“City” CEO, Community Champion

“City” CEO, Community Champion

His business is a household name, but this Gator great believes the measure of real success is in giving back.
By David Finnerty
“I look at people who have been blessed, but for whatever reason don’t share, and I think they’re missing out on an opportunity. But I think they’re also missing out on a responsibility.”

Ah, 1972 — Volkswagen Beetles and lava lamps, miniskirts and mustaches, a sweet bye-bye to Miss American Pie. Flower Power was still groovy, Pong far out. And in the middle of it all Keith Koenig, student entrepreneur, was discovering his life’s gig.

Enter beanbag chairs.

It was late summer when Koenig parked a U-Haul loaded with them in front of a record store on 13th Street — not too far from UF’s campus dorms and the “student ghetto.” His bet: cash-starved college kids like him would flock to the inexpensive (but comfortable) furniture.

He was right. Almost all the chairs were gone within weeks, the leftovers moved to Koenig’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity house and sold from there. The enterprising business student had quickly earned enough profit to carry him through the fall semester and then some.

But there’s much more to the beanbag saga. The months between his junior and senior years, Koenig worked with his brother, Kevin, at Kevin’s new waterbed business in Fort Lauderdale. When time came to return to UF, he converted the rented U-Haul into a traveling warehouse and crafted a handmade “For Sale” sign. Just like that, the Gator was in business: the unofficial manager of Waterbed City’s makeshift Gainesville discount outlet. Three years later, the brothers became partners. And in time, Waterbed City expanded its inventory and evolved into City Furniture.

Keith Koenig is one of Florida's most successful businessmen and among UF's greatest champions.

Now, close to 50 years later, Koenig (BSBA ’73, MBA ’75) is the company’s CEO and one of the state’s most successful businessmen, with stores scattered from Florida’s southern tip to the I-4 corridor.

A lot of that success is owed to his alma mater, Koenig insists … and, he could have added, beanbag chairs.

“The University of Florida was an important part of my life,” he says. “The academics there were wonderful and have served me well, and I’m proud of that. And from a social aspect, the relationships, the long-term friendships, all the experiences of living there and being on campus were very beneficial.”

Gaggle of Gators

Koenig is a Gator because his friends are — well, sort of.

“I still remember my buddies and me walking the halls of Northeast High School early in our senior year,” Koenig says. “We were all good friends, and somebody said, just like this, ‘Where are we going to college?’ One of my buddies said, ‘Ed Frees went to Florida and he likes it.’”

And that was that.

Keith Koenig and his brother, Kevin, became Waterbed City partners in the mid-1970s.

“I didn’t apply to anyplace else,” Koenig says. “It was funny how matter-of-fact it was, and I didn’t step foot on the campus until I got there as a 17-year-old freshman.”

The Fort Lauderdale four later became Beta Theta Pi brothers. All, Koenig says, are still close. One even joined the Koenigs’ furniture business after college and remained with the company for 37 years.

But in 1969, as freshmen on their own for the first time, it was “cool” to just be going to college together, Koenig says. Their expectations, though, were few.

“When I got there, I was busy figuring out what to do and where my dorm was and where my classes were. It was one day at a time,” Koenig recalls. “As I look back, that time at the university was the cornerstone of my development.”

His fondest UF moments would come later: the football games and dates, parties and food fights, hanging out with other Gators.

“I enjoyed it all. I have countless memories of being with friends and fraternity brothers,” he says. “We were all on that interesting college path together.”

Four years after arriving in Gainesville, and with his bachelor’s degree in finance in hand, Koenig wasn’t quite ready to leave. So he stayed to earn an MBA while managing an ABC Liquor store.

Then, in 1975, it was back to the beanbag and waterbed business.

Bond of Brothers

The Koenig boys had always been close. It made sense that the two would become business partners. The brothers were good together: Kevin the dreamer, Keith the doer. One Waterbed City store became two, then three and soon a chain. In 1988, at the company’s peak, the company pulled in $35 million.

“We didn’t know what we couldn’t do. So we just made things happen,” Koenig says. “Fortunately, we were smart enough guys, or maybe dumb enough guys, that we were able to make a business out of it.”

Then came 1989.

Kevin Koenig inspired Keith to give back to his community and alma mater.

Waterbeds became less fashionable and sales dropped. To stay afloat, the Koenigs reinvented their company, restocked with traditional beds, couches, tables and chairs, and renamed their store City Furniture. And in summer 1994 — 22 years to the month after Koenig drove the U-Haul stuffed with beanbag chairs to Gainesville — City Furniture opened in North Miami and began converting all the old Waterbed City outlets. Nowadays, the chain brings in $400 million or so each year and employs more than 1,800 people.

Successful as City Furniture is, it might be best known for its community outreach. That was Kevin’s doing. His older brother had always been civic-minded, Koenig says. When business was good, Kevin believed in giving back to their community.

“He was wiser at an early age than I was,” Koenig says.

In 2001, at just 54, Kevin died of lingering health issues — but his influence remained. City Furniture still supports dozens of charities, and this January pledged to donate at least 5 percent of its annual profits.

And Koenig, like his brother, has become one of South Florida’s strongest civic leaders. He’s been chairman for the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, a trustee (and current chairman) for Holy Cross Hospital and a director for the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, and has also made large financial gifts to a string of organizations: the Jack and Jill Children’s Center, City of Hope, Broward Center for the Performing Arts and more. That hasn’t gone unnoticed. A litany of local and national service awards have come his way, among them: Pope John Paul II named Koenig a Knight of St. Gregory, one of the Catholic Church’s highest honors.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” Koenig says, quoting the Bible. “I look at people who have been blessed, but for whatever reason don’t share, and I think they’re missing out on an opportunity. But I think they’re also missing out on a responsibility.”

That philosophy has driven his service to the University of Florida. Koenig has served on a long list of university boards, advisory councils and other leadership committees — and, in 2017, received UF’s prestigious Distinguished Alumnus Award. Along with his late wife, Doreen, he’s also contributed almost $2 million for programs in the Warrington College of Business and Gator Athletics.

“I’m proud that I’ve been able to be involved in making a difference in some of the community organizations down here [in South Florida], including my little Catholic church around the corner. We built a school there years ago and now my grandkids are going there,” Koenig says.

“But I’m also very proud of my affiliation with the University of Florida. For me, it’s been an honor to be involved.”

The best is yet to come

Go Greater was a determination, embraced across campus. To continue that pursuit, the university looks to caring philanthropists — the people who feed ingenuity and exploration and create doers and bring ideas to life, imagination to fruition, promise to fulfilment and potential to exceptional. It’s those partnerships with far-sighted leaders that will make UF even more spectacular and enable the university to touch the lives of Earth’s 7 billion people.

So we can all Go Greater, together.

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