Furnishing a Legacy
The Merkels of Chelsea
by Shelley Daily
Brothers Jack and Bob Merkel sit in a furniture showroom at the Chelsea store that bears their name--a Main Street fixture since their father Ferdinand set up shop here in 1924. "This is solid cherry," Bob says, slapping the table with his hand. "It has heirloom capability." The Merkel brothers, both in their early eighties, ran the family's furniture and flooring business for more than four decades. And they know quality when they see it.
But in an age of IKEA, quality products aren't always an easy sell. "They're heroes to keep it going through the [recent economic] downturn," Bob says about their successors, Jack's son, Tim, and his business partner Fred Zuidveld. "It takes stamina." Taking the long view may also help.
Ferdinand and his brother Norbert--known as Ferd and Norb--also experienced their share of challenges. Selling farm implements during the Depression, the brothers survived by making trades with cash-strapped farmers. Then came the war years, when factories switched to military production. In his autobiography, Ferd recalled that "the going was rather rough."
Tim Merkel, fifty-seven, seems philosophical about the recent challenges. "Perspective is one thing I've learned," he says. "A career isn't a sprint--it's more of a long-distance race. It takes perseverance, patience, and an openness to change."
The second of Jack's five sons, Tim started working at the store in fifth grade, when it sold hardware, sporting goods, and furniture. Unpacking boxes, putting bikes together, and observing his father and uncle at work, Tim says he learned that "if you take care of your customers they keep coming back." After majoring in business in college, he says, he "just knew" he wanted to take over the store. "I could see I was from a good family and from a good town."
The Merkel legacy in Chelsea began in the 1870s, when Henry Merkel and Clara Foster Merkel arrived from Germany with their four sons and $9,000 in gold in a leather money belt--a fortune for the time.
Choosing the area because Clara's brother owned a farm in Sylvan Township, they used the money to establish farms for each of their sons--the youngest of whom was Martin, Ferdinand's father.
"Owning property and working hard" was the family mantra, Bob says. In 1906 and 1907 Martin and his brother Michael purchased two adjacent lots on Main Street. They built the southernmost of the three buildings that make up what is now known as the Merkel Block as a real estate investment, and leased the space.
In 1924, one of their tenants--a small tire and battery shop with a street-side gas pump--went bankrupt. Martin bought its remaining assets at auction. Ferd was working on their farm just east of Chelsea at the time, and his father could see he didn't particularly enjoy it. When Martin returned home from the sale, he handed his son a key and told him he was in business.
Ferd purchased a small stock of tires and some auto accessories, and filled the gasoline tank. Business was good during the summer and fall months, but when winter came, people weren't driving their Model Ts as frequently. So Ferd also began to sell hardware--work he'd dreamed of since he was a kid. "The aroma from the leather harnesses, the rope, paint, and the sight of bicycles, baseball items, fishing tackle, and guns ... had a special attraction to me," he wrote.
The German brothers, Ferd and Norb, married Irish sisters Mary and Agnes. Ferd and Mary raised their family in a house just behind the store. In 1939, when the Princess Theatre vacated the space next door, the brothers set up their first furniture display. In the early 1970s, Jack finalized the purchase of the third and final building on the corner of Main and Park Streets to create today's expansive, multilevel showroom.
Jack joined the business first, after returning from the Korean War, and helped develop the hardware side of the business. Bob followed a year later after completing his own army service. "Dad had written me and asked me to come work for him," he recalls. "He told me he could see a future for me in the furniture side of the business." (Their late sister, Gertrude, and youngest brother, Pat--who still lives in the area and remains close with his brothers--followed different career paths.)
The two brothers were a "good blend" from the beginning Bob says, because Jack studied business in college and Bob studied art and design. In the late 1950s, the brothers helped expand the furniture side and added flooring to the mix. They discontinued hardware sales by the late 1960s, and soon after, Jack and Bob began managing the store--and started a long series of payments to their uncle and father that culminated in ownership. Jack, Bob, and Tim all fondly recall "Uncle Norb" staying on to help with the furniture end of the business--working in receiving and on the loading dock--as well as Ferd dropping by the store to visit.
With some well-placed advertising, business boomed and "became elliptical," Jack says, stretching west to Jackson, east to Ann Arbor and beyond. "We'd hired an ad agency and ran some classy ads," Bob says. "We learned that you need to have a product for a price. That's how we wedged our way in. There was a lot of competition, and our ads stood out."
"Bob took it to a whole different level," Jack says. "He elevated people's awareness of good design." Meantime, Jack worked hard on the business end. "My goal was to make the company run more efficiently," Jack explains. "We had a business model before we ever heard the term."
Jack, Bob, and their families were involved in all aspects of Chelsea life, including the Chamber of Commerce, nonprofits, the schools, and St. Mary Catholic Church--and Jack served as mayor. "This is three square miles where people know each other, trust each other, and when we want to get things done we can do it," Jack says. Jack and his wife Mary Ann, who also worked at Merkel for several years, still live in Chelsea on the same block as Tim and his wife, Anne. Bob and his wife Barbara now live in Ann Arbor.
Today, Tim Merkel focuses on furniture, while Fred Zuidveld runs the flooring side in Chelsea and at a second location in Ann Arbor. They employ a couple dozen part- and full-time staff, including college-educated designers. Tim says one thing that sets them apart is "a more diverse product offering." He points to a couch. "We have about 400 fabric choices for this," he says, explaining that it's important to offer options because "people and houses come in all shapes and sizes."
There is no heir apparent to take over the business next, Bob says. Since 1990, two of Jack's sons, Dan and Matt, have run GCO Carpet franchises in Ann Arbor and Jackson, but they're not affiliated with Merkel. Jack's other two sons, as well as Bob's three children, have chosen different careers--as have Tim's two sons, who are in their twenties.
"Life moves on," Jack says. "But you never know--there may be someone we haven't discovered yet who has a flair for it."
[Originally published in October, 2012.]