Anyone who thinks American capitalism is going the way of the dodo bird has never met Hank Browne.
In creating his furniture empire Hank’s Fine Furniture, the lifelong Arkansan has overcome meager beginnings, the collapse of the American furniture industry, inflation and high unemployment in the 1970s, a full-blown recession in the 1980s and an implosion of the housing market a decade ago.
Frankly, when COVID blew into town, the virus didn’t know what it was up against in the pride of Perryville, Arkansas.
“Coronavirus is a situation that had to be conquered,” he said. “It is something that is certainly a risk, but destroying our economy is a far greater risk with much longer-reaching consequences.”
“We will come up with a vaccine, but if we destroy our economy, we could be many, many years coming out of that and that would create hardships far beyond what most Americans have ever experienced.”
Browne praised Governor Asa Hutchinson for his measured handling of the pandemic, striking a balance between public safety and the survival of the state’s small businesses.
“My initial thought about it: I didn’t have to close any of my stores in Arkansas. I did have to close two in Alabama and one in Texas,” he said, simply.
Browne isn’t reckless in the operation of his stores. Besides the now-familiar social distancing, each Hank’s Fine Furniture location offers hand sanitizer – and lots of it – at stations throughout the building. Common sense is also in abundance.
“All of the salespeople have masks and if a customer comes in wearing a mask, they put their mask on,” Browne said. “And of course, if their location has a local ordinance requiring masks, we’re compliant with that.”
“The thing about a furniture store, it’s a pretty risk-free environment. If you have five couples in a typical store, you’re pretty busy. Well, our stores cover 40,000 square feet, so most people don’t have to get within 50 feet of each other. That gave us an advantage.”
Browne started his career as an appliance salesman with Frank Lyon Company in 1966. In 1971, he launched his first business – Garner Browne, which focused exclusively on TVs and appliances – and grew it to three locations in Central Arkansas before selling out in 1980.
Following merchandising trends of the day, he bought into the small, no-frills Freight Sales furniture operation in 1981, buying out his partner two years later. In 1995, he updated showrooms to keep pace with consumer tastes. He changed the name to Hank’s Discount Fine Furniture in 1995, later to drop the “Discount”.
Today, the enterprise spans 14 locations in Arkansas, Texas, Florida and Alabama. Ten of those stores are in Arkansas, employing roughly 150 people.
As the company has grown so has its philanthropic efforts. Browne and his wife Cathy are generous supporters of a number of causes including Arkansas Children’s Hospital, The Nature Conservancy and Little Rock’s Women and Children First shelter. Later this summer, he’ll be inducted into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame in recognition of his longtime support of the initiatives of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation.
One thing not on the horizon is retirement – Browne fairly sneers at the word – especially in trying times such as these. He may have stepped back a little, but he’s still passionate for what he does.
“My heart bleeds for these restaurants and everybody that is going through this unbelievable period, trying to stay open, trying to keep their employees. They’ve had a terrible trial,” he said. “Our business suffered, but once the stimulus money came out, we’ve pretty much got back to normal.”