What gave you the idea behind Replacements, Ltd.?
Actually, I was working for the state of North Carolina as an auditor and quite frankly nobody was glad to see you. I didn’t really feel like I was providing a real service for those people we were auditing either it was really a thankless job. At that time, my hobby was going to flea markets on weekends and I really thought how great it would be if I could work at a job and make a living doing something that I really enjoyed because I really hated my job. So, I would go to flea markets and buy things to sell on consignment. There were a number of things I would buy china, crystal, plus I used to refinish a lot of furniture and sell that on consignment and at one time I owned part interest in a consignment shop. As friends heard what I was doing, they would ask me to look for their patterns. I had a little recipe box that I kept three by five index cards in and I would take notes of things that people were looking for and if I could locate those at the flea market I would let them know. That went so well I started running ads in some magazines and I had a little answering device on my phone and people would leave me messages. I would return phone calls after work and packaged the boxes in my kitchen floor and put them in my car to take to UPS for shipping.
When did you actually start the company?
I finally got up enough nerve to quit my job in March of 1981 because I really felt like if I could devote myself to my hobby full time, I could make a living doing that. I thought I probably won’t ever make as much money as I would as a CPA, but if I’m doing something I really enjoy that in the long run I’ll be better off. My family and all my friends thought I was crazy, the idea of selling used dishes for a living is something that they didn’t think would be very practical and they didn’t really think it would be a long lasting job.
Did you ever imagine Replacements would grow so big, and to what do you credit your success?
When I first got started I had one part-time employee I would never envision having a dozen employees much less nearly 400 full-time employees like we have today! I really feel like there was a need that nobody had been able to meet or even attempted to, that people were looking for so many of these patterns that were no longer in production. It wasn’t that they couldn’t go out and buy another pattern, it was just that so many of these things were so very sentimental to them. These patterns reminded them of their childhood or reminded them of their parents or grandparents and it was something very emotional in being able to replace those patterns and so I think that was a need that no one had met and that’s why the business has been successful.
How does Replacements find its millions of pieces?
There are a number of ways that we locate our inventory. We have a network of more than five hundred ‘STAR suppliers’ who include antique dealers that buy and sell to us on a regular basis. We buy from individuals and direct from the manufacturers when they discontinue patterns. At times if we have a huge demand and it’s a recently discontinued pattern, the manufacturer will go back and make a special run just for us so that we can meet the needs of our customers.
Do you still go out and look for pieces?
I do. I really enjoy trying to find the product and I know our inventory so well most of the time, I don’t even need to pick up something to have an idea if it’s something we would need for one of our customers. When I was a child I always enjoyed hunting Easter eggs, and this is my version of an adult Easter egg hunt. When I go out and look for these things it is exciting to find pieces that you know you have customers waiting for and who will be thrilled to have those pieces in their collections.
What are some of your great finds?
One story that I always enjoy remembering is going in an antique mall in San Jose, California and buying three little cordials that I knew were rare. I didn’t really know what the value was but I knew they were really rare and I bought them for $10.80 each; when I got back I was able to research and found where one sold at an auction for $1450!
Do you think your customers realize the value of their pieces?
I think there’s probably a small fraction of the people who really know the value of what they have and oftentimes think, well I got this 25 years ago and they might think in terms of how much they paid for it then, when in fact it might be worth considerably more today.
What are some of your favorite customer stories?
One story that I always enjoy concerns a young man who had called us and was looking for a wine glass. He wanted the glass overnighted to him because his parents had gone out of town and he had a party and broke one of their wine glasses and he wanted to replace that glass before his parents returned from their trip. Another interesting story, a California film crew was shooting a commercial for Fancy Feast cat food and the cat knocked over the crystal sherbet that the cat food was in and broke the glass. The producers actually did a sketch of the piece and emailed it to us and we were able to determine what that pattern was and ship the sherbet overnight so they could continue their filming the next day. On a more personal note, I have seen customers in our retail store get very emotional because they really don’t think we have their pattern and when we give them a print out of what we do have in that particular pattern they say okay, could you just bring a piece out so I can see it really is my pattern. When we bring it out they say, oh that is it, that is it, and they’re so very emotional because they think this is something they’d never be able to replace and it’s just such a great feeling to be able to help the customer and see how much that means to them. This is a very neat job in that you do get a lot of great feelings from the way you’re able to help people.
What do you see in the future for Replacements?
We just want to continue to provide the level of customer service we have since our inception. I take a great deal of pride in our commitment to our customers; I know that so many companies talk about customer service but I think few really follow through on that and I am so proud that at Replacements we really do bend over backwards trying to accommodate our customers.
Replacements is well known for allowing its associates and customers to bring their pets in to work or shop. What gave you this idea?
One of the employees here knew that I loved his dog, Ernie, that he had rescued and he gave me that dog for my birthday. I thought, I just cannot leave Ernie at home alone, I’ve got to bring him with me to work. I realized how much it meant to me to be able to bring my dog to work and thought I’m sure others here would feel the same way so we started allowing our employees to bring their pets to work. I do think it means a great deal to so many of our associates; in fact I’ve had more than one employee tell me it is the best fringe benefit we have at here at Replacements.
Do the pets ever have accidents?
I don’t remember a pet ever breaking anything here at Replacements. We’ve had a number of people and customers break things, but never the pets.
How have values you learned growing up impacted you today?
I grew up on a small farm in Rockingham County, North Carolina. My dad was a tobacco farmer. My parents, and the four children in the family all worked on the farm. My family was poor, but my father always reached out to help others in need by giving them food he could spare from his garden or helping them in other ways. My dad taught me a lot about his values of helping others in the community and I think that’s a lot of who I am today. I grew up believing that no matter what your beliefs are, you should have respect for everybody. That’s why here at Replacements we really do believe in rewarding our employees for the quality of their work and their performance and we don’t judge anybody based on anything else. We take a great deal of pride in the diversity we have here, whether it be dozens of former Yugoslavs we have or the number of gay people. We have employees from 30 some different countries and we feel that Replacements is probably the most diverse company in this area and we take a great deal of pride in this fact.