|By Randy Diamond, Tampa Tribune, Fla.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 9, 2006 - CLEARWATER -- As hotels upgrade their rooms with plasma-screen TVs and luxurious beds to capitalize on the recovering travel market, the old stuff has to go.
For Clearwater entrepreneur Doug Hausladen, the old mattress, mauve couch and armoire mean potential profit.
If he works it right, the used furniture he happily purchased for a pittance will grace the motel rooms of other hospitality merchants, many equally happy to buy the stuff cheap.
Just two years after graduating with a bachelor's degree from Yale University, the 23-year-old is attempting to make his mark in a behind-the-scenes industry little known outside the hospitality field.
His company, Universal Hotel Liquidators, buys tens of thousands of used couches, lamps, television sets, pillow cases, sheets, mattresses and alarm clocks from upscale lodging establishments at rock-bottom rates. The average bill is from $25 to $100 for each room of hotel furniture. He then resells it to more modest lodging establishments or to the public through his retail warehouse on U.S. 19 in Clearwater.
"You buy low, sell high, deliver a good product, and you'll get good business," Hausladen said.
Of course, the highs and lows are relative.
Sleeper sofas in the Clearwater warehouse go for $50 to $199.95, a leather chair for $30, a king mattresses and box spring (yes, you can sell used mattresses in Florida) for $134.95 and an electric alarm clock for $3.50.
The catch is that the furniture can be up to seven years old, and some of the colors may be out of style -- think pink couches and green arm chairs.
Sleeping on a used mattress is also not everyone's idea of a good deal, not to mention a good night's sleep.
For lodging establishments on limited budgets, though, the price is right.
The Marie Green Forum for Global Missions in Pompano Beach, a Christian conference center, is buying five-year-old light blond wood furniture for its 46 new rooms. The organization purchased two chairs, two headboards, a table, a nightstand, an armoire, a lamp, four prints, a wall mirror and a 25-inch Phillips color television for $425 per set from Hausladen.
"There's no question we're getting a good deal," said David Hoskins, the center's marketing director. If new, the furniture would have cost $8,000 a room, he said.
The center's furniture is from the 377-room Riverview Plaza Hotel in Mobile, Ala., which is renovating. Hausladen won't disclose his purchase price for the furniture but says it is under $100 a room. Included: Hausladen hires local labor and trucks to haul the furniture away.
Riverview Plaza general manager Jeff Mayers said the hotel is going upscale to take advantage of the booming hotel market. Dealing with a liquidator is easier than selling the furniture himself, he said.
There aren't immediate buyers for all the furniture Hausladen amasses, so he ends up selling some of it from his warehouse at 10900 U.S. 19 N. in Clearwater. But too much furniture accumulating in the 24,000-square-foot warehouse is draining profits. So far, Hausladen's 16-month-old business has been showing monthly losses because of nearly 4,000 pieces of unsold furniture. Poor sellers languishing up to a year include 160 pink sleeper sofas from the Sheraton Suites in Plantation Florida and 212 mattresses from Doubletree Suites in Tampa and Orlando.
Hausladen has had a particularly difficult time unloading used mattresses.
Florida law allows for the sale of previously used mattresses in "as is" condition. Other states, such as North Carolina and New York, require used mattresses to be sterilized before they're resold.
"The mattresses are clean; I sleep on one in my own apartment," he said.
Hausladen was first exposed to this unique business as Yale undergraduate.
His fraternity adviser David White runs a hotel liquidation business in New Haven, Conn., also called Universal Hotel Liquidators.
Hausladen realized the business could be lucrative, potentially more so than being a doctor, the original career choice for the molecular biophysics and biochemistry major.
White and another investor fronted all of the six-figure original investment to get the business off the ground, Hausladen said. His investment is sweat equity.
He said it hasn't been easy. Paying back the loans and making rent -- the warehouse lease costs nearly $200,000 a year -- means there's little room for error.
Regardless, Hausladen said he's here to say.
At the moment, though, he has to move more furniture to turn a profit for his two-person company. He's convinced it will happen, even if he has to slash prices on those $50 pink sofas. Hausladen says he's banking on the basic economic principle that "if it's priced right, people are going to buy it."
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