Ackerman & Sons: Family's Furniture Craftsmanship Spans Five Generations
German immigrant and master cabinetmaker started his business 122 years ago, focused on quality over economy
Ackerman & Sons Furniture Workshop sits in a nondescript strip mall off South Santa Fe Drive and Belleview Avenue in Littleton, one of those places a commuter could pass a thousand times and never notice. The inside of the shop is decidedly more interesting. And the sign out front, while making it clear this is a family business, barely scratches the surface of how far back in the family it goes, which is five generations and 122 years.
Owner Mike Ackerman, the great-great-grandson of the founder, winds his way through a maze of chairs, dressers, cabinets and couches in need of repair or restoration. On a shelf, he spots a phonograph and its horn that needs re-attaching. An inscription indicates this Eureka phonograph won a grand prize at the Paris Grand Exposition of 1900 and was exhibited at the St. Louis Exposition, or World’s Fair, in 1904.
“Pretty cool,” Ackerman says. But it’s not the most historically significant restoration project to pass through the shop. That distinction probably goes to a small liquor box or “cellarette” brought in by a customer whose uncle’s grandfather, a government employee in Washington, D.C., regularly played poker with Andrew Jackson and, the story goes, won the cellarette in one such game, likely in the early 1800s.
“A piece like that is maybe very important to American history, but it’s also really important to the owner,” Ackerman says. “But not any more important than grandma’s rocking chair that’s only 60 years old. Those pieces have family value. There’s nothing like taking a chair like this and making it new again. And then giving it back to somebody. They tear up. I make grown men cry every month. It’s the best feeling in the world to give people their pieces back.”
Mike Ackerman’s appreciation for family histories understandably includes his own, and how this fifth-generation business began in 1895. His great-great-grandfather, a German immigrant and master cabinetmaker, initially supported his young family on the outskirts of Minneapolis by farming and doing odd jobs for his nearest neighbor, an undertaker.
At some point, as Ackerman tells it, the conversation between the undertaker and his worker turned to the variety coffins offered, or lack thereof. “You’re burying everybody in these pine boxes,” the young immigrant said to his employer. “I could build you a really nice coffin for the display out front.”
“So they cut down a walnut tree and had it milled, and he built this guy a solid walnut casket with a velvet interior, the whole thing,” Ackerman says. “They put it in the window, and from that point on, nobody wanted to bury their loved ones in pine boxes. So he started building caskets, made enough money to buy a little shop down the block and opened a furniture store.”
While Ackerman exudes pride in the workmanship his 27-employee shop produces, he allows that it doesn’t come cheap.
“I pay every craftsman well, because they’re craftsmen,” he says. “We have to pay people what they’re worth. And we do. No, we’ve never been known as the cheapest. But I wouldn’t want to take my furniture to the cheapest.”
That emphasis on quality over economy becomes apparent later when he points out a Louis XIV cabinet dating back to New Orleans when it was a French territory. The cabinet was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“It’d be 10 grand to repair this,” Ackerman says. “We’d have to hire an expert metalworker just to cut all the brass down and refit it.” The cabinet’s owner lives in Denver and inherited the piece when her uncle died. “It’s waiting until we know what to do with it. We have a 300-year-old French piece sitting, waiting for instructions.”
Ackerman, 44, grew up working in the shop, learning all aspects of the business, but as an only child he says he resisted the expected path – joining the business and someday taking it over. After college, he worked in advertising for 12 years, but came to view it as “soulless.” So eight years ago, he joined his father, Jim, at Ackerman & Sons. Now he can’t imagine doing anything else.
A year ago this month, Mike bought the business from his father. “He was starting to make all the decisions by then anyway,” says Jim, who is adjusting to the change after 46 years at the helm. “It’s difficult. I walk in one morning and there’s a lady standing in the office. I set my things down and I ask her, ‘Can I help you?’ And she says, ‘Oh, no thanks. I’m waiting for the owner.’ So at that point, I felt two emotions. One, I felt like I’d lost something. You lose a baby that you started from scratch. But at the same time, I felt so proud that he’d just stepped in and taken over … as the owner.”
Jim, 69, remains involved as CFO. His wife, Kathy Ackerman, owns and operates an outdoor furniture restoration business in the same building called Open Air Chair Repair. “It’s a good tie-in business for us,” Mike says.
Jim grew up in Minnesota, the oldest of eight kids. All four boys followed in the family business. Jim, the lone son to opt for college after high school, set up shop in Kathy’s hometown of Denver because there was no room for him in the business back home after he got his degree in 1970.
Today, his brothers or their offspring run Ackerman shops in Minneapolis and Chicago.
Mike says Ackerman & Sons tends to furniture the same way previous generations of his family did. Jim Ackerman makes it clear the work is done with the same mindset, too.
“My grandfather told me the sign of a good company isn’t that they never make a mistake. Because every company, no matter how good, is going to make a mistake,” he says. “It’s how they handle their mistakes. So we always make things right for the customer if there’s any way humanly possible.”