19: How Orsini’s Has Stayed Afloat During the Coronavirus Crisis

Written by Rob Stott

April 21, 2020


PJ Orsini, a third-generation retail owner, has seen business boom during the coronavirus crisis. How? He’s leaned into new digital offerings and capitalized on the Paycheck Protection Program. He walks us through the past few weeks at Orsini’s…

Rob Stott: All right. We’re back on the Independent Thinking podcast here and right now getting the chance to talk to a longtime Nationwide member, I should say, PJ Orsini from Orsini’s in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Is that right, PJ?

PJ Orsini: Yep, that’s right.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Well, first of all, I want to right off the bat before … I know we got some pretty cool topics, well maybe not cool necessarily, but important topics to dive into today. But before we do that, I want to just ask you what I asked you before we started this podcast and that’s how are you doing personally?

PJ Orsini: It’s been a really wild time to be in retail. We’ve been busy. Fortunately, we’ve been very busy. But we’ve had to, as I said to you, I’ve had to learn how to run a business all over again even after doing it 19 years now.

Rob Stott: Yeah it’s crazy. I mean, it’s really uncertain times, challenging times, but we’re all kind of living through it right now. And we’ll get into that and certainly, there’s a lot to cover there. But tell us a little bit about Orsini’s out there in Martinsburg and just a little bit about the history of the business and about you and how you got into the retail business.

PJ Orsini: Okay. Well, I’m the third generation in the family business. We were started in 1948 by my grandparents. My father and my uncle bought the business in the 90s and I purchased the business from them about five years ago, back in 2015. All through those years up until November of last year, we were in about a 3,000 square foot building and I took the big leap into open into a new showroom and a new facility. We’re now in an 18,000 square foot building and we expanded into bedding. We did more with the connected home. We’re a platinum Traeger dealer, the only one in the region. Whirlpool exclusive dealer as well. So we have a lot of their product along with the Jenn-Air.

And then we’ve gotten into cabinets, counters, tile. Basically the concept was to be become an independent home store, a home center, if you will, rather than just an appliance dealer. We’re in Martinsburg, West Virginia. So we’re about an hour and 20, an hour and 30 minutes outside of DC and Baltimore. So we have become a suburb of DC. So this whole COVID madness is out there has hit us pretty solid due to the amount of people that transit back and forth from the Eastern panhandle to the Northern Virginia and DC area.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely. So you’re technically how far from Philly? Because that’s where I am. And I used to live in DC. I know it’s only about two and a half hours I think from DC to Philly.

PJ Orsini: Yeah, I think you guys are three, three and a half from us.

Rob Stott: Okay. So a little bit further West of Philly than kind of that … we would have to make a V I guess in sorts to get to you guys. But no, that totally makes sense. Was retail always in the cards for you? Was there any question as to whether you would one day be running or Orsini’s?

PJ Orsini: At first. I mean I graduated from WVU, I have a finance degree from there. But I quickly learned coming out of college I didn’t want to work for anybody else. I have other businesses besides this, but this is our main business. And my family has always done side gigs back in the day to keep things going, which we all still do. We all, kind of always, have had a side hustle.

But no, it just kind of naturally happened. I briefly worked in a business corporate type thing and I knew it wasn’t for me pretty quick. And it was the perfect timing because it was right before the building boom of the early 2000s happened and I was able to get in and ride that roller coaster. Which seems like nowadays we’re hitting another hill of the rollercoaster. But yeah, it was pretty evident once I got out of college and realized what I didn’t want to do as to what I wanted to do.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. And I know you mentioned just a little bit ago here that the showroom that you guys just opened, that was featured for those who have come across the latest Independent Thinking magazine that we had in Houston at PrimeTime, you’re featured in there. A little member spotlight talking about that new showroom. I’m sure, as you were going through the planning process and building that building out, you weren’t necessarily thinking about a global pandemic, but coming just a few months after those doors open and you cut the ribbon to that building. But walk us through that new space. I know it’s only a couple months old at this point, but what is it like being in that new space and settling into a new retail environment?

PJ Orsini: Well, we wonder every time we walk in here, especially when my dad comes by just to hang out or say hello, how we operated in the 2,400 square foot showroom we had all those years and were as successful as we are. And right now I think my showroom is just a little over 9,000 square foot.

So there’s a very large Traeger custom build-out that we had done. They gobbled up about 800 square feet of our showroom, but I think that’s what was highlighted in that magazine. It’s a full custom build, kind of reflects what we do, how we bought into the brand. And they were so cool as to help to move around some things I like. So it’s a full custom build-out. Laundry, of course, is the other product on the other side of this room when you walk into since it is the bread and butter, the appliance industry. Going back through the cooking, we have a full Jenn-Air custom setup that’s in there. Custom kitchens. We sell Wellborn cabinetry and Cambria granites or Cambria quartz, so it’s a very high-end display all the way through there. And it leads back into everything else. Your refrigeration, your built-in cooking. We did a very large three islands setup where everything in it is live. So we’ve got a pro-style range in there live, dishwasher, ice maker, microwave drawer. And it’s set up that we can have 10 people sitting across from it for cooking demos, classes.

Everything is geared towards an experience. So there’s networking devices throughout the building, so anywhere you go, the iPads will work. There’s I think 17 TVs out on the floor. Everything is connected to MemberNet, so when you’re in the Traeger it’s all Traeger content. When you’re in the laundry area, it’s all laundry content. And I did one of the four TV video walls that were offered at PrimeTime and it’s content from everything going through it. So the idea is everywhere you go there’s some type of movement, some type of lights, different colors, different textures just to keep the business moving, keep people walking through it, wanting to look around and see what it is. And then I’ve got weird stuff throughout the building. Just cultural vibe type things I’ve taken from other business that I like that’s more for us internally than it is outside.

Rob Stott: Sure, sure. That personal touch always I think is awesome to see in retail stores and how you can add your twist to it to what you guys are doing. But you mentioned that Traeger spot. And I know that was highlighted in the magazine. But how cool is that to walk into your building and see literally the back end of a pickup truck just jutting out of a wall surrounded by grills and all the accouterments that go with the outdoor cooking space?

PJ Orsini: Well, I say it to any of the dealers that I speak to at the Nationwide shows, I’m on the East advisory board. I run the appliance side of that. Help run it with the Dean and some of the others. And I know they’ll laugh at me when I say it, but I can’t beat the drum for Traeger enough. I mean it has changed the landscape of our business when we brought it in. And we started out light, but we are all in with them. I’m talking to you on a Friday afternoon. We’re delivering three grills today. We got two being picked up tomorrow and I’ve got another shipment on the way.

And the nice thing about it is, like you said, when you walk in the door, I have a built-in audience that’s here about every week and a half, two weeks buying a rub, a sauce. But they’ve got a walkthrough everything else to pay for it. And by design the store is split up so they have to see other things that tie into it. So they have to walk past all this stuff they need every day for the accessories and the goodies that come along with the Traeger brand.

So it’s awesome. Everyone can afford a $10 sauce or a $5 rub or spice. So it’s really expanded what we do. We also added Yeti to the mix and that’s been a really fun addition, too. They go hand in hand with Traeger. And like everything we do, we’ve gone all-in with it. So there’s a very large selection. And people know if there’s something they want, they typically can find it here.

And with the addition to adding chat to the website with all the COVID stuff going on, it’s really made it easy for us to curbside those type of things for people. I’ve got trucks and technicians on the road all day, every day. We just started a program earlier this week with the Traeger line where you buy five bags of pellets for $99.95, I’ll throw them in one of my vehicles and we’ll drop them off on your porch. It’s just a way to stay relevant, to let people know we’re here. And the cars are out there already. It doesn’t hurt to add another a hundred dollars a vehicle a day when they’re out driving. So just outside of the box little things we can think to do to keep everybody out there and remind everybody that we’re still open and we’re here to help.

Rob Stott: Right, right. You mentioned that. And that’s a nice little segue I think into talking about what we’re all navigating right now with COVID and what that’s done to the global economy, really. But I know independents have felt it hard. So for you, for Orsini’s in particular, how have you been impacted and how have you been monitoring this and adjusting business over these last six, seven weeks?

PJ Orsini: Well we’ll take aside all of the sanitation and the health things you have to do, because we’re all doing that. All that we’ve been taking, all the measures we can as far as keeping everyone healthy. Instituted everything that everyone else has been told. If you’re sick, stay home. If you don’t feel good, stay at home. Clearing all the customers when we call them. Outside of all that, just taking advantage of what’s been in front of us. Like with the RWS website we have, they got chat on for us very quickly. My marketing coordinator made a phone call overnight and next thing you know we’ve got online sales. So the chat’s been a great addition to what we do. It’s brought us a lot of people. And then the messaging we switched from your basic Whirlpool ad that comes through to making the focus and making everything we do about us and about this store.

What can we do? How can we help? We’re here. We shifted the focus to this store. And our people and if you were to check out any of the social media sites, you see lots of people or pictures of our team and our guys doing things. Right now in our area, the box stores are the hubs where people are going because they’re still open. And they’re doing lots of house projects. And we’ve been able to steal a lot of those customers away just with inventory and be strategic on what we have. But we’ve shifted from having a week, week and a half worth of work planned out to same day, next day delivery. And my team is all bought in. They stay late, they come in early if we need it. They’ve done a tremendous job of saying, “We’ll make it through it. How do we keep it going?”

The kind of thing I keep pushing to my crew here is where this whole thing is over, we want to be that Bubba Gump Shrimp, that last shrimp boat that’s left, we’ll be the last boat coming through this when it’s over. And fortunately, the community has responded well. And we’re just doing the things that no one else is doing. And I think that’s really made the difference. And full buy-in from the team, trying new things they’re not used to. And then also, on my end, and my marketing coordinator here, our phones are on until midnight basically when it comes to the chat, when it comes to the questions from your Google and places like that. And we answer them, we screenshot them. We’ve got the team split up, the sales team anyway, that we can send the information to them and make them accountable for following up. And the chat’s been one of the best decisions we’ve done because we’re doing sale after sale without ever having to leave our store and keeping everybody busy. The customers are really responding to it well.

Rob Stott: That’s incredible. And I know we could have an entirely separate hour-long conversation I think about chat and what that’s done for you. But just one question, that’s something you’ve added since COVID became an issue?

PJ Orsini: Yeah, it was always on our radar. It was on the to-do list. And this just accelerated how quickly it happened. And I once again wonder why we didn’t have it earlier. It was just one of those things when you’re doing your day to day work, you’re moving through things, you want to get to things. It was something that we were keeping an eye on, but it’s been a bit of a game-changer for us with how easy it is and how much people really enjoy it.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And I’m also looking through your website right now. And one thing that hit you right in the face when you come to the website, in general, is you’ve got the information there about letting customers and visitors know you are open and all the different ways. And then you build out a whole coronavirus page or COVID-19 page letting them know the different ways that they can get in touch with you, and you’re still available to shop online, obviously chat being a big part of that, as well. But even just some messaging around what you’re doing in-store, through delivery, over the phone, and in different ways that … you’re taking this seriously basically is what you’re letting customers know.

PJ Orsini: Absolutely. And I mean as far as the marketing end of it goes, I think the natural reaction for people in these times are going to tighten up, we need to back off. We’ve doubled down on marketing. We’ve taken some budget maybe out of fourth quarter of this year and dumping it into this right now just to saturate the area and really remind people we’re here. Create that existence, create that branding. Simple little things like we’re looking at different things to keep into the store for the smell to keep the smell of cleanliness, we’re Lysol-ing every hour or two for that being there. We’re moving things around, focusing on keywords like sanitation. Everything everyone’s looking at right now with it. And the COVID thing on the website was simple. RWS had that ready to rock and roll. We just had to sign up for it and it was basically a seamless integration for it. But people have said they appreciate it. And they like seeing it there and it doesn’t make us look like a little mom and pop shop. It gives us the appearance that we’re doing the same thing everybody else is doing on the same level they are.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And just to ask it, I imagine no one’s really immune to what’s been happening right now from a performance standpoint, but how has it been business-wise for you guys? I mean are you noticing a big decrease in actual business compared to last year and things like that?

PJ Orsini: No, the extreme opposite.

Rob Stott: Wow.

PJ Orsini: Yeah, to give you some rough numbers, when I was finishing out March, top-end revenue, I don’t get my P&L and stuff until about the middle of the month, but January and February were killer. I think year to date we’re 36 … it’s like 36.7% up over last year and last year was a banner year for us.

A lot of things factor into that. Of course, this new location being a portion of that. But I really do think these other ways we’re able to reach people and keep going. And actually looking real quickly looking at an April’s numbers, we’re ahead of April last year. And that’s what all was going on. But like I said, it’s all hands on deck. It’s my delivery team, my installers, my techs. It’s everybody buying in and we really … I’ve preached hard to the crew upfront not to say no. We don’t say, “No, we can’t do something.” It’s, “We might not be able to do this, but we can do this.”

And people have been really comfortable with that. And everyone’s looking for freezers right now. I can’t get freezers, but I can’t get refrigerators. So we bring in a refrigerator that hits that need. We’ve been able to knock those out one after another. So we’re filling in the voids just as creatively as we can.

Rob Stott: That’s incredible. And frankly, impressive and really good to hear. But one of the reasons I know we jumped on and wanted to be sure to talk with you for the podcast and everything is that a lot of acronyms have been thrown around of late and two that I think stand out to people right now are PPP and EIDL. The former of which is that paycheck protection program that, as we’re talking now, the first round, they talk about in government potentially looking for ways to refill those coffers to get money to small businesses. But it’s empty right now.

But as we’ve come to learn, you’ve gone through that process and we wanted to talk with you to see what that was like and hopefully, maybe help dispel some of the myths that others out there … because a lot of what we’ve come to find through these quick turn surveys we’ve done and just talking to members around the country is that there’s a lot of unease and really a lack of clarity I think might be the best way to put it around these programs. So first of all, with this paycheck protection program, just to ask right off the bat, how easy was the process, or how difficult was the process to go through from start to finish for you guys?

PJ Orsini: It was the easiest thing I’ve ever done to borrow money.

Rob Stott: Wow.

PJ Orsini: Let me say, I do have a good crew and a network around me. My accountant’s phenomenal. And my banker. We use a larger regional bank. I like community banks. They’re fine. But we want someone that’s a little more nimble than a small community bank. But I also want nothing to do with the too big to fail guys. So we got very fortunate.

It was a two-page application. The only math you had to do was your average monthly payroll times two and a half and then how many employees you have. Check a few things, sign a few things, and send it in. And I think I gave it to my banker on a Monday. I gave it to him on a Friday, we were approved on a Tuesday, and I put the check in the bank … It would’ve been that following Friday. So that money was sitting there.

And then our payroll hit yesterday, I’m sorry, I guess it’d be today. Our payroll is today. So what we did was we opened up separate bank accounts to keep the PPP money in one and then our general in the other. And we just do a direct deposit for all of our employees. So the accountant brought in the payroll report yesterday and I just stripped a check from the PPP account to the general operating account. We’ll do that four times. And it was absolutely simple. We’ve got all the documentation. Every time he brings me a report, I email it right to the banker. And I mean I really do, I think I signed my name three times to receive a check that’s a six-figure check. I mean there was nothing to it. I would say a lot of it was relationship building, but it was good considering the money I spent to do the reno here and do the construction, that was the easiest thing I’ve ever done to get that little bit of money that is going to be forgiven.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. You hit on what would be the second point is that a lot of people are concerned that with these loans it is called the PPP loan program, but that that word at the end carries somewhat of a confusing weight to it for some people because if used properly, there are guidelines for how this money can be used in that it will be fully forgiven. So the way you guys have it set up to ensure that it is going towards payroll and things like that, that will help you on the backend get this loan forgiven.

PJ Orsini: Yeah. I didn’t want to commingle that money with our general account. So that was the whole idea of it. And it’s actually, it’s with a different bank where my general checking is. So we wanted it to be completely separate, that way the transparency was there. And then as we get to that fourth draw whatever’s left, then we can use the other money like the mortgage interest, the rent, the utilities, we’ll be able to use the rest of that money up. But it will be able to be done to where it’s a simple reporting process. From what I can tell, it’s pretty clear as to what they’re going to cover. And the banker just told me what he’d like to see. So keeping them separate, making it as easy as we could.

And it’s allowed us to not furlough anybody. We haven’t cut any hours. We’ve been opened as much as we could. We’re actually hiring if you can believe that. I think there’s an opportunity here with … this’ll sounds awful, but with all the unemployment that’s out there, there’s an opportunity maybe to pick up some people that weren’t available at the time. We can grab ahold of them now. So we do have that going. I think that hits the public on Monday that we’re going to hiring. So we’re trying to take this bad for all we can and get ourselves ready for the next wave of where the business is going to go. And what’s on the downside of this.

Rob Stott: Right. And I mean you mentioned you have a team that helped you pull this together and made the process a little bit easier, but as you were preparing for that, and obviously a relationship with your banker is important in that as well, but what were the important steps you guys took as you were preparing to submit that application? Just to make sure you had everything in order.

PJ Orsini: Well, makes sure all of our accounting and our documents were current and ready to roll and make sure everything was very accurate. Because the last thing you want to do is get on the wrong side of the IRS. And then the rest of it was just planning it out, was knowing where we need to be, knowing how much money we’ve got coming in and where it’s going to go and how it needs to be spent. So we’ve planned this.

We got very fortunate with all of this. At the last primetime show, Whirlpool exclusive dealers got a very nice set of terms to purchase and I purchase a future order. And a week before the future order could be canceled, I lamented over what I wanted to do with it and just decided to hell with it, send the order and let’s see what could happen. And it worked well. We had inventory when no one else did. We had inventory before the supply chain broke down. And I’ve done this long enough to know some of the speed bumps that were coming.

And then also I reached out to Dean Hamby with Nationwide and text him and spoke to him. I’ve text Tom Hickman from here and there. And then Henry, my rep just leverage what we had there. My Whirlpool rep. Talking to everybody and just kind of getting a general feel and taking everything that they said and they thought and balanced it to what my experience has given me. And then I tend to be a little more aggressive when it comes to these things because it can’t last forever. We’ve got to be able to take advantage of this somehow. There’s got to be a weakness in the nationals and I think we’re saying it.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And just to sort of shift gears a little bit, still talking PPP though. Picture yourself sitting across the table from … because there are plenty of dealers out there who are either on the fence or are very much against applying for this for whatever reason. It sounds like the process was very simple. And as long as you manage those funds right, it’s something that can be fully forgiven. But what do you tell a dealer out there, an independent retailer, someone in your shoes in an essence that might be on the fence that would convince them that this is something that is a no brainer to apply for?

PJ Orsini: Well first things first, it’s a loan. So if you don’t need the money, you give it back, no penalty. So you really have zero loss other than your time and a little bit of investment if you have any teams you have to pay. But it’s out there. I mean, we’ve all sat back and watched bailouts come for banks and for airlines and the automotive industry. And for as long as I can remember, and I even speak to my father about this, there’s never been a bailout for a small business that we can think of. There’s never been an opportunity for someone to get a leg up where they say, “We want to do something for you guys. How can we help you?” And this is it. It’s something that you may never see again.

But basically the same thing my team told me it’s a loan. Get it and be responsible with the money and let’s say if there’s some of it somehow we can’t use, pay it back. We’re not out anything. We’re just out a little bit of time and potentially, what is it, like 1% interest or something? I mean it’s a very low interest to do it if you do it. So we’re really not out anything.

But I think we’ve structured this well enough to where we can utilize all this money to keep the business going and it’ll also allow us to build up some cash in the meantime. So you take advantage of things like the Wells Fargo deferral and things like that. So to me it was a no brainer. As soon as it became available, as soon as the application was out there, it was in the banker’s hands. And I think there was a modification between the original one I filled out in the second one. Just a systems thing they did. But it was really easy. I think I signed the loan dock in four places and that was the end of it. So it was very simple.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. And appreciate you taking the time to share your experience around that program and everything. Because I know it’s … numbers and everything like that, it can be confusing. And it’s the government, it’s the SBA. So I know some concerns can be had there by small business owners. So it’s good to hear from, I think and important to hear from others in the space that has had the kind of experience you have had with it. So, no, I appreciate that. And kind of looking ahead, just want to wrap it up with you. Looking ahead, we hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel here soon, but what sort of things are you doing to kind of keep yourself sane during this time? And make sure that everyone’s staying on the right track? From a business and personal perspective, as well.

PJ Orsini: Well, I mean, business owner, we live in this place. I’m here probably more than I’m home. So right now we’re just a regrouping here in the store. Since we’ve had a little more time sometimes in here, we’ve done things like go through deep clean the showroom, rearrange some things. I mean being that it is a brand new showroom, there’s not a ton to move, but we have taken the opportunity to change some things, try some things. The crew gets it. I mean, you’re sitting there and seeing every day where there’s what, 22 million people unemployed now. I told my guys I have no desire nor plans to cut hours to furlough anybody. It was to keep the wheels rolling here. And they all bought in and I think they get it. But we’ve just been grinding like we always do.

We try to get them all the stuff they need to be safe. They’ve been fine with it. With me, the challenge has been challenging, but also it’s been kind of fun to see what we can do with it, how we can switch the business. And it’s forced our hand to go faster than what we planned, which is as good. Sometimes you need that kick in the butt to roll forward.

But no, I mean that’s all we’re doing. We’re trying new things. We used to do a lot of Traeger demos. And since this live cooking is going on, we just ordered a bunch of equipment. So we’re going to do some virtual demos. We’ll stream them, we’re creating the YouTube pages where we can throw our own content on. So if the people can’t come to us, they still have our products, our stoves, our grills, all that in their homes. We’re going to figure out a way to get to them. So it’ll be that type of thing. Seeing how this curbside and porch side delivery works out. It’s just something different we’ve never done. I had a couple of people tell me I’m nuts. Maybe, but we’ll find out.

So it’s just how can we … it’s been kind of neat to get creative and get out of the box and then look at what the people around us are not doing and then look at what people that are much bigger than us are doing and figure out where we fit in that landscape.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And honestly, kind of inspiring to hear you guys take that approach. And really a situation where you could sort of turn sour and have things go a completely different direction, you’re sort of taking that when life gives you lemons approach and making the most of it. And using this time to thrive it almost sounds like, when like I said, things could really be going a completely different direction.

So PJ, I’ve taken up more of your time than I intended to. So I know you’ve got a showroom to go care for and some work to get done and appliances and everything else to be sold. So I appreciate your time and you sharing your story with us.

PJ Orsini: Absolutely. I appreciate you having me on.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Thank you.


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