Rites of passage: Family-owned BILTRITE has staying power

Standing: Marty Komisar and Brad Komisar. Seated: Gail Komisar, Randi Schachter and Sarah Komisar.

Randi Schachter knew from a young age that she would one day work at her family’s business.

As she grew up listening to conversations about the company over family dinner and at home, she became invested in how business was going.

While away at camp one summer, Schachter received a letter from her father saying business had been “really tough.” She remembers the genuine worry and concern that came over her after reading that news, wishing her father had not shared it with her.

“We heard the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said.

Now, as a fourth-generation family member and sales and marketing director at Greenfield-based BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattresses, Schachter, 40, appreciates the part of her childhood that revolved around the company – even if it meant accepting shoptalk as typical dinner table conversation, being dragged along to out-of-town furniture shows and working weekends during high school.

Schachter said that exposure later helped her understand what it took to run a family-owned business: long hours and hard work.

“I grew up always knowing and caring and worrying about the store and knowing that I was going to one day join the business,” she said. “BILTRITE has been part of our family and part of who we are.”

Schachter, better known from BILTRITE’s TV ads as Randi K., is one of five third- and fourth- generation family members who operate the custom home furnishings and mattress retailer, which is now in its 90th year of business.

BILTRITE sells a wide range of small-scale furniture, including solid wood American and Amish-made dining, bedroom and living room pieces.

Schachter works alongside her parents Marty Komisar, 67, and Gail Komisar, 64, her brother Brad Komisar, 37, and his wife Sarah Komisar, 29. All five family members are actively involved in BILTRITE’s day-to-day operations, both behind the scenes and on the showroom floor, interacting with customers at its 65,000-square-foot store and warehouse facility on West Layton Avenue.

In the midst of the current retail industry disruption, BILTRITE stands as one of a few multigenerational, family-owned furniture retailers in the Milwaukee area to remain independent and in business.

And even as e-commerce and online retailers such as Wayfair, Overstock and Amazon emerge as tough competition, BILTRITE is poised for continued growth.

The key is staying true to its roots as a single-location business that doesn’t sell online.

“We’ve been doing this longer than the internet,” Schachter said.

First generation owners Frieda and Irwin Kerns and their daughter, Claire.

First generations

Irwin Kerns started BILTRITE Furniture in 1928 as BILTRITE Upholstery, selling custom-made sofas at its first storefront on North Third Street and West Garfield Avenue near downtown Milwaukee. One year later, Irwin and his wife, Frieda, gave birth to their daughter, Claire.

In 1948, Kerns purchased a five-story, 12,000-square-foot building on West Mitchell Street in Milwaukee that would house BILTRITE for the next 71 years. The move allowed the business to expand its inventory and become known as BILTRITE Furniture.

“There were 18 furniture stores on Mitchell Street at the time – I’m not kidding, every 30 feet,” Marty Komisar said.

In 1950, Claire married Mort Komisar, who immediately joined her family’s business. Mort later took over in 1964, but not for long. 

Second-generation owner Mort Komisar.

Claire and Mort’s son Marty Komisar started working part-time at the store by age 12, spending his teenage years learning about furniture retail from his grandfather and father, and attending furniture shows in Chicago twice per year, he said.

Marty succeeded his father in 1970, shortly after earning his accounting degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and has led the company as president and chief executive officer ever since.

Throughout his career, Marty has been involved with almost every aspect of running the business, from accounting and buying to sales and delivery, he said, doing whatever needs to get done. Currently, he is also head merchandise buyer, is involved with marketing and sales and assists with operations.

Schachter and her brother Brad Komisar, head of computer, sales and warehouse operations, joined the company in 2001 and 2003, respectively, immediately after graduating from High Point University in High Point, North Carolina, both with degrees related to home furnishings.

Like their father, the siblings grew up around the business, so their paths to eventually join the company were clear early on. But they had to work their way up to their current leadership roles.

“I started going on work trips with my father when I was six years old,” Brad said. “When I was six or seven, they had me go around for a half day with the delivery guy, just to be with him and go on a delivery route. I’d work on Saturdays in middle school and high school, and on spring break, winter break. I’m sure I was a pain a number of times, but it helped me know what it’s about.”

Family dynamics

Marty Komisar, Mort Komisar (standing), Maureen Komisar and Claire Komisar (sitting).

After his son Marty took over, Mort continued working at BILTRITE as a salesman. And he preferred that position over running the company because he didn’t have to worry about it as much, Schachter said.

“My grandfather was an excellent salesman,” Schachter said. “There are still people who walk in here and go, ‘Where’s Mort?’ He was loved by all of our customers; he could talk to anybody and had an enthusiasm to sell. He liked the family business, but he didn’t want to run the family business. He just wanted to sell.”

Mort, who passed away in 2014, and Claire continued to work part-time at BILTRITE into retirement, which was long enough to be part of the company’s second relocation.

BILTRITE had outgrown its longtime West Mitchell Street location, so in 2005, it purchased a parcel of land off of I-43 and I-894 in Greenfield to design and build a larger, more accessible store. The new facility opened the next year, boasting ample parking and visibility from the highway.

Since that expansion, business has quadrupled and continues to grow, Schachter said.

And BILTRITE was able to pay off the building’s 20-year mortgage in less than 10 years, Marty said.

However, the process leading up to the move had been a point of contention.

Around that time, Schachter and Brad had joined the company as full-time employees and Mort and Claire were still involved, which meant there were second-, third- and fourth-generation family members working side-by-side.

“There was butting of heads for about a year,” Marty said, adding conflict and disagreement are natural for a family business, especially when multiple generations are involved. 

Mort initially was not on board with the idea of moving, Schachter said, but the younger generations welcomed the change as an opportunity to grow. He eventually realized it was the right decision for his family’s growing company.

Among the company’s ownership and its 30 employees, a wide range of generations are represented, from millennials to a few retired Traditionalists who work part time.

“We’re multi-generations working here, so we all think differently, but we’re also trying to serve multigenerational customers – millennials, baby boomers, seniors going into assisted living or downsizing – from age 20 to 100,” said Gail Komisar, store and human resources director, head of accounting and merchandise buyer.

She said those different perspectives have allowed the company to cater to the tastes and preferences of customers of all ages.

Second-generation owners Mort and Claire Komisar with first generation owners Irwin and Frieda Kerns.

Closed Sundays

Despite cross-industry talent shortages in recent years, BILTRITE has been successful in recruiting and retaining employees on both ends of the generational spectrum.

In 2016, the company brought back an old-school philosophy that has since become a major part of BILTRITE’s culture and a recognizable slogan on its TV ads: “Sunday Closed To Be With Family.”

The policy has since helped the company attract new employees, especially millennials, and keep older staff members working longer at the company, Marty said.

Most of the Komisars, as owner-operators, were accustomed to working seven days per week, at least after the new store opened, Schachter said. Now, as the family grows into its fifth generation with new additions Jordan, Simon and Sloan, they, too, appreciate the additional family time outside of work.

“Sometimes we see each other for both breakfast and dinner on Sundays,” Marty said.

And what’s more, the response from customers was overwhelming.

“We never got so much feedback and phone calls and letters,” Schachter said. “To this day, we have somebody come up to us every day and say, ‘Thank you so much for closing on Sundays. We think that’s really cool.’”

Eliminating one business day per week was initially a risk, but since closing on all but five Sundays per year, sales revenue has seen year-over-year growth, increasing by 7.5% during the first year, Marty said. 

Working with in-laws

In 1977, Marty married his wife, Gail, a Brooklyn, New York native who said she quickly learned that fitting in with the Komisars meant understanding retail and learning how to talk furniture.

Luckily, she had experience working in home furnishings at a department store and had also grown up in a family business household.

“When I moved here, I started looking for a job in retail, but of all these jobs I could get, my schedule wouldn’t be like Marty’s schedule, so basically it was like, ‘You’re going to work in the store and we’re going to teach you how to sell,’ and I learned,” Gail said. “I went to the school of hard knocks and started that way.”

Gail now works as store director and is on site most days, frequently spending time on the show floor. And at 64, she doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.

Her roles and hours have shifted and evolved throughout the years, but Gail continued honing her skills while on the job – initially under the watchful eye of her father-in-law, Mort, who always tested her, she said.

“I had to work hard to get accepted,” Gail said.

Her daughter-in-law, Sarah, can relate.

She had gone to school to become a teacher, but soon after marrying Marty and Gail’s son, Brad, she decided to join the business. Five years later, she uses her background in education to train new sales associates as sales trainer, working also in sales and design and assisting with social media and merchandise buying.

Sarah never felt pressure from her husband, but ultimately wanted to be part of the family’s livelihood, she said.

As an in-law and a millennial, Sarah said, she adds a fresh perspective to the company.

“I bring to the table the view of the customer, and a lot of customers are millennials at this point,” she said. “I feel like I can see both sides of it; I see it from the family business standpoint, but I also see it from a customer standpoint. And sometimes my view is different from Marty’s or Randi’s because I’ve seen it from the outside.”

What’s next

Marty has not yet solidified plans to transition out of the company’s lead role, he said. He and Gail are not interested in retiring and they still play a crucial role in daily operations.

“They still need to be a part of this business. It’s a lot to run the store and they’re better working than retired,” Schachter said.

But as he ages, Marty said, he can’t help but think about the future of BILTRITE.

“Succession planning is, I think, the hardest thing for a family to figure out. Who’s going to the be the president? Who’s going to be the vice president?” Marty said. “You got son- and daughter-in-laws involved that influence the ones that work in the store.” 

He said the company has considered bringing in outside specialists to help plan the transition.

“It’s a topic of discussion, something we have to look further into,” Schachter said.

The family also can look to the other family-owned businesses that are part of Furniture First National Buying Group, the national industry group they helped establish in 1994.

For now, the Komisars are focused on operating their business with values that have guided the store for generations, all while working to grow the store’s volume, adapting to industry change, and keeping merchandise new and fresh.

However, BILTRITE will remain a single-location brick-and-mortar operation because that’s what works, Schachter said.

“Here we are living in this Amazon world and we’re doing our thing,” she said. “Everyone’s under one roof and you can’t go wrong with that. We’re good at being a one-store destination.”

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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