BY MARY BEVANS GILLETT Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Gerard Winkle was looking for a job in 1972.
At the same time, John VanDrie was looking for a salesperson for his McBain furniture store.
Winkle applied for the job and got it, commencing a journey that led to his ownership of the business with sons Travis and Jeremy.
Now, VanDrie Home Furnishings is celebrating its 60th anniversary, taking stock in how the business has, over the decades, become one of northern Michigan’s largest family run, independent furniture stores with locations in Traverse City, Cadillac, Big Rapids and Houghton Lake.
Gerald Winkle still remembers, though, how the business operated on a more modest scale in the early days.
“It was small. We only had five employees and we did everything…selling during the day, deliveries at night,” Gerald Winkle said, noting the multiple roles gave him insight into customer needs and service, as well as relationships with employees.
The origins of the business date to 1953, when John VanDrie opened VanDrie Home Furnishings in McBain. VanDrie sold furniture, appliances and home products. The business operated successfully for the next 21 years in McBain, then expanded with a store in Cadillac in 1974, followed by a third in Houghton Lake in 1978.
In 1986, the original McBain store closed and a new one in Big Rapids was launched. The Traverse City location became the fourth VanDrie store when it opened in 1998.
Gerard Winkle began buying the business in stages from VanDrie within a few years of joining. He credits the founder with instilling core values and commitment to service that are still followed today.
“Mr. VanDrie would always say, we had to understand the customer before we (could sell),” he said.
Working all jobs in the stores was stressed as sons Jeremy and Travis joined VanDrie. They began working at VanDrie during summer vacations and joined full-time after college.
“It was great to come up in the business…and (it) gives you a whole different appreciation for the guy on the delivery truck,” said Travis Winkle. “I think I’ve done everything in the business…even cutting the grass when I was 12 or 13.”
Gerard Winkle noted the furniture business was “in their blood,” remembering family buying trips in their recreational vehicle. He simultaneously encouraged all of his children to get an education and emphasized that the family was more important than the family business.
The Winkle trio now lead the organization: Gerard as chief executive officer, Jeremy is president overseeing sales, human resources and community relations, and Travis is vice president overseeing operations, merchandising and marketing.
Compared to the early staff of five in a small McBain shop, VanDrie Home Furnishings today employs over 80 people, stocks close to $5 million worth of inventory and makes approximately 50 deliveries per day for its four stores. The original focus on the home continues with products from the furniture, appliance and floor covering industries. Travis predicts continued growth.
“We envision being here in northern Michigan and continuing to grow as we look for new opportunities,” he said. “Our focus is on Northern Michigan and not going to the bigger metropolitan areas. This is our niche and where we want to stay.”
Gerard looks forward to taking on a greater mentoring role at work as well as in the community and his church, noting he is striving to be a “chief encouraging officer.”
He also noted his appreciation and pride in VanDrie’s relationship with its customers and community.
“We have been so fortunate to keep so many key people and to see the growth in our (staff) and in our customers….and to give back to our community,” Gerard said. “This relationship stuff is very humbling….and appreciated.”