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Furniture company finds success despite global competition
By Alicia Fabbre | Daily Herald Columnist

Ron Bartkowski, at his Sofa Solution store in Naperville, prides himself on selling American-made products. "When marketed correctly, the American product can not only match up prices but beat the imports in quality," he says.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

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Published: 3/28/2008 12:11 AM

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As a furniture sales rep back in the 1990s, Ron Bartkowski saw change was coming.

He heard American companies tell him how they couldn't compete with furniture makers overseas.

"I knew that I had to make some changes because our industry was going to change so dramatically that what I was doing for a living wasn't going to last," he said.

So he did his research and decided the one area foreign furniture makers couldn't compete in was in custom orders for upholstered pieces like sofas or chairs. With some 30 years experience in the industry under his belt, Bartkowski went out on his own to test his theory in 1994.

He started out with a small warehouse selling furniture to other shops. But then the push came from his wife, Marianne.

"(My wife) was a Realtor and she was bugging me about helping her real estate clients find furniture," he said.

He opened the warehouse on weekends to the public, a move that helped birth what customers today know as Sofa Solutions.

Marianne's colleague, Bill Cassidy, liked what he saw so much when he visited the warehouse he asked if he could open a shop and sell to the public on a daily basis. By July 1994, he set up shop on Route 31 in Batavia.

Other stores followed and as those shops opened up Bartkowski decided to set up franchise agreements with store owners. Today, three stores are open: the original in Batavia, a shop in Glen Ellyn and another in Naperville.

All three shops specialize in custom order upholstered furniture. Customers can select a specific design and then pick from thousands of fabric options to cover their furniture. Designers help select the fabric and customers can get a sneak peek of what their furniture will look like at the store with the aid of a computer program. Sofas can range in price from $599 to more than $1,000.

It's that array of choices Bartkowski says, that helps customers "use upholstery to present their personality," rather than just accepting what's available at a big box store.

"We can offer the options the other guys don't, and frankly that's what it comes down to," Cassidy said.

Although the shops are small -- the three Sofa Solutions shops each run about 5,000 square feet -- Bartkowski said that's plenty of room to showcase the furniture. In addition to sofas and chairs, each store offers a selection of entertainment centers, occasional tables, rugs and other accent pieces.

In addition to giving customers choice, Bartkowski also prides himself on selling American-made products, a feature he says a growing number of customers are asking about.

"When marketed correctly, the American product can not only match up prices but beat the imports in quality," he said.

Bartkowski said he doesn't have any immediate plans to expand. Rather, he plans to stay focused on serving customers and offering them the choices they may not find in other shops.

"Our intent is not to get real big," he said. "We're happy with who we are and where we are in the marketplace."

Sofa Solutions stores are at 24 N. Batavia Ave., Batavia; 483 Roosevelt Road, Glen Ellyn; and 586 Route 59, Naperville. The Batavia store can be reached at (630) 879-7377 and is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.

The Glen Ellyn Store can be reached by calling (630) 469-7377. The Naperville store can be reached by calling (630) 548-5540. Both shops are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. The company's Web site is at www.sofasolutions.com.