“After we finished her project, she gave me $2 and it made my day,”
Once in a while, you hear a story of someone who started out in an entry-level job, and with a combination of timing, talent and passion, worked their way up to become a successful businessman and entrepreneur.
You’ve heard the Walt Disney-style story before. In this case, the young man started as college warehouse worker. Later on, it was warehouse management, then onto to furniture store management, then on to sales, finding success. From there, he became an entrepreneur and founder of several businesses, eventually making millions in the home furnishings industry.
This man is Robert “Bob” James O’Neill, today considered a foremost expert in the field.
O’Neill said he credits his success to a good upbringing that instilled in him “a cocky attitude and a confidence that I could do anything I tried to do if I worked hard and applied myself to it,” O’Neill said.
That good upbringing was growing up in Jersey City, N.J., as the son of a plumber and teacher-turned-homemaker. O’Neill was the fifth of seven children and the oldest boy.
Both O’Neill’s athletic prowess and business savvy showed up early in life. He played baseball with friends in a vacant lot across the street from his home at 97 Danforth Avenue, playing pick-up games “from early in the day till it got too dark to see the ball,” he said.
It ended up paying big dividends for him, as he would eventually get a full scholarship to play college baseball at the University of Georgia.
While playing baseball as a kid, O’Neill noticed crowds gathering at a local cemetery around the traditional holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day to pay respects to the deceased. Many of those buried at the cemetery were WWII veterans or parents whose children visited often.
When O’Neill went to see what was going on one day like this, a woman asked if O’Neill, then around age 12, would help her plant some flowers on a grave. She had a small shovel and some flowers, and he told her he would be glad to help.
“After we finished her project, she gave me $2 and it made my day,” O’Neill said. “I ran home and got the watering can and garden tools and as they say the rest is history. Being it was Saturday during Memorial Day weekend, I came back out on Sunday and Monday. The total take for the weekend I believe was around $25 and I was a very happy young entrepreneur.”
Subsequent trips to the cemetery reaped even bigger dividends as O’Neill started buying his own potted plants in bulk to sell to visitors, which increased his profits further.
“In retrospect I realized just how lucky I was to have an empty lot across the street from my house where one could play baseball, and how lucky I was to live one block from the cemetery where I could earn money and learn business at an early age,” O’Neill said.
With these lessons in mind, O’ Neill headed to the University of Georgia in 1966, where he played baseball on scholarship and attended the Henry Grady School of Journalism, graduating with a degree in Advertising and Public Relations in 1970.
Each summer during college, O’Neill would return home to New Jersey and work at Koos Brothers Furniture at their Linden, N.J. warehouse. At first it was simply unloading box cars and truckloads of incoming furniture freight, but it eventually led to going on deliveries in the NJ, NY and PA areas.
“During my five-year tenure I learned a lot about the furniture business and a lot about life,” O’Neill said.
From Koos, O’Neill moved on to work at Rhodes Furniture in the Atlanta area, first in sales, then management. While working at Rhodes, he noticed several independent furniture reps driving nice cars and wearing nice clothing, so he said to himself that that was where the money was in the industry, and made sure to talk with them as his career mentors.
After two years with Rhodes, he left the retail furniture business in 1972 to become an independent furniture rep for the state of Georgia. In addition to selling for furniture manufacturers, he also sold closeouts and opportunity buys for various suppliers.
Eventually O’Neill took on a sales management role with Rosalco, Inc., the fast-growing furniture importer of the time, growing from $5M to $48M in sales from 1976 to 1996.
In 1980, O’Neill sourced daybed covers from Southern Textiles to pair with Rosalco’s first imported metal daybeds from China ever sold in the United States.
That led a a business relationship with Southern Textiles, where in due time Bob and his son Rob wound up with the majority ownership of Southern Textiles, while also growing the closeout furniture business at his company, The Monday Company, founded in 1976 after a particularly successful month of sales.
O’Neill shared that he was going to name The Monday Company after himself, but his attorney advised him to keep his name out of it, should he ever sell and something negative happen to the company. So he named the company The Monday Company because, well, it was a Monday.
In 2004, O’Neill sold his majority ownership interest in Southern Textiles to Leggett & Platt. He stayed with L&P to run the Southern Textiles division until he retired in 2014 to continue with the Monday Corporation and to serve on Retail Service System’s advisory board.
O’Neill has a few pieces of advice for today’s entrepreneurs. While he agrees that it’s much tougher to be an entrepreneur in today’s fast-paced world than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, he said what’s most important is to “just go for it.” He also stressed that always having a second option in mind or a second non-competing type of business available is important.
“You don’t want to bet the farm. Never get backed into a corner that gives you no other options,” O’Neill said. Between business interests early on in his career at Rosalco, Southern Textiles and The Monday Company, “I had somewhere else to go, something else to do. I wasn’t locked into any one thing,” he said.
And one thing that O’Neill remains especially proud of to this day is how well he was able to treat his employees over the years.
“Put it on my gravestone: Bob O’Neill never missed a payroll and never paid minimum wage.”