This story of adaptation traces back to 1949, when newly licensed plumber Ralph Cunningham, established the Cunningham Plumbing Company. Guided by three principles -- work hard, be honest and treat others how you expect to be treated – he served the Houston area during the tough economic recovery after the Great Depression.
Ralph’s business grew and successfully provided for his and wife Annie’s seven children, until tragically, at the age of 40, he came home from work one night, ate dinner, went to bed, and never woke up. With six siblings and his mother to feed, Ralph’s son Roy dropped out of high school and took over the business, helped by brothers Joe, Lynn and Fred while he was in the Navy. After his service, Roy took on a second job at the Houston Fire Department, while he and his wife Regenia kept the plumbing business going on the side out of their garage.
In 1968, the couple saw an opportunity to expand their business by partnering with the local gas company as a water-heater installing contractor, earning $35.00 for each installation. Likewise, when the utility began promoting gas lights and grills to home builders, Cunningham Plumbing broadened its business focus, earning $7.00 per 35-ft. gas-line and light-post installation, and $12.00 per gas-grill post-mount installation.
The business soon outgrew the Cunningham’s garage, and in the early 70s, they bought land at 18700 Carrot Street in Spring, Texas and built their first warehouse-office-showroom with a 15-by-20-ft. retail sales floor.
Another momentous business shift occurred when the Dallas-based manufacturer of Falcon Grills called looking for a retailer in the Houston area. With two kids and a $35-a-month mortgage payment, Regenia balked at purchasing the 40 gas grills required to become a dealer. But Roy convinced her it was a smart risk, and their gas products business, Cunningham Gas Products, was born.
The fledgling retailer soon added other gas grill brands and gas lights from pioneering brands Arkla and Charmglow, and then replacement parts, grills and lights from Modern Home Products (MHP); it’s relationship with MHP continues to this day.
The company began retailing Robert H. Peterson Company’s Real Fyre Gas Logs in 1980, after the forward-thinking Roy again prevailed when Regenia protested purchasing the minimum-required gas 100 log sets. Today, the company also retails products from many manufacturers including Cajun Grill, Louisiana Grills, FireMagic Outdoor Kitchen Equipment, Renaissance Cooking Systems (RCS) and American Outdoor Grill
In 1976, at the age of 18, Roy and Regenia’s son Jeff became the third-generation Cunningham to join the family business. Jeff spent 15-plus years learning the ropes as an installer, warehouse worker, and salesman all the while attending college at night to earn a business degree. Today, he is the company president.
Moving Out of the Comfort Zone
Jeff pushed his dad to implement even more changes to keep the business fresh and relevant. Some moves – like when the company first computerized operations in 1990, and opened a second retail location in Houston’s Woodlands community in 1997 – were embraced readily. Others – such as when Jeff proposed they accept credit-card payments – not so much. (Roy ultimately acquiesced when Jeff proved, with a Burger King receipt, that even fast-food joints were accepting plastic.)
At a time when many businesses resisted technology and feared the Internet as the enemy, the company was an early adopter. By 1996, the retailer had launched its first website, CunninghamGasProducts.com (later changed to CunninghamLiving.com), becoming one of the first in the hearth and barbecue industry to do so, according to Jeff.
He admits this initial foray had more to do with practicality than a desire to be cutting-edge. “The primary reason we created a website was to find a less-expensive alternative to the $30,000 a year we were spending on Yellow Pages ads,” he recalls. “I am a salesman trapped in a business-owner’s body,” he jokes. “Like my father and grandfather, I’m always turning over rocks, looking for opportunities to grow and better serve our customers.
The company diversified again in 2015 with the purchase of Haggard’s Rustic Goods, its long-time supplier of hand-built, rustic coolers, furniture and decorative items made of repurposed barn wood. Jeff moved Haggard’s production operations and five craftsmen to a new building at the company’s expanding Carrot Street campus.
Jeff’s son, Austin Cunningham, oversees Haggard’s production and product design, and is part of the fourth generation in the family business. Daughter Julee is the company’s graphic artist and social-media maven, while daughter, Hannah, is taking time off from her administrative role to raise a family. Jeff’s wife Robben was actually involved with the business before becoming part of the family. The couple met in the 80s while Robben worked for Entex utility company, a wholesale customer of Cunningham Gas Products. (As Jeff tells it, he defied his dad’s warnings about conflicts of interest and asked Robben on a date.) They married in 1984, and after staying home with their three children, in 2015 Robben officially joined the family business. Today she serves as vice president.
Changing Up Marketing and Promotions
“My grandfather and father were always willing to adapt and try new things,” Jeff says. “That’s been important to our success throughout the history of our company, but even more so today. The world is changing at an even faster rate. We’re always trying new ways to market and grow our business, and better serve our customers.”
Today the company is still diversifying and growing by adding even MORE new products and services, like Breezesta poly outdoor furniture, electric lighting for indoor and outdoor use, outdoor firepits, even fun in-store grilling classes to generate excitement and attract experience-seeking customers. With all of these new changes comes a new company name on their 70th anniversary-Cunningham Living.
“Since my grandfather first started this company, we’ve all worked hard to take care of our customers,” says Jeff. “It’s about building relationships and treating customers the way we’d want to be treated – like family.”
That philosophy also extends to the company’s 35 employees. Jeff and Robben – who have dug water wells and provided relief services on numerous mission trips to impoverished countries – underwrite any staff members’ first mission trip. When one employee was trying to stop smoking, they sprang for a family cruise after he quit for a year. Not surprising then, the average employee tenure is 13 years, with one employed for 43 years.
“Robben and I take seriously the responsibility of carrying on the legacy left by my grandfather and parents,” Jeff says. “We strongly believe that God put us in this position to live our lives as an example, not just for our family, but our staff members and customers, too.”
Some things don’t need changing.