Award-winning interior designer Bruce Benning is merging his 32-year-old firm with the construction business run by his son Eric Benning as the two prepare a succession plan that has the younger Benning taking the reins.
“It’s funny. I kind of identify with this building,” Bruce Benning told me about his midtown Sacramento office. “We’ve been here so long, and I’ve gotten comfortable. It is sometimes a little difficult to accept, but we’ve got to keep moving forward. That’s what we do. That’s what design is all about.”
The Bennings said they are looking for a new home for their business, one that they can buy and own outright. Bruce Benning has leased his space at 1707 18th St. since 1984, they said, and the owner doesn’t want to sell it.
The 66-year-old Benning grew up in the home furnishings business. His parents, Adrian and E.J. Benning, managed A&A Furniture, one of many businesses that the late developer Buzz Oates created under the A&A brand. He later sold those businesses to people who managed them, Benning said.
“I was the young punk who had the strength to move around furniture on the floor,” Benning recalled. “I would do vignettes and play with lighting. … My parents were so into furniture, the latest and greatest.”
Benning said he also swept the warehouse, unloaded furniture from rail cars and delivered the merchandise to customers’ homes. At age 16, he took his spot as a commissioned salesman on the showroom floor in his black horn-rimmed glasses and Florsheim Imperial wingtips.
“I can remember going out to Wilhaggin when I was about 17 years old and selling somebody a whole living room full of furniture,” Benning said. “Now, I think back, ‘What in the heck was I doing at 17, and who in the world trusted me?’ ”
When he got bored with waiting around for customers, he said, he would rearrange the window displays and create new furnishing vignettes on the showroom floor. But his love and appreciation of design, he said, started much earlier in his life.
As a small child, Benning was given the job of setting the dinner table, and his parents would lavishly praise him for how perfectly he had placed the utensils, he said. It instilled in Benning the sense that the right design, the right environment can improve people’s lives, he said.
Benning will have a lot more time to focus on what he loves once he merges Benning Design Associates with Benning Construction. The two companies have teamed up on dozens of design-build jobs, and Benning describes his son as a much better businessman than he is.
The elder Benning helped Eric Benning find his first job in the construction business, never knowing that it would become a lifelong career. At the time that teenage Eric was looking for some income, Bruce Benning was a partner in a young interior design and home furnishings business with Judy Buntain. Buntain’s husband, Tim Buntain, had a commercial construction business and gave Eric Benning a job.
“I started working summers when I was 16 – summers and Christmas and spring break, all that stuff as a delivery driver and a warehouse man,” said Eric Benning. “I started working full time right at the end of high school. I … told them I wanted to make some more money, and they said, ‘We’re not going to pay you more than $6 an hour to drive a truck around.’ ”
Benning took a job as a laborer, digging ditches, he said, and he spent every back-breaking minute of that first week in his new job wishing that he was back in that truck. He ended up staying with Buntain Construction for 16 years, rising to become a lead superintendent on multimillion-dollar projects.
Bruce Benning has one unforgettable memory from his son’s time as a construction superintendent: “I remember we had just gotten a $2.5 million restaurant project, and I thought it was a big deal. I told Eric, and he said, ‘Oh, yeah? The building I’m putting up, the budget is $20 million.’ ”
Like his father, Eric Benning took a step out on faith when he started his own business, surprising his Buntain Construction co-workers by leaving without any big contracts up his sleeve. He did handyman work and poured concrete patios for local residents until one customer had what was then an unbelievable business proposition.
“This lady wanted us to remodel a bathroom, and it was like, ‘OK, we can do that,’ ” said Benning, though at that time he had never undertaken a residential remodel project. “I remember it was like a $4,000 bathroom remodel, and I thought, ‘There is no way in the world this lady is going to pay four grand for us to remodel her bathroom.’ Sure enough, she did, but we didn’t make any money.”
Now, said his father, he’s doing $40,000 bathroom remodels. The two men have teamed up on design-build jobs for about 10 years, Bruce Benning said, and they now do about 70 percent of their business together. Their combined companies will be Benning Design & Construction.
“It’s a godsend,” Bruce Benning said. “I mean, it’s an absolute blessing to be able to tell a client, ‘If there’s a problem, you’re not going to know about it.’ We may duke it out in here, but really we’re on the same side. We can’t point fingers. We can’t say the contractor blew it, and the contractor can’t say the designers blew it.”
There will come a day, Bruce Benning said, when he will have to retire, but the firm will be in good hands with a talented team of designers anchored by senior designer Kerry Ellis. Eric Benning also lauded Ellis and the other designers but said his father shouldn’t count on resting on his many awards from the American Society of Interior Designers anytime soon.
“He’s my dad. I grew up with him, but it still blows me away the way his mind thinks about a problem or how to solve something,” the 44-year-old Benning said. “He’s still fresh and new and advancing and pushing the limits of things and making things work. As a contractor, sometimes I think, ‘I can’t make that work’ or ‘I can’t do that,’ but we figure it out.”
His son’s willingness to figure out how to make design elements work has been crucial to their team’s success, the elder Benning said, because so many times designers come up with unusual ideas but run into a roadblock with builders.
Benning clients Brian and Phyllis Reed, who live in Carmichael, said the father-son duo listened to their ideas and incorporated them into a fresh, unique design.
“I’d done a project with Bruce before and had other people working on the construction,” Phyllis Reed said, “and it didn’t flow nearly as well. I think it’s just because, obviously, Eric is his son and knows how he likes things done. That was a really nice and easy communication.”