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story.lead_photo.caption “I’m kind of one of those people that I’m either really into something or not at all, so if I get into a subject, I get way into it.” - Photo by Charlie Kaijo

When John Furner became the chief executive officer of Sam’s Club, he gave up his big office in the center of the floor and his prime parking spot at the front of the lot.

Now, any pregnant employees get the parking spot and Furner, 43, floats around the office, setting his laptop down at whatever empty work space he can find so he can get to know and collaborate with his employees.

“What we had was all these walled-off areas,” Furner says. “The building was a physical representation of the company’s hierarchy.”

The elimination of the visible signals of who has which title allows more creative thinking and fewer meetings, Furner says. He has been CEO for about a year and has encouraged a refocusing of the company to serve a different core clientele.

The office redesign and other changes to the company — closures of several stores and an increased emphasis on fresh produce — are all reflective of the new concentration. Rather than trying to serve primarily business owners, Sam’s Club is working to cater to private consumers.

Most of these are homeowners who live in the suburbs and make between $75,000 and $120,000 per year, Furner says.

Recent closures were reflective of the desire to reach more of these customers. Some of the now-defunct stores were in locations that had a smaller population than they did when the club opened. A couple of stores couldn’t be supported by the distribution centers near them, Furner says.

“I think it’s important to clarify that the strategy for the business is not to close businesses, but to use our time, our energy efficiently,” he says.

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Making tough decisions as a business leader is one of Furner’s strengths, says his father, Steve Furner.

Steve Furner worked for Walmart Inc., then called Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for 21 years. He started as an assistant regional manager and worked his way up to regional vice president. After a few years of retirement, he came back to work at a local store part time.

“He used to be Steve Furner’s son,” Steve Furner says. “Now, I’m John Furner’s dad. I kind of love it — it’s kind of a neat swap.”

GUNS N’ ROSES

John Furner didn’t start out as a businessman; he switched his college major several times from business, kinesiology and then industrial engineering.

He also entertained aspirations of becoming a musician. When he was a teenager and heard Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction album on his sister’s cassette player, he was hooked.

“I got like a $125 guitar and an amplifier and for the next year, it was the guitar full-on,” he says. “And I didn’t quit until I figured it out.”

That kind of dedication to a hobby is typical for Furner. He is also a licensed pilot and scuba diver.

“I’m kind of one of those people that I’m either really into something or not at all, so if I get into a subject, I get way into it,” Furner says.

“I’m kind of one of those people that I’m either really into something or not at all, so if I get into a subject, I get way into it.”

He spent some time during college as a member of a cover band, but those few months of playing sticky summer shows and making almost no money were enough to convince him to switch his major back to marketing management in the business school at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and to accept an internship with Sam’s Club.

For the internship, he spent four months working at a store in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. He says in Mexico, shopping is for pleasure rather than just necessity.

Depending on the day, the store could have a mariachi group, a rock band or performers dressed in wrestling costumes. Music was loud, and the lights were bright — a stark comparison to the gentle background music and mild lighting meant to relax shoppers he was used to in the United States.

“You get to Mexico, and it’s like a big party in the store,” he says. “Shopping is entertainment. The whole family did it together.”

When he came back to the University of Arkansas after that summer, he dedicated himself to learning everything about business strategy he could, his former professor Jon Johnson says.

Johnson had Furner in class during his first year as a professor and Furner’s last year as a student.

“He’s absorbing a lot of information that’s being presented and retains it very well, and then he’s able to synthesize and integrate it very well,” Johnson says of Furner. “I think his calm, laid-back demeanor is an advantage for him because he works well with other folks.”

Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton School of Business, says when he meets with Furner, he can hear echoes of Furner’s education when he talks about the business strategy and future of Sam’s Club.

Furner spoke at one of Waller’s classes, an honors class called “Arkansas Business,” and then went to dinner with a smaller group of students so they could ask him questions.

“He’s very personable, friendly, good at explaining things and telling stories,” Waller says. “The students loved it.”

He has also spoken at Johnson’s classes about business strategy and about sustainability initiatives through Sam’s Club.

Johnson and Furner worked together on a sustainability project to track and limit the amount of waste and used energy at the company. Furner was an early advocate of sustainability at Sam’s Club, Johnson says.

SMALL BEGINNINGS

Furner started out at nearly the bottom of the company’s chain of command — as a part-time worker in retail. The internship came after. Then store operations. Next, innovation and process engineering.

“Promotions kept coming,” says Steve Furner, proudly listing his son’s accomplishments.

John Furner moved quickly into the higher end of the corporate hierarchy, and worked in merchandising at Walmart for a while before switching to Sam’s Club as a buyer in 2004. He jumped around in management positions in the United States until about 2010, when he got an email from a higher-up asking him to lunch.

They ate at a local seafood restaurant, and over the meal, Furner’s co-worker told him he would get a call about 5 p.m. asking him to move to China. Furner had been visiting China on business trips for the last decade, but this was a move to Hong Kong for at least two years.

“My reaction was all over the board …,” Furner says. “And then I got home, and got reactions all the way from ‘OK, that’ll sound good,’ to ‘No way am I going to go.’”

After discussion with his wife, Brandy Furner, who he met while they were both working at a Walmart store in Springdale during college, and his four children, they decided to take the leap.

Although it was tough to move an entire family to a different hemisphere, Brandy Furner says her husband’s calm demeanor made the switch smoother.

“There was nothing that was going to be that hard that we couldn’t get through, and he’s just kind of a rock like that,” she says.

John Furner decided to extend one year past his two-year contract to stay in China as the chief of merchandising. While they were there, his children traveled to several countries. He and his son, Dylan, took a two-day mountain biking trip from Kathmandu to the Himalayas and back.

Now, as CEO of Sam’s Club, Furner takes visiting business executives on bike rides around Rogers and interviews them during the journey. The videos are edited and posted on Facebook.

“We see what we can learn about leadership and life lessons and the person’s business, and we produce it,” Furner says.

VOLUNTEER WORK

Furner encourages biking around Northwest Arkansas as one way to improve the culture of the area and promote healthy, outdoor activities. He is on the board of BikeNWA, a group that advocates for biking in Northwest Arkansas.

The group pushes initiatives such as more bike lanes, scoring cities based on how friendly they are toward cyclists and increasing on-street bike infrastructure.

Furner and his wife, who he says is the “CEO of Furner house,” volunteer frequently for causes related to health, education and culture in Northwest Arkansas.

“It’s a great place to raise family, it’s a great place to work and the more we can do to improve education and to improve the health care system, we can recruit better,” he says. “And then we can retain people here because the area has so much value.”

Brandy Furner works more on the education side of their volunteer work, he says.

One cause that is important to both Furners is involvement with Susan G. Komen for the Cure Ozark, a nonprofit that raises money for research to cure breast cancer. They are the honorary chairmen for the Ozark Race for the Cure, but this is his first year to be involved.

“This is not a cause I’ve been really involved in, but I’ve been affected by it in a big way,” John Furner says.

Furner’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988, when he was 14. Doctors noticed the cancer after it had already progressed past the point of treatment.

She went for experimental treatments outside the United States for three months, but died April 30, 1989.

“That was pretty tough on him, of course,” Steve Furner says.

John Furner says he and his mother were close — he attributes his love of music to her. She used to play the piano and sing to him when he was a baby, and she taught him about music during his childhood.

He spent many summers on her father’s farm in New Hope, an unincorporated community near Russellville, gathering eggs from the chicken houses, picking tomatoes and selling watermelons at a roadside stand.

“What I always tell my wife is ‘If you wanted to know the reason I am who I am, you’d have to meet my mom,’” he says.

John Furner says after his mother’s death, he and his father bonded. Steve Furner traveled a lot for his work with Walmart, and switched roles when his wife died so he could spend more time at home with his children.

Brandy Furner’s mother also had breast cancer; she is an eight-year survivor. As honorary chairmen, the couple have been involved with fundraising for and publicizing the Race for the Cure.

John Furner and his Sam’s Club employees are also active with fundraising for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) research after a co-worker died from the disease.

ALS affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord, and there is no cure.

Brian Graham, whom Furn-er hired in 2009, was diagnosed with ALS in 2013 and died about three years later. After his death, corporate Sam’s Club workers started raising money for the ALS Association Arkansas Chapter with a gala and an annual corporate ice bucket challenge.

“He was just one of those people that’s really smart and really intuitive and could always get to the center of what’s going on,” Furner says. “Even when he was out fighting ALS, I’d go see him at his house and we’d talk for an hour and he’d always get right to the answers.”

Furner is often the recipient of the freezing water poured over his head for the challenge, he says.

“It’s a great way for this team to pull together and support Brian’s legacy and his family,” Furner says.

Team building activities include fundraising and decorating the office with Sam’s Club merchandise to look like home.

Brandy Furner says her husband’s down-to-earth attitude makes it easy for employees to connect with him.

“I like that John is not pretentious at all. I think most people would never know he had his job if they didn’t know. He’s very real,” she says.

“I think he’s trying to bring that into the workplace a little bit by making it more relaxed,” she adds. “I think that makes him a very warm person to most people.”

In the office, John Furner greets several employees walking past by name.

When a few workers pass by toting a gingerbread version of a Sam’s Club, decorated with icing and candy, Furner glances up from the table.

“Oh hey guys. What is this?” he asks.

“We won. We had a gingerbread house competition.”

“That’s sort of like bigger than a house. It’s like a homestead. Oh it’s the whole division,” he says, smiling and standing to take pictures with the victors.

SELF PORTRAIT

John Furner

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Aug. 29, 1974, Jacksonville

MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY WOULD INCLUDE: If I could have a fantasy dinner, I’d bring the family. … We’d probably eat tacos. We’re very sophisticated like that. It’s my favorite food. My wife and I used to joke that the two things we liked about each other before we knew each other were that we had a mutual appreciation for rock music and Mexican food.

MY PETS ARE: A 2-pound, 4-ounce maltipoo named Stella and a 40-pound wheaten terrier named Max.

MY FAVORITE HOBBIES ARE: Cycling. Road cycling is probably my most frequent hobby. I still do mountain bikes here in town. I like to fly airplanes, so I’m a pilot.

MY FAVORITE THING ABOUT MY JOB: It’s always changing.

ONE THING I WISH MORE PEOPLE KNEW ABOUT ME IS: I think what I want most people to know is where I started here. I started part time in a job I didn’t know if I’d do for a summer or anything else and this has led me to doing things and seeing parts of the world that I wasn’t sure I could ever experience as a kid from a small town in central Arkansas who spent summers running around chicken farms.

ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: Curious.

Photo by Charlie Kaijo
Sam’s Club CEO John Furner talks with Karthicka Krishnan, director of apparel, jewelry and accessories. When he became CEO, he gave up his office and now sits wherever he can find an open desk to get to know more of his employees.

Print Headline: John Robert Furner

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