Steve Freedman, USF Alumnus and Office Furniture Magnate, is this Month's Guest at the EMBA's Distinguished Speaker Series
By Keith Morelli
TAMPA (April 7, 2017) -- From getting college credit hours for working on a thesis that was a blueprint of his business to being flatly turned down initially for a $200,000 office furniture sale, Steve Freedman sings the same refrain:
You don't ever hear the word, "no." he said. What you hear is "Maybe later," or "Not at this time."
That business philosophy has paid off both in his life and his business, as owner and CEO of Freedman's Office Furniture & Supplies, now with two Tampa showrooms and one in Orlando, and the next one coming possibly in Atlanta.
Freedman, a 1980 graduate of the University of South Florida business college, stopped by to chat with executive MBA students last week as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series. He talked about his career, which, he said, literally started with $200 in graduation cash (he earned a bachelor's degree in finance) and a Sears' credit card that, in those days, was mailed out to every college graduate.
But he also had a 75-page thesis on how to start a furniture business. He said he asked his finance professor if he would give him five credit hours for working on the project and the professor said no. Well, not taking no for an answer, Freedman went to the dean of the college and got approval.
"It all started here at USF," he said.
He drove home after graduation and split graduation gifts with his siblings. While he was there, a family friend said he was in the market for some office furniture and Freedman was off.
With no credit and no connections, he bought wood, laminate and glue and built the furniture he was going to sell to his first customer.
"Seven days a week," he said, "18 hours a day."
He hired a trucking company to pick up the furniture and ship it from Tampa to Boston, but the truckers said they wouldn't haul it because it wasn't properly packaged.
"But I didn't hear the 'no,'" he said. He rented a U-Haul truck and hauled it himself. The truckers were right, the furniture got dinged up pretty bad. He was down and about out, but he remembered savings his family had for him and he cashed it in to pay off the customer he wasn't able to come through for and to begin in earnest building the business he had begun and to which he was committed.
Visits to wholesale suppliers and customers and never hearing the word "no," even when it was said over and over, resulted in the office furniture empire he now operates out of Tampa.
"I've done all kinds of work," he said. "I've done remodeling, roofing, mowing lawns, selling knives door to door. But I had dreams – big dreams – and I wanted them to come true."
Freedman's Office Furniture & Supplies has grown into one of the largest office-furniture suppliers around. His company serves over 35,000 clients across the nation, with a 40,000-square-foot distribution center and a recently added a cubicle manufacturing facility.
Freedman currently is expanding into the self-storage industry with plans to develop over 140,000 square feet of self-storage space across two sites, including one that will begin construction within a few weeks in the Westshore district.
On advice to the class of executive MBA candidates, Freedman recalled starting out in the furniture business as a young man who knew even then that a successful operation relied on volume.
"At bats," he said. "Everybody wants more at bats. How do we get people to call us, walk in, or email us? How do we do that?"
The students all shouted out ways to do that: networking, expansion, acquisition, maintaining current customers, consistent product quality.
That's all right, he said. All of those applied. But successful entrepreneurs have that little bit extra. They make their own breaks and create their own success.
"The good thing about owning your own business," he said, "is that you can paint your own picture."