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Friedman’s, a Petaluma landmark, celebrates 75 years

In March of 1946, Santa Rosa residents Joe and Benny Friedman handed over their savings – $4,000 – to buy the contents of Meyer Lerer’s Petaluma junkyard and renting the property at 17 East Washington St., on the river and near the corner of what was then known as Main Street.

And on April 1, the City of Petaluma issued a business license (at a cost of $3) to the new firm, Friedman Brothers. A third brother, Harry, would soon join the fledgling company.

In “The Friedman’s Way,” a privately published book detailing the company’s history, Harry spoke of Petaluma then as “languid. You could walk across Washington Street and stop in the middle to tie your shoe.”

Lerer had told the brothers business was great but, as the book reported, the first day’s sales totaled $1, and that was only because there was no change, Benny recalled. A gregarious man with a sense of humor, Benny continued the story with, “The second day business fell off. And on the third day, a man came in to ask for change for a twenty-dollar bill. We made him a partner.”

However, the demand for metal by the military during World War II meant a post-war scarcity of raw materials and the hard-working brothers did well. So well, in fact, that 75 years later, that junkyard and salvage business, now known as Friedman’s Home Improvement, is a fixture in the Sonoma County community and continues to prosper and grow.

In 1971, a new, modern branch of the store opened south of Santa Rosa. Five years later, the original East Washington Street store had become dilapidated and stock, headquarters and staff moved to the newer store. Harry, quoted in “The Friedman’s Way,” said, “It was a tough decision. I cried when we left Petaluma, recalling all the good times, hard work and wonderful friends and customers.” They painted a sign and left it in the front window. “Moved to Santa Rosa,” it read, “BUT WE WILL BE BACK.”

It took 38 years, but in 2014, the new Petaluma branch, now the headquarters, opened in the Deer Creek Village shopping center on North McDowell Boulevard. In the intervening years, two more branches opened – in Ukiah and the city of Sonoma.

It remains a family business, with 43-year-old Barry Friedman, Benny’s grandson, now heading the firm. “I feel honored,” Barry said, “to steward this organization into the future.”

Barry said community connection has always been an integral part of the firm.

“The way my grandfather and his brothers approached business was to treat people fairly, see what the community needs and do what meets those needs, and then give back to the community,” he said.

Asked what has kept Friedman’s so strong for so long, Barry stressed the company values: lead, connect, grow, serve and care.

“Those are part of our daily work,” he said.

All new employees spend their first day in a company orientation, learning about the firm’s history and ethos.

“I greet them, ask about them and ask why they chose Friedman’s.” He emphasizes to them the importance of people: “how you treat your fellow team members and customers.”

We see it as “the three circles,” he said: the team, the customers and the community. And the team is “the people who’ve committed themselves to Friedman’s.” Even those who’ve been there for a shorter period, “they want to be part of something, and they get to be because nothing happens without them. You’re not doing it because you’re being asked to, but because you want to.”

He began working in the store when he was 8, “pushing carts and bagging for the cashiers.” After college though, he wanted to make sure the firm was the right fit for him. For a while he investigated being a cowboy in Montana and worked with an auto racing team in North Carolina.

“But I was drawn to this business and in 2004, came back and started from the beginning, as a cashier.” He worked his way up, he explained, to “keep grounded. I knew I’d have opportunities, but I wanted to learn the business, understand the parts and pieces.”

In 2013, he became president and CEO. “I love it: what we do, who we do it for, and I love our place within the community. There’s a lot of pride to know we’re a local business, providing great jobs and careers.”

One of Friedman’s trademarks is the knowledgeable, helpful staff. In “The Friedman’s Way,” longtime general manager Ron Adams spoke about the time he showed Friedman’s to an executive of a big box store. “I walked around … with him,” Adams said. “When we got to the cast iron stoves, he said to me, ‘We sell them too.’ I replied, ‘No, you have them. We sell them.’ That’s how I felt about Friedman’s… We trained our employees to have a deep knowledge of our product lines and a real focus on customer needs.”

Many locals are familiar with the company’s original slogan, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” That, Barry said, was bestowed by a regular customer in the early years. The man came down from Willits as the firm had become well known as a place to locate hard-to-find items. One day he remarked, “If you guys don’t have it, I don’t need it.”

He later gave permission for the brothers to use the slogan. Now, Barry said, it’s a relic of a time when things were hard to find. “It’s a nice thing,” he added, to hear longtime county residents reminisce about driving by that sign as a kid.

What about the future? “We’re trying to create a stronger foundation for future growth,” Barry said. “Even though we’ve been around a long time, our company has grown. Some of our processes needed to be strengthened and, in the last few years, we’ve focused on solidifying that foundation. We will only grow if we can ensure that we can keep the culture and the service that we expect – and that connection to our community.

“So a paced, thoughtful growth,” he concluded. “We want to make sure we keep our uniqueness, not just grow for the sake of growth.”

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