Miami Herald Small Business Makeover: Heywood Wakefield

orlando espinosa score miami dade leonard RiforgiatoFor Leonard Riforgiato, the path to small business ownership began in the 1990s with an abandoned company trademark and a passion for antiques.

After selling heirlooms and collectibles in storefronts around South Beach for decades, he turned his attention to Heywood-Wakefield, a vintage furniture brand his customers were buzzing about. Founded at the turn of the last century when two still-older furniture companies merged, Heywood-Wakefield incorporated unique designs and a creative use of bent wood to produce durable and stylish beds, chairs, night stands and other pieces designed for the home. Prices range from $540 for a bar stool to over $1,500 for a bed.

“I got interested in Heywood-Wakefield by accident,” Riforgiato said. “I noticed that, over the years, a lot of people came into my stores asking for vintage Heywood-Wakefield furniture.”

He researched the company, unearthing a trove of information. Heywood-Wakefield chairs and other now-iconic pieces had been made in Gardner, Mass., since 1897, continuing until the late 1970s. Gardner, with a population of 20,000, is the self-styled “Furniture Capital of New England”; in 1983, the Heywood-Wakefield Company Complex, where the well-known furniture was originally made, was added to the National Historic Register.

The company’s lineage impressed Riforgiato. “Once I found out the trademark had expired, I saw an opportunity to keep the brand alive,” he said. “I purchased it, kept the Heywood-Wakefield name and decided to go into the furniture business making these amazing pieces that people loved.”

That was back in 1992. Today, nearly 22 years later, Riforgiato no longer sells Heywood-Wakefield furniture in showrooms, instead operating solely online from his home in Miami. “The cost of operating a showroom became quite high over the years,” he said. “Real-estate costs were going through the roof, so I decided to use the power of the Internet to grow the business without having a brick-and-mortar building to show the furniture.”

Riforgiato was so passionate about the company’s history that he continued to produce Heywood-Wakefield furniture in Massachusetts. He began production in Gardner in 1992, but in 2011, he moved to a factory in nearby Winchendon.

With annual revenue of nearly a quarter of a million dollars, Riforgiato estimates that his company sells over 200 pieces of furniture per year. Relying heavily on client referrals to drive sales, he spends more time making furniture than he does on marketing it. He wanted to take the offline conversations his customers were having and bring them online in hopes of increasing sales.

To find answers, Heywood-Wakefield turned to the Miami Herald for a Small Business Makeover to help him figure out how to best incorporate tools like social media and a revamped website into a growth plan. The Herald, in turn, brought in Miami SCORE, a nonprofit organization of volunteers who have been successful entrepreneurs. SCORE volunteers use their business acumen and provide mentoring services to small business owners free of charge, putting them on the road to success. SCORE identified three counselors to turn Heywood-Wakefield’s online marketing around.

The SCORE team included Orlando Espinosa, co-founder of Emineo Media, who has over 25 years of experience in branding and social media. He has also led training programs for entrepreneurs both in the U.S. and abroad. Rosi Arboleya, a consultant and creative director at Perpetual Message, a local marketing company, has over 30 years of experience working in the advertising and marketing space. Her expertise is in Web development, social media and developing online marketing campaigns. Frank Padron is a consultant who specializes in digital marketing, online branding and SEO. He has over 20 years of experience working in digital and works with We Simplify the Internet (WSI), an Internet marketing firm in Coral Gables.

After the first of three meetings with Riforgiato, the counselors identified several issues with Heywood-Wakefield’s marketing strategy. One of the company’s immediate problems was a lack of exposure on social media. Another factor impeding sales was the company’s website. It wasn’t very user-friendly and couldn’t handle e-commerce, so customers weren’t able to buy Heywood-Wakefield furniture online. Heywood-Wakefield wanted to take the online plunge, but with a limited marketing budget of just a couple thousand dollars and orders to fill, it seemed daunting.

“Many times, small business owners are so busy running all aspects of their companies that they tend to place a low priority on things they don’t know about,” Espinosa said. “So, suddenly things that seem important to company sales like social media and online marketing are put on the back burner because the company is unsure about how to approach it.”

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