AN ENTREPRENEURIAL OPTIMIST WITH A PASSION FOR GROWTH
40 Questions with Erik Mueller
Erik Mueller Steps Up as the Second Retail Chair of ICFA
“As a dedicated ambassador for our wonderful industry, my objectives are to increase awareness, drive interest and heighten the value of membership,” said Erik Mueller. As President and CEO of Watson’s and Founder and CEO of Plank & Hide Co., he brings a unique perspective to his new role as Chair of the Board of Directors of the International Casual Furniture Association (ICFA).
Erik’s tenure in 2023 features several milestones, including celebrating the organization’s 65th anniversary and the relocation of the Casual Market from Chicago to Atlanta this July. “These events highlight the significance of our industry’s legacy and create excitement about its future,” said Erik. “This anniversary compels us to reflect on the fine folks that put so many years into building up, investing in and giving back to the ICFA. The move to AmericasMart in Atlanta allows us to showcase every manufacturer in a new light, with innovative and exciting ways for retailers to shop.”
The son of a casual furnishings veteran and father to two children who have joined him in the business, Erik acknowledges the value of honoring the past while expanding the influence of the casual furnishings industry into the future. His entrepreneurial bona fides include growing the 54-year-old Watson’s stores that his father, Jim Kathmann, and partner Don Oeters, bought from the original owner in 1985 into 28 corporate and franchise stores. Subsequently, nine years ago, he founded Plank & Hide, a lifestyle outdoor and entertainment furniture design and distribution company with 250 retail customers, headquartered with Watson’s in Cincinnati.
“If you have been in any business for 30 years and had any success, it prepares you for the future. Starting my career working with my dad, an inspirational leader, mentor and friend, afforded me direct contact with a range of industry leaders and entrepreneurs like him. They became friends and trusted colleagues. Through the years, I have experienced almost everything: buying a company, going into debt, facing strong sales years and some recessions. I learned how to grow and manage a business, be financially responsible, and navigate effectively through good times and bad. I have benefitted exponentially by connecting with those sharing the same challenges and successes. When Steve Elton (outgoing Chair of the Board) invited me to become Vice Chair, I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about ICFA to help promote the benefits across diverse sectors of our industry.”
While he places the networking advantages at the top of the long list of membership benefits, Erik is extremely pleased by the educational resources provided through the ICFA’s annual education conferences, seminars, and webinars. “Jackie and her team do an exceptional job of identifying business owners’ interests and presenting knowledgeable speakers. They focus on topics like reaching consumers through digital channels, efficient back-office systems, new employment regulations and innovative training processes.”
“We need to ask, ‘What else can we offer to make our organization more attractive to a broader audience?’ We’re working on a credit card program, identifying consumer financing opportunities and have posted a list of the 10 top benefits for industry categories on our website at https://www.icfanet.org/why-join-icfa/ for a full explanation. We will continue to add more,” said Erik.
“The COVID years have been tough,” he said. “We still have supply issues, labor difficulties and inflation facing us, but we’re in a much better place now to recruit new members. Expansion of our base requires energetic outreach to younger people, under-represented regions of the country and any business that makes, sources, sells, buys or supports our industry. These include direct-to-consumer, digital and catalog marketers, mass merchandisers and full-line retailers. Through this diversification of effort – creating awareness of the benefits of membership across new sectors through strategic, targeted outreach – we can expand our perspective and influence for every individual, company and the entire casual and outdoor industry.”
Changing demographics also make Erik optimistic about the future. “The Millennials’ demand for a work/life balance, concern for the environment and focus on family and friends are in complete alignment with casual outdoor lifestyle our industry helps create and promote.” Erik is confident in the next generation’s dynamic role in the industry’s evolution. His 25-year-old son, Erik Mueller, Jr., is in Marketing at Watson’s, while his 23-year-old daughter, Megan, focuses on Visual Merchandising. His youngest son, Mason, is a sophomore majoring in Entrepreneurship at the University of Dayton.
Cincinnati-born and raised, Erik met Shelley, his wife of 26 years, during their freshman year at college. They enjoy spending time with family and cheering on the UC Bearcats and the Bengals. When he has time, Erik works on improving his golf game.