Robert Watson Sr.: Head of Hoot Judkins keeping it in the family

If the secret to a successful family business is loyalty, Robert Watson Sr. has set a solid foundation at Hoot Judkins Furniture, a Redwood City-based wood furniture chain.

Watson, who said within a year or two he will give up control of the business to his son or daughter, both graduates of Santa Clara Retail Management Institute, began at the original Hoot Judkins store in San Francisco forty years ago.

“I came to work as a paint mixer,” Watson said. “Soon, I graduated to be a delivery boy.”

Watson moved into management in time to observe a major change that divided the retail furniture industry. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, large manufacturers began building furniture using cheaper particle board or plywood, and pieces were often painted or finished in the factory.

“The paint business for small retailers had really gone down the drain,” Watson said.

Hoot Judkins made the decision to enter the niche of high-end unfinished furniture, a boutique approach Watson said became the only sustainable market for small outlets.

Up until that time, he said, wood furniture sold unfinished was considered low-quality, “put-together-out-of-the-box type of furniture.”

Watson bought Judkins out of his shares of the store and became a key figure in the new market for distinctive furniture products. This year, the national Unfinished Furniture Association decorated Watson with its Distinguished Member Award.

Watson had been a board member and former president of the UFA, which certifies members who sell real wood rather than particle board and runs trade shows, and served on a number of committees.

Hoot Judkins relies for its inventory on small suppliers, mainly in Southern California, Oregon and Washington, Watson said. Dealing with small producers working with real wood allows for more product flexibility, different shapes and cuts, he said, and gives consumers the choice among varieties of finishes.

“With a finished line, you take what you get and it’s usually one color,” Watson said.

The company, with four Bay Area stores and two warehouses, includes 27 employees. Personnel, Watson said, remains the greatest challenge in his business operation, partly because high housing prices in the area make it difficult to recruit and retain young employees.

Watson, 61, looks forward to a retirement spent traveling — he’s already been to all 50 states, most Canadian provinces and more than 50 foreign countries, he said, including Iceland, Greenland and Honduras, where his father lived. But he is not yet quite ready to step aside.

“One thing I’ve really enjoyed in retail furniture business is that when you’re in a small business like that, you’re a jack of all trades,” Watson said. “You’re changing a light bulb or tending to the showroom. That’s what’s in it for me, it’s always very interesting.”

Business

New project: Looking for new South Bay location

Last project: Closing Fremont store

Best perk: Setting my own hours

Gadgets: Plastic pads for sliding furniture

Education: B.S. in accounting, USF

Last Conference: UFA trade show

First Job: Sweeping KSFO traffic man’s airport when 5 years old

Original aspiration: Military

Career objective: Further expand business

Personal

Hometown: Burlingame

Sports/hobbies: Water-skiing

Transportation: 1999 Cadillac Catera

Favorite restaurant: 231 Ellsworth, San Mateo

Computer: Dell

Vacation spot: Tahoe

Clothier: Men’s Wearhouse

Role model: Davey Crockett

Reading: National Geographic’s “Exploring Egypt”

Worst fear: I’m really not one who worries about fear.

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