Executive edge: Jake Jabs

On the walls of the University of Colorado at Denver School of Business are Jake Jabs’ “39 Keys to Business Success.”

“To succeed you have to be willing to fail,” reads one.  “Entrepreneurs don’t do it for the money,” reads another. And, “Have a passion for what you do. Love your job.”

Last summer Jabs – the founder and CEO of American Furniture Warehouse – donated $10 million to establish the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship, the largest single donation in CU-Denver’s history.

“It just seemed that there was a need for an interest in entrepreneurship,” Jabs said. “When you lose your job at 50 years old, where do you go? What do you do? So I figured there is more interest in entrepreneurship today because of all the high unemployment, people going broke and filing for bankruptcy.”

He says his business philosophy is a result of growing up in Lodgegrass, Mont., one of nine children born to immigrant beet farmers.

“My mother was from Russia and my dad from Poland.  They came over with the shirts on their backs and were sharecroppers,” Jabs said. “We lived off the land and had two sets of clothes – one in the wash and the one that we were wearing.”

His father was drafted into the Russian Army in 1916 and witnessed first-hand Lenin’s communist takeover in 1917.

“He saw rich people killed off, educators killed off and would always say, ‘Don’t love money,’” Jabs recalled. “So I never did it for the money.  Money was the byproduct of doing a lot of volume. If you do a lot of volume, you can make money, so I started to do volume and could do it cheaper than anyone.”

He oversees operations of 12 stores in Colorado and this fall opened his first out-of-state shop – a 600,000-square-foot store in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert, Ariz.

“Entrepreneurs must be willing to take risks. At my age, I’m taking a risk going outside of Colorado, but it’s been very successful with no advertising,” said the 82-year-old Jabs. “My goal was to only advertise using social media and we’ve been very, very busy.”

In the Colorado market, Jabs is known for his television commercials, which in earlier years featured exotic animals crawling on furniture. The idea of using animals originated when he and his wife gave their three daughters a puppy one Christmas.

“Everybody loves a puppy, so they said I should put the puppy on TV,” said Jabs, who became flooded with calls from people who wanted him to use their pets in his commercials. Among the calls was an Evergreen animal handler who had a baby tiger.

“My secretary always wanted to pet a baby tiger, so she conned me into bringing a baby tiger into the store,” Jabs said. “I saw a lot of interest in exotic animals versus domestic animals, so that’s how that got started.”

Jabs’ first venture into retail came shortly after he graduated from Montana State University and opened a music store in downtown Bozeman, Mont.

“I started selling TVs and appliances in trying to expand the music store, and I found out everyone needed furniture, but not everyone needed a guitar,” Jabs said. “The secret to the free enterprise system is finding a need and then fulfilling that need. I still use that formula today with my buying. Whatever the consumer needs, that’s what we buy.”

As he sits in his office outside the Center for Entrepreneurship that bears his name, Jabs says he has no plans to retire.

“Retirement is for old people,” said Jabs. “Retiring is pretty boring.”