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Updated: June 15, 2020 On the record

On the Record: Jennifer Levin took a 'leap of faith' in acquiring Chilton Furniture

woman seated in wooden chair Photo / Tim Greenway Jennifer Levin, president and co-owner of Chilton Furniture Co., photographed at the showroom in Freeport, says that some pieces in the catalog are value-oriented, while others are heirloom quality.

Jennifer Levin is president and co-owner of Chilton Furniture Co., a retailer of handmade wood furniture that she and her husband bought in 2014. It has showrooms in Freeport and Scarborough and employs 15 people.

Mainebiz caught up with the lawyer-turned-entrepreneur to find out what changes she’s made since taking the helm and what’s on the horizon.

Mainebiz: How did you get from practicing law in New York to furniture retail in Maine?

Jennifer Levin: When my husband and I moved to Maine, we were looking for a change of pace — we wanted to have a simpler life after living in New York for 20 years. I am from New England originally and felt I needed to get back.

MB: What about Chilton Furniture attracted you?

JL: When I was looking for a business to buy on Google, I came across a daycare center, which jumped out at me, because I love to cook and it had a bakery attached. Then my husband looked at the same page and found Chilton Furniture, and we both knew right away that would be great. We both enjoy decorating, and that made a lot more sense. Since we knew nothing about the furniture, it helped that it was a turnkey operation already running with two managers, so we came in and observed for the first year. We had a lot to learn, and I will probably always be learning.

MB: Was it easier to take an existing business than starting one from scratch?

JL: Taking an existing business — one that is much bigger than I could ever imagine — is a leap of faith. I didn’t know all the employees or managers, so you’re basically putting all of your faith in a lot of people to run a business, which is scary. There’s no real way to know initially if everyone is on the same page, and my vision of where I wanted this company to go absolutely did not match everybody’s vision. Not every employee has stayed with us, but over time our team has coalesced around the same principles.

MB: How is Chilton different today than when you bought it?

JL: First of all, we renovated the Freeport showroom and changed the physical appearance. We also changed the website, but most importantly we’ve created a large collection of original, authentic furniture designs.

MB: What is your price point?

JL: We have a range of prices, so I would say upper middle. Some pieces are value-oriented, while others are heirloom quality. We also as of recently are offering a 0% third-party financing option, which makes our furniture even more broadly accessible.

MB: Where is your furniture made?

JL: Everything has always been made in America, but when we bought Chilton about 27% was made in Maine. That’s now up to 60% in a few short years, after a big effort on our part.

MB: How did you go about finding local woodworkers?

JL: We expanded production at our pre-existing partner workshops in Buxton and Farmington. Our furniture designer also recently joined forces with two friends and former colleagues to set up an independent workshop in Lewiston called Square Manufacturing Co., which now gives us an even greater capacity to produce in Maine.

MB: What’s your strategy for surviving a protracted economic downturn?

JL: We’ve definitely seen sales go down, but we’re lucky in that we really believe we offer something of great value. The customers we already have know that for sure. They come back time and again, and we’ve been overwhelmed with people purchasing gift cards to help local builders during the crisis — spending much more than anticipated and sending meaningful notes. In April we started to see an uptick in online and phone sales, maybe because people are beginning to nest.

MB: Any changes to your operations lately?

JL: We’ve improved our back-end technology to increase efficiency. We also revamped our website to enhance the shopping experience for customers, adding 24-hour live chat and a virtual tour of our Freeport showroom.

MB: Finally, do you have a business succession plan in place?

JL: The team members are my succession plan. I truly believe that if something ever happened to me, the team could carry on.

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June 16, 2020

Jennifer has done a remarkable job. The furniture is top quality. I should know as I have purchased a lovely piece from Chilton.

June 15, 2020

Great article. Jennifer is modest. She's created superb value. Browsers buy Chilton's uniqueness.

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