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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 29, 2011 10 years ago

Fantastic Finds

Jesse White built a successful retail business by selling lots of stuff others might call junk. To White, though, the store is 'like a dream.'
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Here's an upbeat sign among the mostly wretched economic news of the day: A retail business with “salvage” in its name has plotted a return to high-end merchandise.

“It's time for us to bring in a few more wow items,” says Jesse White, owner of Sarasota Architectural Salvage.

White's plans are partially based on two recent sales. One was a bar from England that went for $30,000. A second sale was for a $15,000 chandelier.

But even more promising, says White, is revenues at Sarasota Architectural Salvage have steadily increased the last few years.

He declines to release specific revenue figures, only to say the company, which he founded in 2003, has less than $5 million in annual sales.

In one sense, White's company is already loaded with wow items.

Located in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse, the store is a mishmash of everything and anything that could go or once was inside a home, condo, commercial building, or even the occasional barn. “Orphan” golf clubs at $3 apiece sit a few feet from a 1950s-era hospital gurney that sells for $295. A home's front door with stained glass windows — the number 7 from the address is still intact — is near the gurney. Entry to that product is $695.

The medley somehow works. “This is like a dream store,” says White. “People come in here with imagination and we help them with the vision.”

Sarasota Architectural Salvage is in the Rosemary District, just north of downtown Sarasota. White says he knew from the start that to make it in the salvage business he had to own the building, not lease the space. He settled on the gritty Rosemary District, enticed by tax advantages and incentives offered by city officials.

The store's customers are a mix of interior designers, builders and regular homeowners. The interior designers and especially the builders mostly disappeared a few years ago, says White, but some designers have started to shop again.

The Florida Retail Federation, an industry lobbying group, recently recognized the store and White. White was one of three retailers in the state to win the federation's Retailer of the Year Award for Leadership. Fort Myers entrepreneur Norman Love, founder of Norman Love Confections, also received the award.

The federation cited several factors in White's award, from the variety of products to his work with historical societies and preservation groups to his devotion to employees.

On the last point, White aims to treat the four full-time employees like entrepreneurs. He allows them to have their own consignment section in the store and he also offers a range of perks, from insurance benefits to Saturday morning coffees and summer cookouts.

White, though, faces some distinct challenges. For one, he longs to have a point-of-sale software system that provides comprehensive data on the hundreds of goods that fill the store.

He especially wants to see how long certain products sit on shelves and how quick others sell, which he can't do now. White has looked for the right system for two years, including time spent implementing one that didn't work out. Says White: “I'm craving figures.”

White had no retail experience prior to Sarasota Architectural Salvage. Instead, his background was in environmental consulting, where he helped municipal and county governments find innovative ways to recycle.

But White's heart is now in retail. In fact, he has considered expansion, either by opening stores in other cities or consulting for people who want to open a store under a similar model.

“We've tried to build our business on customer service,” White says. “I keep shifting our business to meet what customers want.”

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