The old American Furniture Company in Denver was failing when Jake Jabs bought it in 1975. Today, Jabs’ American Furniture Warehouse is one of Colorado’s most successful companies. Courtesy photo AFW.

The old American Furniture Company in Denver was failing when Jake Jabs bought it in 1975. Today, Jabs’ American Furniture Warehouse is one of Colorado’s most successful companies. Courtesy photo AFW.

By Caitlin Switzer

COLORADO—(July 2, 2013)  He grew up on a farm, but has never really used the vocational ag degree that he earned from Montana State University. Instead, Jake Jabs headed for Colorado.

“There was more opportunity here,” said Jabs, the fourth of nine children born to Immigrant parents. “There are only 700,000 people in the State of Montana after all.”

A musician, Jabs had worked his way through college playing guitar, and toured with big name acts like Marty Robbins and Ernest Tubbs. After serving in the military as a young man, he briefly considered making music his life’s work.

“If you’re a good singer, you can really make it,” Jabs said. “But I was not such a good singer! So I went back and taught guitar, and started a music store.”

Jabs later started a string of shops in the Denver metro area, specializing in Mediterranean furniture, which eventually closed. It was not until he purchased the 90-year-old American Furniture Company at 58thand Bannock for $8,000 in cash that his career really took off.  Today, the store that was failing when he took it on has become one of the largest furniture retailers in the U.S., with 12 locations in Colorado and one set to open this fall in Arizona. In 2012, AFW achieved $352 million in sales. Jabs himself was inducted in the Colorado Business Hall of Fame in 2012, and recently became the largest single donor to the University of Colorado At Denver Business School with a $10 million gift. He has given $25 million toward the development of a business school at his own Alma Mater, Montana State University. However, though he is arguably one of the most famous of Colorado residents, Jabs remains humble. He lives simply, and shares business advice with schools and other institutions. He has published an autobiography, “An American Tiger,” (Jake Jabs, 2000) and a new book entitled, “Thriving in Tough Times—Lessons From A Veteran of Seven Recessions,” (Jake Jabs, 2011). He also shares a list of pragmatic maxims for entrepreneurs, “The 39 Keys to Business Success.”

His in-house commercials have become legendary across the state for featuring Jabs himself, as well as a borrowed stable of exotic animals—an idea that Jabs did not exactly warm to at first.

“There was an outfit that sold Lincoln-Mercury that featured Cougars in their ads, and I knew a guy in Evergreen who had exotic animals he kept telling I should use,” Jabs recalled. “I didn’t get it. I didn’t see putting animals on my furniture.”

However, the day came when Jabs and his wife Ann got their three daughters a puppy, and the girls wanted to see the pup on TV. That, combined with a secretary who had always wanted to pet a baby tiger, were enough to change his mind. Today, the sight of tigers and other exotic creatures prowling couches on those AFW commercials is familiar to just about everyone in Colorado with a television set.

“Everybody watches TV,” laughed Jabs.

When Jabs opened his store in Grand Junction several years ago, he realized that serving the Western Slope made solid business sense.

“I like Grand Junction and the Western Slope,” he said. “There is so much to offer there—the recreational opportunities, and the fruit! It really doesn’t get any better than that fruit. The climate is real nice, and people like to retire over there.

“I try to make good business decisions, and I am making a long-term investment in the Western Slope,” he said. “We were sending a truck to Grand Junction from Denver every day anyway, and we were doing a lot of business in Montrose.”

At 82, Jabs said he has no plans to retire. He and his wife have successfully raised their three daughters—it was tough at times to grow up as the children of a Colorado celebrity, but all have turned out just fine—and still make time for annual Jabs sibling reunions. Jabs still plays music, and golf in his spare time.

“I still work 60 hours a week, because I like what I do,” he said. “When I teach what I call the 39 keys to business success, I tell people, ‘love your job.’ Find a demand, and fill it—just like Mark Zuckerberg did with Facebook. Be honest, keep your credit good, and have a passion for what you do.

“Small business people don’t work 40 hours a week,” Jabs said. “It’s so important to love what you do—and stay healthy. It’s easier to stay healthy over there on the Western Slope!

“And it’s ok to be a workaholic.”