Buyer, designer, business owner: Ruby Wells
Growing up, Ruby Wells never imagined she’d be a small business owner. But, after working in retail and banking for a few years, Wells and her husband, Joe, decided they wanted to own a furniture store. Their dream came true nearly 30 years ago when Ruby and Joe Wells purchased Gabriel Furniture in downtown Appleton.
They are the second owners of Gabriel Furniture, a furniture store established by Joe Gabriel in 1928.
“I feel lucky I’ve grown up in this area and got to know so many people in the community. Every day someone walks in the door and there is a past connection somehow … that is the fun part of being in business in the town you grew up in,” adds Wells.
A DOWNTOWN TREASURE
Gabriel Furniture has called the corner of College Avenue and Morrison Street home since its founding. Wells explains the business started in the front corner of the main building and slowly expanded, first extending into the building next door and eventually growing to include the three adjacent buildings. Wells and her husband also opened the second and third floors, which had been closed for many years. Today, the
furniture store occupies more than 30,000 square feet. Wells explains Gabriel Furniture’s mission is to offer quality pieces while appealing to all age groups. They pride themselves on offering a unique shopping experience with personalized service. The staff is available to do more than help customers pick out a piece of furniture — their complementary design services ensure every shopper gets the look they’ve been hoping for.
“Everyone on staff is able to go into a customer’s home or work with them in the store to help create a beautiful space. They’ll look at the whole picture — furniture, rugs, accessories, colors — to understand and match the customer’s style,” says Wells. “We’ll integrate pieces a homeowner already has with new items that catch their eye.”
Gabriel Furniture has between 17 and 20 employees, depending on the time of year. Wells reveals some of the staff have been with the store since they purchased it.
A TYPICAL DAY
For many, working with your spouse every day could be a challenge, but Wells couldn’t imagine it any other way. “We have worked together for so many years that it would be strange for me to not work with him anymore, to not know what his day has been like. I love working with him. Most days we eat lunch together. I consider it a huge benefit,” she adds.
When their daughter Millaine was young, she’d also spend her day at the store, playing with children as their parents shopped or helping sell furniture. Ruby and Joe have always divided up the work, with Joe concentrating on the selling side of the business while she handles the buying.
“I work with the companies and reps on stock items that we are going to be replacing. I will help with selling when it’s a special event but I also focus on being the company spokesperson,” she says. (Thought Wells looked familiar? You’ve likely seen her on television, in the Gabriel Furniture ads.)
Wells has always had an eye for color and decorating, although she explains it took time to learn how to buy for the masses.
“You just have to look at the way I dress to see I love color,” adds Wells. “It took time to realize that a particular piece might not appeal to me but there is going to be a customer that will like it.” While tasks are split, Wells suggests they do know what the other one is up to. Before bringing in a new company, Wells will discuss it with her husband, but then she is left to select the pieces they’ll display in the store.
“We make the overall decisions together but then leave the details to each other,” she adds. The business does follow the couple home.
“It is hard to stop talking about work, the business is just your life. There is no line that is drawn at night that says we aren’t going to talk about this,” says Wells. But, the two have made it work. Wells and her husband just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.
ADJUSTING TO A NEW CUSTOMER
Technology and the internet have changed the way consumers shop for furniture. Wells explains many people come in more educated and prepared for what they want. Gabriel Furniture has had to adjust the way they service these shoppers.
“The biggest difference we’ve seen since we’ve opened our doors is the interest in customization,” says Wells. “Back then, what you saw on the floor is what you bought. Now, these are just examples of the things we can offer.”
Gabriel Furniture works with more than 100 companies, so they can only showcase a small portion of what is available. When someone comes in looking for a particular style, the staff works to help them find what they desire. Wells estimates 80 percent of what they sell is custom order. That is why their design services have become so important.
“It can be a challenge for customers to picture a custom item, but that is where we can help by showing them pictures or a catalog page of something similar,” says Wells. “Many people want us to give them direction because they aren’t comfortable making the decision alone.”
Wells, 60, and her husband, 62, have dedicated nearly 30 years to their business. They’ve grown and trained a staff to care for the store like their own. Now, the two are starting to enjoy a little time away.
“We like the flexibility that this stage of life is offering us,” adds Wells. “We have a wonderful staff that allows us to come and go a little bit.”
The couple recently sold their investment property in Florida with the intent to explore more of the country and beyond. In addition to traveling as time allows, they also enjoy spending time with family as much as possible, especially with their daughter, son-in-law, Greg, and 1-year-old grandson, Abraham.
“Everyone told me how much fun it was going to be being a grandma and until you experience it yourself you don’t know there is a whole extra part of your heart until that little person is here. That has been fun for us to discover,” says Wells.
When asked to imagine what’s to come, Wells doesn’t have a clear picture of what the future will bring. “We are lucky because we are both in good health and we love what we do. I wish I had a crystal ball to look at the next five to 10 years because for the foreseeable future I see us doing what we are doing,” says Wells. “We love the business, we love being part of the community — downtown Appleton is changing so much you never know what opportunities might be around the corner.”
As for the carrying on the business after the couple retires, Wells explains the answer will reveal itself in time. “I’ve always been a big believer that those answers will be there when they are supposed to be and I don’t feel like it is right now because I don’t feel like we’re supposed to be done. I think down the road something will become apparent to us,” adds Wells. w