Standing the Test of Time
Written by Jill Willie Photos by Steve Randon
The value of furniture lies in its ability to stand the test of time. It needs to hold up to decades of wear and tear yet retain its beauty and usefulness. For Billie Comeaux, the qualities that make a great piece of furniture are also the same qualities that have made American Factory Direct a success for the last 20 years.
Beginning her career as designer and draftsman, Billie often says that when she married into the Comeaux family, she married into the furniture business. In the greater New Orleans area, the name Comeaux has become virtually synonymous for furniture. The family started in the furniture business in 1935 and, in 1996 Billie and her husband Robert began their independent venture, AFD, on Hwy. 59 in Mandeville.
As Billie and Robert celebrate the business’s 20-year milestone, they do so with two more generations of the Comeaux family—their children (two of whom are integrally involved in the daily management of the business) and their grandchildren. They’ve expanded from their modest 20,000-square-foot showroom with —- square-feet of space on that site, as well as two additional locations in Long Beach, MS and Baton Rouge. There’s also a distribution and clearance center just off I-12 in Covington.
“Family is at the heart of our business,” Billie said. “Our children spent many of their formative years at the store. It’s a large part of who they are as well. But the AFD family is more than just our children—it’s our employees, our vendors and our customers. We have held special celebrations for each of these groups in recognition of our 20th anniversary because they’ve helped us become who we are. The Lord has put them in our path for a reason, and for that we are thankful.”
Billie vividly remembers an incident early on when the Lord put a particular vendor in her path. It was the banker who finally approved the loan to open AFD. The couple had been rejected numerous times for financing, in part because of the unfamiliarity with the concept of ‘factory direct’ furniture. One banker, however, had just bought his own dining room set from a factory direct company in another state. Pleased by the quality of the furniture and experience, he was the one who ultimately approved their financing application.
“We have been blessed throughout our journey. There were times when things may not have worked out like we originally planned, but looking back, I can see the barriers that we thought were blocking our way were actually guiding us along the right path,” Billie said.
The company’s growth has been deliberate and strategic. The decision to open a distribution center was a key factor in AFD’s ability to expand and succeed in other locations. “We are constantly moving inventory in order to provide our customers with the most up-to-date styles and materials.” She continued, “having the additional warehouse space also allowed us to open a clearance center. We can offer discounted prices on pieces that might not be moving quickly in our showrooms. This is a great opportunity for customers looking for high quality furniture at a lower price point.” Continuing their legacy of strategic growth, AFD plans to expand their distribution center into an AFD campus with the opening of a flagship location on the site of the I-12 property in the near future.
The recent enhancement to AFD’s Design Center is another example of the company’s commitment to addressing the needs of its customers. Three interior designers are available to assist those who are interested in creating an entire new look and environment with their furniture. Complimentary home appointments are included as part of the Design Center’s services.
Noting that she spends as much time working on the business as she does working in the business, Billie is a member of a professional peer group that meets biannually to discuss trends and share best business practices. “My goal is to be educated not only on new styles and offerings in furniture but also in building internal systems for inventory and employee management,” she said.
The dynamic that Billie shares with Robert is a balance of her eye for design and his ability to secure the best pricing for their customers. In fact, the couple is the epitome of AFD’s philosophy, all about Price…all about Design. Children David and Grace, now contribute to this successful balance with David handling the showroom and inventory and Grace managing the business and financial side of the business. “It was important to us that our children work outside of the business in order be exposed to environments different from AFD. Our oldest son, Robert, found his passion through his music ministry while David and Grace found theirs in the furniture business. Their experience away from us has made them more well-rounded and has definitely contributed to our growth as a company,” she said.
“We know that change is an important part of our success. You have to be able to adapt to change in order to thrive. Whether it’s adjusting to a volatile economy, implementing innovative computer systems or carrying different styles, AFD is constantly evolving.”
In response to the trend toward an eclectic mix of industrial metals and wood, AFD will introduce its newest collection in the next few months. The Urban Vintage line will be featured at the Hwy. 59 location. Inspired by bohemian and urban influences and French Farmhouse design, the line will add to the style choices and bring more options to customers.
Just like a good piece of furniture, AFD has stood the test of time. From their backgrounds in furniture sales and design to their forward thinking business acumen, the Comeaux family has a strong history of service, a solid foundation for excellence and an even brighter future.