The long Goodbye 

Fleming Fine Furniture will soon close its doors. And this time it's for keeps.

PHOTO BY JANEL DAVIS
Jim Fleming
Fleming Fine Furniture, the local family-owned company that's been in operation for 56 years, is going out of business. No more commercials with talking computers, furniture-selling Santas, and kids bouncing on beds. No more sidewalk sales, price-matching promotions, and warranty offers. And, of course, no more Flemings on the local tube. We've heard it all before, haven't we?

Not quite. This time the sale is for real and the company will close its doors in less than three months. "I was [in the furniture business] 37 years and only had three or four rough years. The other 33 were good and that's a pretty good career," says owner Jim Fleming. "Even though it didn't end good, we certainly achieved a lot along the way." According to Fleming, those achievements included being the first furniture company to have air-conditioned stores, same-day furniture delivery, and television advertisements.

Fleming's eyes light up as he tells stories of his family's company. Seated on a sofa marked with price-reduction tags, which will be sold to help pay off the company's debts, he laughs as he remembers the first pieces the store sold and the early television commercials. "It's been a good run," he says, sighing, "but we weren't able to do it any longer."

The Golden Years

Fleming Fine Furniture started with some ingenuity and a lot of luck. The family patriarch, Partee, returned to Memphis after World War II and began an Army surplus wholesale business with his brother Bill (a third brother was shot down over Italy during the war) under the name Fleming Industries. The brothers set up shop on street corners and in empty lots with merchandise in the back of a pickup truck. The business grew to include furniture, and the first Fleming store opened in 1946 (the year Partee's son Jim was born) at South Third Street and East Bodley Avenue. Partee, along with his wife, Anita, brother, and sister-in-law expanded the company to three stores. Business was good and customers, who had known Partee as a high school academic and athletic standout, were loyal to Memphis' furniture family.

Partee's Humes High School class of 1935 voted him "Best All-Around Boy" during his senior year. As editor of the school paper, member of the debate team, wrestling team, water polo team, ROTC, and student council treasurer, Partee was no stranger to hard work. He also won the prep school wrestling and boxing championships and was selected the most valuable high school football player in West Tennessee by The Commercial Appeal in 1934. Partee was probably the most famous student to attend Humes before being upstaged by Elvis Presley in 1948. After graduation, Partee went to Vanderbilt University, graduated in 1939, and became a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean and an English teacher at Wallace University School in Nashville before entering the war.

In addition to building a furniture business, Partee created Partee Cove in Memphis' Cherokee neighborhood, where he lived for 21 years. Anita was known for her philanthropic work within the Catholic community. She and Partee donated land for the Church of the Holy Spirit on Hickory Crest Drive in 1975. For her more than 25 years of volunteer service, Anita was named Catholic Woman of the Year in the 1980s.

PHOTO BY JANEL DAVIS
A family affair: Chris Fleming and his father, Jim.
A Family Affair

"I kinda backed into the business," says Jim Fleming. "Dad was closing down and had gone from three stores to one, but I got into [the business] and liked it. He had moved on to other things, like running for mayor (finishing second to Henry Loeb in 1959), real estate, writing books, and radio preaching. I was 18 when I first started." During Jim's first year, the company saw profits of $108,000. Jim reorganized the company and opened other Fleming Furniture locations.

Like his father, Jim, Chris Fleming also backed into the business. At 9 months old, he began appearing in the commercials that made him one of the most recognizable faces in Memphis. What was originally intended to be a onetime appearance of the three generations of Flemings grew into regular commercial spots with Chris as the main character. "The first thing he said in a commercial was 'Buy from me,'" says Jim. "That was all he could say at the time, and he had such appeal that we kept [the commercials] going."

Chris has come a long way from riding on ponies outside the stores during sidewalk sales. "People still find it hard to believe that I've grown up. Even though they've gotten older, they still want to keep me the kid in the commercials," says the 27-year-old husband and father. "Whether people are 20 or 35 they all say they grew up with me."

Chris' brother Joey, 25, also made his acting debut in the Fleming commercials during "price knockout" promotions that featured the brothers as young boxers pitted against each other in "price wars."

"People didn't always like Fleming Furniture commercials," says Jim's wife Lisa. "But Jim said the commercials made people remember the company. They were never meant to be Hollywood quality. They were everyday commercials."

During those years, the company received several Best or Worst Commercial Awards in the Flyer's annual "Best Of Memphis" issue. And Chris and Joey were voted Memphis' most eligible bachelors in various magazine polls. Jim and Lisa also appeared in commercials and came up with the company jingle: "Fleming Fine Furniture Is Thinking of You." Several celebrities also appeared in the spots, including the late Rufus Thomas, Jerry "the King" Lawler, and Willard Scott.

Trouble in Paradise

As the boys were growing, so was the company. But with expansion came loss. In 1984, Partee died at 67. With expansion came expenses which the company couldn't handle. In 1985, Fleming Fine Furniture was forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Business attorney Robert Orians of the firm Martin, Tate, Morrow & Marston, which represented the company, blamed the financial crisis on overexpansion. "We eliminated some of their locations and got back to the two main locations, the Summer Avenue store in Perimeter Center and a location on Mendenhall," he says. The company was able to meet payments on its $3 million debt during a five-year reorganization plan approved by its creditors. "The creditors wanted them to survive," says Orians. "As you know, [Jim] was a big advertiser and was selling a lot of furniture, so of course advertisers wanted him to stay in business as well."

After 1990, the business returned to profitability. According to Jim, the company shipped more furniture than any other furniture retailer in Memphis. Clients included former professional basketball player Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway and former President Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy.

"At our peak, we had eight stores doing $3 million in business each month and $36 million each year," says Jim. During that time, Chris, a Notre Dame graduate, returned to Memphis and the furniture business. A Fleming administrative employee caught his eye, and Chris and Karey married, forming the third generation of couples in the business. "He always told me that working with me was the only thing he wanted to do," says Jim about his son, Chris. "I had an offer to sell out about six or seven years ago and he begged me not to do it. We had the opportunity to work together a few years and thought we'd be doing it the rest of our lives."

PHOTO BY JANEL DAVIS
Left to right: Karey and Chris Fleming (with their children), and Jim and Lisa Fleming.
The End

As the economy took a turn for the worse in recent years, consumers focused more on necessities and furniture purchases were put on hold. Unable to pay its creditors, Fleming Fine Furniture was again forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2001. Orians' firm negotiated an eight-year payment plan in December 2001 for the more than $7 million in unpaid debts. "There were a number of bankruptcies [in the furniture business], from manufacturers to retailers," says Orians. "The industry had been hit hard. That's just how it happens." Other industry companies such as Heilig Meyers, Montgomery Ward, Levitz, and Sears' HomeLife division either were forced to reorganize and close several stores or also file for bankruptcy protection. "With a normal economy we would have been able to meet the payments in the plan, but with a bad economy we weren't able to do it," says Jim.

Bankruptcy records show the company's creditors include Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Tennessee, Mid-South Music, and the Internal Revenue Service.

The repayment plan called for Fleming to make creditor payments beginning in March 2002. The business was able to make some of the payments but by September had fallen behind, says Orians. The company was forced into liquidation mode to repay its debts. Stores were temporarily closed to prepare for a final "survival" sale, which didn't produce enough money to repay the debts. The company was unable to secure credit to fill customer orders and permanent closure became inevitable.

"We fought it awful hard the last couple of years," says Jim. "We took care of our customers and gave great buys. Maybe that was our downfall. We always wanted to offer people a deal." Fleming's remaining employees were let go.

In October, a Connecticut liquidation company, Planned Furniture Promotion, was called in to oversee the closing sale. "We brought in about 100 of our employees to close out the company," says sale manager Scott Lerner. He estimates that the sale will finally conclude in February. "Outstanding warranties are being handled and the backlog of customer deliveries is almost complete," says PFP's Bobbie Pine. For customers buying furniture during the going-out-of-business sale, an additional warranty (in addition to the manufacturer's warranty) is being made available through Jondy Chemicals of Somerset, Kentucky.

"I hate to see a family business close that has struggled, had its ups and downs, and been successful before," Orians says. "Fleming Fine Furniture was an institution in Memphis. I've been in Memphis since I was 5 years old and can always remember there being a Fleming Fine Furniture."

After the stores are closed, family members will have to find other work. Chris and Karey Fleming have already moved to Olive Branch, Mississippi, to begin a mortgage lending company; Lisa Fleming will return to her previous career in nursing and sales. But for Jim Fleming it won't be that easy. "At different times in life you have to turn a page to a new chapter," he says. "But this will be a whole new book for me because I've never done anything else. I've given this company everything I had. I've never even had a boss." n

How a "going out of business" sale works

A "sale" sign implies low prices and great deals. But some businesses have used "sales" to entice customers into purchasing imperfect merchandise with misleading purchase agreements and insufficient warranties.

In 1977, the state legislature passed the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act to combat deceptive sales practices. The act regulates everything from honest advertising to the length of sales.

"This law was enacted because people were being misled by advertisements implying that they were going to get a good price on merchandise," says David McCollum, director of the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs. "That's why you had companies going out of business forever and they never did go out of business."

Businesses in Shelby County must obtain going-out-of-business/liquidation-sale licenses from the Shelby County Clerk's Office, Business Tax Division. The $25 license lasts for 30 days and is renewable three times for a total of 120 days. Fleming Fine Furniture's first licenses for its three Memphis locations ran from November 7th through December 7th. The licenses have been renewed for an additional period ending January 8th. If the licenses are renewed for the allowable two additional periods, the company will have until March 10th to end its sale and close its doors.

McCollum's staff scans newspapers to catch unlawful practices. The office sends out letters to businesses claiming to be going out of business to remind them of the laws governing the sale. Although the office does its best to monitor these sales, McCollum advises consumers to ask questions.

Things to remember when shopping a going-out-of-business sale:

· A sale does not guarantee lower prices.

· A sale does not guarantee that deals will be offered.

· Get an understanding of extended warranties and gift certificates. Find out who will handle claims once the business closes.

· Know the law before purchasing any items.

· If you believe a company has violated the Consumer Protection Act, contact the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-342-8385. -- JD

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