Discount Furniture legs
''I feel like a fraud sometimes, '' said the private Bob Kaufman. He was relaxing in one of the soft chairs in his Orange store and talking about his double identity. ''I am rather introverted, '' he said. ''People who know me say its amazing when they see me on TV.'' So why does he do the television commercials that force him to change from Introvert Bob to Extrovert Bob? It's simple; they work.
Bob's Discount Furniture was started modestly in 1991 with one store in Newington. The ''Come on Down'' and ''Gotcha'' commercials started in 1992, a disastrous year economically for Connecticut in general.
In the years since, in equally distressing economic times, more stores have been opened and now they total a dozen in Connecticut and two more in western Massachusetts. Last year, Bob's Discount Furniture was rated as the 63d largest furniture company in the nation.
The commercials that have fueled the remarkable growth are about as elemental as can be. They are written and produced by Bob and two others connected to the company, Stan Adelstein and Andy Bricker.
''It's not complicated, '' says Bob. Their studio is an upstairs room in the Manchester Bob's store. They set up an arrangement of furniture, use one camera, some lights, and Bob goes into action. That's it. Occasionally they go on location. A commercial featuring Bob with Carla Berube, a former UConn and now New England Blizzard basketball notable, was shot at East Catholic High School, also in Manchester.
Bob has no illusions about the artistic merits of the commercials but he defends them. ''Who is better to tell about products than someone who believes in them?'' he asks.
He acknowledges that the commercials get a mixed reaction. ''Some people love them and some people hate them. One time, a guy came up to me and I thought he was going to beat me up. 'I hate those ads, ' he said, 'but I like you.' '' Bob says he thinks most people approve of him because of his sincerity about the products he is selling. ''If I had to fake it, I couldn't do it.''
He says he is not dismayed if some people reach for the clicker when he appears. ''We all watch too much television anyway, '' he says. Besides, there is much worse on the tube. ''I heard a statistic the other day that a kid by 18 has seen 18, 000 murders on television.''
He also well knows that ''Come on Down, '' taken shamelessly from the television show ''The Price Is Right, '' is a cliche of cliches by now. ''I hope no one wants to put it on my tombstone.''
When he first decided to appear in the television commercials, one of the least enthusiastic people was his father, Leo Kaufman, who for decades had run an advertising agency in Hartford with many furniture accounts. '' 'Look at you, ' he said. 'And you've got a voice that sounds like chalk on chalk.' '' Today, Leo likes to accompany Bob when he is invited to speak on his career as an entrepreneur.
Bob Kaufman, who is now 45, grew up in West Hartford and was graduated from the University of Connecticut in l974 with a degree in marketing.
His first job was with Radio Shack in Groton. He enjoyed it, he said, but something happened a few years later that was to change his life dramatically.
He was going to a meeting on his motorcycle when he noticed that the gas in one tank was almost depleted. He bent down to switch to the second tank, lost control, and crashed into a pole. His right leg was badly shattered and for a time in danger of being amputated. The leg is still partially paralyzed. He took months to recuperate and had to give up his job with Radio Shack.
He worked in other jobs, including a stint as a supervisor in a factory, but eventually decided to try something else. He had been sleeping on a waterbed, relatively new at the time, because it was supportive of his injured leg. So he became an entrepreneur, in waterbeds.
''I became the waterbed king, '' he says cheerily. He would lease space in stores to sell waterbeds with a proviso that the stores would be paid only when he had his profits. It was a no-risk deal for him and by the end of the 1980's, he had space in 24 stores in four states.
But the waterbed craze was ebbing in the early 1990's when Bob Kaufman and Gene Rosenberg, who had owned a chain of furniture stores and was considered an expert in special promotions, took over a building in Newington where a furniture store had gone into bankruptcy. The building, an early casualty of a growing state recession, became the first Bob's Discount Furniture store, with Mr. Rosenberg owning two-thirds of the business and Bob one-third under an agreement that still exists.
The recession actually helped the business, Bob says today. ''As we got successful, we started to get calls from owners of buildings that were vacant because other stores had gone bankrupt. They wanted to fill them up. The second store was in Windsor, then Middletown, then Willimantic'' and so on.
As the chain has expanded, the stores have became fancier, and more dignified: arrangements of furniture in tasteful patterns, coffee for patrons to sip, freshly baked cookies, huge jars of candies for children.
Bob says he is always amused at the reaction to the stores from people who have seen his antics on television. It's a different world. ''We don't pressure anybody, '' he said. ''We don't have markdown sales. If you buy something today it's the same price tomorrow. Our salespeople don't hover. Some people come in for lunch. We don't care. They'll be back.''
He is also amused by some of the more affluent people who come to his stores to shop but don't tell their neighbors. ''You'd be suprised at how many times someone in Avon or Farmington asks if we can deliver the furniture in an unmarked truck.''
At age 45, the off-camera Bob is a contented man. ''I think I'm the most blessed man in this state, '' he says.