Airwaves, homespun charm help far-flung Valley businesses compete

krodine@idahostatesman.comMay 14, 2013 

Surrounded by farmland and wide-open vistas, the western Canyon County town of Parma first announces itself with the Old Fort Boise historical park and a cheery mural declaring "Onion Country USA."

Drive a couple of blocks farther on U.S. 20/26 and you'll find a compact downtown core dominated by another local landmark: Parma Furniture.

With a 35,000-square-foot, three-level showroom and wares filling several other large buildings downtown, the family-run company draws customers from throughout the Treasure Valley and beyond - including a healthy number of Boiseans who trek some 40 miles.

Wade Hilliard, who launched the business in 1961 and now runs it with his son Bo, says only about 10 percent of Parma Furniture's sales come from Parma - population 1,983 as of the 2010 census - and its immediate vicinity.

Offering free delivery throughout the region is one key to the store's success, Bo Hilliard says. People like driving through the countryside to reach their furniture-shopping destination, he says, but most don't want to haul those purchases all the way home.

"We used to go to Burns, Ore., at least twice a week. We still go to Payette, Ontario, Weiser, McCall," says Wade Hilliard, now 85, who still comes to work six days a week. "We go to Boise every day, and Nampa and Caldwell."

The store employs about 15 people, not counting carpet-layers and other contractors. Nearly half of the workers are Hilliard family members.

"For the most part, you're dealing with a family when you come to Parma Furniture," Bo Hilliard says. "My wife is in sales. My son and two nephews work here. My sister works here."

Another sister, Susan Wagner, runs People's Furniture, a Weiser offshoot that Wade Hilliard opened two decades ago. It's now an independent business, he says, but "we buy together and we go to furniture shows together."

The company's sales volume has increased every year since it started, Wade Hilliard says, though he declines to disclose figures.

He and his son give much of the credit for the company's name recognition to Janie Farlow. She has been the face of Parma Furniture since the mid-1970s, touting the company's wares throughout the region on local TV stations.

"Where buying is like having a friend at the factory," Farlow says.

The elder Hilliard picked up that slogan from a similar phrase in Thomasville, N.C., a furniture-industry town where he grew up.

CAR SHOPPING AT THE RANCH

Another far-flung business that draws buyers from throughout the region is Mountain Home Auto Ranch. Its radio ad campaign suggests, with a twang, that serious car buyers should head for Interstate 84's Exit 95.

Mountain Home is seven times bigger than Parma, with more than 14,000 people. It is Elmore County's seat and the retail hub for an array of small Elmore and western Owyhee county communities.

"About 40 percent of our business is inside that area, our hometown market," says owner and President Todd McCurry, noting that the nearby Air Force base represents about 12 percent of its sales.

The other 60 percent of customers come farther, motoring from the Treasure Valley to the west and the Magic Valley to the east.

"More of our customers come from Kuna, Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell," McCurry says. "Our business skews very much toward trucks and larger vehicles - an agricultural, outdoor clientele. Anybody who's a Ford and (Dodge) Ram truck dealer in Idaho is going to sell to a rural area."

Virtually all of the Auto Ranch's 54 employees live in Elmore County, he says, and more than half are retired military or veterans.

'HOMETOWN EXPERIENCE'

McCurry and the Hilliards agree that a small-town feel is vital to their success.

At the Auto Ranch, ads promise "no fast talk, no slick deals, just solid value on four wheels."

McCurry says, "We really try to deliver on a hometown experience, and so far people are taking us up on it in spades.

"We focus very, very hard on that. But then the other half is delivering on value. They're not going to drive out here to pay more."

The Auto Ranch ranks in the top 15 car dealerships in Idaho for sales volume, he says. The business averages 120 new and used vehicle sales per month. McCurry declined to disclose sales.

Parma Furniture prides itself on competitive pricing and a wide array of product lines, in addition to a family atmosphere and personalized service, Bo Hilliard says. "I'd say our customer service is up there with the best," he says.

Parma Furniture is constantly bringing new models to its main showroom and moving bedroom sets, appliances and living room furniture that have been around awhile to display in several nearby warehouses.

"We have a wider variety and larger selection than a large retail chain could have," Bo Hilliard says. "We have 20 upholstered lines alone."

Much of Parma Furniture's focus is on U.S.-made products, he says, including Lane, Best Furniture Industries and Catnapper.

Mountain Home Auto Ranch also focuses on American products. It merged two existing Mountain Home dealerships to offer Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models along with Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep.

ORIGINS

Run by McCurry and his wife, Paula, the Auto Ranch is an independent dealership now but has its roots in a big regional chain.

When he acquired Mountain Home's Ford dealership in 1997, McCurry partnered with his father-in-law, Valley vehicle magnate Dennis Dillon.

The Elmore County dealership expanded to include the Chrysler products in 2003. The McCurrys bought Dillon's share in 2008.

A North Carolina native, Wade Hilliard says he came to Idaho in the late 1950s after he fell for a woman from Fruitland. He was managing Globe Furniture in Weiser when he decided to open his own store. He canvassed the area for suitable sites. The business opened March 18, 1961, in a portion of the 3rd Street building it now occupies.

"I thought I'd have a store in Boise by now, but I liked it here," he says. "I wanted to raise my family here."

The community is pretty fond of the Hilliards, too, Parma Mayor Craig Telford says.

"It's a wonderful family and a wonderful business," he says. "He's always employed quite a few local people, and that helps."

Parma has a grocery store, a hardware store and some casual spots to eat, but most of its business base revolves around agriculture and related manufacturing, Telford says. By drawing consumers to Parma from other communities, the furniture store gives a boost to other local businesses.

"If you drive all the way out here to get a couch or a refrigerator, you might as well buy a hamburger or stop by the market," he says.

The store is a major source of identification for a town that remains otherwise unknown to many Valley residents.

"People actually know where Parma is at because of them," Telford says. "They say, that's Parma Furniture - 'a friend at the factory.'"

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Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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