Crown Carpets continues to maintain the simple business plan of its founding father

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - At a ribbon cutting for the Tigard Crown Carpets grand reopening in 2005, Lepper was joined by his family (left to right): Mary Lepper Kempenich, secretary-treasurer; David Kempenich, Gresham operations manager; Doug Lepper, president; Lepper, founder and chairman emeritus; and Debra Lepper, vice president.

Any business owner will tell you that repeat customers are their lifeline to success and longevity.

But when a company can claim generations of faithful customers, that’s a sure sign it’s doing something right.

“It tickles me to death when a young lady comes in with the baby in a stroller and says, ‘My grandmother told me not to talk to anybody but Crown Carpets,’” said Doug Lepper, president of the residential and commercial floor covering business. “When you’ve been in business for 50 years, that’s bound to happen, but it still tickles me.”

Crown Carpets has, indeed, seen its share of devoted clients over the past 50 years. Initially one of the first floor covering companies in Gresham, the family-owned and operated business has thrived largely due to maintaining the vision of its founder, Willard “Bill” Lepper, who believed that a happy customer was a customer for life.

In 1963, Bill Lepper and his wife, Dorothy, were living in the Parkrose area of Portland, raising three children. Lepper and his partner, Ray Eagan, owned Fashion Floorcraft in Southeast Portland, where they dispatched subcontracted installers for local floor covering companies. Among their clients were department stores such as J.C. Penney and the former Meier and Frank Co., which had large carpet departments at the time.

But Lepper saw an opportunity to become a full-service operation as a housing boom exploded in a rural Portland suburb called Gresham.

“The closest major retail outlet was Gradwohl’s House of Carpets on 20th and Broadway,” Doug said. “Dad wanted to be 20 miles away, and Gresham was new. There were lots of houses being built, and people would have to get their carpet from somewhere.”

In late 1963, Lepper opened Crown Carpets on the corner of Southeast Stark Street and 190th Avenue. The building, now occupied by Metropolitan Pool and Spa, served as a small showroom, with a World War II-era Quonset hut used as a warehouse for rolls of carpet.

A year later, Lepper brought in former business associate Gary Hohler to manage the store. The pair eventually became partners in the company, which produced a good balance in leadership and skills.

“My father was always remarkably shy,” Doug said. “He was not the one to be out on the sales floor dealing with customers. Gary was more gregarious and had a great smile.”

But it was Lepper’s background in the installation side of the business that established the company’s reputation among competitors.

“My dad understood that carpet wouldn’t look right or last long if it was improperly installed,” Doug said. “He wanted control of the finished product, and that’s what separated him from other floor covering companies — he hired employee installers. He wanted his installers to be vested in the Crown Carpet culture and be as committed to the quality of the finished product as he was. That’s a tradition that continues.”

Crown quickly became a family operation, with both partners’ wives taking care of the bookkeeping and the younger Lepper learning the ropes. by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - In 1969, Crown Carpets founder Bill Lepper, right, and business partner Gary Hohler, left, pose with Chuck Nelson, an executive with Masland Carpets, during a buyers market in San Francisco.

“I was 10 when the shop opened,” Doug said. “I was what you would call the shop boy — I swept the floor and cleaned the toilets. I also hand-sewed seams in the carpet, so the installers wouldn’t have to spend as much time on a job ironing them. Eventually, seam tape replaced me.”

In 1970, Lepper and Hohler purchased a parcel of land from the Powell family on Southeast Stark Street and 216th Avenue. They built a new showroom and in 1974 added a larger warehouse after acquiring the remaining half-acre. The store became Crown’s flagship and a launching pad for expansion which included a commercial division in Portland that Doug managed from 1977 to 2005, and a Tigard showroom that opened in 1993.

The elder Lepper retired in 1991 to tend to his wife, who died in 1993. Longtime partner Hohler left the business in 1990, when he moved to the Oregon Coast to open his own floor covering outlet. The company remains family operated, however. Doug manages day-to-day operations in Tigard, his brother-in-law David Kempenich has been at the helm in Gresham since 1989 and Doug’s twin sister, Debra, came on board in 1992 to oversee the company’s accounting, advertising and human resources department.

Lepper, now 92, lives in Northeast Portland. He inquires about the business he founded and talks shop with family, but is content being out of daily operations.

Today, Crown employs approximately 20 people companywide who represent “hundreds of years experience,” Doug said. Many of those employees have been with Crown for 15 years or more, he added, but they continue to embody Bill Lepper’s ongoing and simple 50-year-old business plan.

“We have been fortunate to be surrounded by people who share our vision and are committed to serving our customers,” Doug said. “This company has survived because we nurture relationships, just like my father taught us.”

More info

Who: Crown Carpets

Where: 21655 S.E. Stark St., Gresham; 12230 S.W. Main St., Tigard.

What: residential and commercial floor coverings, including carpeting, laminate and vinyl flooring, as well as full installation services and free estimates.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

call: 503-665-2512.

Contract Publishing

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