209: Tip Top Furniture’s Mother-Son Duo Shares Secrets to Sustained Success

Written by Rob Stott

March 28, 2024

Founded by Ken Dudley in 1978, Tip Top Furniture in Freehold, New York, has seen three generations of Dudley’s take their place at the head of the family business. Currently run by Donna Mae, she and son Colby sat down for an interview during PrimeTime to talk about the keys to their multi-generational success and how they manage to merchandise a store that – at 35,000 square feet – can truly hold the entire population of Freehold.


Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the “Independent Thinking Podcast,” coming to you from Las Vegas in PrimeTime. Appreciate Colby and Donna Mae from Tip Top Furniture. Appreciate you guys joining the podcast and jumping on, on a whim, right?

Donna Mae: Yeah-

Colby: Yeah-

Donna Mae: … Thanks for having us. We appreciate it.

Rob Stott: Absolutely. Tip Top, let’s start with where you are. Where are you guys located?

Donna Mae: We’re located between Kingston and Albany, New York in the Catskill Mountains.

Rob Stott: Oh! Awesome. Well, okay. Fun fact, my wife, my significant other is from Syracuse, so I am awfully familiar with the Upstate New York, and her family’s in Schenectady.

Donna Mae: Oh. Yep.

Colby: Not too far.

Rob Stott: No. That’s fantastic. What’s business like up there right now, these days-

Colby: It’s been great. Last couple months have been very busy, learning a lot. Yep. Getting into it.

Rob Stott: What’s the elevator pitch on Tip Top? A new customer comes into the store, what do you tell them about your business?

Donna Mae: Well, we are a three-generation business. My father started the business. I run it for him now, and I just brought my son into it. We’re very excited about that.

Colby: There’s one thing I always remember about the business, it’s when I was little. My grandpa would always say, “People come from far and wide because they know it’s worth the ride.” We’re like a destination location. We’re out in, like she said, between Albany and Kingston. It’s a little remote, but we bring in people from down in New York City. We bring people in even from up near where you’re talking about, Schenectady and Albany.

Rob Stott: Kingston to Albany, what’s the direction?

Colby: Albany would be north. Kingston is, kind of, south.

Rob Stott: A little… What is that? What gets over there? Is it 81 that gets over there?

Colby: 32 will take you up to Albany, and it’ll take you down to Kingston. The throughway-

Rob Stott: That’s awesome-

Colby: … gets off in Kingston and-

Rob Stott: That’s right. 90. I know that throughway from end to end. Buffalo to Albany, it’s quite a ride.

Colby: Yeah. It is.

Rob Stott: I try to avoid it from October to May. No. That’s fantastic. You mentioned third generation. That is quite the feat. How long in business?

Donna Mae: Just about 50 years. We’re 48 years and change.

Rob Stott: That’s fantastic. What’s it mean to still see the business in the… to both of you? A great question to dive into-

Colby: It’s everything to me. I came into the store before I went home, when I was born, and we lived in an apartment, just me, and my mom, and my dad, right above the store, across from the furniture store. It was my life. My mom and her co-worker, Evelyn, who still works with us, used to take turns with me in their office. I’d be in a playpen behind them. When I got old enough, my dad had me sweeping up in the warehouse. When I was 14, I got my working papers, got on the delivery truck. I’ve been at every level.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Colby: Yeah. Being in sales now and coming to events like this is really exciting for me, and it’s nice to do it with my mom and my grandfather.

Rob Stott: When they say, “born into the business,” born into-

Donna Mae: Yes-

Rob Stott: … since day one-

Colby: She’s the same deal. Her dad was running it for as long as she’s been alive.

Donna Mae: Yeah. We come from humble beginnings, but it’s a labor of love. We really love what we do and it shows.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. Furniture, always furniture since the beginning-

Donna Mae: Yeah. Yep.

Colby: Yep.

Donna Mae: We’ve always had furniture, flooring, bedding. We used to have appliances. We no longer have that, but we’re a multi-level store. We’re about 35,000 square feet.

Rob Stott: Wow. Okay.

Donna Mae: Pretty big store.

Rob Stott: Yeah. When you say destination, that is a big location. That’s grabbing people from all over the state, I can imagine.

Donna Mae: We always joked that we could fit the whole town inside our store, and that’s true, actually-

Colby: Pretty easily. It wouldn’t even really be the whole-

Rob Stott: Well, what is capacity and what’s the population?

Donna Mae: Yeah. In our little town, it’s literally 500 people-

Rob Stott: Wow-

Donna Mae: … I’m not kidding.

Rob Stott: You could. Oh, my goodness. That’s fantastic. What do you remember about growing up in the store, in the business?

Donna Mae: My first memories in the store was my grandmother used to clean the store for my father, so I would dust with her. I used to get underneath the tables because, obviously, it was easier for me being little. My reward, my payment, so to speak, would be an ice cream and she would read me a book on a sofa when we were done.

Rob Stott: That sounds so cool.

Donna Mae: The memories go so far back. It’s great when you have a multi-generational business. It’s your fiber then.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I always love asking this question, too, of the multi-generation families we got to talk to. You feel like it was an option to do anything else, or was this always something that you wanted to-

Donna Mae: Yeah. No. If you asked me when I was 18, this would’ve been the last thing I would’ve told you I was going to do.

Colby: Me, too. That wasn’t that long ago for me.

Donna Mae: Hey!

Rob Stott: That’s fantastic.

Colby: Yeah. I tried college. She has a degree, but I tried college for two years. I went to Albany. Didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t like being so far from home because our family is so tight-knit, not just because of the business, just because of our nature. The main thing for me about coming to work at Tip Top was I would be sitting in class at college, and I would be focused, and I got good grades, I passed all my classes, but it didn’t interest me. It didn’t affect the part of me that Tip Top does. When I’m working at Tip Top, I feel like I’m making an impact on something that actually matters within my life, and it’s something I can take forward and do with my kids, and it can matter to them the same way it mattered to me growing up.

Rob Stott: Hearing that, I could see you, right? What’s it doing to you?

Donna Mae: Awe. There’s nothing better than listening to your son make you proud at work, not only at home. Then, you come and you see him become an adult and do things that just… and my dad’s probably watching us from somewhere, here, thinking the same thing. It’s like, “Hmm.”

Rob Stott: If it wasn’t for you, since you were 18, you said this was the last thing, what would you have been doing?

Donna Mae: I went to school for child psychology and interior design.

Rob Stott: Ah. She’s been doing this to you-

Colby: Yes.

Rob Stott: … making you feel this way-

Donna Mae: I have not!

Rob Stott: … is that it?

Colby: Yep.

Donna Mae: No, but I did. I did an internship in social work and that wasn’t for me. I decided, “Well, let’s try something else,” so I started part-time with my dad, part-time waitressing, trying to decide if I was going to go back to school and get a different degree, or further my degree so I could do something different. I just started to really love what I was doing at Tip Top and the people that I was with.

Rob Stott: Yeah. For sure. No. That’s awesome. The other thing I think that’s always unique about multi-generation is the ability to put an imprint, your own imprint on the business, right?

Donna Mae: Mm-hmm.

Colby: Yeah.

Rob Stott: When you come into it, and take on more of a role, what kind of evolution did you want to, or impact did you want to have on the store?

Donna Mae: Well, for me, it was easy because my dad grew the business before the computer age. When I came in, we started with the POS systems that were actually in a computer instead of handwritten. We started with websites, with online advertising, and these sorts of things that were just at a point in his career that he was like, “Meh.”

Rob Stott: Right. “It’s worked for so long,” right?

Donna Mae: Yeah. It was okay because he was ready to give that part up, and it’s going to go the same way. Some of that stuff that changes so quickly, it’s better to have multi-generation because they really can grasp it faster than you can.

Rob Stott: Yeah. For sure.

Colby: That’s a big thing, that we all play off of each other. Me, my mom, and my grandpa all come from different eras with different business practices, and we can all use that, and it makes us a lot stronger as a business. One thing that my grandpa does play up with our business practice is the fact that we’re not just a business, but we try to be as active as we possibly can in our community. One thing that you mentioned about leaving our own imprint on the business as a family, we also as a family can leave an imprint on the community that we live in and try to be something positive.

I can’t go anywhere without hearing something that my grandpa did back in 1985, just saving somebody from something. The person I bought my first car from, his house burned down. He lived in Tannersville, which is about 20, 30 minutes away from us. My grandpa furnished his whole house on credit.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Colby: You hear things like that. For me, what it did was it developed a culture within me that I can bring to my business. Again, when we go forward, that will still be there. That, you can’t break. That’s something that the big furniture stores with 20 locations don’t have.

Rob Stott: No. That’s right. You guys are part of the fabric of that community, being so tied into… You understand what they’re going through or what it takes to be in that community. That’s always, I think, on our… Just for me, personally, what I love being able to do with this is get those stories and hear those stories because it gives me those chills. It’s awesome to hear that, and that’s the impact that you guys are having within your local communities and the people that are your neighbors. It’s awesome. Is there one lesson that you… Obviously, that’s a cool one. I feel like just following up on that, anything that stands out? Obviously, having your grandfather around, your dad around to be able to tap into things he’s learned along the way, that if there’s one thing that stands out that-

Colby: Honesty. Just being honest and making sure that you’re standing by your product because you’re selling it, not just relying on the larger companies that you use to get your product from. We, as a store, stand behind everything that we sell and everything that we do. We deliver furniture. We bring it into the house. We set it up, and we’ll do anything that needs to be done. I know because I was on the truck for four or five years, and even with the selling aspect of it, we try to really bring people where they need to be, not to the highest dollar amount. We’re honest salespeople, and that’s the most important lesson that I’ve learned, business-wise.

Donna Mae: We treat people how we want to be treated.

Colby: Exactly-

Rob Stott: The Golden Rule, right-

Colby: … It’s the Golden Rule, right?

Rob Stott: Absolutely. How about for anything early on that sticks with you that you learned?

Donna Mae: Everything you do in life, you have to do with integrity so you sleep well at night. Work hard. Play hard.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Absolutely. No. That’s awesome. Anything you’d share with your son that you want him to learn?

Donna Mae: I just want him to take the steps as he would like to take the steps. He’s impressive as it stands now, and I’m just proud that everything that comes out of his mouth just makes me, as a mother, my cup runneth over. It’s full circle for me, seeing him in the business.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. Diving a little deeper into the business, if there’s one thing within the store… We’ve talked a lot about business practices, and your approach and philosophy. How about within the store? What’s something that you guys would put your hat on or say you really excel at as a business?

Donna Mae: Customer service. I think we’ve got the best in the business. We are very competitive with prices because I’m constantly studying everybody around me, and we’re also very unique. If there’s anything that I will say to you, if a rep comes in and says, “Everybody has this. It’s the best thing you ever should have,” it’s the last thing I will buy.

Rob Stott: I love that.

Donna Mae: Yeah. You just have to go ahead in this world and forge your own way, and you know your client, because your rep tells you that, “80 other stores buys this and you have to have one,” doesn’t mean that he’s right.

Rob Stott: Right. No. That’s fair-

Colby: On the other end of that, something that she said yesterday to me about merchandising, that was interesting, we have our bookends, our big companies, but we also have a huge variety of companies in between that can play into the niches, and that’s something that we’re trying to grow. That’s why we come to these markets, and we try to… We have a very good repertoire of different things that we can order, but also because we have such a large sales floor, we fill that sales floor, and we have everything that anybody would ever need there.

Rob Stott: 35,000, is any of that warehouse, or is that-

Donna Mae: No-

Colby: Nope-

Donna Mae: … that’s… Our warehouse is off-site, but everybody who comes into the store always says how impressive it is and how we have such a different selection. We really have a very high close-ratio because once people come in, it’s like they’re part of our family, too.

Rob Stott: Yeah. No, that’s incredible. How’s the store set when I walk in? What’s that experience that you’re trying to deliver to the customer?

Colby: You walk in-

Donna Mae: Warm and cozy, like a home.

Colby: Yep.

Rob Stott: How do you make 35,000 square feet feel like a home?

Donna Mae: Very carefully, sweetheart. I live it.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome.

Colby: To me, it is home because I’ve been there my whole life, but how we make other people feel comfortable-

Donna Mae: I don’t make you eat dinner there often.

Colby: … how we make other people feel comfortable, I think, is just by… It’s less so the store itself, because it is a large store, and people are there to buy something, which can be a stressful experience. Not everybody is so trusting of salespeople, but when you just get to somebody’s heart and let them understand that you’re not just trying to sell them something, that you are there for them, and you’re not there if they don’t want you to be there-

Donna Mae: You’re fitting them to what they really need-

Colby: Yeah. Exactly-

Donna Mae: … and that’s genuine, so they realize that. When you treat people how you want to be treated, and you treat them like family, like you’re going to help them, if somebody needs a lift recliner yesterday, you’re going to get it to them as soon as possible because it’s really important to them.

Colby: Yep. Things like that, I think, help us stand apart, too. You can walk in and-

Donna Mae: Even if we got to send Uncle Bry and he doesn’t even… Whatever-

Colby: I have to-

Donna Mae: … it happens-

Colby: … I might be a salesperson, but also I do a lot of the office work, and I also unload trucks when we need trucks unloaded. If our guys are busy, I’ll go on a delivery here and there. We’re all-

Donna Mae: Cross-trained-

Colby: … leave our egos at the door when you walk in and you’re owning a business. You have to do everything.

Rob Stott: That’s fantastic. What’s something you want to get better at?

Donna Mae: Mm. Everything, always. Right-

Colby: Yeah. Everything. I don’t think there’s anything we can’t be better at-

Donna Mae: There’s no perfect.

Colby: No.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. How about, while you’re here, you talk about attending markets, have you guys ever been to Las Vegas Market?

Donna Mae: Yes.

Rob Stott: You have?

Colby: I have not. She has.

Donna Mae: Well, we went over on this show, just on a bus tour, and saw a couple of spaces, but I’ve been with my father in the past.

Rob Stott: Talk about that. I know that’s a new thing here at PrimeTime, right? PrimeTime’s been to Vegas before, but the ability to go over to that market, what was that experience like?

Donna Mae: I thought it was very interesting in the sense that this is a generation that I’m just bringing into the business, and he’s never seen Las Vegas Market, so we got to see a snippet of what that’s like. If he ever does come back and work that market, which for us East Coasters-

Rob Stott: High Point.

Donna Mae: Right. It’s High Point mostly, but occasionally, it’s a good thing for him to get further out of dodge and see what else the rest of the world is doing. You have to be global these days. The internet touches everybody. TikTok has every style on it. Just seeing what is only in the Northeast isn’t going to really work forever.

Rob Stott: No. That’s awesome. How about just for you personally to be… You’ve experienced it, but to experience PrimeTime over there, what was that… to have the intimate access to those vendors, right?

Donna Mae: It was good to get a first look at some of our vendors so, today, when I come in and do my buying, I have a little bit of foresight that I can be more prepared to do what I’d like to do. I think it’s an absolutely awesome idea to open it up, if it works out for everybody involved. I don’t see why you wouldn’t take advantage of it. I always thought, “If you’re going to be in Vegas anyway, why can’t you do both things?”

Rob Stott: Right. “It’s over there, and hey, we made that. See that?”

Donna Mae: Yeah. Cool.

Rob Stott: Now, this show, PrimeTime, what’s the mindset that you come into it with? You’re obviously, I feel like, maybe drinking from a fire hose while you’re here learning about Nationwide and everything, but-

Colby: Well, that’s the main thing for me, just trying to soak it all up.

Donna Mae: It’s an awesome experience to be able to, A, get with all of your different faculties of the business, whether it’s your financing, some of your vendors, your Nationwide group, all of the support. It’s so cool to be able to network with the other businesses. You share great practices together, and you talk about things that need to be better. You talk about things that you’re doing better than I am. Really, it’s an awesome thing to be able to come together because, let’s face it, us business owners, we don’t get out of our own store very often.

Colby: No.

Rob Stott: Right. Well, to be able to do that, too, to step away, what’s it like preparing yourself? For those that… because there’s a good portion of the membership, they may have never experienced the PrimeTime, even, so to those that might be listening or watching, advice to them to be able to-

Donna Mae: Listen, if you-

Rob Stott: … step away-

Donna Mae: … lose four days of business, this is so much more worth it. That’s how you have to look at it at the end because, otherwise… All right. Our town isn’t going to fall down when we’re gone, but it’s going to not quite go the way it was if we were there to manage it the way that we were there to manage it, normally, right-

Colby: Yeah.

Donna Mae: … but you will take away from this everything that it’s worth that you would lose.

Colby: But the other end of that is that we have a lot of trust in our team. We have a small team, a small sales staff, but they are so well versed in everything that they’re doing. They’re confident in their ability to run it without us because my mom and my grandpa over time have instilled those values in them, even though they might not be family, they are a part of our family. Mark has been there since I was a little kid. I remember coming in and playing computer games with him, and you would always babysit me when I was there and my mom and Evelyn were busy. He has taken on a larger role, since I started being there, as being a teacher, and I have no issues with him being there, and him and all the rest of the people that we left running it for the time being-

Donna Mae: Yeah. You’ve got to-

Colby: … That’s huge and that’s a privilege. Not everybody has that.

Donna Mae: Cross-train your team, and then you’ll feel better about leaving because the day-to-day can get by, and you won’t have any fires to put out when you get home.

Rob Stott: No. That’s fantastic. Well, I’ve already taken up too much of your time because I know you’ve got a busy show floor to get around, so I want to make sure you guys have plenty of time to do that. Donna Mae and Colby, I really appreciate you guys taking the time to sit down and chat. This was awesome.

Colby: Yeah-

Donna Mae: Thank you-

Rob Stott: I appreciate it-

Colby: … Thank you for the opportunity-

Donna Mae: … We appreciate it.

Rob Stott: Absolutely.

Colby: Yeah. Appreciate it.

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