Nearly a third of retail businesses fail within two years and fewer than 30 percent survive a decade. Ed Kalin beat those odds many times over. Before finally closing shop last year, Kalin owned Kane’s Furniture, later Kalin’s Furniture, in Sarasota for 66 years.
Sharp, active and possessing a full head of hair at age 95, Kalin still can be found several days a week behind the desk at his well-appointed office above Caragiulos Restaurant on Palm Avenue, where he manages his real estate holdings and nurtures his passion for deal-making.
On a recent morning, Kalin recalled the lessons, successes and missteps of a career that dates to the 1920s.
“My father owned a clothing store in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and I started working for him when I was 8 years old. I didn’t like folding clothes, and so, when I was 12 or 13, I asked if I could go to work for my uncle, who owned a furniture store. It was there that I learned how important it is to have the right product at the right time. Duke Power Company was bringing electricity to the area. And my uncle sent me out to the countryside to follow the electricity installers. It was just me and an African-American fellow, with our dolly in a truck loaded with Crosley refrigerators. We’d stop at a house and I’d tell ’em we’d sell them a refrigerator for $1 down and $1 a week, $60 total. I’d always have milk and some powder to make ice cream. We’d put the milk and powder in the refrigerator to make the ice cream overnight. I’d tell them I’d come back tomorrow. Of course, the children were just awed by it, and so were the parents. We sold one refrigerator after another just following the power company.”
“World War II broke out when I was a senior at the University of North Carolina. I saw a notice on one of the school billboards that the Navy was looking for top students to train as officer paymasters. So I followed up and I got sent to Harvard, where they did the training. I ended up being in charge of payroll at Parris Island. I was just a young man but I had authorization to get a half million dollars from the Federal Reserve, which at that time was an incredible amount of money. Every week, two Marines and I would go to the bank in Beaufort, South Carolina, and get $200,000 or more for payroll. We’d count all that cash right there in the vault and then take it back to the base. The war was horrible, of course, but for me the experience was life-changing. I was given so much responsibility, more than I ever expected, that I realized that I could do anything as long as I worked hard and was honest. I learned that the accounting skills I had were invaluable, and those skills have been instrumental in my success to this day, whether reading a balance sheet or balancing books or whatever.”
“I cannot overestimate the value of a supportive family. When my cousin’s husband and I moved to Florida after the war and opened our first furniture store in St. Petersburg, we made mistakes. We bought the furniture from High Point in North Carolina, and it was all wrong for down here. We lost money our first year. But thanks to our family, we had credit and we were able to survive. Then we met a salesman from Miami who helped us find the right styles. We learned quickly, worked hard and kept our costs down. The next year, we made a little bit and it kind of took off from there.”
“My wife didn’t get along with my partner because he was a male chauvinist, so in 1950 we decided to open our own store in Sarasota. It was at the site of a former Winn-Dixie grocery that had closed. What I liked about it was that it had a lot of parking right next to the store. That’s so important. There were only two other furniture stores in town at that time, and one of them was kind of complacent. We were young and aggressive and they went out of business. The other was Havertys, which is still going strong. We were fortunate that central air-conditioning was just coming in and, of course, that was the single most important thing that changed Florida. Suddenly, people were moving here year-round and that opened a big market for furniture. I wish I could say that I foresaw it, but we were just lucky.”
“I was more interested and passionate about real estate and making deals than I was about selling furniture. I was fortunate to partner with [real estate developer] John Meshad. I had a 10 percent stake in 90 acres we bought in 1966 at Fruitville Road and Cattleman Road, which ended up selling for $55 million. Not all the deals were that good, of course. At one point, I owned 110 properties and some of them lost money. To be successful in real estate, I believe, you have to be fair to both parties; both sides need to feel that they’ve won. You have to be honest. You can’t steal, and, unfortunately, a lot of that is going on these days.”
“For me, it all comes back to family. My wife, Alyce, and I were married for 57 years. She contributed so much to the success of our business, leading our design center. My son, Jeff, took over running the store and did a terrific job. He’s retired now and delivering Meals on Wheels, volunteering for a crisis line and helping the hearing impaired. My daughter, I like to say, has more close friends than anyone in the world. My family has given me the most joy in my life.”