Corporate Partnerships: City Furniture

Familiarity between the UF Warrington College of Business and City Furniture started in the 1960s. Then known as Waterbed City, Keith Koenig spent his summers as a University of Florida business student selling waterbeds out of the back of his truck on the side of 13th St. in Gainesville for the company his brother started. 

Today, that same business has grown to do more than $750 million in revenue, experience expansive growth of new stores and employ more than 2,800 associates.

As City Furniture’s rapid growth continues, it’s led at the top by a powerful group of UF alumni. Of the company’s 20 highest ranking titles, 14 of them are UF Warrington graduates and hold titles like Chief Operating Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Revenue Officer, Head of Sales and both Senior Vice President of Operations.

“Some of it is luck, but some of it is the cream rising to the top,” Koenig said. “We’ve recruited heavily out of UF over many years. We have good relationships with the career team and the business school opened doors for candidates to come in and intern. They’re starting careers here and moving up – they are rising to the top.”

While UF Warrington graduates are playing an integral role in the company’s future, City Furniture is prioritizing its relationship with the college. They fund a professorship, serve as important supporters to the David F. Miller Retail Center and send team members to participate in the Warrington Career Symposium.

City Furniture focuses on recruiting business students every year, and they work directly with business analytics students through a practicum project, giving students a hands-on experience to solve real problems the company is facing. Koenig also serves on the college’s Business Advisory Council.

As City Furniture grows its business, it remains active at the alma mater of its co-founder and chairman.

“It’s well written that to whom much is given, much is expected,” Koenig said. “I think I have an obligation to help out the university but I also feel a great sense of pride that UF is so good. It’s easy to invest time and effort. I’ve gotten more out of it than I put in because I’ve created relationships and learned so much along the way. My efforts have been so rewarding, but it’s also fun.”

KEITH KOENIG (BSBA ’73, MBA ’75) | Co-Founder and Chairman

Through his years of leadership at City Furniture, company culture is a priority for Koenig. Many City Furniture employees spoke specifically to that element being an important part of why they’ve had long careers with the company.

“There’s a smart business leader that said ‘culture eats strategy for lunch’ and they’re right,” Koenig said. “Culture trumps everything. If you have good culture where people respect and value each other and see others working hard, I’ve seen that become a virtuous circle where success follows.”

Through the years of growth, Koenig has always made sure the strong culture stayed in place.

“It reflects my late brother’s values that we want to work in that type of company,” he said. “People say it’s about maximizing profit and they think that’s true regardless of how people feel. The reality is that people perform better where they’re valued. We want a family environment that lasts for generations.”

While there are other Florida universities represented around the company and on its leadership team, Koenig has championed a sense of belonging for his employees. He joked that recent football seasons have been tough for the UF graduates in the office, but being a UF alumnus and hiring so many more is a point of pride for Koenig as he watches his alma mater continue to grow.

“It’s remarkable to think UF is hitting its stride in last 20-50 years against institutions that have been going for well over 100 years,” Koenig said. “We’re rising up the ranks rapidly and it’s a credit to leadership, professors and the fact that Florida is growing so rapidly and producing an abundance of talented young kids. You combine affordability of UF and talent of the kids, there’s no better deal on the planet than UF and Warrington. There’s no question UF is the premier institution in the best state in the country.”

Koenig’s time as an undergraduate business and MBA student at UF helped set him up for success. He’s particularly proud of the way the company has grown from a small family startup into a large, successful company.

“I can’t put it into words, truthfully,” Koenig said. “I’m proud but it’s not just me. Our family started the business with a few thousand dollars my brother saved up. Now we’ve got three-quarters of a billion dollars in revenue, a lot of growth and new stores, 2,800 associates who have meaningful work and good benefits. It’s something I don’t take for granted.”

JAMES CONWAY (BSBA ’08, MAIB ’08) | Chief Retail Officer

James Conway enrolled at UF with hopes of one day following in his sister’s footsteps into a job in finance, but a City Furniture internship in 2005 quickly changed those goals.

The sales internship showed Conway a new career path and the multiple opportunities available for City Furniture employees.

“I got hooked during the internship and decided to come back for a full-time job,” Conway said.

Conway started in the company’s supply chain department. He worked his way up to manager and director of the department before shifting to the merchandising side of the business. After working up to Chief Merchandising Officer, his title shifted to Chief Retail Officer when the ecommerce, marketing, sales and supply chain departments were moved under him.

He looks back at his time at UF Warrington as one that played an integral role in getting him where he is today.

“I was around likeminded individuals with the same drive and passion,” Conway said. “At UF, everyone wants to be successful and has worked hard already to get there. They have infectious drive to have great careers and that made me want to do the same. When you’re spending time with people with that kind of drive, it rubs off on you. The quality of student body was great, and it challenged me to be better.”

In his Chief Retail Officer role, Conway is responsible for building teams that are involved in the day-to-day operations under him. He’s directly involved in recruiting from colleges around the state, especially UF, and is often on campus for recruiting events.

“We recently had a list of 15 UF students we liked and hired two of them,” Conway said. “They’re future directors or VPs at City. We’re there to create our team for tomorrow, and there’s no other place I want to get them from than UF. It’s a perfect spot for us to get future senior leaders that have a big impact. I haven’t seen that from any other school in the south.”

As UF Warrington graduates succeed at City Furniture, the number of UF alumni employed continues to grow. Conway said half of the directors under him are UF graduates. In some departments, that number is higher. The number of UF graduates at the company also includes his twin brother, William (BSBA ‘08), who is the Chief Operating Officer.

“There’s a good network of Gators here,” Conway said. “There’s trust and respect from people who experienced the same education you did and worked hard to do it.”

JEFF AMANN (BA ’05) | Retail Enablement Senior Manager

Jeff Amann never expected to end up at the City Furniture booth at a University of Florida career fair in 2005. He spent most of his time speaking with recruiters for hotels, aiming to get his foot in the door for his first job.

He was surprised to see a friend working the City Furniture booth and went over to say hi. A short conversation encouraged Amann to attend the company’s information session which turned into him later starting as a management trainee.

More than 18 years later, Amann is still with the company and serves as the Retail Enablement Senior Manager.

Within those 18 years are consistent opportunities for growth. After completing the management in training program, Amann became an assistant manager, followed by promotions to showroom manager and then a general manager over a seven-year span. Amann oversaw six showrooms as a general manager before being promoted to regional director 15 years into his time with the company.

“City has given me great opportunities,” Amann said. “I’ve served many different roles throughout my career that have challenged me and helped me develop personally and professionally. City does a great job developing its talent with a “continuous improvement” mindset mirrored after Toyota.  This management system and philosophy has allowed City to consistently stay ahead of the curve. Even through difficult economic times, such as the 2008 Great Recession and most recently COVID, City Furniture has always found a way to adapt to the current environment and grow.

“Being involved in many of these Continuous Improvement initiatives, I’ve been able to improve my problem solving skills, project management skills and leadership skills.  These opportunities have led to personal growth and advancement for me at City and have shaped me into the leader I am today.”

While a student at UF, Amann was also a pole vaulter on the UF track and field team for two years. Aside from the memories of competing in the orange and blue, it also helped him learn skills that benefit him today.

“I had the sports side where I had to be diligent with time management to balance my sports commitments and my academic commitments,” Amann said. “UF is a great school, and working through both of those things really helped me learn how to manage my time.”

Amann’s story of a UF alumnus starting with City Furniture and working their way up is not unique within the company. The same story exists across different levels of management because City Furniture has prioritized its people, helping them grow and learn on the job then promoting them when they’ve proven ready for the next challenge.

Combining those opportunities with a strong culture is an important reason why the company is led by so many Gators. Koenig’s leadership at the top and commitment to a positive culture also plays an important role.

“City has been great to us, and on the flip side, we’ve done well by City,” Amann said. “Our culture is a culture of people first. Keith and Andrew have frequently invited me and many others into their homes for get-togethers and dinners. It’s a unique environment where you have a big business with more than 3,000 employees, but it feels like a smaller family business because of how they treat people. They are both great visionaries with strong values, the kind of people you don’t mind going the extra mile for.”

RACHEL WEINBAUM (BSBA ’15, MIB ’16) | Director of Operations

Rachel Weinbaum started her career with other companies before joining City Furniture as Director of Operations.

Weinbaum was a distribution intern at Target during her junior year at UF, which turned into a full-time role after she graduated. The draw to be a manager at 21 years old was a good opportunity, and she enjoyed learning the distribution side of the company. After two years working in South Georgia with Target, Weinbaum wanted to be closer to family in south Florida and took a job in Boca Raton with US Foods. She worked for two years on improving their operations.

That’s when she was contacted by a City Furniture recruiter for a Senior Operations Manager role. After interviewing with multiple other UF graduates, Weinbaum got the job and has stayed in the department since.

“City is such a family business, and there’s a lot of comfort in that,” Weinbaum said. “It’s a great place to work.”

As the Director of Operations, Weinbaum oversees a team of 120 people that focus on customer pickup at warehouses, domestic and export shipping, repair and inventory. She also helps with the City Furniture internship program, which takes a majority of its students from the UF Warrington College of Business.

Before interviewing for her initial position, Weinbaum didn’t know how many UF graduates she would encounter at City Furniture. She interviewed with COO and UF alumnus Will Conway and had an immediate connection because of their shared alma mater. That connection has continued with many other Gators at City Furniture.

“There are so many of us here,” Weinbaum said. “We talk about football together and talk about Gainesville. It always makes you feel more comfortable in conversation.”

Weinbaum’s time earning her bachelor’s and master’s at UF Warrington stands out because of the hands-on learning she experienced. A trip with the Master of International Business program to South Korea was one highlight, but there were many other chances for her to learn what professional life would be like.

“It was a very well rounded experience with a little bit of everything,” Weinbaum said. There were so many companies that came and talked to us. It was informative to gain knowledge about every aspect of a company to explore what career path to take.”