Rare Finds Warehouse’s Tony Wilson isn’t exactly what you think of when you picture an international businessman. He dresses like a rock climber, his hands know hard work, and he speaks with a Colorado mountain accent. He gets dirty, climbs over piles of salvaged wood and even orders bubble wrap or moves furniture. But this belies his business and travel acumen.
“Travel aware, not scared,” is the furniture store owner's travel philosophy. He has traveled to over 25 countries during his 30-plus career years, making multiple trips to India, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Europe, and Thailand to source his eclectic offerings.
His career started at the age of 19, working as a chef at Copper Mountain’s Club Med. Like many seasonal mountain workers, he spent the off-season traveling to work elsewhere. In his case, he spent summers in the Caribbean, honing his culinary skills.
It was in the West Indies’ Guadeloupe that he discovered his most enduring business philosophy. The permanent, local kitchen workers, having been mistreated by other North American seasonal managers, were disinterested and uncommunicative. To connect and build trust, Tony started showing up hours before everyone else, getting much of the work done, and eventually earned their respect and friendship. He discovered the meaning of leadership and how it differentiates from management, a word he dislikes and doesn’t use in his business. To this day, he uses the words "teammates" and "leads" to describe his 25 employees.
"I don’t want managers,” Tony says. “I want leaders.” They don’t use titles at Rare Finds, instead have specific roles, such as store lead or warehouse lead. His own role, while technically CEO, is owner and picker. His sales floor teammates are not commissioned salespeople, and his whole business practice is team-oriented and cooperative.
After leaving restaurant work, he moved into the furniture industry. He began to travel with a local antiques dealer to weekend festivals and markets. Tony’s role was to build the temporary structures under which the furniture was sold. This included building tents, loading and unloading trucks, and eventually polishing and repairing furniture.
His next job was with a Colorado company that turned old skis into chairs or coatracks, sleighs into coffee tables, and wagon seats into benches, which were sold both in a retail shop and at wholesale trade shows. The novelty of the design made these wares very popular, and they couldn’t keep up with demand, since they were sourcing and building everything themselves.
They found a manufacturer in China to build reproductions fast enough to keep up with the demand for the products. Tony began traveling there, refining shipping and logistics processes, and making international sourcing connections. He also learned about many different manufacturing methods used outside of the United States
After a few ups and downs during the recession of the late aughts, Tony traveled to Vietnam, invited by his current business partner, Brad Gruenwald, for a new business venture. New Rustics Furniture Company wholesale business was born; a side table drawn on a napkin was their first piece of originally designed furniture. It has now grown into a broad case goods line.
In the early 2010’s, in addition to their wholesale business to outlets, Tony returned to his market origins, and started selling certain items at places like the Paris Flea Market. Again, the demand was huge. On the advice of many close customers, Tony opened his warehouse to the public as a retail store in 2013.
He wanted to diversify the options on his sales floor, so he did an internet search on “wholesale furniture India” and found a small supplier. This diversification created massive growth for the business, and today his inventory includes architectural salvage, antiques, repurposed/upcycled goods, and brand-new upholstered seating. They still carry the original Rare Finds branded, industrial style production pieces, designed solely for and by them.
Tony currently buys from artisans, manufacturers and antique markets in India, Thailand, and Costa Rica. He has plans to return to Vietnam, Indonesia, and Egypt, which was halted due to pandemic travel restrictions. Next, he will expand into European antiques in Turkey and Hungary. Each piece has a story, and if you are lucky enough to catch Tony on the floor in the Highlands Ranch store, you'll learn about the culture and places he travels.
“My goal was to build something that couldn’t be beat by e-commerce,” Tony says, “We don’t want to be like any other store. We intentionally do things different.”