CEO of Friedman’s Home Improvement in Sonoma County reflects on business in its 75th year

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This June, Barry Friedman will mark eight years serving as CEO of Friedman’s Home Improvement, a family business that has grown from its flagship store in Santa Rosa to stores in Petaluma, Sonoma and Ukiah, as well as a distribution yard in Windsor.

The third-generation family operation this month is celebrating 75 years in business and is marking the milestone with a book about its history, called “The Friedman’s Way,” that will be given for free to team members and customers.

Friedman, 42, co-owns the home-improvement retail outfit with his father, Bill Friedman, who serves as chairman.

Company revenue in 2018 was $190 million, followed by $194 million in 2019. The business hit a snag early last year as the pandemic unfolded, but closed out 2020 with revenue of $203 million.

Friedman noted he never felt pressured to work in the family business and was encouraged to carve out his own path. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Friedman drove to Montana and worked on a dude ranch before heading further east to work on the pit crew at NASCAR. He returned several years later and joined the family business.

Friedman lives in Santa Rosa with his wife, Heidi, and their four children, ranging in age from 7 to 13 years old.

The Business Journal talked with him about his path to the top spot in the family business, how he’s managed the operation during the coronavirus pandemic, prospects for the next generation of owners and where the enterprise is headed next.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

When did you first get involved in the family business?

I remember being 8 years old and wanting something from a store at one point and my mom saying, “Well, maybe you should go to work with your dad and then you can have that thing.” So I would spend either weekends or breaks from school working at the store in Santa Rosa. I was bagging for customers and getting carts out in the parking lot, and then doing other small tasks in the store. I was taking it seriously and getting paid, which was awesome.

As I grew older, I took on different roles within the organization, working in our lumber yard and as a cashier. And then in college, when I would come home from school, I would take on even more roles.

What did you do after college?

I always knew from a young age that someday I would be a part of Friedman’s. I just didn't know when. I wanted to work at Nike (after graduating) because they were in the Portland area, but when I graduated in 2001, they had a hiring freeze. So I decided to take a leap of faith, and I drove out to Montana.

I wanted to do something other than retail, and I wanted to do something more adventurous. So I got a job at a guest ranch, which is kind of like a dude ranch. I actually worked in the food-service side at first, and then I got into the business side and was doing vacation sales, which was fun. That summer, I was also a whitewater raft guide on the Gallatin River.

That is definitely adventurous. Where did you head next?

I worked on a NASCAR pit crew out in North Carolina for Biagi Brothers Racing, which is a local connection. Fred Biagi of Biagi Brothers, who lives in Santa Rosa, had a race team and had offered for me to go and help out. I thought it was going to be a short-term gig (but) I ended up staying two years.

How did these experiences help shape your future?

I got to see the country by traveling with this race team and learned about an industry that was totally foreign to me. But I was able to apply some of the things that I had learned either in school or working at Friedman's, and was able to be an asset to the team. I was the jackman on the pit crew and then worked in the shop during the week.

I think being on this race team allowed me to see the country and get a perspective of the life that I wanted to live. I wanted to have a family, and I wanted to work in the family business.

When did you start your career at Friedman’s?

I came back in 2004 and basically started back at square one. I went through the new-hire orientation and I did everything that a new team member would go through. I continued to work my way up and then started to be involved in some leadership conversations, and just being more exposed to some of the higher-level decision-making and strategies.

How would you describe yourself as a leader and decision-maker?

I’m very collaborative. I want to hear other people's perspectives and I want to understand. … I try to look at all aspects of decisions that I make and be thoughtful in how we approach them.

I also feel like because I've been in this business a long time, since I was 8 years old, I have a strong gut … I see things or sense things. But I also love to balance that with data as well.

How have your employees responded during the pandemic?

We’ve had a mixed response. Some people were not comfortable, especially at the beginning when there was not a lot of information. So one of the things that we did for those that were not comfortable was offer them extended leave. We reduced our store hours at the beginning so that we knew we could still remain open (with fewer team members).

Some people did return once they felt comfortable and saw we put safety at the forefront, and some people, for whatever their circumstance was, decided that maybe retail wasn’t for them.

If you could give one piece of advice to a business owner, what would it be?

It’s all about people, no matter what business you’re in. One of the things I’ve learned is to make sure that the talent in the people you bring into your business are aligned with your values.

What are your thoughts about your children one day taking over the family business?

My kids actually have shown interest in wanting to get involved. They like going to the stores and have helped out for special events. But I have not involved them in the same way that I was when I was a kid, and I think part of that is times have changed.

But my (13-year-old) son wants to save up for his first car, and he’s chomping at the bit to get involved and wants to work. So I'm trying to figure out the best way to help introduce him to the business.

How do you view Friedman’s future now that it has reached its 75-year milestone?

There are a lot of people that helped Friedman's get to this point. It started with my grandfather and his brother, and there's so many people along the way that helped us get here.

It’s still family owned, which is great. Whether or not my family wants to be involved, it's important to perpetuate this legacy that started for the community, for our team members and for our customers that rely on us.

I happen to be the steward right now helping to bring Friedman's into the next era, and help define that for us, but there will be people after me. We’re not done.

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Read more in-depth interviews with business leaders from around the North Bay.

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