From idea to startup: Entrepreneur changes business model repeatedly, then finds niche

“Skilled at calling audibles” might as well be on Brian Hunt’s business card.

And that penchant for making adjustments on the fly – like a quarterback seizing an opportunity – is why his small business is thriving.

The Fort Mill, S.C., company, called FOB, acts as a contractor of sorts, overseeing the manufacturing, delivery and installation of custom furniture for off-campus student housing and multifamily complexes.

Over the next 90 days alone, FOB (named for “Freight on Board,” an old shipping term) will store, deliver and install more than 100,000 pieces of furniture – everything from headboards to couches, privacy walls to kitchen tables – around the nation and in Canada.

Much of the furniture is “tech-ready,” such as wooden bed frames with built-in outlets and nightstands with charging stations.

Just 11 years ago, however, Hunt, now 44, was running a different show. He co-owned a company known as World Ship that offered logistics services to stateside furniture suppliers that had moved their production overseas “and were new to importing,” Hunt said.

But when one of the importing companies went out of business before paying for a large shipment of furniture – already in transit from Asia to Charleston’s port – Hunt did the unexpected: He bought the furniture himself.

Wholesaler to retailer: Hunt’s plan was to store the shipment of high-end residential furniture in a Charlotte warehouse, then offer the pieces wholesale to independent retailers, such as (now-defunct) Mecklenburg Furniture and the Purple Picket Furniture Co.

The side business grew increasingly lucrative so, in 2006, Hunt left the logistics company to focus solely on FOB.

But soon after, many of the independent retailers Hunt sold furniture to went out of business. And once again, he had truckloads of goods and no one to buy them.

“(The business) really had to change out of necessity,” said Hunt, who then called another audible: opening to the public the “really run-down” Pineville warehouse where he’d been storing the furniture.

This time, he’d sell directly to consumers.

So he invested in advertising, delivery trucks, credit card payment systems, and eventually, a better location in South End, where the nearby light rail made for more foot traffic.

No more ‘grandma’s couch’: While in South End, Hunt met an interior designer who’d just won a contract to furnish the clubhouse of an off-campus student apartment complex. She came to Hunt for much of the furniture and also asked whether she could store the other items she was purchasing at Hunt’s facility. She then hired FOB to install them.

During the process of outfitting the clubhouse, Hunt got to know the company that built and operated the complex, Campus Crest, which is based in the SouthPark area and builds off-campus student housing in markets across the U.S. and in Canada. In 2007, the business started offering apartments that were fully furnished.

“No longer do you have to rent a U-Haul and bring grandma’s couch,” Hunt said.

Seeing yet another opportunity, Hunt agreed to be the furniture contractor for Campus Crest, overseeing the manufacturing, delivery and installation.

Saving time, money: Now that FOB works primarily with companies that own off-campus student housing, much of their business is seasonal, bumping Hunt’s employee count from 14 to 150 during June, July and August.

A vital part of FOB’s business strategy – and value proposition – is meeting deadlines. (After all, residents can’t move in without furniture, Hunt said.) And because FOB’s average project involves about 7,000 pieces of furniture, Hunt developed a delivery system with fewer variables: having the furniture shipped directly to the city with the complex and storing the furniture in rented warehouse space there.

By bypassing the need to have the furniture unloaded at the Fort Mill warehouse, then reloaded and shipped, Hunt says he shaves fuel and labor costs, a total savings of about 20 percent.

So while FOB’s footprint is only about 17,000 square feet in Fort Mill – Hunt had to relocate from South End for more space – the company has short-term leases on about 250,000 square feet nationwide, from North Dakota to Arizona, Texas to Washington State.

As for managing the far-flung operations? Said Hunt, laughing: “We’re all ‘Chairman’s Preferred’ with US Airways frequent-flier miles.”