From Business People magazine:
Entering Ann Roche Casual Furniture on U.S. Rte 7 in Shelburne is like walking into a giant sun porch. Casual furniture of rattan and metal with comfortable cushions are arranged in inviting groups. Tables are set with bright ceramics, ready to welcome a gathering of friends to a meal dined al fresco. And then there are the umbrellas: bright, lively umbrellas in wild splashes of colors and patterns waiting to be opened over a sunny patio table.
The owner, Ann Roche, of South Burlington, presides over this enticing environment. The 17,000-square-foot facility — once the home of the Climb High sporting goods retail shop — is a far cry from the two-car garage where Roche started the business 29 years ago.
She had been working for a family friend, Bob Wood, at Rents, his rental store on Williston Road. Roche and her husband, Paul, a CPA, had moved to Vermont from Boston because of his employer, Touche Ross. Paul had decided to leave Touche and return to Boston to find other work when Wood, whose controller had left, called with a job offer.
“At that time, we couldn’t afford furniture, so when Bob also asked if I’d work for him while the kids were in school, I said, ‘Sure.’ And we took on paint, Tiffany lights, wallpaper, and Telescope furniture so we could buy it wholesale,” she remembers with a hearty laugh.
When Wood closed the store some 18 months later, Roche asked if she could take on the Telescope line, which she began selling from the garage at home. “That’s how it started, and that’s the gospel truth,” she says.
The business has occupied several locations on U.S. 7 in Shelburne, including, she says, every office in the building that now houses Paragon Design, the building her husband owned and from which he ran his CPA practice for many years. In the early 1990s, she moved the operation to a building next to the former Sirloin Saloon, where she stayed until March of last year, when she made the move to the current location.
Over the years, Roche developed a second retail operation called Kasazza Kids. “My maiden name is Casazza, spelled with a C not a K, but I liked the K for Kasazza Kids,” she says. Initially, this new venture was housed in a single back room, “but it didn’t do it justice,” Roche recalls. It now occupies the entire bottom floor of her building.
“There was a call for it,” she says of her decision to launch the second store. “I wanted it to be a furniture and acces-sories store with nice stuff that you can pass down to your children.”
She carries organic clothes, blankets, and mattresses, and plans to bring in German-made Haba toys, in addition to cribs, beds, and other furniture for children’s rooms. Not only does Roche love this part of the business, but it helps sus-tain the whole enterprise over the winter. “A lot of people don’t buy the casual furniture during the winter,” she says, “but there’s always someone having a baby.”
Roche’s customers run the gamut from those wishing to make a $100 to $200 purchase to those wishing to furnish whole areas of a building. Canadians frequently visit the store, she says, and she has furnished houses as far away as the Caribbean islands of St. Maarten and St. Barts.
Customer John Isaacs says he is so happy with the service he received that he urges other people to purchase patio furniture there. “Last year I bought a patio set,” he recalls. “At the end of the year, I left the umbrella up during a windstorm, and it broke. A few months later I returned to Ann’s place to buy a new one. Learning of the situation, she called up the distributor and got me a replacement for free. I would have bought a new one, but she sacrificed an immediate sale for my benefit.”
In the last 10 years, Roche has added commercial clients to her list. She furnished the indoor and outdoor sun porches at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. Her furniture can be found in the new spa at the Essex Resort and Spa, and at the restaurant, indoor and outdoor pools, and golf course clubhouse at the Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, N.H.
“One of the owners of the Mount Washington Hotel came in here on a whim,” says Roche. Most of her commercial clients have come to her of their own accord rather than as a result of targeted marketing, she says; but the customers making the smaller purchases are her bread and butter. “They’re the ones that make a business,” she says.
Ann Roche Casual Furniture carries 15 to 20 lines of furniture, and Kasazza Kids carries another five or six along with several lines of accessories. Almost all of them are exclusive to Roche in Vermont.
She is solicited by furniture company reps on a regular basis, she says. When considering the addition of a new line, she looks at whether someone else in the area carries that line (if that’s the case, she decides against carrying it) as well as the quality of the furniture. Of all the furniture manufacturers out there, she says, Telescope, made in Granville, N.Y., is her favorite. “Telescope is how I started out,” she says, “and they will always be number one in my heart.”
Roche came to being a business owner in a roundabout fashion. After high school, the Arlington, Mass., native attended Chandler School for Women to become a stenographer. That was not for her, however, and when she told her father that she wouldn’t be going back for a second year, he said she would have to get a job.
“My father knew someone at IBM and got me a job there,” she recalls. “I ran a verifier and key-punch machine. Oh. Dear. God.” Clearly, IBM wasn’t for her, either. Fortunately, her next job in a dentist’s office suited her very well, and she worked there for five years.
While she was trying to figure out what job was right for her, she married Paul, another Arlington native whom she’d known since meeting him at a drugstore at age 14. That was 50 years ago. “He’s my best friend, and he has been all these years,” she says.
They raised six children, four of whom still live in the area. Their fifth child, Nancy Contois, works in the store four or five days a week, and Paul takes care of the nuts and bolts of the business, something he’s been doing for 10 years or so.
Delivery people have moved up and continued on in different roles. John Bartholomew joined the business in 2001 driving a truck. Now he works one or two days a week as a salesman even though he holds down a full-time engineering job elsewhere. Matt Robinson joined the company in 1997 and has done everything — delivery, stocking the floor, and sales — Roche says. Lynn McAvern works at the store three or four days a week.
Due to the economic downturn, Roche has found the last two years the most challenging of the 29 she’s been in business. “It slowed down a little, it certainly has,” she says. “I don’t think you’ll ever see it like it was in the ’80s again, but I’m very optimistic. My glass is always half full.”
In the last couple of years she’s noticed that people are spending money on converting patios to sun rooms and on making their backyards places they really want to be. Says Roche, “You’re going to make your own backyard your vacation.”
In her own time off, Roche enjoys playing tennis, boating, and spending time with her family at their cottage in York Beach, Maine. She’s an avid sports fan and loves attending sporting events.