jobs. It was a business that was very viable.”
Moving forward, Levin is focused on establishing credit and receiving “judicial approval in bankruptcy, but it’s all looking good,” he said. “What we need the most is business right now.”
Customers can accordingly expect sales, promotions and “long-term free interest financing,” he continued. “Whatever we need to do to get the business going.”
Levin recognizes he’s reentering retail at a time when some are concerned about unnecessarily exiting their homes or congregating in public spaces due to fears of COVID-19.
The company has a “vibrant online business” where people can “get the same mattress that you looked at in the showroom online. We have a very liberal return policy.” So, while online shopping is an option for people who “don’t have the time or inclination to go to the store,” for those who do enter the showrooms they’ll find “very enthusiastic employees,” he said.
Providing customers with trusted service and quality merchandise has been a company hallmark for nearly 100 years, explained Levin.
The origins of Levin Furniture involve Levin’s grandfather, an immigrant, arriving in America in the 1890s and peddling goods through southern Wisconsin. Ten years later, Levin’s grandfather moved closer to a relative in Mount Pleasant and set up a secondhand store in Westmoreland County.
He was one of few businessmen who extended credit through the Depression, said Levin. He was also known for accepting “farm goods in trade for the furniture. Because he had seven kids, that’s a lot of people to feed, (customers) would bring a couple dozen eggs, butter, chickens and that would be their payment.”
Preserving rapport is important, but maintaining a good name requires more than simply treating consumers with respect — that’s why it was so important to act now, explained Levin.
“It’s really the job preservation. That would have been horrible to see it just shut down and see everybody out of work. We have employees that work for the company, who are still in their 50s, who started in high school. These are people who have worked for us for 35 years,” said Levin.
Levin’s commitment to others is well known in the Pittsburgh community, said Nancy Gale, executive director of Jewish Residential Services: “Robert Levin and his family have long been extremely generous to JRS. The fact that Robert cares deeply for the employees of Levin Furniture is therefore no surprise, but further evidence of what a wonderful person he is.”
Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Temple Emanuel of South Hills, recalled an exchange with Levin several years ago in which Levin donated a couch and loveseats for the Temple’s youth lounge.
“He was instrumental in getting the donation for us,” she said. “It was a simple process. Seamless, no questions asked. It was basically like, ‘What do you need?’ We picked it out and it was delivered here.”
Levin enjoys the daily exchanges and communal involvement, perhaps even more than he realized a few years ago. When he retired in 2017, the decision was driven by stress, he said. “I felt that I had kind of put in my time.”
In retrospect, the timing wasn’t right, said Levin, who offered advice to those contemplating retirement.
“If you like what you’re doing and don’t really have a plan, keep working. Think hard about retirement. Think about what you really want to do. If you’re very busy and then stop abruptly that’s a big lifestyle change. I’m sure that’s not advice people haven’t thought about before.” There’s a lot of value to retirement, “no doubt, but it’s also exciting to be doing something that you’re passionate about.”
Levin’s wife, Kerry Bron, a physician, said she’s pleased Levin decided to push off retirement.
“It’s exciting to see him energized and excited to be back in the game,” she said.
As for when Levin may entertain another departure from the work world, he said, “Oh yeah, I’m not retiring anytime soon, that’s for sure.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.