Houston's Gallery Furniture turns its stores into shelters to help hurricane victims

A family rests in a shelter at a Gallery Furniture store during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

Jim McIngvale's furniture store has been in the news a lot the last few days.

As floodwaters rose in Houston and people were forced from their homes, McIngvale opened the doors of Gallery Furniture stores and converted them to shelters, taking in as many as 400 people each in two locations.

Many of the refugees left last night to begin the clean-up of their own homes, so now the focus returns to running a business — but McIngvale says those who are still living out of the store will be welcome to stay "indefinitely."

"Someone said, 'Are you going to be a shelter or a furniture store?'" he says. "There's no reason we can't be both."

Gallery Furniture may not have been on the national radar before Hurricane Harvey, but the company has had a long love affair with Houstonians. Founded in 1981, it has since expanded to three locations and boasts roughly 400 employees. McIngvale, who's better known as Mattress Mack around town, has given away furniture to restore teachers lounges in school, donated extensively to local charities and, since 1983, given away households of furniture to families in need.

"Our business philosophy is ... we all have a responsibility to the well-being of our community," he says. "That's the central theme of our culture here. We know that if we help these citizens when they're in need, they will help us."

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It's a proven philosophy. In 2009 a warehouse fire destroyed $20 million worth of Gallery Furniture's inventory, and McIngvale says the situation was dire. But the community rallied to help the company out.

"We were basically out of business," he says. "People came in the next morning and bought furniture just to keep us going."

Gallery Furniture is a long way from being out of business today. The chain is ranked as the 52nd largest in the country by Furniture Today, with estimated sales of $148.1 million.

We all have a responsibility to the well-being of our community. ... We know that if we help these citizens when they're in need, they will help us.
Jim McIngvale
owner, Gallery Furniture

Now, with Labor Day looming (typically one of the biggest holidays for the furniture industry), it's possible that community will rally again, but McIngvale says the national goodwill he's earned with his philanthropic actions during Harvey will only go so far in helping sales.

"It helps some with people who are community-oriented, but others are just price conscious, so for us the whole thing is about letting people know that whether you're on the right, you're on the left, or right down the middle, American jobs are important, and that's why we carry American-made products."

The loyalty of Gallery Furniture customers is an impressive thing to witness. Even before McIngvale's generosity during the storm became widely known, fans of the store took to social media sites like Reddit to sing his praises.

"Mack's a pimp," wrote one user. "Dude has looked out for Houston with his dime for years. Homegrown and still gives back every chance he gets."

Here's what Houston looked like before and after Hurricane Harvey hit

Part of the trick to earning that sort of loyalty is not always being bottom-line focused. In November, for instance, Gallery Furniture made a bet with customers: Buy a mattress for $2,000 or more and guess the winning political party in the presidential election. If you guess right, you get your money back.

He ended up refunding $10 million (though he says he would have had to refund more if Clinton had won). Two years prior, he paid off $7 million to customers when the Seattle Seahawks beat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.

"My customers are my life," he says. "I spend 12 hours a day talking to customers so they energize me. I try to be real, authentic and genuine. When we make a mistake, we own it."

The company has also made a point to plan ahead. When Harvey was barreling down on the Texas coast, McIngvale and his team planned ahead to act as a possible shelter, though he admits they weren't expecting as many people as they got. The in-store restaurants were stocked, and as the hurricane hit town, 15 company-owned trucks hit the roads to pick up people in need.

Now as the city starts to rebuild, the planning returns to business as usual — selling furniture to customers on moderate, mid-level and high-end budgets. And McIngvale says he's confident about the future.

"We were kind of prepared for the storm, as far as the shelter thing goes," he says. "Now the question is: How do we move the business forward and take advantage of the fact that we're trying to lead the industry? A lot of people appreciate the fact that we're involved in the community. Now we've got to get the message out that we're still open and selling furniture."

Gallery Furniture isn't forgetting those people it housed for the past five days, though.

McIngvale says they're accepting household cleaning-supply donations to give to people who are starting to get their lives back in order.

— By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com

A family rests in a shelter at a Gallery Furniture store during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
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