Jerry Buysee had worked in construction all his life and was residing in Tulsa, Oklahoma when, in 2003, he decided that it was time to move closer to his children and grandchildren in central Illinois. But Buysee wasn’t yet ready to retire, and so he decided to purchase a local fireplace store called Corker’s from its owner and namesake, Ben Corker. The business, located at 8304 N. University Street in Peoria, was struggling a bit, but with contractors comprising the majority of the store’s clients, it seemed like a great fit for a man with Buysee’s construction background. And so he began making the business his own, rechristening it as the elegantly named Hearth & Patio.
That same year, Buysee’s daughter, Tracy Sutherland, joined her father at Hearth & Patio on a part-time basis to help with the bookkeeping. But not long afterwards, she found herself needing a steady and more significant income, and she became a full-time employee and co-owner. Although a newcomer to the industry, Sutherland had some ideas of her own on how to grow and evolve the business.
Taking over an existing company, especially one that was struggling, meant that some changes were in order. Sutherland believed that increasing the retail side and focusing less on sales to contractors would give the family business the momentum it needed to grow. She talked it over with her father when she signed on full-time; Buysee was open to the idea and allowed her to proceed. Through one of the company’s vendors, she brought in a designer who helped the father-and-daughter team transform the space into a more customer-friendly retail outlet.
Before Buysee and Sutherland purchased the business, Corker’s focused mainly on selling fireplaces. They also sold some grills and grill parts, and stocked some patio furniture, although this was limited to smaller, low-end dining sets. When Sutherland took over the retail end of Hearth & Patio, the company shifted its focus to selling “outdoor rooms” and the high-end furniture that makes them what they are, such as designer sofa sets and dining sets.
These days, homeowners want to make the most of the space they have, and creating upscale outdoor living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens is what the designers at Hearth & Patio help their clients do. Their wide selection of custom-order gas and charcoal grills makes it easy for clients to find what they’re looking for, and Hearth & Patio even offers cooking classes to go along with them. To further tailor outdoor spaces, the store also offers custom umbrellas that can be paired with upscale dining tables and chairs or poolside chaises.
Hearth & Patio continues to specialize in fireplaces in new construction and existing spaces, and offers several types of stoves, ranging from traditional wood-burning and gas stoves to those that burn pellets and corn. Assistance in designing both fireplaces and patios is also available. “We didn’t change the type of product; we changed the demographic of our customers,” explained Sutherland.
Looking to distinguish the small family business from its big-box competition, Buysee and Sutherland knew their top priority had to be customer service. Hearth & Patio’s staff of six spends a great deal of their time and energy making sure they offer the best service possible. “We know all of our customers by name—we care about it, we worry about it, we want it to be right,” said Sutherland. “Without question, that’s what we provide that you may not see in some of the bigger stores—we know our customers.”
Not only do they serve their customers well, but Sutherland said giving back to the community is very important to her and her father, and they often make contributions to local charities, including items to be sold in silent auctions. This helps raise funds for worthy community organizations—who can use all the help they can get—while building goodwill for the business, which in turn helps foster its success. Yet in the end, the basic, common-sense nuts and bolts of business remain the key success factor. “It all comes down to what products you’re selling at what price and what service you’re giving,” said Sutherland, “so we try to get the best possible products at the best possible price and give [customers] the best possible service.”
Sutherland and Buysee serve each other as well. As co-owners of a small business, they are often forced to take turns attending family events—sometimes it even comes down to the flip of a coin to determine who gets to go and who must stay behind to run the business. But when someone needs to take time off for personal reasons, the other is always willing to help out. “I’m very blessed,” said Sutherland. “My father’s been really supportive, and we get along well.”
Not only do they just “get along,” Sutherland admires and respects her father, and she’s enjoyed being able to get to know him better by working alongside him. “It’s wonderful to see your family members and what their morals and values are, and how they’re applying that in the work world—to see that hands-on and learn from it.”
Sutherland advises others who are thinking about going into business with family to go for it. “Seize the opportunity, because you learn so much when you work closely with your family. You really get to learn who they are and what they stand for.” iBi